Patrick Stewart, age 70, has managed to pursue a career blending classic theater with pop culture TV to much acclaim. This year, he was nominated for an Emmy Award for his performance as Claudius and the Ghost in Hamlet on PBS’ Great Performances, competing in the made-for-TV movie/miniseries supporting actor category against the likes of Michael Gambon (Emma), Jonathan Pryce (Return to Cranford), David Straithairn (Temple Grandin) and John Goodman (You Don’t Know Jack). But to a generation of TV viewers, he will always be Captain Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Sir Patrick spoke with Ray Richmond for Deadline Hollywood about the honor of being knighted, his obsession with Shakespeare, and why he originally thought casting him on Star Trek was crazy talk.
Deadline Hollywood: You were knighted in June. How did this all go down?
Sir Patrick Stewart: I received a letter, and when I opened it there was shock and utter disbelief. It wasn’t what I was expecting at all. People have been saying this could happen to me for several years, but they’re not the kind of things I listened to. From the time I was much younger, I’d followed those actors who were similarly honored, like Sir Michael Redgrave, Sir Ian McKellan. I never anticipated someday being able to join those ranks. It’s a terrific honor and I take it as one bestowed on my profession and my associations. I am very proud and very humbled by it.
DH: I suppose that by comparison, an Emmy nomination is pretty modest stuff. You’ve received three of those before.
SPS: It is not something I take lightly at all. It’s an extraordinary distinction, particularly for playing a supporting player in a Shakespearean play. That doesn’t happen to many actors on television. I feel it’s an immense honor to the Royal Shakespeare Company and to those of us who form Shakespearean projects in Britain. The realization of a nomination is just thrilling.
DH: You never were nominated for your captain’s role on Star Trek: The Next Generation. On the other hand, I’m the critic who said at the time the show premiered in 1987, “What are these people thinking, casting some bald-headed British guy?”
SPS: You wrote that?
DH: Well, um…
SPS: It echoed my own feelings at the time as well. Why would they cast a middle-aged bald English Shakespearean actor in this iconic role as captain of the Enterprise? It made no sense. But I guess Gene Roddenberry had some sort of instinct for it, and his producer Rick Berman was a champion of mine. Even so, it all felt borderline lunatic back then. It took me a good while to grow comfortable in that role. I know that my experience with classic Shakespeare was a great help to me in finding this heightened language that was larger than life and utterly epic.
DH: You seem to be continually drawn back to Shakespeare.
SPS: It really transcends drama and takes my craft of acting to another level. I feel very blessed to have spent a big chunk of my life as an actor performing his plays. Over the past five years, I’ve been lucky enough to do five of his plays, along with Beckett and Ibsen and David Mamet. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity and very lucky that I am an Englishman and Shakespeare is our national playwright. To me, he’s more like a friend than an intimidating, remote individual.
DH: Do you prefer the stage to every other medium?
SPS: When I was a teenager, all I ever wanted to be was a stage actor. I thought it would be nice to do some television, maybe build a little bit of security. Film was always a fantasy. I went to the movies and was crazy about them growing up, but I never saw myself as being part of that world. Everything that’s come my way in terms of film and adventures like Star Trek were unlooked for but welcome. Now I love to move between stage and film, animation, voiceovers, even radio at times. But I made the decision 5 or 6 years ago that I had a little bit of catching up to do in terms of serious British theater and thought if I was going to do that, I needed to make a real commitment to it.
DH: What’s next?
SPS: After I’m done starring in David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre on Broadway this fall, I’ll be taking a break from theater over the first 9 or 10 months or so of next year, so I can hopefully reinvestigate film prospects. That’s what I hope to do over the bulk of 2011. I love the world of filmmaking, and I think it’s very good for this actor to have the challenge of moving from one medium to another.