Not the Final Frontier: Patrick Stewart Says His Career Is Far From Over

In conversation at Tribeca, the versatile actor admits TV and film were never his goal.

Neta Alexander
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Patrick Stewart.Credit: Insight-Visual UK/REX
Neta Alexander

“I’m not gay, thanks for asking.” With a noble smile, this was how Sir Patrick Stewart, 73, began a conversation with journalists in New York during the recent Tribeca Film Festival. He was replying to a British reporter’s provocative question about his reaction to being mistakenly outed by The Guardian newspaper in February. Stewart, a veteran of numberless junkets and interviews in his long and illustrious acting career, 
declined to be provoked.

Beyond the scandal that broke out when The Guardian noted – before almost instantly retracting – that the lead actor of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and the new film in the “X-Men” series is gay, Stewart was pleased to add twigs to the bonfire. In “Match,” the new film in which he stars, which premiered at Tribeca, he plays Tobias, a renowned dancer and choreographer who is prone to feminine mannerisms and has had erotic experiences with both sexes. It’s not the first time Stewart has played an artist who is drawn to men, and he is in fact an avid supporter of the LGBT community.

Last September he married the 35-year-old jazz singer Sunny Ozell; his best friend, the acclaimed actor Sir Ian McKellen, officiated at the ceremony. (Stewart recently appeared with McKellen in a Broadway production of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”). This is Stewart’s third marriage (he was married for 24 years to Sheila Falconer, with whom he has two children, and for three years to Wendy Neuss, a “Star Trek: The Next Generation” producer. These facts somehow eluded The Guardian’s researchers.

According to Stewart, it’s possible that his long friendship with McKellen – who outed himself as gay in 1988 in a BBC interview – led the newspaper to assume that he too is drawn sexually to men. “If you had been exposed to me only through Twitter,” he says, “where there are photographs of Ian McKellan and myself, walking along the boardwalk holding hands at Coney Island, sitting at Stonewall with the gay pride 
statues and all that, you might perhaps have thought, ‘Ah, well of course all of this makes absolute sense.’ But it was sloppy research.” Indeed, after the Guardian story, Stewart used his popular Twitter account to poke fun at the paper: “Well, @guardian it makes for a nice change ... at least I didn’t wake up to the Internet telling me I was dead again.”

This sense of humor is only part of what makes an encounter with Stewart such a pleasurable experience. In contrast to other stars, who rattle off answers pre-written by studio PR people, Stewart offers authentic, in-depth replies. He talks frankly about his life experience, which covers dozens of roles in the theater and in films, the most famous of which is his portrayal of 
Captain Jean-Luc Picard from the television series “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and its successor films. He has twice been nominated for a Golden Globe award (for his roles in two mini-series: “Moby Dick” in 1999, and “The Lion in Winter” in 2003) and four times for an Emmy. In the last decade he has played Prof. Charles Xavier in the “X-Men” movies – the latest of which, “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” will be released in the U.S. on May 10 and in Israel on May 22 with a star-studded cast alongside Stewart: Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence, Ellen Page, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender – and Stewart’s close friend Ian McKellen.

Life choices

The glittering high-budget powerhouse production of “X-Men” could not be further removed from the modest, minimalist art-house style of “Match” – a 90-minute drama based on a play by Stephen Belber that scored an impressive success on Broadway in 2005. Belber, who wrote the screenplay for Richard Linklater’s “Tape” (2001) and directed the indie drama “Management” (2008), decided to write the screenplay for “Match” and direct it himself, replacing Frank Langella (the star of the stage version) with Stewart.

“Match” focuses on the character of Tobias, who accedes to the request of a young woman named Lisa 
(Carla Gugino) to be interviewed for her Ph.D. thesis on the history of 
modern American dance. When Lisa and her 
husband, Mike (Matthew Lillard), arrive at 
Tobias’ elegant residence in upper Manhattan, it quickly becomes apparent that the reason for the meeting is far more complex. In fact, the couple has made the cross-country journey from Seattle to find out whether Tobias is the biological father of Mike, whose mother was a dancer.

Although the film was shot in just 15 days on a minuscule budget of about $500,000, Belber’s precise, witty script packs every scene with emotional depth and generates tension that builds relentlessly as the film moves toward its end. Asked why he chose to appear in a low-budget indie film, Stewart replies that he never saw the stage production and therefore treated it only as a screenplay, which attracted him from the first reading. “The role and the story resonated strongly for me because a powerful theme in the film is about the choices that people can make in their lives, especially if they’re people who are passionately, ambitiously building a career, and how those choices require that some things get put aside or left behind forever. And the life of an actor, particularly an actor working in the theater as I had been for decades, really – I never saw a camera until I’d been an acting pro for 16 years – you know, six nights a week I was not there to tuck my children up and read them a story or sing them a song. It was only on Sunday nights that I could do that, exclusively. ... I was not making choices – those were just the conditions that you have to accept in the work – so this theme of the film fascinated me. You feel you’ve made the right choices, you feel that you are where you want to be, but you don’t know until the shock of what happens in the movie comes up that actually the choices you’ve made were not the best ones and that life could have been very different.”

