Patrick Stewart, Star Trek’s Captain Picard for seven years, has beamed down to the stage of the Apollo Theatre. Remarkably, after years on stage and screen, he only made his West End debut in 2003 and is now playing a veteran actor in David Mamet’s A Life In The Theatre. Laura North caught up with him in a church hall to talk about toilets, Tom Hanks and William Shatner’s shoes.
“I’ve been acting in the ladies’ toilets.” Not the first thing that I expected Patrick Stewart to say. After years of glamorous film sets, Stewart finds himself in a drafty church hall in south London, talking to a row of toilets. How has this happened? Well, he is rehearsing for A Life In The Theatre, a play set entirely within the confines of one provincial theatre, and apparently the only place he can simulate standing offstage is the lavatory. “When I’m meant to be standing in the wings, the only way to go is the ladies’ toilets. It’s the only time I’ve ever acted in the toilets.”
Marginally reassured by his explanation, we walk through the main rehearsal room. In the background Stewart’s co-star Joshua Jackson, best known as Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, is trying on all manner of costumes. One minute he is dressed in an Edwardian cream suit ready for afternoon tea; the next he is in black tights, rolled up trousers and silver boots. Another blink of the eye and he’s a surgeon dressed in green scrubs, complete with surgical mask. What kind of play is this? “The characters, two actors in a theatre, perform a wide variety of strange plays: scenes from a shipwreck, two doctors performing surgery, a confrontation in a lawyer’s office, a scene from a French Revolution play and from the trenches from the First World War. There are twenty-six scenes in the play and almost every scene has a costume change of some kind. Our dressers and ourselves are kept very busy.”
"The audience have to tolerate the sight of Josh and myself taking our clothes on and off"
These costume changes are fast, and for the most part, revealing. “A lot of these changes we do on stage. So the Apollo audience, whether it’s to their taste or not, will have to tolerate the sight of Josh and myself taking our clothes on and off.” Tolerate may not be the right word – a lady behind me in the theatre during press night, quite vocally tolerated Jackson when he began to undress: the oohs and the aahs went all the way down to his worn-out Y-fronts.
With or without his clothes, Stewart is back on the stage, where he first started out as a 17-year-old. Now, at 65 years old, with an impressive stage and screen history, he seems perfect to play the role of veteran actor Robert in David Mamet’s play. But Robert has not had the same degree of success as Stewart. “My character has been in the theatre, as the title A Life in the Theatre suggests, all his life.” It is painfully apparent that Robert is not happy with how his career has panned out when John, a young actor full of potential (played by Jackson), joins the company. “The power relationship changes during the course of the season: at the start, the older actor has all the advice and counsel and the other chap is new and eager. By the end of it you see a very different situation.”
Robert’s pearls of wisdom become increasingly obscure and John begins to lose patience, wanting to concentrate on his own rosier future. “John is clearly going to have some success. We see him taking phone calls from an agent about a film. He is clearly very good and his career is going somewhere whereas Robert’s career, not only is it not going anywhere, it's actually falling apart. We see him falling apart on stage and off.”
Although Stewart plays the older actor, he identifies more with the younger one. “In my early days at Lincoln, at Sheffield, to an extent at Manchester, I encountered characters like Robert, and I suppose in a sense I was John. Actors whose life had been spent in provincial theatre – they didn't go anywhere else. Some would occasionally do regional television, such as Coronation Street when I was working Manchester, or an episode of Z Car, but they were never going to make movies or star in television productions. Some were entirely content but others were disappointed, frustrated, even embittered that they'd never progress and would remain trapped in this world.”
Robert also has “a personality problem” which again rings some bells for Stewart. “I've met actors where you think, if only you could just clean up your act and get it together, people would want to work with you. Some people are so difficult, it's just not worth working with them. I've done it once and its misery, whether it's a director or an actor or a producer.” I have to ask if he is one of those actors. “Erm. I'm told that there…” He pauses and laughs guiltily, “…that there have been complaints in the past. Yeah, now we mention it, there have been.”
Stewart has not had the chance to be disappointed: just like John, he was hovering on the brink of success. He struck gold in 1987 when he was picked for the role of Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Although talent was clearly a major factor – as Stewart says “great actors have great opportunities” – luck played its part: “I know this is a lottery, this business of ours.” Luckily Stewart picked the right numbers. “I went to Hollywood because I was giving a lecture at UCLA and a producer from Paramount pictures was signed up to the course – that's how I got inside the door of Star Trek. It's ludicrous. I wasn't campaigning for a role in a Hollywood television series, it was a fluke. So you've got to have a measure of good luck, you really have, being in the right place at the right time.”
"Bill was still filling Captain Kirk's shoes and I was building shoes of my own."
His good luck meant that he replaced the legendary Captain James T Kirk and it is tempting to think that there was some professional rivalry aboard the Starship Enterprise, a John and Robert situation. “No, no, there was nothing at all like that. There were a few rather snippy remarks made at the very beginning but before long there was another series, Deep Space Nine, then Voyager, now there is Enterprise. When people said ‘you're stepping into Captain Kirk’s shoes’, I wasn't at all – for one thing Bill was still filling Captain Kirk’s shoes and I was building shoes of my own.”
