‘Star Trek: Picard’: Patrick Stewart on Why He Returned to the Final Frontier

Next to an armchair in Patrick Stewart’s living room in Brooklyn sits a small table, and on it a black three-ring binder. The 79-year-old actor leans in and clasps his hands when recounting his upbringing in the North of England. He stands and paces when a subject such as Brexit or Donald Trump aggravates him. All the while, he touches the binder over and over again — tapping it, thumbing through it, waving it around.

Inside is the script for Stewart’s one-man stage adaptation of “A Christmas Carol,” which he began performing three decades ago, around the same time he originated the role of Capt. Jean-Luc Picard in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” It’s early December, and next week Stewart, for the first time in 16 years, will once again perform “A Christmas Carol” — in which he portrays more than 30 characters. The run: just two nights at a 99-seat theater on 54th Street.

“This is just stupid, doing something like this,” Stewart says, sitting forward in a midcentury lounge chair, holding the binder up in one hand as if it were Exhibit A. “It’s so insane. I could have found other things to do that were not so enormous as this. But I chose it. Sixteen years have passed, and the world is a different place from when I last did it. F—, it’s different.”

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It sure is. And Stewart believes that makes the piece more timely than ever. He characterizes “A Christmas Carol” as a “profoundly angry attack” on a society that treats marginalized people as subhuman. “Forget about Tiny Tim and all that stuff,” he says. “It’s a political document.”

So it’s no surprise that, after a long absence, Stewart has revisited the story at the end of the second decade of this thus-far miserable millennium. His motivations — to challenge himself, to speak to injustice, to give himself the sense of calm in anxious times that acting has provided since he was a grammar-school boy in England — are the same ones that prompted him to return to the role that made him one of the most beloved actors alive: Picard.

On Jan. 23, CBS All Access will debut “Star Trek: Picard,” a series in which Stewart reprises the thoughtful, cultured, bald starship captain he played for seven seasons on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and in a string of four feature films that ended in 2002. The new show is different from its predecessor in nearly every respect — texture, tone, format, production value, even the likelihood of characters dropping an f-bomb. That’s all by design. Stewart’s design.

“He is uninterested in repeating himself,” says Alex Kurtzman, the show’s creator and executive producer, and the mastermind behind CBS’ effort to not just revive “Star Trek” but also transform it into a vast narrative universe in the Marvel mold. “Everything he does is filled with innate integrity. He fights for the things he believes in. And he’s very willing to collaborate once you’re on the same wavelength.”

Lo-fi and a little quaint by today’s standards, “The Next Generation” was the most successful of any “Star Trek” television series. (The original, starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, was poorly rated and canceled by NBC after three seasons.) The show raked in Emmy nominations, minted money for Paramount Television and grew a massive following attracted to the unlikely figure of Stewart’s Picard — a Frenchman (with a posh English accent) who sips tea, reads the classics and prizes duty and honor and friendship. “The Next Generation” presented a humanist future in which issues like poverty, race and class have long been sorted out, and conflicts are more often resolved through negotiation and problem-solving than at the point of a phaser pistol.

Stewart had no desire to go there again.

“I think what we’re trying to say is important,” he says. “The world of ‘Next Generation’ doesn’t exist anymore. It’s different. Nothing is really safe. Nothing is really secure.”

“I think what we’re trying to say is important. The world of ‘Next Generation’ doesn’t exist anymore.”
Patrick Stewart

Science fiction — a genre Stewart had little use for before he became one of its major figures — has long been a way to address the anxieties of the nonfictional present. That Stewart would want to use it thusly at a time when the compassion of the U.S. and Britain for the world’s neediest is at a nadir should be expected, given who he is.

Stewart grew up poor. His family’s house in Mirfield, a town of little more than 10,000 people in the West Riding of Yorkshire, was a “one-up-one-down” — a room downstairs and one upstairs, connected by a stone staircase. The home had no heat aside from an open fireplace, and no hot water. The toilet was separate from the house.

