Sir Patrick Stewart, Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Captain Jean Luc Picard, did a radio Q&A event in New York this week promoting his Broadway play but also talking about his career on the stage and also in Star Trek. Stewart talked about how Star Trek changed his life, his relationship with Gene Roddenberry, and more. Excerpts and video link below.
Patrick Stewart on Star Trek and Roddenberry
Sir Patrick Stewart talked to WQXR’s Elliot Forrest for over an hour, starting with a focus on his new Broadway play "A Life in the Theater" and also branching into his own earlier years as an actor, being recently knighted and more. There was also about ten minutes covering Star Trek. Here is a transcript of the interesting conversation.
How did Star Trek change your life?
It would be easier to say, were there any areas of my life that were not changed by it. There really were not. It changed everything – my status in the profession, my standard of living, how I felt about myself as a performer. I grew more confident. I had been very fearful in my earlier years as an actor. It wasn’t stage fright, I have never ever had stage fright. I was afraid of exposing Patrick Stewart, so I became really good at becoming other people, either physically or by assuming somebody else’s emotional feelings so I wouldn’t have to release any of my own. It is that simple and that stupid. Because if you are an artist it is about what is inside you coming out on the canvas, onto the blank sheet of paper, onto the empty music stage. It is all about what comes out of you. I read somewhere "if you want to know the artist, look at the work." It was another director that persuaded me that there was nothing to be afraid of, and it was in a play called "A Winter’s Tale" about one of the nastiest characters, and this director said "if you will find this man in yourself, and you are prepared to let him out, I will hold hand." And from that moment on everything changed for me. But the confidence that came from Star Trek was another thing. I could hold my head up in a different sort of way.
Did your theater work inform work in Star Trek?
Everything informed it. When we were doing the first press for Star Trek, I began to realize that behind a lot of the questions I was getting from the media was a sense that I was in some way, because of my past history with the Royal Shakespeare, slumming to be doing a syndicated science-fiction television show. That it ought to be below my dignity to do that work. I got very angry with one journalist and said "look, the fact is that all those sitting on thrones as kings in the Royal Shakespeare Company was nothing but preparation for sitting in the captain’s chair of the Enterprise!" And it was absolutely true. There were so many aspects of acting in classical drama that were of use to me in Star Trek. Ranging from being able to sustain heightened language from long speeches, which as the captain I often had. And Star Trek dialog is heightened. I can recognize it. I hear it and say "that’s Star Trek." It is not totally naturalistic. It is not like watching NYPD Blue,
which is I mention because it was running alongside it. Right down to knowing what to do with your hands, because there are no pockets in space suits.
You overlap the life of Gene Roddenberry and you knew him.
Yes. I knew him for just three years. Tragically Gene died during our third or fourth year. He had not been well so his presence got thinner and thinner on stage. He didn’t want to cast me. He put a veto on my name in casting. He met me and I know Rick Berman was a champion for me as was the casting department as was Robert Justman, but Gene, quite sensibly, didn’t want a bald-headed English Shakespearean actor in his new series.
So how did you get it?
I have no idea. I got called back three times. My agent said it was between you and another guy. I never was told who was the other guy. I was never told who the other guy was. I have my own idea as he appeared in Star Trek, but I got it. A Trivial Pursuit detail. This past year actor/director Corey Allen died. Corey Allen directed the pilot of Star Trek The Next Generation "Encounter at Farpoint" and Corey Allen and on the day of my final reading for Paramount I had a call from the night before and he said "I want you to come in an hour earlier and I want nobody to know you are here and I will meet you in this place and you and I will rehearse together". Because he wanted it, and it was unprecedented and breaking all the rules. So we worked on the scenes I was going to read and when we got in with the studio executives he said to them "I am going to read with Patrick because I
think it would make more sense" and it made all the difference in the world. And I didn’t know until long after we shot the pilot episode that Corey Allen was one of the stars of Rebel Without A Cause…he was a great teacher and a great director.
But you ended up having a great relationship with Gene?
I did yeah. We didn’t talk very much. I don’t think we had much in common. I like him. I liked hearing his stories. You know he was a Pan Am pilot, and his plane went down in the desert. He is thought to have saved the lives and basically got everybody out. But I don’t play golf and am not interested in country clubs and that was very much Gene’s life. But, he was inside Jean Luc Picard. Picard was his creation and I never forgot that.
To this day, does it still surprise you – the worldwide recognition for this series and for this role?
Not anymore. I have encountered people all around the world. I have thought to myself "here I am safe, nobody is going to say to me ‘in episode 137…’" [laughs]. I remember getting off a little private boat on an island somewhere off the coast of Fiji and the place has been more or less abandoned and then I heard somebody on the dock "Oh my god! I can’t believe it, it is Captain Picard!" So I have got used to that.
I’ll share something with you. Next week I am going to the book launch of Frank De Winne, the only European commander of the space station, they have all been either Russian or American. He did two visits to the space station, and the long visit guys get to choose somebody to talk to on Earth. And my first question to him when Houston actually connected him by a live video feed at University College London and my first question when the space station came up and there was Frank De Winne was "please tell me why would a real astronaut want to talk to a fake astronaut?" And he said "because as a child I used to watch the original series and when I was at the academy I watched The Next Generation and I am on the space station today because of Star Trek: The Next Generation." …We were supposed to talk for half an hour and we ended up talking for an hour and twenty minutes and in that time he actually circled the Earth. It was amazing. He took me on a tour of the station, uncircling the camera and off we went. It was a great, great privilege and that wouldn’t have happened to me if it weren’t for Star Trek.
Watch the full interview: