When it comes to career longevity and success, English actor Sir Patrick Stewart is second to none. It’s been an eclectic path. While fulfilling his responsibilities to numerous tentpole franchises over the years—most recently, to the X-Men series—Stewart has taken on diverse roles in animated series such as American Dad!, outlandish comedies (A Million Ways to Die in the West), and lauded indies like Green Room, in which he has lived up to the villainous typecasting that was established for him decades prior. In his latest passion project, Starz series Blunt Talk, about a British newscaster working and getting into shenanigans stateside, Stewart once again demonstrates his incredible range, showing a command of deadpan, rapid-firing comedy in a role unlike any he’s done before. Here, Stewart discusses his additional role as a producer in the series, working with a talented cast of comedians, his thoughts on the current proliferation of meaty roles for older actors, and more.
What attracted you to Blunt Talk as a project?
The first thing that attracted me was Seth MacFarlane. I’ve been working with Seth for nearly 12 years now on American Dad!. When he asked if I would be interested in doing a half-hour comedy show, I said, “Well, if you’re involved in it, yes I would be.” He said he would not be involved from a writing perspective or day-to-day, but certainly he would be a producer on the show. Then we got a deal and that was the end of the conversation.
You also signed on as a producer on the series, a creative role that you hadn’t taken on since working on a TV movie in 2003. What did that entail, and was that satisfying in a different kind of way?
It was exactly two years from the time when I met with Seth McFarlane, and very soon after I had signed on, he asked me to meet with Jonathan Ames, who I knew already as a novelist. I’d read one of his books and liked it very much. Jonathan, as it happened, lived in Brooklyn, not too far from me, so every couple of weeks or so, we would meet in a coffee shop down Sixth Avenue and sit for two or three hours and swap stories—life stories, you know, one of which has already made it into the series, and another which is going to make it into the second season. And so the process began of collaborating in the development of what became Blunt Talk. So there was Seth, then there was Seth and me, and then there was Seth, and me, and Jonathan Ames. I’ve been as closely involved in the whole process as was possible. Of course, I’m not a hands-on producer in the sense of sitting at a desk, talking on the telephone, although I know producers do a little bit more than that. It felt very right to me when it was suggested that I should also take a producer credit, which I was very happy to do because I’m very pleased with the show.
In early conversations with Seth and Jonathan, what was the initial concept of the tone of the show? The first season has an almost slapstick quality about it.
For me, it was very simple—and by the way, I’m interested in your use of the adjective “slapstick.” I know why you’re referring to it as slapstick, but it never felt like slapstick when we were doing it, not even when we were doing the whole public toilet routine with the seat covers and the soap dispensers. I became very tiresome in many of these discussions because my repeated refrain was, “Is this real? Are we being truthful?” I think it is tiresome for comic writers to be continually obsessing about that, but Jonathan was very generous and took all of that on board. I wanted to be telling a believable story about a believable character in a believable job. Beyond that, the invention was Jonathan Ames’s—I can’t claim any of that, the storylines. I helped to give the character a backstory—where he came from, his life in the military, how he got into journalism and the media, his education, growing up in England, all of those things. But when it came to the creative act of putting together a show—that was Jonathan Ames. He has done a brilliant job. The element of the show that gives me the most pleasure is that even if he has written a line that is basically an everyday expression, not a highly colored comedy line, he has a vocabulary that makes what he writes very unusual and interesting.
Though the show is grounded and reality-based in that way, the character is certainly very “out there” and unusual. Was there a feeling of creative freedom in that, and was any part of that a reaction to all the franchise work you’ve done in your career?
X-Men didn’t threaten to pull me from the next movie if I didn’t walk out of Blunt Talk. (Laughs.) It was one of the reasons I was so delighted to accept it. My casting as Jean-Luc Picard and Charles Xavier was, in a sense, typecasting—they were both decent, upright men trying to do the best for the planet and for their colleagues. But that’s only one aspect of the work I’ve done in the last 50 years. Before Star Trek, I’d never gotten anywhere near a franchise in my life. The perception of me has been largely based on those two characters and those two franchises—mind you, I don’t think you can have too many franchises, can you? I was very, very interested and curious about doing whatever I could to undermine the perception that I’ve just mentioned—the perception that I am Jean-Luc Picard, that I am Charles Xavier. I’m not, and I never was, those characters. So it’s been fun—like for instance, I’ve already mentioned the bathroom scene—to be taking my trousers and pants down in a public lavatory and fighting with the toilet that’s eating the toilet seat covers. I knew people would start saying, “This isn’t Patrick Stewart. This isn’t how Jean-Luc Picard would behave.”
