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Patrick Stewart's new roles more down to Earth than sci-fi work

Patrick Stewart's new film and TV roles are more realistic than Picard in 'The Next Generation'

A bemused grin flashed across Patrick Stewart's face as he recalled a 1987 story that ran in the Los Angeles Times announcing he had been cast to play Capt. Jean-Luc Picard in the sci-fi series "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

"It said the Captain will be played by an unknown British Shakespearean actor," mused Stewart, 74. "I was a little disappointed by that. Then my friend Brent Spiner, who was in the series, had a sign made that he had somebody stick on the front door of my trailer which said, 'Beware. Unknown British Shakespearean actor.'"

More than 20 million people tuned in to the two-hour pilot of "Next Generation" when the series premiered on Sept. 28, 1987. And faster than warp speed, Stewart became a sensation at the age of 47.

Since that show went on its final voyage in 1994, Stewart has starred as Professor Charles Xavier in the blockbuster "X-Men" franchise and even narrated Seth MacFarlane's 2012 comedy hit "Ted."

He's also been a sensation on Twitter, especially with a comedic photo series showing him and Ian McKellen, his good friend and "X-Men" co-star, traveling to New York City landmarks in bowler hats to promote their 2013-14 Broadway production of "Waiting for Godot" and "No Man's Land."

McKellen officiated the wedding of Stewart and Sunny Ozell in 2013, and last Christmas, Ozell's video of Stewart sheepishly wearing a singing, dancing elf's hat became an Internet trending topic. "She is responsible for every idea," Stewart said of his singer-songwriter wife.

Stewart's latest film, "Match," in which he plays a bisexual ballet instructor, opened Wednesday. And he's about to start filming a new comedy series for Starz called "Blunt Talk," executive produced by MacFarlane and created by Jonathan Ames.

"There has never been a year quite so interesting," said Stewart, who was warm, charming and funny in a recent interview in West Hollywood.

In "Match," which was adapted by director Stephen Belber from his 2004 Broadway play, Stewart plays Tobi, a former ballet dancer and choreographer who is now an instructor. An eccentric loner outside of class, Tobi smokes pot, knits sweaters and keeps a bowlful of his clipped fingernails.

But his life is turned upside down when a couple (Carla Gugino and Matthew Lillard) arrive to interview him about his sexually active and colorful life as a dancer in the swinging '60s. He soon realizes the real intention of their visit.

Stewart didn't know "Match" had been a play starring Tony-nominated Frank Langella until after he committed to the film. "The script was intelligent and funny," Stewart said.

He knows people like Tobi.

"As I get older, I have come to understand more and more how one can so easily slip into a solitariness," Stewart said. "I know two people very well who actually have no life outside the rehearsal room and stage. In the case of one of them, he has deliberately isolated himself with friendships and relationships. But Tobi is very content. I think he says in one speech, 'I have my knitting. I have my soaps. I have my marijuana.'"

Stewart is also content being alone. "Luckily, my wife is the same way," he said. "We are equally happy to be at home reading and watching 'Game of Thrones.'"

Belber said by email that Stewart brought a "mischievousness, rollicking wit, pathos" and "an absolute delight in the absurdity of life" to the role of Tobi.

"I wish I could say that I seduced Patrick into the huge and mercurial performance he gives ... but alas, all I had to do was cast him," Belber said. "He's a beautiful, profound, deeply heartfelt actor."

Tobi is based on Belber's friend Alphonse Poulin, whom he described as "one of my favorite people on Earth. He and Patrick became complete bosom buddies."

"He's a teacher," said Stewart of Poulin. "He is my age. He is happy. All of the sweaters are his sweaters [in the movie]. I went to his apartment and talked, and he invited me to attend one of his classes at Juilliard. That is when I saw the upside of his life — the joy, the creativity, the passion and deep caring he had for dance and young people."

Later this month, Stewart begins work in Los Angeles on "Blunt Talk," in which he plays fictional British media personality Walter Blunt. The first season of 10 episodes is scheduled to begin in September, and Starz has committed to a second season of 10.

"Think David Frost, Jon Stewart, maybe Piers Morgan," Stewart said, who is also a producer. "He has a talk show. It's an investigative show, it's a very political show, but the numbers aren't great when the series begins. And our hero is going through a series of crises. Seth MacFarlane crises!"

Stewart first began working with MacFarlane nine years ago when he was offered the role of deputy director of the CIA on the animated series "'American Dad!"

"I had already been watching 'Family Guy' and loved it. Later on, Seth cast me in the role of Susie, the baby who can't speak but thinks out loud, and she thinks out loud in my voice. I love that work and never encountered material quite of that complexity, ambivalence and boldness."

Twitter: @mymackie

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