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'Star Trek' star Patrick Stewart says he's braver as an actor than he once was


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Briger, in for Terry Gross. Fans of "Star Trek" and Patrick Stewart were delighted to see the actor return to his most famous role, Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the series "Star Trek: Picard." Season two has just begun streaming on Paramount+. Stewart made his first appearance as Picard in 1987 and has since starred in seven seasons of "The Next Generation" and several "Star Trek" films.

It's hard to imagine now, but Patrick Stewart was a bit of a longshot to play the lead in a sci-fi TV show. At the time, he was best known as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He faced a lot of skepticism about whether he was right for the role, including from "Star Trek's" creator, Gene Roddenberry. But Stewart went on to embody one of "Star Trek's" most beloved characters. Stewart has continued to work on many other projects, including multiple Shakespeare productions, his one-man version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" and several X-Men movies as Charles Xavier. During the pandemic, Patrick Stewart provided a little relief on Instagram by reading sonnets to his followers. We're going to listen back to my 2020 interview with him. But first, let's hear a clip from the first season of "Star Trek: Picard." Years earlier, Picard had resigned from his commission at Starfleet and retreated to his family vineyard in France to live out the rest of his years, embittered that the United Federation of Planets had lost its way. But a confused young woman named Dahj appears at his home, asking for help figuring out her identity. It turns out she's an android and perhaps related to Picard's old friend, Data, who sacrificed himself to save Jean-Luc. Dahj is killed by unknown assailants who also injure Picard. Here he is recuperating, angry at himself for failing her and shoring himself up for one more adventure.


PATRICK STEWART: (As Jean-Luc Picard) She deserved better from me. I owe it to her to find out who killed her and why.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You ask too much of yourself.

STEWART: (As Jean-Luc Picard) Oh, sitting here all these years, nursing my offended dignity, writing books of history people prefer to forget. I never asked anything of myself at all. I haven't been living. I've been waiting to die.


BRIGER: And that's a scene from "Star Trek: Picard" starring my guest today, Patrick Stewart. Patrick Stewart, welcome to FRESH AIR.

STEWART: Thank you, Sam. I'm very happy to be talking to you.

BRIGER: I'm happy to talk to you, too. I heard that you were reluctant to go back and play Jean-Luc Picard again. Why was that?

STEWART: It had been such an extended process filming "Next Generation." We did seven seasons, which I think totaled 174 episodes. And then we made four movies in, I think, about seven years. So it had been an intense time. During that time, I was able in my downtime - my producers and fellow actors thought I was crazy to do other jobs, but it was difficult scheduling them. But I managed to fit in some theater work. And I had a one-man show that I could do. And yet "Star Trek" had taken over my life. I was working almost every day. And I got to a point towards the end of the series when I felt that I had said everything that I wanted to say about Jean-Luc Picard and his life on the Enterprise. I had to say goodbye to Jean-Luc Picard.

BRIGER: Yeah. So what was different about this time? You were approached with many different opportunities to play this character again. What changed your mind this time around?

STEWART: Initially, it was when I read the names of the executive producers who were also going to be writing and directing on the show. And I can tell you I was very, very impressed. So I agreed to take a meeting. But - and this may sound somewhat arrogant, but here goes - I wanted to meet with these brilliant people face-to-face to tell them why I was going to say no to their show.

BRIGER: Oh, so you weren't even thinking of doing it AT that time.

STEWART: No. No. I was just immensely flattered that an Alex Kurtzman and Kirsten Beyer, who is probably the world's leading authority on all things "Star Trek" - I felt that I owed it to them to talk to them about why I was reluctant. And I think I talked for half an hour. And then Alex cuts and said, look, do you mind if we just talk a little bit ourselves and maybe tell you about some of our ideas and thoughts? So I listened then probably for an hour to them talking. And when they finished, I have to admit that a little tingle had started in my spine with regard to some of the ideas and concepts that they were putting forward.

BRIGER: It sounds like one of the things that enticed you in their pitch was that the show might comment on some of the current political issues that you were concerned about. So it wasn't just a big ride into nostalgia.

STEWART: Absolutely not. And they were very, very serious about that, which had not been the case way back in 1987, when I was cast as Picard. Back then, Gene Roddenberry was, of course, still running the show then. And sadly and tragically, he died during our third season. But he had made it perfectly clear to me that although he didn't mind referencing the present day a little, he was not going to get the series caught up in contemporary politics or contemporary society and so forth. And I respected that. When Rick Berman took over, that changed a little. And Rick was more interested, which stimulated me in talking, making connections. Well, it became perfectly clear that Alex and the team on "Picard" felt a responsibility to do that. And that impressed me a lot. You know, I've been an activist all my life, certainly politically. And we were living in a society two years ago when all this began in which there were profound concerns about not only whether U.K. or the USA but where the world was going. And so I was affected by that.

BRIGER: And, you know, to prepare for this interview, I watched the new series. But I also went back and watched some of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." And one of the things that was, I guess, comforting about watching that show is that this vision of the future that's in "Star Trek" is it's a fundamentally optimistic vision.

STEWART: Yes. Yes.

BRIGER: It's a utopian, not dystopian vision. And sure, there are problems in this world, but the things that it points to is diplomacy and working towards peace and racial harmony, both on our world and across the galaxy. And that was - that's been very reassuring for me to watch these days.

STEWART: Yes. Well, I think that we have been fulfilling that in the series "Picard." You know, the whole issues of international problems of of refugees, of organizations, whether it's Starfleet or the Conservative Party in London (laughter), changing what they are, what they were and what their priorities were. So we did reflect that. I mean, even so, it was very modestly done in "Picard." But it gave me a sense that we were behaving responsibly.

I think that "Star Trek: Picard" is still fundamentally optimistic, although it has taken Jean-Luc a whole season to bring himself around to that belief. When we first meet him, he is a rather severely depressed, anxious, guilt-ridden, bored old man. Well, some of those elements vanish during the course of the first season, I'm happy to say, although it was very interesting to have to perform them, to act them and make them real. And I am sure that whenever we get to start shooting season two, which we will shoot, that will continue in the same way.

BRIGER: We're listening to my 2020 interview with Patrick Stewart, who stars in "Star Trek: Picard." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Briger, sitting in for Terry Gross. We're listening to my 2020 interview with Patrick Stewart, who stars in "Star Trek: Picard." Season two has just begun.


BRIGER: I'd like to talk about how you first got the role of Jean-Luc Picard. First of all, did you have any reservations about taking the lead in a science fiction series? I mean, here you are, at the time, this very well-regarded Shakespearean actor, and you're going to be in this sci-fi series wearing, you know, a tight-fitting unitard with lines full of techno babble. Did you have any reluctance?

STEWART: (Laughter) I'll tell you exactly what my reluctance was. First of all, I was - you know, I came back, I think, three or four times to audition for this role. And the last time I came back, I - my agent said to me, well, this is it. It's between you and another actor. And by the way, I have never been able to find out who the other actor was. Maybe he actually didn't exist. Maybe my agent made that up.

BRIGER: Throwing a little competition at you.

STEWART: Yes, exactly, which does no harm. But I was unprepared for what being cast in an American TV series meant because I'd never done that before. I'd done, you know, a mini-series in the U.K. and so forth. But the day after I'd had the offer, my agent and I went to lunch, and he had the deal in front of him, he had the contract. And he began to go through it, and he came to a point where he said, and, of course, as usual, this is a six-year commitment. And I said, what? And he said, well, what did you think it was? And I said, well, I thought it was, you know, a dozen episodes.

It was terrifying to me because what it meant was that I was going to have to shut down my career, which actually - and I don't know whether there is any connection here - but actually had started to take off in a way that I was very pleased with. I'd been playing leading Shakespearean roles for a number of years, and now I was getting leading roles on television, and I was being offered transfers into the West End and transfers to Broadway. And the idea that I would have to shut that down for six years was horrifying.

