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Q & A with PATRICK STEWART : Taking On a ‘Star'-Shattering Role

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Patrick Stewart’s life changed inextricably after two decades of distinguished work as a stage actor when he landed the part of Capt. Jean-Luc Picard on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” He went from reciting “Henry IV” to chasing Klingons in a spacesuit during the show’s run from 1987 to 1994.

The fiercely intelligent and immensely charming British actor, 54, stars in Orion Pictures’ “Jeffrey,” due out Friday. In the film based on writer-producer Paul Rudnick’s hit Off Broadway play, Stewart plays a gay interior decorator whose sizzling wit helps hide the pain of watching his longtime lover die of complications of AIDS. He also appears opposite Leslie Caron in another comedy, “Let It Be Me,” an Rysher Entertainment film that casts him as a ballroom dance instructor, due out Oct. 20.

Last month, the actor, who has enjoyed a long association with the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, scored rave reviews for his performance as Prospero in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of “The Tempest” in Central Park. But for the moment, as he sips his lentil soup in a tony mid-town restaurant, the chameleon has humor and the big screen on his mind. *

Question: You obviously know a flashy role when you see one. What appealed to you about playing a gay interior decorator in “Jeffrey”?

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Answer: For about a year or so, I’ve been talking to my agents about what I should do and I kept saying that whatever that first piece of work is, it must shatter Jean-Luc Picard. I had seen the play in Los Angeles and I was sent the screenplay and was reading it while filming the last few days of the “Star Trek” movie. I just thought it was so brilliant and ultimately so moving that it felt as if I had no choice but to do it. We were filming on top of this finger of rock in the Nevada desert shooting some violent action sequences with Malcolm McDowell. It was 119 in the shade and I was sitting there reading the script. Well, I completed it and found that I needed both wardrobe and makeup to help me because my face was streaming with tears and the tears dripped off onto my spacesuit.

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Q: Were concerns expressed by your agents and managers that portraying a gay role might cause rumors to circulate about you?

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A: This topic really interests me. I’m asked it in every interview [about “Jeffrey”]. I have a girlfriend in Los Angeles [Wendy Neuss, a co-producer on “Star Trek: Voyager”]. I don’t refer to that in any way as a defensive reaction to the possible conclusions people might draw about me. . . .

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Q: You just did the cover of the Advocate . . .

A: Yes, I did. I was immensely flattered to be asked. And indeed, the interviewer said, “You are aware, are you not, that it is generally believed that you are a gay man or that you are bisexual and can we talk about it?” That was an opinion that had been formed in the gay community. I could confirm that I was not but, as I’m aware, I am entirely heterosexual, and yet that never arose in any of the discussions we had.

My only unease was that I would not be convincing as a gay man with a lover in New York. So I would say to Chris [Ashley, “Jeffrey’s” director] and Paul [Rudnick, “Jeffrey’s” writer-producer], who are both gay men, “Please tell me if there is any moment at which you think that doesn’t ring true or if I’m using some cliche which would appear to be a shallow approach to what we’re doing.”

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Q: Is it true that you started out as a journalist and became an actor just to infuriate your editor?

A: Yes, in a way. He made me very angry. I left school when I was 15 with the bare minimum of education that the state required. At one point, I was actually rehearsing four plays simultaneously. This created problems since, as a journalist, you can be called on at any time to cover something without notice. So I’d have people covering for me on the job. I even went to the point of not attending city meetings and things that I was supposed to cover then phoning somebody afterward to find out the particulars. Dangerous stuff.

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Q: Did you make a few things up?

A: Yes, I used to invent stuff. Sometimes I’d get away with it, and sometimes I wouldn’t. But it all came to a head when I handed in my copy one morning about a local council meeting I hadn’t really attended only to discover from my sub-editor that a large weaving mill that was only 200 yards from where the meetings took place had burnt down and I hadn’t covered it. So I was found out. That led to a meeting with the editor, who said, “Either you give up all of your amateur acting or you give up the newspaper.” I went upstairs and told my colleague that our editor was a bastard and that I was leaving. So I took my typewriter, left that afternoon and went home and told my parents that I was going to be an actor.

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Q: How did they respond?

A: They were fine. They had no money so I worked as a furniture salesman for a few months and then the county gave me a grant to study.

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Q: You grew up poor but thanks to your lucrative contract on “Star Trek,” you are now a millionaire. Do you still maintain the same approach to the mighty buck that you did before you had money?

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A: I continue to live modestly and I’m very cautious about money and finances. Everything I’ve earned is invested and I like that feeling. I have very good financial advice. I work with people I really trust. Also, it took a long time but about two years ago, I began to enjoy some of the perks of this.

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Q: You appear in “Let It Be Me” as a ballroom dance instructor. Can you do a mean rumba?

A: You know, of all the steps and dances I learned for the film, I don’t think there was a rumba. I did a classic waltz, fox-trot and a brief tango with Yancy Butler. I would get up every morning and have these beautiful women in my arms all day. There was actually a moment when [I realized] that I had to dance with Leslie Caron--a woman who has danced with Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev, that last two at the same time! At one point in the film, I held her in my arms as she sang a French song from “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” while we danced together. [He sighs.] Sometimes, being an actor is very nice, indeed.

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Q: You recently starred in a production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” With the daily grind of starring on a weekly television show, how many years has it been since you’ve actually done Shakespeare on stage?

A: The last Shakespeare play that I opened was . . . in 1983. . . . But I haven’t been separated from Shakespeare entirely. For 18 months, I ran a Shakespeare workshop for professional actors at Paramount. [Then-Paramount studio chief] Frank Mancuso very generously gave me a space to work in, which I did on weekends during the series until I just got too tired. I also have a solo show that I do that includes a lot of Shakespeare.

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Q: Is this a more creative time for you?

A: It has never been better. It’s so good now that I actually get nervous about it. There is, on one hand, the liberation which, even though it’s been over a year, I’m still a little breathless about the fact. Proud as I am about the work that we did on that show for seven years, and I think it was fine work with the finest people, it was a liberation not to spend so much time at the studio. And I was lucky enough to find film work immediately after the “Star Trek” movie was completed.

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Q: You have held such interesting monikers in the national media as “a Zeitgeist Icon,” the first “Internet Sex Symbol” and one of the “50 Most Beautiful People in the World.” How do you feel about being a sex symbol?

A: Well, I’m certainly very flattered. It is truly incomprehensible to me. All my life, I have always thought of myself as very, very unattractive. So when people tell me they find me attractive, I simply do not know where to look for observations on this phenomenon.

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Q: As the father of a grown son who is now an actor, do you give advice to him or does he seek advice from you? (His 25-year marriage ended in 1990.)

A: We speak very frankly about our work. I want my children to share as much of the important things in my life as possible. I missed out a great deal on my children’s growing up because I wasn’t there. . . . Actually, my daughter called this morning and she’s starting a little business in London, a little retail [clothing] business and she’s done it all herself. . . . This is another area where it’s a great time for me because as my children get older, we get closer and closer.


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