“The outside toilet was my study, reading room, private place,” Stewart says. He would sit there, reading by candlelight — first American authors, such as Hemingway. Later, Russians. And then Shakespeare.

His mother was a weaver who took social pleasure from her work despite the difficult conditions. His father was a laborer and weekend alcoholic who physically abused Stewart’s mother. He was also a war hero. In 2012, Stewart appeared on the U.K. television program “Who Do You Think You Are?” and learned that his father had served as the top noncommissioned officer in his parachute regiment in World War II and likely suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. (In recent years, Stewart has worked with Amnesty International on issues of domestic violence against women and with a U.K. veterans’ mental health organization, Combat Stress.) Sitting in his Brooklyn home, he recalls the taping of the show and a British military official telling him that his father “must have been an extraordinary man.” Stewart pauses, and his eyes fill with tears.

“This was news to me,” he says of his father’s military service. After the war, an officer with connections in London put the elder Stewart up for the position of second doorman at The Dorchester in London. The job came with a family residence in the hotel. But his father turned it down.

“Often I’ve reflected on how different my life would have been if, at the age of 5, I’d moved to Park Lane,” Stewart says. “But he didn’t go. And he should have gone, because he would have done the job brilliantly. From time to time I go to The Dorchester, and I will say hello and shake hands with the doorman.”

When Stewart was 12 years old, an English teacher named Cecil Dormand introduced him to Shakespeare. “He started handing out these copies of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ all around the classroom, gave one to me and said, ‘Stewart, you’re Shylock. All right, Act 4, Scene 1.’” The first time Stewart held Shakespeare in his hands, he was asked to read the “pound of flesh” scene aloud.

Dormand recruited Stewart to play the role of a schoolboy in a local performance of John Dighton’s “The Happiest Days of Your Life.”

“Nothing bad could happen to me for the two and a half hours that we were doing the play, because I became somebody else,” Stewart says. “I wasn’t Patrick Stewart anymore, from Camm Lane, Mirfield. I was Hopcroft Minor in a boys’ private school. The very first thing that brought me into this business was the feeling that I was safe. And that feeling has never gone away.”

Later, Stewart had a brief stint as a newspaper reporter. But he kept performing in local theater and soon was pursuing acting full time. He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1966, and stayed for nearly two decades.

“He plays very strong characters,” actor Ian McKellen says of Stewart. “And he looks formidable. He looks reliable. He’s the guy who you want to have in a difficult situation. ‘Captain Picard is here, don’t you worry.’ But inside that strength is a tenderness, which responds to love and affection, and which gives out the same thing to people who are closest to him.”

Stewart and McKellen became friends while working on the “X-Men” movies, and have appeared together onstage performing Beckett and Pinter. (McKellen also officiated Stewart’s wedding to singer-songwriter Sunny Ozell in 2013.) Decades ago, before the two actors were close, they ran into one another on the streets of London.

“He had had a distinguished career doing Shakespeare, and he was a leading young actor here doing the classics,” McKellen says. “He said he had been asked to go do ‘Star Trek,’ and I said, ‘Do be very careful. You’re having such a wonderful career here; to stop it to go off and do a telly that might not work is a very dangerous step.’ Thank goodness he didn’t take my advice.”

Stewart didn’t particularly want the job. But a U.S. television series represented “more money than I’d ever seen in my life.” And his agent assured him that the show would tank, freeing him to return to London.

“Everything he does is filled with innate integrity. He fights for the things he believes in.”
Alex Kurtzman, “Star Trek: Picard” creator

Stewart’s path to the captain’s chair of the USS Enterprise contained one towering obstacle, however. “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry was famously resistant to Stewart’s casting. The British actor was, to his mind, too old and too bald to succeed Shatner’s swaggering James T. Kirk.

