Patrick Stewart On His Return To 'Star Trek': 'I'm Braver Now Than I Was' | Connecticut Public Radio
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Patrick Stewart On His Return To 'Star Trek': 'I'm Braver Now Than I Was'

Dec 29, 2020

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Fans of "Star Trek" and Patrick Stewart were delighted to see the actor return this year to his most famous role, Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the CBS All Access series "Star Trek: Picard." He made his first appearance as Picard in 1987 and has since starred in seven seasons of "The Next Generation" and several "Star Trek" films. Production for the second season of "Picard" is slated to begin in February of 2021.

It's hard to imagine now, but Patrick Stewart was kind 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. Patrick 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, Stewart provided a little light on Instagram by reading all of Shakespeare's sonnets to his followers, finishing the last one in October.

We're going to hear the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Patrick Stewart in July.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SAM BRIGER: Patrick Stewart, welcome to FRESH AIR.

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

BRIGER: I'm happy to talk to you, too.

When you were preparing for the new show, did you go back and watch any of those old episodes from "The Next Generation?" And if so, what were your thoughts about your performance then?

STEWART: I - from the very beginning, once I had said, OK, I'm on board, there was not a day when I didn't think, OK, this evening, right, I'm going to sit down...

BRIGER: (Laughter).

STEWART: I'm going to watch "Encounter At Farpoint," which was our pilot episode of the series. And I never did. I ended up never watching a moment of "Next Generation" because - OK, I would have been reminded of some things that I'd forgotten. But that character was inside me. And the longer that we did "Next Generation," the more of Patrick Stewart got into Jean-Luc Picard. And so, finally, I felt that I don't need to do that research; what I need to do now is find out who he has become and really explore that and try to make that as authentic as possible, as something that happened to a man whom we remember very vividly from "The Next Generation" days.

BRIGER: Well, I guess it's too late for this to help as research, but I thought we could maybe listen to a moment from "The Next Generation," if you don't mind. This is a particularly good Picard monologue. This is from an episode called "Measure Of A Man." And this episode actually connects to your new series, "Star Trek: Picard."

The scene we're going to play, Picard is defending his friend and officer Data in this tribunal, which is trying to decide whether Data actually is - Data is an android, and they're trying to decide whether he should be considered a living being with rights or whether he's a piece of machinery owned by the Federation, who want to sort of take him apart, dismantle him and try to figure out how to make more of them, which I think would be used as workers without any rights. So let's just hear a moment of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION")

STEWART: (As Jean-Luc Picard) Your honor, a courtroom is a crucible. In it, we burn away irrelevancies until we are left with a pure product - the truth for all time. Now, sooner or later, this man or others like him will succeed in replicating Commander Data. Now, the decision you reach here today will determine how we will regard this creation of our genius. It will reveal the kind of a people we are, what he is destined to be, if we reach far beyond this courtroom and this one android. It could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom - expanding them for some, savagely curtailing them for others. Are you prepared to condemn him and all who come after him to servitude and slavery? Your honor, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life. Well, there it sits, waiting. You wanted a chance to make law. Well, here it is. Make it a good one.

BRIGER: That's a scene from "Star Trek: The Next Generation." That was my guest Patrick Stewart, who has a new show, "Star Trek: Picard."

So, Patrick Stewart, listening back to that, you know, what's your reaction to your performance or to the character at that point? Do you have any thoughts?

STEWART: My. You have to believe how extraordinary that was for me (laughter) to listen to that speech, something which I learned and performed probably - I think it has to be 30 years ago. And I applaud how passionate I was and that I was not afraid of letting my feelings show because Picard was a man who, for the most part, kept his feelings very much under control. I'm not saying he was dishonest, but he felt that emotions can blur a situation or a conversation or a dialogue. But there was no sense of that - was there at all? - in any of that.

And I'm also very impressed with the terrific piece of writing. And I don't know who was responsible for that speech, but I've got a feeling that there is one word in what we've just heard that actually didn't belong to one of the writers. I use the word slavery at one point, and that word was given me by Whoopi Goldberg. I remember when she and I - it might have been the same episode, "The Measure Of A Man" - I think it could have been - when Whoopi and I had a scene in the bar of Ten Forward. And in a break, Whoopi said to me, you know, what we're actually talking about here is slavery, and I think it wouldn't be a mistake to introduce that. And so I think that was why that word cropped up. And I was so thrilled that Whoopi had proposed it and so proud that everyone approved it and it went into the episode.

BRIGER: 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 (laughter). They did actually want me to do that.

BRIGER: So was it rejected?

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART: 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 - space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Well, that's how I did it.

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART: And it never came up again.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Patrick Stewart. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded in July with Patrick Stewart. This year, Stewart returned to his role as Jean-Luc Picard in the CBS All Access series "Star Trek: Picard." Stewart had played Picard in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and several "Star Trek" films.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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 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.

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 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. 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.

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 (ph), 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. 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.

BRIGER: You've said that when you first started, 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 am 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 (laughter) 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 2. 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.

GROSS: Patrick Stewart spoke with our producer Sam Briger in July. Stewart stars in the series "Star Trek: Picard," which is streaming on CBS All Access. Season 2 is scheduled to start production in February 2021.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll remember Broadway star Rebecca Luker. She died last Wednesday of ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease. She was 59. She won Tony nominations for her performances in "Show Boat," "The Music Man" and "Mary Poppins" and starred in a revival of "The Sound Of Music." We were fortunate in having her on our show four times. We'll hear excerpts of those interviews. I hope you'll join us.

We'll close today by remembering Tony Rice, the most influential bluegrass guitarist of his generation. He died Christmas Day at the age of 69. Rice's first big break was in the early '70s as the singer and guitar player for J.D. Crowe's progressive bluegrass band The New South. He was also the guitarist in David Grisman's original quintet, which played a blend of bluegrass, folk and jazz. Due to health issues, Rice stopped singing in the early '90s and stopped playing guitar in 2013. But here he is doing both on this 1979 recording of the song "Old Train."

I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD TRAIN")

TONY RICE: (Singing) Old train, I can hear your whistle blow. And I won't be jumping on again. Old train, I've been everywhere you go, and I know what lies beyond each bend. Old train, each time you pass, you're older than the last. And it seems I'm too old for running. I hear your rusty wheels scrape against the rail. They cry with every mile, and I think I'll stay a while. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.