Stewart’s shoes were a bit more sensible than Shatner’s: Captain Kirk spent his time gallivanting around the universe picking up women while Captain Picard was too dutiful to be distracted by the ladies. Was he jealous of Shatner’s sexier ways? “Oh God no. Bill has one style. We have completely contrasting personalities. We're very good friends Bill and I, he's a wonderful man, I adore him, but we're very different people and so they were smart enough to write characters that reflected that. As time went on, I did campaign to lighten the character a little bit, to introduce some romance into the episodes, outside activities, horse riding and fencing and mountaineering.”
Adjusting to the jet-set Hollywood lifestyle after years on the UK stage was not difficult, as he had already spent some time there with the RSC. “What was very difficult at first was adapting to the pressure of the work. I'd never experienced anything like it before, not even in weekly rep. We made 26 episodes a season, each one was 43 minutes long and shot in seven days. It meant days that were a minimum of 12 hours and that was just the starting point: from that we'd go up to 15, 16, 17, 18 hour days and having the role that I had, I was nearly always there. You'd finish one script and you'd start another and you'd start another and you'd start another. It was like a conveyor belt and there were times I used to panic that my brain just wouldn't be able to cope with that amount of learning and absorbing. You got physically very tired. But, yeah, we did seven years of it and 178 episodes.”
According to my calculations, that’s 7654 minutes on screen, and a lot more on the cutting room floor, which mathematically adds up to a lot of vulcans and a very big anomaly in the space-time continuum. Did Stewart ever get sick of it? “Yes, I did. Towards the end it was a struggle. But I began directing episodes which was a great light every couple of months. We never short-changed our audience but it became something that you had to work at rather than something that was a pleasure. It was just playing the same character for seven years – it's a long time.”
"Tom Hanks knows the name of all the episodes"
During that time, Stewart helped The Next Generation gather more devotees to add to Star Trek’s already huge fan-base. “We had some very distinguished fans: I know one chancellor of a major university who used to schedule his meetings around Star Trek. We were thrilled to discover that Frank Sinatra was a big fan and Tom Hanks knows the name of all the episodes.” It is probably fairly easy to recall titles such as Where No One Has Gone Before, but remembering titles like 11001001, The Outrageous Okona and Silicon Avatar demonstrates a more profound level of dedication. “Tom Hanks actually knows more about our series than I do. When I met him for the first time I was so excited to meet him because I am such a fan of his work and all he wanted do was talk about Star Trek.”
After spending almost a decade with the Captain, a formidable figure with fearsome integrity and ambition, it must have been tough for Stewart to break free. He has played a wide range of characters – a gay interior decorator in Jeffrey, a mind-reading professor in The X-Men, and even characters in Frasier, The Simpsons and Sesame Street – but he does keep returning to the embrace of impressive, unyielding characters such as Captain Ahab, Prospero, Scrooge and King Lear (he played John Lear in the film King Of Texas, a version of King Lear). “Yes, it does seem that I had been drawn to these very driven, obsessed and single-minded individuals.” He remarked in an interview with In Theater magazine that his private life was more tranquil when he played “fucked-up madmen”. “Oh, yes it is, you get all of your neuroses worked out on stage,” he laughs. “And I do seem to play an awful lot of those characters.” Is the same true in reverse: does his life become crazy if his characters are pleasant? “Well, I don't know, I haven't actually played very many nice characters, certainly not on stage. It’s not a quality that attracts me.”
"For seven years I did very little theatre and I have to make up some time."
Now he’s back in the theatre, there’s a long list of characters he wants to tackle, none of them nice. “I feel I have a lot of catching up to do. I now have discussions going on for two other stage pieces in London and one outside. For seven years I did very little theatre and I have to make up some time. There are some wonderful roles: I'm very desperate to do a production of Macbeth because the fashion has become to cast Macbeth younger and younger and younger and I'm getting older and older and older. And then there are the others – Falstaff, Claudius, Lear of course, and a whole lot of non-leading roles that I haven't played. So that's several years work there alone.”
He is enthusiastic about working through his extensive to-do list, but would he have been happy if he had spent his life in the theatre? A long seven-second pause follows before he replies. “Well… yes, there's no doubt about that, I would. I was with the RSC without break for ten years. People would often say to me ‘Oh why don't you leave, there's a world outside’ and my response would always be ‘Where can I go that would give me the same level of satisfaction as an actor?’ Alright, I wasn't getting rich, that was for sure. Not at all, when I first joined the RSC I was getting paid £35 a week. And yet I was horrifically happy. I would say 85 to 90 % of my career to that moment in April 1987 when I went Hollywood, had been spent in the theatre.”
So now he’s back to make up for lost time. He’s off to a good start in this play, charging through a handful of different characters in the course of 90 minutes. After finishing off the interview, Stewart wastes no time and bounds over to join Jackson, who has now become a WW1 soldier, and sticks on a moustache and a tin hat, ready for action.
It’s your last chance to book cheaper tickets for A Life In The Theatre through the Get Into London Theatre offer – booking is open until 25 March. A Life In The Theatre is booking until 30 April.