Looking back, what is your greatest regret?

“I put my work first. Always. I remember once at a dinner party in my own home sitting around a table with six, eight, ten people, some actors and directors, but all people in the arts, this was the topic of conversation. Someone said, ‘I love my job. I love what I do. But my family always comes first.’ And I heard a voice in my head say quite distinctly, ‘Not me. Not me’ – and it was true.”

His happiest moment

Stewart’s devotion to his craft is one element of his successful career. Although he is now a highly regarded actor who moves between Broadway, Shakespearean theater, voice acting (including the animated television sitcoms “Family Guy” and “American Dad”) and the sets of mammoth productions such as “X-Men,” his path has been long and winding. His first professional stage role was in the Lincoln Theatre Royal in England, in August 1959, just after his 19th birthday, in a production of “Treasure Island.” Seven years later, he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in what he describes as the “happiest moment” in his career.

He notes that if theater is more respected in Britain than in the United States, “tradition has a great deal to do with it. All I ever wanted to do was be on the stage. Everything that ever happened to me in film and television was an accident. I fell over it rather than pursued it. We did not have one hour of film acting or television instruction in my drama school in two years – I think we once visited a television studio, but really that was just to say, ‘That’s a camera, that’s a microphone’ – that’s it, you know.”

What was the proudest moment in your career, if you can pick one?

“I hate these questions because it kind of suggests that my career is over, that there is no longer a future,” he says, and laughs. “I think, as I said, that all I wanted to do was be on stage, but I could narrow that down to say that what I really wanted was to be on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Everything I did for the six or seven years that led up to that was aimed in that direction. I did one season with the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, playing quite small roles, supporting roles, and understudying. At the end of that 10-month season, everyone was called into the office of the company’s director, Peter Hall. I didn’t think my work had been of any real quality, but all I wanted was to be given one more chance to do another season. Peter Hall says, ‘Well, this isn’t going to take long,’ and I thought, ‘Oh…,’ and he said, ‘Have you heard we have three-year contracts here?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’ve heard that,’ and he said, ‘We want to give you a three-year contract.’ I was speechless. I called my wife, and she asked, ‘How did it go?’ I was speechless again. Finally, in the silence she said, ‘I take it that it went well.’”

In all the years since, he adds, he doesn’t think he has been able to recapitulate the professional satisfaction he felt at that moment.

In the decades that followed, Stewart became the revered star of “Star Trek” for legions of fans around the world, many of whom insist vehemently that Captain Picard is a far more exciting character than his predecessor in the role, Captain Kirk (played by William Shatner). In recent years he has played very different parts, among them an impoverished elderly Brit who comes to an Israeli old-age home to look after his comatose sister in the comedy “Hunting Elephants,” by Reshef Levi (2013), the first – and so far, only – Israeli film Stewart has appeared in.

The ability to shift back and forth between such vastly different projects as “X-Men” and “Match” is “a great relief and source of satisfaction,” he says, adding, “It’s only because ‘Match’ and ‘X-Men’ are being released back to back like this that these questions are coming up, and so I’ve been forced to address the differences between them. If we take ‘Star Trek’ and ‘X-Men,’ there are clearly defined parameters for the work you do, and certainly with ‘X-Men’ they’re quite narrow – you cannot be inventive if you’re playing Charles Xavier. The duties of playing Charles Xavier are very defined, and that’s a little restricting. It’s challenging, though, because you have to make something interesting out of those restrictions.”

Whereas while making “Match,” he notes, “We were almost living out of this apartment for three weeks. And because the author and director were in the same shoes, we could be liberated in front of the camera. It was like a training camp: a very intensive experience that ends very quickly and leaves you tired but happy.”

Domestic violence

“Match” certainly makes intelligent use of Stewart’s extraordinary acting skills. He’s in almost every scene, expressing a complex range of feelings amid which tough questions about fatherhood are raised. As Tobias asks Lisa: Even if it turns out that he is Mike’s biological father, does that change the fact that he never took part in raising him and never functioned as a parent? Isn’t it better to grow up without a father than with a father who has had parenthood forced upon him?

Stewart’s own biography – in recent years he has spoken frankly about his childhood in the shadow of a violent, domineering father – injects another layer of meaning into these dilemmas. In November 2009, Stewart published a long article in The Guardian titled “The Legacy of Domestic Violence.” He related how his father, who was a regimental sergeant major in the British Army and suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder (then known as “shell shock”) in the wake of the Dunkirk evacuation, systematically abused his mother. “As a child I witnessed his repeated violence against my mother, and the terror and misery he caused was such that, if I felt I could have succeeded, I would have killed him,” he wrote in the article, which resonated widely.

As a result of these traumas, Stewart became an ardent activist in Amnesty International and in organizations that help children who suffer from domestic violence. He is also active in trying to raise the consciousness of posttraumatic symptoms in combat soldiers. In 2012, he spoke at the United Nations, describing the tragic consequences of his father’s military career. In addition to his public activity, acting seems to be Stewart’s preferred mode of therapy. “Most of the happiest moments of my life have been on the stage,” he says, having held the mirror up to nature for himself and us for more than five decades – with more to come.