It's hard to believe that Patrick Stewart, who brought heroic Capt. Jean-Luc Picard to vivid life in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and two hit features, would ever harbor insecurities about a role.
In the past three decades Stewart has tackled, with considerable success, such challenging Shakespearean roles as Othello, Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" and Prospero in "The Tempest." He won acclaim for his one-man adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."
But here is Stewart, casually dressed in blue jeans and a sweater, confessing over lunch at the Bel Air Hotel that he was extremely apprehensive about playing Capt. Ahab in USA's "Moby Dick." The lavish four-hour adaptation of Herman Melville's 19th century allegorical masterpiece airs Sunday and Monday.
"I don't think I was ever so prepared for a role as I was for this one and yet, at the same time, so insecure about how it would turn out," he says.
The intense pressure was entirely self-imposed, he confesses.
"I'm an English actor. This is a great American role," he explains in his melliferous, dramatic tones. "I wanted to do it well. I think we all felt very conscious of Herman Melville's shade--that we had to do well by him. We had to present, as honestly as we could, this great, great American novel."
"Moby Dick" is USA's first four-hour endeavor. Although the cable network has produced well-received adaptations of Carson McCullers' "The Member of the Wedding" and Willa Cather's "My Antonia," USA is best known for such action-suspense thrillers as "Baby Monitor: Sound of Fear."
Rod Perth, president of USA Networks Entertainment, says he hopes "Moby Dick" will "attract viewers who might not otherwise watch a lot of USA programming. I also think we'll lose some viewers, but that's inevitable. This is a literate project, one with enormous production values. It's not the usual visual experience, but an involving one. It's layered. It's intelligent."
Stewart's performance, Perth adds, has "amazing authority. I think he has brought a texture to Melville's character that Melville would be proud of."
Besides Stewart as the peg-legged captain obsessed with killing the great white whale that devoured his leg, "Moby Dick" also stars Henry Thomas as Ishmael, the young ex-school teacher seeking adventure. Gregory Peck, who played Ahab in John Huston's 1956 film, has a cameo as Father Mapple.
Shot on location last year in Melbourne, Australia, "Moby Dick" was executive produced by Robert Halmi Sr., Francis Ford Coppola and Fred Fuchs; it was directed by Franc Roddam.
Stewart, 57, accepted the part as soon as it was offered. The role of Ahab was too complex not to sign on as captain of the Pequod.
The novel, though, terrified him upon reading it. "Although on one level, it's about a man trying to kill a whale and there is one simple objective, clearly there is a little more than that to it. It was the 'little more' that so unnerved me, and how to fully understand this man who was willing to risk everything in order to kill one creature in the ocean."
His feelings about Ahab's motives were constantly fluctuating. But once he started filming, "I was beginning to sniff some of the other things it might be about. The more we worked, the more I became aware of another pain other than the injury that had been done to him."
Ahab, Stewart explains, was a man "who had pains other than the physical. A man who is deeply at odds with his world, with his God, with his fellow man, his wife and his son."
But one who was brilliant. "This was not just some half-crazed, psychotic, murderous sea captain with a grotesque obsession with a fish. He was a man--a thoughtful man. You have to listen to what people say about him. The crew who knew him or sailed with him say that this is a great captain and deeply experienced in whaling. Yet he is risking everything to pursue this whale."
Stewart didn't agree with director Roddam's suggestion about playing Ahab with his customary bald pate. The actor insisted on having hair.
"I was convinced it would not be right, because the one thing about my head is, it is uncompromising," Stewart says with a smile. "You can't do anything with it. The silhouette can't be changed. That is fine for some roles, but I wanted to blur, to soften the edges at times, to confuse how he looked. You need hair. We had a wonderful wig made in London."
The peg leg was another matter completely. For months, Stewart acknowledges, he was in denial about having to wear the leg. But the limb became a harsh reality when he was fitted for it at the production office.
"I walked down the corridor of the production office, lurching, tottering," Stewart recalls. "I reached the far end and collapsed on the bench. I said, 'I can't do this. I don't know what I can do; I can't act this role and wear this damn thing at the same time.' "
By coincidence, stunt coordinator Chris Anderson had lost his leg a few years earlier in a horrific water accident. Not only did he work with Stewart on how to walk with the leg, he also talked with him privately about his own mishap.
Stewart eventually became so proficient with the leg, he says, "I actually became arrogant about it. I used to try and race down the deck as fast I could go. I could forget about it, but also I could make the leg part of the man--the difficulty, the discomfort, the frustration, the rage he feels about the pain, the constant pain of that amputated leg, which reminds him of Moby Dick."
"Moby Dick" airs Sunday (Part 1) and Monday (Part 2) at 8 and 10 p.m. on cable's USA.