But that was when my agent was the very first person - and many others followed him - to say to me, look. Don't worry about six years. That's in all these contracts. I've got to tell you, this show will be lucky to make it through the first season. You cannot revive an iconic series like those three seasons of the original "Star Trek." You just can't. So you're not going to be here for six years. Forget about that. So I happily and delightedly signed a contract which committed me to six years. And we ended up doing seven.

BRIGER: Yeah, and many more years after that, too, if you include the movies. Well, this might be a stupid question, but I'm going to ask it. Jean-Luc Picard is French, so why doesn't he have a French accent? I mean, they're - in "Star Trek," you have Russian accents. You have Scottish accents, Irish accents. Why does Jean-Luc Picard have a British accent?

STEWART: Somewhere in the Paramount archives, there ought to be a videotape of me speaking Picard's lines with a French accent. They did actually want me to do that.

BRIGER: So was it rejected?

STEWART: (Laughter) Oh, yes. I mean, I don't know that my French accent - I mean, obviously, if they'd wanted it, I would have worked on it and made it as impeccable a French accent as I could. But I think I know what I did. You know, the famous introduction - space, the final frontier - I did that. You know (imitating French accent) space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.

Well, that's how I did it. And it never came up again. Well, what did come up was, you know, the world - our Earth is now assembled under the Federation of Planets and Starfleet. There's no reason why he shouldn't be a Frenchman who is a brilliant French speaker but also speaks English brilliantly with an English accent. So they agreed to that.

BRIGER: I wanted to talk a little bit about your early years. You were born and raised in Yorkshire. And for the first five years of your life, you didn't know your father. He was serving in the war in a parachute regiment, and he was actually also one of the last men rescued at Dunkirk. We'll talk about this. It sounds like he suffered from what was not known then as PTSD, but it certainly it sounds like he had that. But I was wondering, did it scare you when he returned from home? I mean, here was this person that you didn't know who is now living in your house.

STEWART: Yes, it did. I was very intimidated. My mother was a loving, charming, sweet, adorable person, and he was an interesting and exciting and colorful person. And, of course, he'd had this extraordinary career which had left him as a superstar in the noncommissioned officer sense. But, also, there were other aspects to it, which I only discovered the details of, to my profound regret, a few years ago.

And I've talked to an authority on PTSD, told him about my father's behavior and his weekend alcoholism and his mood swings and the violence towards my mother - all of this I've talked about it in the past. And he said, these are classic symptoms. There is no doubt your father was severely affected and needed medical help, which, of course, he never got. And it made me sad - because I've given my father bad press over the years - that I couldn't speak to him now and ask him about these feelings and what it was and what he'd experienced. I will never know.

BRIGER: Your brothers are older than you. In fact, one of them, I think, was also serving during the war. Did they have a different perspective on your father, since they had known him before he had gone to war?

STEWART: Yes, very much so. My oldest brother, who's 17 years older than me and was indeed in the Royal Air Force, he disliked our father intensely. He had experienced him before Dad went to war in 1939, and I think that had been a bad time for him. So there, you know, shell shock or PTSD couldn't be blamed for that. And my eldest brother never, ever lived at home again. He lived with my mother's sister, just across the road. But he and my father had a very, very difficult relationship, if there was enough there to call it a relationship.

My other brother, Trevor, who is five years older than me and - I'm delighted to say - is still very much with us, he and I had very similar experiences. But he was a calmer and quieter and more patient teenager than I proved to be, and so I think he was able to tolerate this difficult situation better than I could. I really had problems with it. It was not a great time. But as luck would have it, I fell under the influence of some wonderful people, most particularly my teachers.

And then when I was 11 years old, a man called Cecil Dormand, who was my English teacher and the first person to put a copy of Shakespeare into my hand and insist that I read it aloud - and, interestingly enough, it was the trial scene from "The Merchant Of Venice," and he had me playing Shylock.

BRIGER: Yeah. And did you connect to that right away? Did you feel an affinity to Shakespeare and to even acting at that point?