Stewart claims that Roddenberry circulated a memo at Paramount saying, “I do not want to hear Patrick Stewart’s name mentioned ever again in connection with ‘Next Generation.’”

But Roddenberry acquiesced to Stewart’s advocates, producers Robert Justman and Rick Berman. Roddenberry died in 1991, while “The Next Generation” was still on the air. “God, I wish he had not died when he did,” Stewart says. “I have a lot of respect for Gene, and I have to say also, gratitude.” He laughs and recalls how Roddenberry would visit the set once a week. “I know more than once, I caught him sitting in his director’s chair looking at me, and I knew he was thinking, ‘How the f— did we end up with this guy?’”

Stewart’s classically trained actor brain wanted guidance from Roddenberry on who Picard was. Roddenberry responded by giving him a Horatio Hornblower novel. “I could never get him to talk about it,” Stewart says. “Gene talked about golf a lot, and the Bel-Air Country Club.”

By the end of the first season, Stewart had become invested in the show. He had bonded with his American cast mates, whose looser approach to working he initially bristled at. He had also attended his first “Star Trek” convention, where, he says, “I felt like Sting.”

“The Next Generation” turned “Star Trek” from a single story about Shatner’s Kirk and Nimoy’s Spock into a franchise. In addition to the four features, it spawned two spin-offs, “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “Star Trek: Voyager.”

It also presaged an era in which speculative fiction would make for premium television (“Game of Thrones,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Watchmen”). “The Next Generation” was the first syndicated program nominated for a best drama series Emmy. An episode written by Morgan Gendel, “The Inner Light,” in which a probe seizes Picard’s mind and causes him to experience an entire lifetime as a member of an alien society, became the first television episode in 25 years to win science fiction’s top literary honor, the Hugo Award.

Stewart describes himself as “very proud” of “The Next Generation,” and like other members of the cast regrets that Paramount ended the show when it did, in a drive to take the Enterprise crew into theaters. But he found himself typecast afterward. He recalls meeting with an unnamed major filmmaker who told him bluntly, “Why would I want Captain Picard in my movie?”

Stewart soon became the linchpin of another franchise, “X-Men,” playing Professor Charles Xavier. He continued to do major work onstage. And his feature and television roles alternated between those that leaned into his classical training and patriarchal image (Captain Ahab in an adaptation of “Moby Dick” for USA Network, a gay Manhattanite living through the height of the AIDS epidemic in Christopher Ashley’s “Jeffrey”) and against it (a white supremacist leader in Jeremy Saulnier’s “Green Room,” a pill-popping cable-news jockey in Jonathan Ames and Seth MacFarlane’s Starz comedy “Blunt Talk”). It wasn’t until his last “X-Men” exploit, starring in 2017 with Hugh Jackman in director James Mangold’s “Logan,” that he imagined a return to Picard could be desirable.

“Hugh and I were so thrilled when the last thing we did for ‘X-Men’ was ‘Logan,’” he says. “It was the best ‘X-Men’ experience we both had, because we were the same characters but their world had been blown apart.” He adds, “‘Next Generation’ didn’t end like that. In fact, our last movie, ‘Nemesis,’ was pretty weak.”

Released in 2002, “Nemesis” lost money for Paramount. But J.J. Abrams’ 2009 film reimagining Kirk and Spock, now played by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, cleared a path for CBS to revive the franchise for TV. Kurtzman and Bryan Fuller’s “Star Trek: Discovery,” a prequel to the original series, would become the cornerstone of streaming service CBS All Access.

Stewart had resisted past overtures from “Star Trek”-curious producers. When he met in his kitchen with Kurtzman and writers Michael Chabon and Akiva Goldsman in 2017, he did so as a courtesy.

“I explained to them all those elements of ‘Next Generation’ which belong in ‘Next Generation,’ and why I didn’t want to go near them again,” he says. “But they talked about it in such an interesting way. And they talked for a long time.” Stewart told the producers no, thank you, and sent them on their way. Then he had an immediate change of heart. He told his agent to ask Kurtzman to put his ideas in writing. Forty-eight hours later, Kurtzman sent over a more-than-30-page packet outlining a possible Picard series.

