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'Star Trek' actor Patrick Stewart says he's braver as a performer than he once was

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. Patrick Stewart, the British actor best known for his role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the "Star Trek" TV series, has a new memoir. It's titled "Making It So." Stewart grew up working-class in England, made his way to the stage with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and then found fame on television with the starship USS Enterprise. Stewart's first appearance as Picard was in 1987 on "The Next Generation," where he starred for seven seasons. He's recently reprised the role in "Star Trek: Picard" nearly 30 years later. Stewart also starred in several "Star Trek" films, "X-Men" movies, multiple Shakespeare productions and a one-man version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." During the pandemic, Stewart took to Instagram and provided some comfort by reading sonnets to his followers.

We're going to listen to FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger's 2020 interview with Stewart. But first, let's hear a clip from the first season of "Star Trek: Picard," where years earlier, Picard had resigned 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK: PICARD")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: 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. 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 - I think 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 video tape 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, but they also - we identified certain technical terms that would be given American pronunciations. And I was very happy to do that. I do remember quite a long conversation about how we should pronounce the name of the character played by Brent Spiner. Should it be Dat-uh (ph) or Day-tuh (ph)? And I was the one that campaigned for Day-tuh, and I'm very happy to say it was what won the argument.

MOSLEY: We're listening to our interview with Patrick Stewart, who stars in "Star Trek: Picard." He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEFF RUSSO'S "STAR TREK: PICARD MAIN TITLE")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our 2020 interview with Patrick Stewart, who has a new memoir. He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.

(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.

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 - 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.

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.

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.

(LAUGHTER)

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.

MOSLEY: Patrick Stewart, recorded in 2020. More of our interview after a break. Also, Ken Tucker reviews a new box set of Joni Mitchell demos, alternate takes and concert performances from 1972 to '75. And Justin Chang reviews "Anatomy of a Fall," a murder mystery and courtroom drama that won the top prize at Cannes. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIE KNODEL'S "LANDLER")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. Let's get back to our 2020 interview with actor Patrick Stewart. He stars in "Star Trek: Picard." Season 3 is currently streaming on Paramount+. And Stewart also has a new memoir. He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BRIGER: In 1966, you joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. So there was - it sounds like there, 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 - at, 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 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MACBETH")

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, 'cause 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: 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: 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 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.

MOSLEY: Patrick Stewart, recorded in 2020. His new memoir is titled "Making It So." "Star Trek: Picard" Season 3 is now streaming on Paramount+. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Volume 3 of the Joni Mitchell archive series, covering the years 1972 to 1975. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEFF RUSSO'S "WALKING WITH NUMBER ONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sam Briger