STEWART: No, I didn't know what the hell I was saying.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

STEWART: I - you know, I was - I couldn't even properly read the words. I was not at an academic school, not remotely. In those days, they were called secondary modern schools. And yet, even though I couldn't understand the words or really what was going on, there was something about the sound of those words when I spoke them, the feeling of them in my mouth, that even then, I think, intuitively, a rhythmic aspect to it as well touched me. And I was hooked for life.

And here's the greatest thing. I called to wish my English teacher happy 95th birthday just a few weeks ago. We still talk on the phone every few months. He's a dear, dear, precious friend. That he's still in my life is a miracle.

BRIGER: Patrick Stewart recorded in 2020. He's starring in "Star Trek: Picard," which just began season two, on the streaming channel Paramount+. More of our interview after a break. And Justin Chang reviews the new animated film "Turning Red." I'm Sam Briger, and this is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Briger, in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to my 2020 interview with actor Patrick Stewart. He stars in "Star Trek: Picard." Season two has just begun streaming on Paramount+. When we left off, Stewart was talking about being introduced to Shakespeare by his English teacher.


BRIGER: When did you start feeling a connection to acting itself? I mean, it sounded like it was pretty young.

STEWART: It was about the time that Cec (ph) Dormand put the copy of "Merchant Of Venice" into my hand. He cast me in a play with adults. A lot of the staff of the school I went to, thanks to the enthusiasm of the headmaster, loved amateur acting. And most of the company - not all of them, but most of them - were teachers in my school. And we did a play called "The Happiest Days Of Your Life," which was about two schools merging. It's a brilliant comedy. It was made into a film. And there was a character called Hoppe Croft Miner, who is a 12-year-old public school boy. And they cast me as that. There was also a young girl in it, too.

But first of all, I loved working with adults, especially the adults who were my teachers. And the most important thing that happened to me was that, the first time I walked onto that stage to play my role, I felt safer - and I mean literally, physically, emotionally safer - than I had ever felt in my life. And I think it must have been that that drew me back to acting. And then I joined other amateur groups. At that time, there was no consideration of becoming a professional. I just loved the experience of being someone else, not being Patrick Stewart and exploring what my life might be like if I were someone else.

BRIGER: So you said you were safer and you liked not having to be Patrick Stewart, so was acting an escape from your home, from your family life, then?

STEWART: Yep, all of that and, also, not having to feel that I was a failure. You know, I'd had friends who had taken the 11-plus and gone to grammar school, you know, when - friends I'd had when I was 8, 9, 10. I was cut off from them because I wasn't scholarly. I wasn't academic, but finding that people wanted to have me in their plays and productions and so forth. And we did quite a lot of acting in the school. Where I grew up, you were not thought weird if you were a performer, not remotely. On the other hand, it was actually applauded and loved.

So to sing, to play an instrument, to act a scene, to recite a poem - these things were respected. And my memory of Christmas at home is of, oh, almost every member of my family performing something. So that wasn't strange, being an actor. I grew up in a town called Mirfield, which had a population of 9,000 people. And in that town, there were 11 fully functioning amateur dramatic groups. Now, many of them would only have done one production a year, and that might have been a pantomime, a Christmas show, you know. But that's how comfortable everybody was with being onstage and seeing a friend or a family member onstage.

BRIGER: So was there a moment that you remember where you were acting, and you thought that you perhaps had some skill and that maybe you could do this as a career?

STEWART: (Laughter) No, there wasn't, even though - for a year, I worked on a local newspaper, and that didn't work out for...

BRIGER: (Laughter) Well, yeah, I think we should tell people why. I'll just summarize, but you were 15, and you were working in a local paper, and you were spending too much of your time in amateur productions. And in fact, you were committing the journalistic sin of making up things in your reports.


STEWART: Yes. Yes, that's true. Sometimes, I would just get someone to cover for me if I had a rehearsal and there was a council meeting or something I had to attend, or I would have a contact there and I would phone him afterwards and he would give me all the stuff. Or the final alternative was that I just made it up.