“Picard” finds its hero living in near-isolation on a very un-cosmic French vineyard. He is retired and estranged from Starfleet, the interstellar navy to which he devoted most of his life. He’s haunted by a pair of catastrophes, one personal, the other societal — the death of his android colleague Lt. Cmdr. Data (as seen in “Nemesis”) and a refugee crisis spawned by the destruction of the planet Romulus (as seen in Abrams’ “Star Trek”). When those two seemingly disparate strands of his life cross, Picard returns to action, this time without the backing of a Starfleet whose moral center has shifted.

Roddenberry believed that in the future, human beings would advance to the point that they would, essentially, not have conflict with one another. Their biggest challenges would be external.

Stewart, also an exec producer on “Picard,” insists, “We are remaining very faithful to Gene Roddenberry’s notion of what the future might be like.” But rigid adherence to that notion is clearly not what he’s here for.

“In a way, the world of ‘Next Generation’ had been too perfect and too protected,” he says. “It was the Enterprise. It was a safe world of respect and communication and care and, sometimes, fun.” In “Picard,” the Federation — a union of planets bonded by shared democratic values — has taken an isolationist turn. The new show, Stewart says, “was me responding to the world of Brexit and Trump and feeling, ‘Why hasn’t the Federation changed? Why hasn’t Starfleet changed?’ Maybe they’re not as reliable and trustworthy as we all thought.”

Real-world parallels are not hard to identify. It is one week before the parliamentary election that will see British prime minister and Brexit hardliner Boris Johnson’s Conservatives win a staggering victory over their Labour rivals. And Stewart is not feeling optimistic about the near future.

“I’m not sure which one of us is in the most trouble,” he says of Britain and the United States. “I think it’s actually the U.K. I think we’re f—ed, completely f—ed.” He points to studies predicting decades-long economic damage inflicted by the country’s looming withdrawal from the European Union. Of the U.S., he says, “There is a time limit to your f—ed state, which is four years away.” He expresses hope that “the United States that has given us the Trump administration” can change, but adds, “He will likely get reelected.”

These are not the opinions of someone who, on the cusp of 80, is disengaging from the world. “Next Generation” alum Jonathan Frakes, who reprises his role as Cmdr. William Riker in “Picard” and directed two episodes of the new show’s first season, believes that age has only heightened Stewart’s powers.

“Patrick has become sillier as he’s gotten older,” Frakes says. “His sense of humor is wild. His ability to be playful and more vulnerable makes him and his work more layered. He’s 79 and has a very full résumé, so his confidence in his work allows him, I think, to be confident in his personal life. And he’s at ease. It’s a great ease to be with him. Anybody who’s in this business as an actor could look to that career and say, ‘That’s a success.’”

In the week ahead, Stewart will not only perform “A Christmas Carol” for the first time in more than a decade and a half, he’ll also entertain Chabon and Goldsman at his home and hear their pitch for “Picard” Season 2. He says of Mangold: “I can’t wait to work with James again.” He expresses an enthusiasm for his recent turn in Elizabeth Banks’ “Charlie’s Angels” reboot (“Great tongue-in-cheek fun!”) that is undamaged by the photon-torpedo hit the movie took at the box office.

“I’ve been doing some really interesting work for the last few years,” Stewart says. He thinks back to 1987, when “The Next Generation” premiered. “There was not a corner of my life, public, private, that wasn’t touched by this sudden transformation. And I so enjoyed it. ‘X-Men,’ ‘Star Trek’ and then, having come back 18 months ago to do ‘Picard,’ I’ve just …”

He pauses and places a hand on the black binder. “God, this is going to be difficult to say. It’s wonderful work, but it’s not enough. The challenge is great, but I want something bigger.”

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