From stage to screen

Pa­trick Ste­wart gothis ca­reer-mak­ing role in Star Trek by ac­ci­dent, but it’s Shake­speare that honed his finer edges. So how will he han­dle a neo-Nazi skin­head? He ex­plains all to Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - COVER STORY -

There are some virtues to go­ing bald early. At the age of 18, Sir Pa­trick Ste­wart (as he then wasn’t) lost all his hair as a re­sult of alope­cia. The rav­ages of time have not worked con­spic­u­ously on the un­chang­ing dome. Ste­wart looks eerily sim­i­lar now to the man who played, nearly 30 years ago, Jean-Luc Pi­card in Star Trek: The Next Gen­er­a­tion or, a decade be­fore that, Se­janus in I, Claudius.

Just look at Ste­wart scowl­ing as the steely neo-Nazi in this week’s su­perb Green Room. Now 75, the years have barely with­ered him. That rich Shake­spearean voice shows equally lit­tle ev­i­dence of pass­ing decades.

“The re­views for Green Room were won­der­ful,” he flutes. “I was mostly happy with what they said about me. One did, how­ever, say that it was a shame Pa­trick Ste­wart was so ‘the­atri­cal’. ‘Why couldn’t he match the nat­u­ral­ism of the younger ac­tors?’ I laughed at that. Darcy Banker is the most unthe­atri­cal per­for­mance I’ve ever given. Look, I know I’m known for scream­ing and shout­ing. Ha ha.”

Darcy Banker, a pre­cise char­ac­ter with a chromium stare, leads a gang of ru­ral fas­cists who be­siege a punk band led by An­ton Yelchin and Imo­gen Poots. Like so many to­tal­i­tar­ian dem­a­gogues, Banker mix­e­sun­mis­tak­able charisma in with his lu­nacy.

“Yes, they do that, don’t they?” Ste­wart says. “You have only to look at that footage of Mus­solini. I have al­ways been able to un­der­stand why there was an ap­peal there. It would never have ap­pealed to me, but I un­der­stand that. I made sure [Banker] was as warm and friendly as pos­si­ble.”

Ste­wart says he is known for “scream­ing and shout­ing”, but that’s not re­ally fair. There are Shake­spear­ian ac­tors about whom one might make that ac­cu­sa­tion (his life­long friend Brian Blessed, for one), but Ste­wart’s trade­mark has al­ways been that mel­liflu­ous, old-school voice. If you didn’t know he was brought up in a work­ing-class corner of Hud­der­s­field, you would be un­likely to guess. Scarcely a trace of York­shire re­mains in his vow­els.

“I didn’t just have an ac­cent. I spoke York­shire di­alect,” he says. “If I was go­ing to a friend’s house I’d say: ‘Is thoo cumin’ oot tee lark?’ That is: ‘Are you com­ing out to play?’ It’s di­alect.

“But I had an act­ing teacher from the age of 12 who taught me re­ceived pro­nun­ci­a­tion. A num­ber of oth­ers – in­clud­ing Brian Blessed, in­ci­den­tally – also at­tended that class. Very early on in my act­ing lessons, she said I would need to learn to speak ‘prop­erly’. At her house I’d speak stan­dard English. Dur­ing the week I’d speak broad York­shire. I had to be care­ful not to mix it up. I’d be hit over the head if I spoke up­per class with my friends.”

I won­der if he ever slips back into it. “Oh, yes. When I am on the phone to my brother, my wife saysthat I al­most im­me­di­ately be­come in­com­pre­hen­si­ble.”

Truenorth

As Ste­wart ex­plains, the irony of all this was that while he was learn­ing to speak like a south­erner, ac­tors such as Al­bert Fin­ney and Tom Courte­nay­were spread­ing their north­ern in­to­na­tions about the Lon­don stage. Had he held on to his York­shire ac­cent, it might have proved a sell­ing point.

Nonethe­less, Ste­wart did rea­son­ably well, rea­son­ably quickly. Be­gin­ning in Lin­coln, he worked his way up the reper­tory theatre lad­der – stints in Sh­effield, Manch­ester and Liver­pool – be­fore wind­ing up at the Bris­tol Old Vic. That led to an au­di­tion for the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany.

“I had no am­bi­tions or dreams to be­come a film or tele­vi­sion ac­tor,” he says. “My dreams came true when I got to the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany. I had worked for that sys­tem­at­i­cally since I left school in 1959. I fi­nally joined the RSC in 1966. I had re­ally worked my way through the ranks.”

He still re­tains a ra­zor-sharp me­mory of the au­di­tion with Peter Hall (on a “rainy Sun­day evening”) that brought him to the RSC at Strat­ford upon Avon. Four­teen years of su­pe­rior work fol­lowed. Ste­wart starred along­side Frances de la Tour and Ben Kings­ley in Peter Brook’s leg­endary pro­duc­tion of A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream.

Ste­wart shows up in John Boor­man’s Ex­cal­ibur and, on tele­vi­sion, de­spite not speak­ing a word, was un­for­get­table as Karla, Ge­orge Smi­ley’s arch en­emy, in the BBC adap­ta­tions of Tin­ker Tai­lor Soldier Spy and Smi­ley’s Peo­ple. But he wasn’t any sort of star un­til Star Trek: The Next Gen­er­a­tion came along. Oddly, it all hap­pened as a re­sult of a lec­ture at UCLA.

“It was an ex­tra­or­di­nary fluke they’d heard of me,” he says. “A friend of mine, who was a Shake­speare scholar, asked me to do readings to il­lus­trate a lec­ture. Robert Just­man, one of the pro­duc­ers on Star Trek, was signed up for the lec­tures.

“The next morn­ing I got a call from my agent in Los An­ge­les – who I’d never even met, be­cause I’d no in­ter­est in work­ing there – and he said: ‘Can you tell me why the pro­duc­ers of Star Trek would want to see you, and what the hell were you do­ing at UCLA?’”

The same af­ter­noon, he found him­self with Gene Rod­den­berry, cre­ator of Star Trek, who, af­ter he’d left, told Just­man that the meet­ing was a “to­tal waste of time”.

“I am told there was a memo that then went round say­ing: ‘I do PloughthroughtheS­tar Trek­back cat­a­logue­andy­ouwillfind­var­i­ous ac­tor­splay­ing­var­i­ous cap­tainsin al­ter­na­tive­u­ni­verses.Here arethe ac­torsthat­mat­ter. Don’twritein. JEFFREYHUNTER( 1965) PlayedCap­tChristo­pherPikeinThe Cage, thep­i­lot­forthe­o­rig­i­nalseries. Hun­ter­also playedMart­inPaw­leyin TheSearchers andJe­sus­inKin­gof Kings. Diedattheage­of42in1969 fol­lowingan ac­ci­dent. WILLIAMSHATNER( 1966) Much-loved,end­lessly ec­cen­tric Cana­di­anthes­pi­anwho, pri­orto play­ingJamesTKirkinthe­first se­ries,wasa reg­u­laronTVseries suchasTheTwi­lightZone.De­spite suc­cessinthe­cop­showTJ Hooker an­don Bos­tonLe­gal, hehas­n­ever quiteescapedKirk’sshadow. not want to hear Pa­trick Ste­wart’s name again’.”

Nonethe­less, Ste­wart got the job and the­series, the first live-ac­tion TV in­car­na­tion of Star Trek in 20 years, be­came a sen­sa­tion. It was in­spired cast­ing. Ste­wart had the same swag­ger asWil­liam Shat­ner, but the wit and lev­ity to his de­liv­ery added new flavours.

Don’tdoit

“I was be­fud­dled by it all and in com­plete denial for some time,” he says. “Ev­ery­one I knew said it would be a fail­ure. ‘Don’t worry about sign­ing that six-year con­tract. It won’t get through the first sea­son,’ they said. I re­mem­ber Ian McKellen say­ing: ‘Don’t do it.’ More peo­ple watched the first episode alone than had ever watched me in ev­ery play I had ever been in.”

It’s in­ter­est­ing that McKellen comes into the con­ver­sa­tion at this point. As it hap­pened, both north­ern Shake­speare spe­cial­ists man­aged to move from suc­cess in pop­u­lar sen­sa­tions to un­of­fi­cial pen­sion plans in the X-Men films. McKellen is the older Mag­neto. Ste­wart is the se­nior Prof Xavier. They have also shared the stage in two no­table re­cent pro­duc­tions: Sa­muel Beck­ett’s Wait­ing for Godot and Harold Pin­ter’s No Man’s Land.

Mean­while, Ste­wart has ne­go­ti­ated a colour­ful per­sonal life. In 2013 – with McKellen per­form­ing the cer­e­mony – he mar­ried the singer-song­writer Sunny PATRICKSTEWART( 1987) AlthoughSte­wart ad­mit­sthathe wastype­cast­fol­low­inghis­portrayal ofJean-LucPi­card,hewas­n­ever short­of­work. Thisweek’sbril­liant GreenRoomisal­ready aUSindiehit. SCOTTBAKULA( 2001) En­ter­prise, the pre­quel­toS­tar Trek, ha­dits fans, bu­tit­n­ev­er­prop­erly set in.Nonethe­less,Baku­lawas con­vincin­gas the­cap­tain­o­fan­early ver­sionofthe­ship. AbusyTV ac­tor, Baku­lacur­rently ap­pearsin­some in­car­na­tionofNCIS. CHRISPINE( 2009) We­must­men­tionBruceGreen­wood, who­playsCap­tPikeinJJAbrams’s de­light­ful­re­bootofthe se­ries.Pine is jus­tasar­ro­gan­tas theear­lierJim Kirk,but­seem­salit­tle­less­chau­vin­is­tic. Ozell. At 37, she is a full 38 years his ju­nior. This is his third mar­riage. “I must bring my wife to Dublin,” he booms. “She has just about ev­ery­thing Euro­pean in her her­itage. I think there is some Ir­ish. I know there is some Dan­ish and she has some Rus­sian. She is also Na­tive Amer­i­can.”

Where do they spend their time? He seems busier than ever.

“We live in Brook­lyn and in Lon­don and West Oxfordshire. When we don’t have to be any­where for work it’s Oxfordshire. Thanks to stream­ing and pod­casts, I can have the BBC in my ear at all times. I lis­ten to match-day com­men­tary of my team on Ra­dio Leeds. All of which is great.”

What a funny thing to hap­pen to a wee boy from the West Rid­ing. Green Room opens to­day and is re­viewed on page 10

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