And I didn't get really found out until one night, when I was supposed to be at a council meeting, a huge fire broke out. Where I lived, it was heavy woolen industry. It was weaving, big mills, weaving mills. And the editor and the subeditor called each other, and they said, we've got to get somebody out there; there's a huge blaze. And the subeditor said, no, no, no, Patrick's next door in the council meeting. He'll be right there.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

STEWART: Found out. And the next morning, I was called into the editor's office and given an ultimatum.

BRIGER: Well, I guess we know which way you went, you know (laughter)?

STEWART: And I chose acting over journalism.

BRIGER: We're listening to my 2020 interview with Patrick Stewart, who stars in "Star Trek: Picard." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Briger, sitting in for Terry Gross. We're listening to my 2020 interview with Patrick Stewart, who stars in "Star Trek: Picard." Season two has just begun.


BRIGER: In 1966, you joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. So there was - it sounds like there was, like, a 10-year period where you were paying your dues, probably in amateur and semiprofessional roles, right?

STEWART: Yes. Yes.

BRIGER: And you've said you've - you grew up working class. And, you know, class has so much influence in England. Is it as influential in the theater? Like, were you looked down upon at the Royal Shakespeare Company from coming from the working class?

STEWART: Not at all because the breakthrough had already occurred. Actors like Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay were already leading star actors, and they came from working-class backgrounds. I mean, both of them had slight accents, you know, and both of them were brilliant. What I did feel, to a certain extent, was that it was hard for me to play very sophisticated upper-class or upper-middle-class people because I used to find the accent kind of difficult.

I spoke with a very, very broad accent. In fact, it wasn't just an accent; I spoke in dialect. So when my acting teacher, who I luckily met - Ruth Wynn Owen - when I was 13, when she said to me, Patrick, if you really want to, you know, play everything onstage, you're going to have to lose that accent - not all the time, but you're going to have to be able to lose it. And you must work on what was called RP, received pronunciation, which is how people on the BBC - newsreaders on the BBC spoke like that. That no longer applies. I think, if anything, the BBC now looks for people who have accents.

But I used different words. I mean, I will give you a very quick instance. If I go to a friend's house, if I went to a friend's house to ask him if he was coming out to play, I would say, at a lacan at (ph). At a lacan at. At a - art thou. Lacan - which is at least a 16th-century word for playing - art, out. Are you coming out to play? So it was quite a long journey for me to get away from that. And for a couple of years, my life was split. Weekends when I worked with dear Ruth Wynn Owen, my acting teacher, who had a beautiful accent and a beautiful voice, I would attempt to speak RP. And then Monday to Friday when I was at school, I spoke with a broad Yorkshire accent. And, sometimes, I would get them mixed up and, oh, did that get me in trouble with my friends.

BRIGER: I'd like to play a clip of you as Macbeth in a 2010 BBC adaptation of the play. And in this scene, Macbeth has just found out that his wife has died. And you give this very famous soliloquy known as Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. So I'd just like to hear that.


STEWART: (As Macbeth) Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time, and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death, out, out brief candle, life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

BRIGER: That's my guest, Patrick Stewart, playing Macbeth in a 2010 BBC adaptation of the play. So I just wonder if you could tell us a little bit about what choices you made in doing that soliloquy.

STEWART: You know, that has made me a little emotional. I loved that role. I played it for exactly a year, and I did no other work for those 365 days, only "Macbeth." And it did in time - you know, doing a role like that eight times a week and attempting to live the role, everything that happens in it - because it is a horrendous story. It affected me very badly when I was on Broadway. I don't think it showed in my performance. I used to go home and get drunk every night and then sleep in the morning and then get ready.

The best part of the day for me was 6 o'clock when I thought, two hours from now I'm going to be walking on stage playing this great role because it is a fantastic role. But how did I make an interpretation of it? Well, one day before we'd started rehearsing, I was somewhere in London on the street. And who should I encounter but somebody who at the time I didn't know that well, Sir Ian McKellen. And he said to me, hey, is it true what I've heard, that you're going to be playing Macbeth?

