Why Patrick Stewart was forced to flee Hollywood after 'Star Trek'
The veteran stage and screen actor reflects on the intimate production of his new indie film, "Match," and why he had to leave Hollywood to shed himself of Jean-Luc Picard.
Most people know veteran actor Patrick Stewart from his role as Jean-Luc Picard in the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" series or as Professor Xavier in the "X-Men" movies, but lately he's been dabbling in smaller roles.
In his latest film, "Match," directed by Stephen Belber, Stewart plays Tobias Powell, a former ballet star-turned-Juilliard instructor of considerable note.
Stewart's character is visited by a couple, played by Matthew Lillard and Carla Gugino, who claim they are researching her dissertation about dance and choreography. But the couple quickly steer the conversation to personal details of Tobias' past and whether he has taken responsibility for his behavior from decades earlier.
The film was shot in 15 days for a budget barely over $1 million — many digits below the budgets for the blockbusters Stewart has done in the past.
When he stopped by The Frame recently, Stewart talked about how intimate it was to make such a small, independent film, and why he needed to leave Hollywood to shed being typecast as Jean-Luc Picard.
What was it like to shoot "Match"?
Fifteen shooting days were all it took — in that apartment. We ate our meals in that apartment, I slept on my character's bed whenever I could get a half-an-hour for a lie down, and the rooms were littered with photographs from my past, because they wanted to have photographs of my character. But they're from my past; my brother doesn't know this yet, but he appears twice in this movie because there are photographs of the two of us as children.
There is one photograph that might become one of those "Trivial Pursuit" moments. There's a photograph taken of me at a Christmas party in 1961 in Adelaide, Australia, and standing right there next to me in the foreground, helping herself to food from a buffet table, is the late, great Vivien Leigh, who was the leading actress of the company I was working with. So Vivien also appears in our little movie.
You said it was shot in 15 days for I think about a million dollars. This is what "X-Men" would spend in a day?
If you were lucky. [laughs]
Is there an appeal for you as an actor to do something that small and that contained? Not that you have favorite children, but does one satisfy a different desire than another?
I've been lucky to have made numerous small, low-budget independent movies and, I suppose, even more fortunate to have been associated with two major film franchises in the past 20 years: "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and then as an initially reluctant participant in the "X-Men" series.
I was reluctant because the "Star Trek" movies were over and I was already beginning to experience a negative aspect of them. Close identification, partly through the television series, with one character can discourage directors or producers from wanting to employ you in other means, because the identification's so strong.
Because people saw you as Captain Picard.
Jean-Luc Picard was who I was. I did finally get into a room to meet with a director that I had been clamoring to meet, and he was doing a movie I wanted to be in as a supporting role, and we had a good meeting. At the end he said, "Look, you're a terrific actor, and I would love to have you in my movie, but why would I want Jean-Luc Picard in my picture?"
You're damned by your own success.
In a sense, yes, and that really hurt. And soon after that I left Hollywood. And then the Royal Shakespeare Company came to my rescue and offered me two roles, Prospero in "The Tempest" and Antony in "Antony and Cleopatra," and that season turned the whole tide around. Almost overnight I suddenly found myself a leading actor in the company.
And no longer Jean-Luc Picard.
That will never leave me. Wherever I go in the world, people shout out, "Hey, Captain, how you doing?"
I want to come back to talk about "Match" for a second. The character you play is called Tobi, but who is [his real life counterpart] Alfie?
Alfie is a teacher at Juilliard. I spent a lot of time with him: lunches, dinners, and he invited me to his apartment where he showed me his knitting, because my character in the film is a passionate knitter, a slip-stitcher. I learned the technical terms for this.
And did you learn how to knit as well?
My mother taught me to knit when I was a kid. I'm comfortable with handling needles, but I have not knitted for a long while — there wasn't much room for knitting in "Star Trek: Next Generation" — but the most important thing was that Alfie invited me to Juilliard to observe him teaching. I saw three or four of his 90-minute classes. Talk about intensity and hard work! That was the most vivid illustration I could have of how emotionally attached he was to the work that he did.
What did that teach you about the relationship between a teacher and a student in the artistic section? What did you see in Alfie's teaching that influenced your performance in the film?
You know, there's a cruel thing that's often said about teachers: Those who can, do, and those who can't, teach. So mistaken and misguided, because what Alfie and Tobi are doing as teachers is as creative as performing itself. And furthermore, their creativity is feeding young people and passing creativity on — not just to an audience but to those who are going to be developing their own creativity as the years go by.
Without giving anything away, one of the things the movie references is the culture among creative types in the 1960s and '70s, an era in which people were close in a way that became physical, emotional and sexual in their dance troupes, theater companies or film groups in production on location. Having been a theater actor and having been on location in film, is that a fair representation of what that world was like in that era?
Yes, it was. I was an actor in the Royal Shakespeare Company in the '60s, and also in regional theater in permanent companies, too. There was, as Tobi says in the movie, a sense of liberation, of walls breaking down, of a new kind of freedom.
This was being experienced throughout Europe and North America as well, but in the creative communities, given that you're thrust into intellectual, emotional and physical intimacy by the nature of the work, it kind of follows that a step or two further would be taken and they would become very, very intimate [laughs]. I will not name names, but I can only say that it was a fun time to be an actor.
Well, it was the period of time after the pill and before AIDS.
Yes it was, and all of that of course was horribly and dramatically to change by the time we got into the early '80s.
What is "Blunt Talk," your new television show? You have a producing credit on it, and while we haven't seen it, can you tell us a little bit about what it's about?
It is about a British media star who has a TV show on a cable network. It's a talk show, it's investigative journalism, and it's meant to be provocative — and it is not, by the way, Piers Morgan.
That was going to be my next question. It sounds a lot like Piers Morgan.
[laughs] A couple of weeks ago, in a very fancy hotel here in L.A., a voice suddenly yelled at me across the rather sedate breakfast room: "You're playing me!" And it was Piers, of course, and I was able to go over and reassure him, "Indeed, not at all." However, he did agree to meet with me. We had breakfast together the following morning, and I was able to pick his brains about what it was like to be Piers Morgan.
You know, Piers upset a lot of people here with his investigation of gun control in the United States and the death penalty and so forth. And my character will be looking at those as well, but the series is created by Seth MacFarlane. Nearly two years ago, Seth brought me this idea by Jonathan Ames, a brilliant novelist and screenwriter who's a runner on the show, and episode-by-episode we will be looking at the media life of Walter Blunt, hence the title of his show and our series. By the way, I can tell you where that name came from.
I'd love to know!
One day, Jonathan called me and said, "Look, we've got to get a name for this guy. We can't just go on calling him him." So he said, "I love to create characters' names by combining the names of famous people, putting them together so they sound different. Is there a name in your life, something that's attached to you?"
I said, "Not at all, except one, which has been my pseudonym, my historical pseudonym, for decades. And it is the name of the first character I ever played with the Royal Shakespeare Company, back in 1966. His name is Walter Blunt." And there was a silence on the phone, and then I heard Jonathan say, "That's it. That's it! Walter Blunt, and our show will be called 'Blunt Talk.'" So I've now had to find another pseudonym for myself. [laughs]