Patrick Stewart’s life in the theater and more
The character Patrick Stewart plays with impish charm on Broadway this fall is, he insists, very familiar: a stage actor who begins to realize, after years of toil in small theaters, that he’s never going to make it into the big time.
“I’ve known actors like this, actors who are sad because the breaks never came,” Stewart said, sipping a cup of strong tea just steps from the stage door of the Schoenfeld Theatre. “But all of us as actors think: Are we gonna be found out this week? Or will we hang on for another year?”
Yes, well, let’s just say that this particular 70-year-old Englishman needs to call on his powers of observation and imagination — rather than personal experience — to find the sweetly tragic character of Robert in David Mamet’s 1977 comedy, “A Life in the Theatre,” which made its Broadway debut Tuesday.
Stewart himself has been a good deal more fortunate, earning international fame among devotees of classical theater — but also among fans of science fiction, comic book heroes, animated sitcoms and video games. His impossibly smooth, domed head, chiseled features and plummy voice make him instantly recognizable in the regal, authoritative roles he so often plays.
“Patrick has a very specific commanding voice and an enormous amount of charisma,” said director Bryan Singer, who cast him as Charles Xavier, the mutant professor with telepathic powers in the “X-Men” series. “And, frankly, there are maybe two actors living at any given time who can carry that charisma with no hair.”
Arriving at a restaurant two hours before curtain, his glorious head hidden by a dark driving cap, Stewart sought out a secluded booth and sat with his back to the room, all but invisible to the swelling pre-theater crowd. Only then did the cap come off.
“I must apologize for being late,” he said, explaining that a young man had intercepted him on 45th Street to ask for advice “for someone starting out in life.” Stewart politely managed some — “In the long run, being civil is to everybody’s advantage” — before hastily moving on.
A Broadway comedy is one of the few things Stewart hasn’t done in a career that began in regional theater in England half a century ago and led, at the age of 25, to membership in the Royal Shakespeare Company.
“I tend to play murderous, hysterical neurotics,” he said, smiling. “I can’t think why....”
But he’s enjoying the change of pace. “It’s really satisfying to hear an audience having a good time, especially these days,” he said.
Stewart’s repertoire has included Claudius and King Lear, Scrooge and Captain Ahab. He presided over the bridge as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” for seven TV seasons and four feature films. He starred as Professor X in four “X-Men” films. And his rich, harmonious voice has underwritten an assortment of characters on “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” and nearly a dozen Star Trek and X-Men video games.
As he listened to a recitation of his wide-ranging credits, Stewart smiled and put up a hand to interrupt.
"' American Dad!’” he said, laughing. “Let’s not forget ‘American Dad!’ Ha. Ha. Ha.”
The role of Deputy CIA Director Avery Bullock in “American Dad!” is one of his favorites. When Seth MacFarlane called him with the offer, Stewart recalled, “I thought: ‘What an invitation! To have a recurring role in such a brilliant piece of television.’”
All of which makes one wonder: Does Sir Patrick, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in June, maybe have a little trouble saying no?
“I’ve been fantastically fortunate,” he said. “And I see these roles as a challenge, not a threat. I enjoy risk-taking. Years and years ago, an agent gave me a tip: When you’re reading new material, if you feel your blood run quicker, then you should probably do it.”
Those multifarious roles have introduced him to many different audiences — sometimes on the same evening.
During previews for “A Life in the Theatre” earlier this month, a film adaptation of “Macbeth,” with the 2008 Broadway cast and Stewart in his Tony-nominated leading role, was airing on PBS in the “Great Performances” series.
Stewart fell in love with Mamet’s play when he headlined the 2005 West End production. London critics were mixed on the play but praised his performance — “at once so needy and so unsentimental,” one said. As the Observer put it: “There’s something disconcerting about watching Patrick Stewart play a second-rate actor but no mistaking his enjoyment in doing so.”
He wrote Mamet and asked to reprise the role if the play ever moved to Broadway. “My very existence depends on writers, and to have David Mamet here for the first few days of rehearsal was as satisfying as it could possibly be,” Stewart said.
The 90-minute New York production, directed by Neil Pepe and scheduled to run through Jan. 2, costars T.R. Knight as the young actor Stewart mentors. It opened to mostly positive reviews, including praise for Stewart’s “crisp comic timing” and “deeply comprehending” performance. (In dissent, the New York Times found the revival lumbering and ill-advised.)
“A Life” is a backstage romp of miscues, from undone zippers to dropped lines, in 26 scene changes and almost as many costume changes.
“I think I can say that everything that happens in this play has either happened to me in my career or I’ve watched it happen to someone else,” he said.
Stewart’s first big career break was the invitation from the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1966. “I was utterly content,” he recalled. “All I ever wanted to do was to be in the best possible theater company I could find, and I just thought it could not get any better.”
He had always been passionate about movies, though, and he particularly admired the work of American screen actors. When he was 30, he saw Jack Nicholson in “Five Easy Pieces,” “and I thought, if an actor can be as personally exposed in a film as he was, then, damn it, I’m going to have a go at it as well.”
He landed a few small film roles, but it was the commission to become the captain of the Starship Enterprise in 1987 that sent his career into warp speed, leading to roles in the film spinoffs and, later, to the X-Men films.
Even today, he’s sensitive to the suggestion that a science fiction television series is somehow beneath the dignity of a Shakespearean actor, even one regarded as among the finest performers of his generation in Britain.
“I hope you’re not going to smear ‘Star Trek,’ because a lot of journalists at the time did,” he said, arched eyebrows rising.
“One day,” he recalled, “I lost my cool and told a journalist, ‘Listen, all those years of sitting on thrones in England with the Royal Shakespeare Company was nothing but preparation to sit in the captain’s chair on the Enterprise.’”
He meant it as a put-down but, driving home that night, he realized it was true.
“Everything I had done prepared me to walk on the bridge and sit on that throne — the captain’s chair,” he said. “As the years went by, and two chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and one secretary of State and various astronauts asked my permission to sit in that chair, I began to see that it was a weighty place to be.”
His journeys to “the final frontier” — words he speaks in the opening voiceover — ended in 2002. A year later, after 17 years in Los Angeles, Stewart moved back to England, returning home as a much “funnier and nicer person than when I had left for America,” he said at the time.
That led to an extraordinarily productive period in his life, including an Olivier award last year for his dual role as Claudius and the Ghost in the London production of “Hamlet” and the Tony nomination two years ago for “Macbeth” on Broadway. He felt he has restored his stage credibility, he said, “in ways I could have only dreamed about.”
Next year, though, he plans another life change. He says he wants to leave the stage when “A Life” ends its run and explore more work in film. The 18-day shoot that produced “Macbeth” on PBS “really whetted my appetite,” he said. “I want to get back in front of the camera.”
If that means moving back to Los Angeles, he said, he’d welcome it.
A self-described earthquake-phobe, he had soured on Los Angeles when he left. But he has returned frequently, reconnecting with friends he made on the “Star Trek” series. He also had a heart procedure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center five years ago.
“My doctors, dentists, dermatologist and homeopath are all still there,” he said. “I fell into the most beautiful hands there in every possible way and I maintain those connections.”
It wasn’t until he spent a few days in Los Angeles two months ago, though, “that I realized all my negative feelings about L.A. were gone. I feel at home and totally comfortable there now.”
“I would like nothing more than to drive through the gates of Paramount again, as I did for seven years,” he added.