For me, that was one of the most delightful aspects of doing the show—that I was given the liberty by Jonathan and Seth and Tristram Shapeero, our other executive producer and director, to be as unexpected as I could be with Walter. That has been, perhaps for me, the major charm of the show, coupled with the terrific pleasure I get working with the permanent cast that we have assembled, who are marvelous and so clever, themselves, and authentic comedians, most of them—unlike Patrick Stewart, who is still kind of finding his way in this world. So Jonathan came up with these dazzling ideas for me, and I kept rabbiting on and groaning on about being truthful and believable, because one of the things I’ve always felt about comedy is, the more serious it gets, the funnier it can be. We don’t have gags, we don’t have routines, we don’t have situations in Blunt Talk. We just have people doing the best they can in challenging circumstances, and the harder they try to get it right, the funnier it is when they get it continuously wrong.
This year is full of terrific, complex performances by older actors—among them, Helen Mirren, Lily Tomlin, Sam Elliott and yourself. Do you think we’re moving toward a culture in which there are going to be more and more nuanced and rewarding roles for older men and women to play?
I think you’re absolutely right, and I think that has been the case for several years. I think we have to look at the changing face of television to explain this. There’s now more product out there than there ever was, and there is product that is being given a looser rein by the number of independent networks, and ones that don’t necessarily have to listen to a network boss who feels that a show has to be within certain parameters, or who feels that they don’t want their audience to be shocked or disturbed. We have seen on HBO or Netflix, and now we’re going to see on Amazon, very bold and adventurous programming, and bold and adventurous writing and performing. So yes, I have to say that in terms of television, I feel that my old age has come along at just the right time. (Laughs.)
In film sense, too—now this is being seriously addressed in the film and television world—the number of roles for actress has been very small. With age came gradual retirement. Even though brilliant and talented actresses were still wanting to work, the material was not there. Well, that is changing. We now have a group of young and older women absolutely at the top of their game, and they are the dominant force in so many shows. We’ve only got to think of Amy Poehler and Amy Schumer as being two examples, and of course, I add Lily Tomlin’s name to that, as well. And of course, I have in my show with me the brilliant Jacki Weaver, who’s a wonderful actress and a marvelous comedian. So we are in a kind of renaissance, in terms of television for older actors, and it’s also happening in film, too. I’m looking at all of my (Academy) screeners right now—and, in fact, I did some voting this morning—but it is very interesting to me how many significant roles, and often leading roles, are played by actors and actresses who are over 60, over 70, and who have not been farmed out to pasture but whose talents and abilities and creativity are being tapped to make the best possible kind of television and film entertainment.
Your character, Walter Blunt, expresses the idea early on in the first season that if his work were to be taken away from him, he might drop dead. Given the great longevity of your career, is this a sentiment to which you can relate?
It would seem so, though the years that have gone by and the length of my career seems to me now, at the age of 75, quite unreal. I was 45 about two months ago, it feels like. I haven’t been charting carefully the passage of time. And by the way, as a professional actor, my acting training ended in July 1959, so I started being paid for acting in the ’50s. I was saying earlier, it’s possible to say that with Jean-Luc Picard and Charles Xavier, I was typecast. I’ve been typecast all my career, but the thing is, the types have kept changing. I first had a crack at comedy when the Royal Shakespeare Company kept casting me as lowlife comic characters. For a long time, I was the first choice low comic. And then somehow, somewhere, somebody thought, “Ooh, but he’s pretty neurotic, this Patrick Stewart.” And so I was cast as hysterical murderers and neurotics. And then in rather unsettling, alarming, threatening, menacing individuals—that became my casting for a while. And, in fact, I’m thrilled to be returning to that genre with my movie Green Room, which has been doing very well on the festival circuit, including Cannes and Toronto, where it did brilliantly. When that opens in April I will be dipping my toes again back into typecasting that I thought I’d said goodbye to 25 years ago.
Upcoming, you have the release of Green Room, Wilde Wedding and a Wolverine sequel. What are you most excited about?
Yes, the future… I have a very exciting and fortunate year to look forward to. In three days’ time, I return to Los Angeles and we start preproduction on Season 2 of Blunt Talk. Wolverine, I’m not supposed to talk about, but it’s true, there is expectation that there will be a Wolverine movie in the spring or early summer of 2017. But then I come to London and, very appropriately, on the 4th of July, I begin rehearsals of a Harold Pinter play here in London with my friend and colleague Sir Ian McKellen. And that will take me through the rest of the year. I’m very, very blessed to have, essentially, 12 months of not only exciting work, but very diverse work ahead of me.
To watch a clip from the series, click play below: