Interview Date: 01/13/2010
Run Date: 04/28/2010
Allow me to begin the introduction to this interview with an unabashed boast: it is a testament to my burgeoning ability to separate my work as a journalist from my sideline as an unabashed fanboy that I was able to sit down with Patrick Stewart for an interview about his work for PBS’s “Great Performances” – first as Claudius in “Hamlet,” then as the title character in “Macbeth – and not fully acknowledge my love of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” until just as I was standing up to leave.
To some, this may seem like a waste of a perfectly good conversation. To me, it felt just right…which, frankly, came as a bit of a surprise. I mean, I’ve got the complete-series set sitting on a shelf in my living room, and I watched every single episode of the show when it originally aired. Surely I’d earned the right to geek out for a bit…and, yet, it just seemed too easy to approach it head on, so I found an easy opportunity to discuss it tangentially in connection with his Shakespearean efforts, and I felt good about it. Beyond that…well, really, when else was I going to get the chance to ask the man about the time he hosted “Saturday Night Live”? That’s not geeking out. That’s just making the most of an opportunity.
I walked into the room just as he was in the midst of regaling his assistant with a tale that had come up during the previous interview. Upon its conclusion, I was introduced as having chatted with Sir Ian McKellen last year. At this, Sir Patrick…he’s been knighted now, you know…grinned widely, greeted me warmly, and we took the very short stroll over to our seats.
Bullz-Eye: Do you have a seat preference?
Patrick Stewart: I prefer this one… (Gesturing to the cushier of the two chairs) …unfortunately for you. (Laughs)
BE: That’s quite all right. That’s what I get for offering. (Laughs) Let me just set my recorder down so that it catches your every word, and we can get started.
PS: My God, they get smaller, those things, don’t they?
BE: They do. And it plugs right into the computer, too, which is another bonus.
PS: Wow. And does it actually write the material for you as well? (Laughs)
BE: If only it did! Well, your assistant mentioned how I’d chatted with Sir Ian last year, which gives me the perfect opportunity to ask you about your recent work with him in “Waiting for Godot.” Obviously, you two have worked together in the past, but how did you come to team up for that particular production?
PS: I believe that Sir Ian said, “Yes, I will do ‘Waiting for Godot,’ but I want to do it with Patrick.” (Grinning) Whether it’s true or not, that’s the story I’m putting out there. And it was the experience of a lifetime. It nearly killed me, but it was the experience of a lifetime.
BE: It was that exhausting…?
PS: Oh… (Exhales deeply) And he’s doing it again! As we speak, he’s re-rehearsing it with another actor! I mean, there’s nothing so challenging. Beckett is fearsomely difficult. And the two of us are on stage for the entire evening. But we propped each other up…literally, sometimes.
BE: I heard you say in the panel that you can’t go to the pub as much as you used to before you practicing your lines.
PS: Not at all! In other cases not as much, but with Beckett, not at all. I’m going on vacation in a couple of weeks, and I’m taking my next script with me. There’s no such thing as vacation anymore. There’s always lines to be learned.
BE: Someone dared to ask the question earlier about why Shakespeare is still successful today, and based on what I’ve seen from these two productions, I’d say that at least one reason is because his work is so easily adaptable to different circumstances and different staging.
BE: Do have a favorite unique staging that’s stuck with you over the years, perhaps one that was particularly surprising?
PS: (Thinks long and hard) The one that is most notable would be the Peter Brook “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1970, which I was subsequently in. I was not in the original production, but three months after it opened, somebody fell out and I took over. So I was then in it for a year. Yes, the famous “white box” production.
BE: I called my college Shakespeare professor to tell her that I was speaking with you today, and I asked her if she had any “Macbeth” questions. She wanted to know what you thought about the fact that the sexual tension between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth seems to have increased in productions over the last decade or so.
PS: I would say that it’s been increasing for more than a decade or so, and I think it’s just an indicator of the kind of things that interest us today. It was massively important to Kate Fleetwood and myself, and it was for me at the very beginning because, right at the start, I said to the director, “I want a young Lady Macbeth, I think this would create a very interesting dynamic, potentially.” (Grins somewhat mischievously) You know, two generations of age difference, which there was. And is it sexual? Oooh, yes. Yes! The way she talks in that soliloquy before she arrives…? The very first thing he says to her is, “My dearest love!” This is one of the world’s great monsters. “My dearest love!” (Shakes his head) “Bring forth men-children only!” Fantastic. Yeah, there’s sexuality in the relationship, isn’t there? And it’s incredibly important. Partly because she uses it as a weapon against him.
BE: Playing off the first question a bit, there have been straightforward interpretations of the witches and there have been weird ones. Where do you think they land in this production?
PS: Brilliantly. (Grins) It’s the first great shock in the production. I didn’t see how they filmed that scene, but I remember how it was onstage, and you would…I was waiting to come on for the first instance, with Banquo, and you’d hear a gasp in the audience because there were three nurses tending to a horribly injured soldier, putting an IV in his arm, giving him plasma and all of that, and they’ve got their masks on. (Lowers his voice to a whisper) But then they take their masks down, and they say, “When shall we three meet again?” (Adopts an expression of horror) It used to give me goosebumps just hearing it backstage every night, because the audience was simply not ready for it. “My God, these caregivers are actually the witches!” And, of course, you never trust them from that moment on. And they become witches, servants, guests…but they’re always around. And, of course, they also show up at the very end…or, at least, they do in our film. They don’t in the play. But they come back to say, “It’s time!”
BE: Have you ever been in the midst of a Shakespearean production and found yourself caught up in someone else’s performance almost to the point of distraction?
PS: Oh, often, yes. Often. I used to watch (David) Tennant at times and find myself just completely focused on him. Oh, often, yeah. It’s dangerous, because you forget where you are! David, certainly, did that to me a lot. Kate, my Lady Macbeth, she used to frighten me. When she used to do… (Adopts ominous tone) “When you durst do it, then you were a man!” She would scare the wits out of me! And when she comes back after the murder, I don’t have any dialogue, so I just used to watch her, and she was absolutely riveting. I mean, it’s fun. It’s great to get lost in someone else’s work. It’s just marvelous. And, you know, I used to find the same with Ian in “Waiting for Godot.” It’s just delightful and mesmerizing. Ronald Pickup, who played Lucky and who just had that one nightmarish speech in the middle of Act 1…? I’d completely lose myself, to the extent of not really knowing what I was doing. But it’s good. It’s great! It means good work is happening.
BE: Since you’ve brought up David Tennant, you touched on this earlier when discussing the sci-fi similarities, but what do you think it is about Shakespeare and sci-fi actors? I mean, there’s you, David, Ian’s obviously done his share, and Brian Blessed, a longtime friend of yours, I remember from “Flash Gordon.”
PS: And don’t let’s forget William Shatner.
BE: Heaven forbid.
PS: Bill worked at Stratford, Ontario. He’s a classical Shakespearean actor. I think that the experience that we get in making a 400-year-old text work is exactly what you need for giving credibility and believability to fantasy, science fiction, and the like. I think that’s why I was so good at it! And in Bryan Singer’s “X-Men,” there are a lot of stage actors in there as well.
BE: You mentioned earlier than you’d never played King Lear. You did, however, play John Lear.
PS: (Eyes lighting up) Ah, yes…
BE: …in “King of Texas.” How was that experience? And how was it originally pitched to you?
PS: (Smiling) It was my idea.
BE: Was it? I didn’t realize that.
PS: Yes, I pitched it. I was having dinner with Robert Halmi, a great man, and we were going across the road to a restaurant from his townhouse in Manhattan, and he said, “Come and have a glass of wine first!” And between him pouring the glass of wine and me half finishing it, he had bought the idea. That’s what makes Halmi, for me as a then-producer, such a great man. He’s one of a handful of people in our business who can say… (Claps hands together) “Yes! We’ll do it!” And it’s done! He doesn’t have to consult, he doesn’t have to talk to people, he doesn’t have to run it past focus groups. I said, “Robert, I’ve had this idea about ‘King Lear’ set in the American west, with Texas for Britain, just after the Mexican / Texas wars,” and I told him a bit more and then asked him, “What do you think?” And he said… (Adopts an uncannily accurate Robert Halmi impression) “Goddammit, we’ll do it! It’s fucking brilliant!” (Claps hands together again) Done! And the next morning, I was getting contracts to sign. So, yeah, I had one crack at Lear. I loved it. We filmed in Mexico, and my then-wife and I produced it. Wendy did most of the producing; I was busy playing the role. But we filmed in some incredible locations in some incredibly remote bits of Mexico, with a Mexican crew and a German director, Uli Edel. Oh, it was an unforgettable experience. From waking up to going to bed at night, an unforgettable experience…including the night that Marcia Gay Harding got out of bed…where were we? I can’t remember what Mexican town we were in, but she got out of bed in her nightdress, went down outside the hotel, around the back, and put a stop to a cockfight that was happening.
BE: (Laughs) Wow.
PS: That’s balls.
BE: It is.
PS: She’d looked out of her window and seen what was going on, she went down there, and they scattered. (Laughs) So, yeah, it was an amazing experience. And I got a photograph the other day that reminded me: I took part in a roundup! We improvised a roundup! David (Alan) Grier and me! David had never been on a horse before in his life! I ride, so I was okay. But we had 200 head of cattle and four cameras turning, and the director said, “Just do it!” And we had one or two real cowboys, Mexicans, who knew what they were doing, but we spent two hours cutting out cattle and yelling and riding. An English Shakespearean actor doing a cattle roundup!
BE: You’re a man of many talents.
PS: Well, of many experiences, anyway. (Laughs)
BE: Before we’re out of time, I wanted to step away from Shakespeare and ask you about some of your comedic work. How did you end up in the Seth Macfarlane camp, voicing Avery Bullock on “American Dad”? And I know you’ve made a few appearances on…
PS: …on “Family Guy” as well, yes. You know, I don’t know. (Looks legitimately mystified) I don’t know! Um…they sent me a script and pitched the idea, and I thought it was brilliant. I’d already seen some of “Family Guy,” and I thought that was incredible. I love animation, too. I’m a big fan of animation. In fact, until I saw “Avatar” the other night, I would’ve said that animation is where the biggest strides are being made in filmmaking. But now I’ve seen “Avatar,” and I’ve seen the future…and I think it’s astonishing. Astonishing! I went with my girlfriend and her parents, and we seriously discussed outside going back inside and seeing it a second time. Um…oh, yes, I have so much fun doing those shows. Unfortunately, I’ve only been able to go into their studios twice! They have this…it’s almost like a playground. You can imagine what it’s like. But I do it all by phone patch, usually by England. I love my character. Bullock is an absolute monster, an unspeakable, despicable monster, and I have so much fun with him. But, you know, he belongs to the same world as Patrick Stewart in “Extras.” I love doing comedy, and I’ve got some coming up. Not the next project, but the two next ones. Numbers two and three have got a lot of comedy in them, and I’m really looking forward to that.
BE: Can you speak to what the projects are yet?
PS: No. (Smiles) Sorry.
BE: (Chuckles) I knew I couldn’t be that lucky. I know I need to wrap this up, but I do have to ask you about your appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” “The Love Boat: The Next Generation” remains one of my all-time favorite sketches.
PS: It’s very funny, isn’t it? Very, very funny. Unfortunately, I had never seen “The Love Boat,” so I had to have it explained to me! No, from that experience, I take the sketch about the Scottish therapist and my appearance on “Extras” as being career highlights.
BE: The Scottish therapist, of course, would be Phil McCracken.
PS: (Dissolves into laughter) Phil McCracken. Yes!
BE: So do you recall how the process of hosting the show went for you? Did you sit around a table with the writers as they threw sketch pitches at you?
PS: Oh, it all happened in such a blur, and… (Lowers voice) …I’ve never been so frightened in all my life. Standing behind those doors, waiting to go out there. And you know they’re rewriting while the show’s going on, and they’re changing all of these lines. I don’t know how these guys survive it week after week after week. And I don’t think I did that well, in retrospect. I just…I just wasn’t that comfortable. The one thing, though, was working with… (Hesitates) …my man in “Phil McCracken: Scottish Therapist.”
BE: Mike Myers.
PS: Mike Myers, of course. Working with Mike was an absolute treat, because I think we sort of had…we were on the same wavelength about what was funny, and I got that. And I got the one about the demon as well. (Raises voice) “ ‘Til the cows come home?” (Laughs) I thought that was very funny. But some of the others, I just couldn’t get the tone right, like the guy making the birthday cakes of women sitting on the lavatory. I just couldn’t get that one right. (Laughs) And then there was the Michael Jackson sketch, which… (Grimaces)
BE: Not so funny in retrospect.
PS: Not so funny in retrospect, no. Oh, well. Happy days! (Stands up)
BE: (Stands up) Well, I didn’t want to bore you with the “Star Trek” questions you’ve probably heard a thousand times, but I did want to at least tell you that “The Inner Light” is my favorite episode.
PS: Mine, too!
BE: Well, there you go.
PS: It was a spec script, you know. That’s something that not many people know: it was a spec script. One of the tiny few that actually got made. And, of course, my son was in it, and it was the first time I’d ever worked professionally with my son, so that’s another reason why it’s special to me. There are other stories about that episode, but… (Grins conspiratorially) …I’ll have to save them for my biography, as I’ll probably be sued when they come out.
BE: (Laughs) Well, I look forward to reading that, then.PS: As you should. (Laughs)