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Patrick Stewart On His Return To 'Star Trek': 'I'm Braver Now Than I Was'

Patrick Stewart is back as Jean-Luc Picard on the CBS All Access series<em> Star Trek: Picard. </em>
James Dimmock
Patrick Stewart is back as Jean-Luc Picard on the CBS All Access series Star Trek: Picard.

After playing Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation for seven seasons — more than 170 episodes — and in four movies, Patrick Stewart was ready to say goodbye to the role in 2002.

"Star Trek had taken over my life," Stewart says. "I got to a point ... when I felt that I had said everything that I wanted to say about Jean-Luc Picard and his life on the Enterprise."

Decades later, when he heard about plans for Star Trek: Picard, a new series on CBS All Access, he wasn't interested. Nevertheless, he agreed to take a meeting with the show's executive producers.

"This may sound somewhat arrogant," he says, "but ... I wanted to meet with these brilliant people face to face to tell them why I was going to say no to their show."

The meeting didn't go as planned. Instead, Stewart listened as the executive producers described the series, and his outlook began to shift. "A little tingle started in my spine with regard to some of the ideas and concepts that they were putting forward," he says.

Stewart, who turns 80 later in July, says that learning lines is more challenging now than when he originated the role. But he adds, "I'm braver than I was when I was 35. I am not averse to risk-taking and I don't judge myself. I used to do that so much. ... That gets in the way of spontaneity. ... So I'm braver now than I was when I was much younger."

Interview Highlights

On his initial reaction when offered the role of Jean-Luc Picard in the 1987 series Star Trek: The Next Generation, which required a six-year commitment

It was terrifying to me, because what it meant was that I was going to have to shut down my career, which actually — and I don't know whether there is any connection here — actually had started to take off in a way that I was very pleased with. I'd been playing leading Shakespearean roles for a number of years, and now I was getting leading roles on television, and I was being offered transfers into the West End and transfers to Broadway. And the idea that I would have to shut that down for six years was horrifying. But ... that was when my agent was the very first person — and many others followed him — to say to me, "Look, don't worry about six years. That's in all these contracts. I've got to tell you, this show will be lucky to make it through the first season. You cannot revive an iconic series like those three seasons of the original Star Trek. You just can't. So you're not going to be here for six years. Forget about that!" So I happily and delightedly signed a contract which committed me to six years. And we ended up doing seven.

On doing Shakespeare for the first time in high school

I didn't know what the hell I was saying! I couldn't even properly read the words. I was not at an academic school, not remotely. In those days, they were called secondary modern schools. And yet, even though I couldn't understand the words or really what was going on, there was something about the sound of those words when I spoke them — the feeling of them in my mouth — that even then, I think, intuitively a rhythmic aspect to it ... touched me. And I was hooked for life.

And here is the greatest thing: I called to wish my English teacher [who introduced him to the works of Shakespeare] a happy 95th birthday just a few weeks ago. We still talk on the phone every few months. He is a dear, dear, precious friend. That he's still in my life is a miracle.

On what drew him to acting

The most important thing that happened to me was the first time I walked onto that stage to play my role, I felt safer. And I mean, literally, physically, emotionally safer than I had ever felt in my life. And I think it must have been that that drew me back to acting, and then I joined other amateur groups. At that time, there was no consideration of becoming a professional. I just loved the experience of being someone else — not being Patrick Stewart — and exploring what my life might be like if I were someone else.

I just loved the experience of being someone else — not being Patrick Stewart — and exploring what my life might be like if I were someone else.

On a brief period of time where he was a reporter in his hometown

For a year I worked on a local newspaper and that didn't work out for me. ... Sometimes I would just get someone to cover for me if I had a rehearsal and there was a council meeting or something I had to attend, or I would have a contact there and I would phone him afterwards, and he would give me all the [details of the meeting]. Or the final alternative was that I just made it up. ...

I didn't get really found out until one night when I was supposed to be at a council meeting, a huge fire broke out ... and the editor and the sub-editor called each other and they said, "We've gotta get somebody out there. There's a huge blaze." And the sub-editor said, "No, no, no. Patrick's next door at the council meeting, he'll be right there!" [I was] found out! And then the next morning, I was called in to the editor's office and given an ultimatum. ... I chose acting over journalism.

On coming from a working-class background and studying at the Royal Shakespeare Company

The breakthrough had already occurred. Actors like Albert Finneyand Tom Courtenay were already leading, star actors and they came from working-class backgrounds. I mean, both of them had slight accents, and both of them were brilliant. What I did feel, to a certain extent, was that it was hard for me to play very sophisticated upper-class or upper middle-class people, because I used to find the accent kind of difficult. I spoke with a very, very broad accent. In fact, it wasn't just an accent. I spoke in dialect. So when my acting teacher, who I luckily met ... when I was 13, when she said to me, "Patrick, if you really want to play everything onstage, you're going to have to lose that accent. Not all the time, but you're going to have to be able to lose it. And you must work on what was called 'RP' — received pronunciation." ... For a couple of years, my life was split. Weekends when I worked with [my acting teacher] ... I would attempt to speak 'RP' and then Monday to Friday, when I was at school, I spoke with a broad Yorkshire accent. And sometimes I would get mixed up and oh, did that get me in trouble with my friends!

Lauren Krenzel and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Sam Briger