Now, Ian had done a production of "Macbeth" with Judi Dench, with Dame Judi Dench, which had been one of the most remarkable Shakespearean performances I had ever seen. And I said, well, yes, it is. And he said, can I just give you one little word of advice? And I said, oh, please, as much as you like. He said that, you know, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow - the most important word is and. And God bless him. I got it instantly. It's not tomorrow and tomorrow but tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. And it was such a typical Ian McKellen interpretation of a line. And, you know, that spread all the way through the performance for me. Bless him.

BRIGER: Well, that's interesting because I guess the and - it sort of emphasizes just the tedium and the repetition. Is that...

STEWART: Yes, yes, all of that. Now, Ian has a wonderful education. Ian is a Cambridge graduate. And actually, he was well-known as an actor before he even left Cambridge. And he does say - because we have become very, very close friends. I love him very dearly. He believes that I have a real hang up about my education. And he said to me, it's time you let it go. It doesn't matter that you didn't go to university. But, you know, I always think - this - because he came from a working-class background like me. But he had the brain to get a scholarship to Cambridge, and I'm so envious of that.

BRIGER: You've said that when you first started acting, your performances were cautious and that you didn't want to expose yourself too much. What did you - what do you mean by that?

STEWART: Oh, yes. And I was told about it by my - the director of my acting school. I went to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. And towards the end of my two years there, he called me into his office and gave me a pretty tough talking to. But the last thing he said to me was, Patrick, you will never achieve success by insuring against failure.

And I thought I knew what he meant, but I didn't, not for years and years and years. And I learned that you have to take risks. You have to be brave. You have to step into the unknown. You have to jump off the edge of the cliff. All of those things are required of actors. Once I'd finally understood that, I knew what direction I had to go in.

BRIGER: You know, when you were in "Star Trek: The Next Generation," there - obviously, the show plays with time. And there were a few opportunities where you played Jean-Luc Picard as an older man. I was just wondering what it's like to play him now as an older man yourself.

STEWART: (Laughter) Well, learning lines is a bigger challenge than it used to be. I used to learn lines so easily. Now when we're shooting the series, I have the week's work laid out in front of me. And over the weekend, I make sure that I am DLP - dead-letter perfect - of the first two days of work, Monday and Tuesday. And then I'm really familiar with Wednesday and quite familiar with Thursday and Friday so that each day, I will be on top of what I have to do insofar as just learning the lines goes. And I stick with that.

Other than that, one of the nice things about being 79 and playing a man who's a couple of years older is I don't have to act it. I just - I'm 79. I'm 80 in a month's time. So I mean, no one can accuse me of being a fake 80-year-old because it's what I am. And my, you know - I forget that I've said things. And I forget people's names and telephone numbers and all of that. My wife is blessedly patient with me.

BRIGER: Well, one more question like that. I mean, you - in your past, you've had the opportunity to play older men. Like, you've played King Lear and Ebenezer Scrooge, Prospero. Looking back at those performances as - when you were a younger man but portraying an older man, what do you think you got right or didn't get right? Or what are you surprised about now, being a 79-year-old, that you wouldn't have been able to incorporate into your roles back then?

STEWART: Well, it's what - the one thing I've already talked about. I'm braver than I was when I was 35. I am not averse to risk-taking. And I don't judge myself. I used to do that so much. Ah, Patrick, that's not good enough. That's not good enough. You could've done that differently. You could've done it better. That gets in the way of spontaneity and real feeling coming into something. So I'm braver now than I was when I was much younger.

BRIGER: Patrick Stewart, thank you so much for your time. I really enjoyed speaking with you. I've been really enjoying seeing you on television. And I'm looking forward to season two. And it's just been a real delight to speak with you. So thank you so much.

STEWART: Oh, thank you. I've enjoyed it, Sam, very much, indeed.

BRIGER: Patrick Stewart recorded in 2020. "Star Trek: Picard" season two is now streaming on Paramount+. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new animated film "Turning Red." This is FRESH AIR.


Sam Briger