Patrick Stewart is sitting on the veranda of a 19th Century Louisiana plantation house. It’s his home from home as he shoots an as-yet untitled Wolverine sequel (“as the world now knows,” he says). He’s returning once more to play Charles Xavier, the X-Men role that confirmed a spot on the A-list he has singularly failed to vacate in the 16 years since. He was always a household name, of course, thanks to Star Trek: The Next Generation, which ran seven years from 1987. And even that show qualified as a late-career frivolity, really, when you consider the serious CV he brought to Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi western thanks to his time with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre in the UK.
All of this to say: Patrick Stewart comes to any new role with rather excellent baggage. It is the kind of baggage any actor would be proud of: filled with critical and commercial success and the sort of admiration that defies indifference, let alone negativity. There can’t be many admirers of the arts who don’t have a favored Patrick Stewart role.
So where do you go when you’re an international treasure? In Stewart’s case, brilliantly, to Blunt Talk, a show that was concocted for him by Seth MacFarlane (with whom he’d worked on Family Guy and American Dad!) and created and written by Jonathan Ames (Bored to Death). It is everything you’d imagine Patrick Stewart would refuse: full of drug-taking, weirdness and a no-holds barred bacchanalia best avoided in polite company.
Instead, says Stewart, “I am enjoying my work as much as I’ve ever enjoyed it in my life.” He met with MacFarlane for lunch after the latter’s Oscar hosting stint. “I said to him, ‘You’re out of your mind. You’ll either be in handcuffs, or you’ll be paralytic in bed.’ But he showed up and said, ‘Listen, I’d like to see you in a half-hour comedy.’”
Stewart had done funny, thanks to MacFarlane and the likes of Ricky Gervais, who cast him as a horny version of himself in Extras. “But I had never done anything like this,” he recalls. Indeed, Blunt Talk’s first set piece involves Stewart’s Walter Blunt—a Brit-import news personality—rescuing a girl who turns out to be a prostitute in his car late at night. He responds sweetly to her offer of a ‘date’, and doesn’t balk when she reveals she’s a transsexual. It’s not the way this type of scene has historically played out. “Walter can be obnoxious, but it’s only because he’s so passionate about the things he cares for,” notes Stewart. “The things that go wrong for him, and the comedy crises that happen, are all linked to Walter’s passionate desire to be a serious investigative journalist and make the world a better place.”
As he discusses Blunt Talk—and especially its upcoming second season, for which he’s being sent assembly edits as he shoots Wolverine—it’s hard not to recall the Stewart of Extras, in which he patiently explains his idea for a film about a man with a superpower for making women’s clothes fall off. “I don’t think I’m giving anything away by telling you this,” he says, kindly, “but continuing through all 10 episodes is a story about the vexed and corrupt water situation in Los Angeles. Walter is pursuing this to make Los Angeles a better place, but of course along the way he gets into all kinds of scrapes, and gets into drag, as well. We English love getting into women’s clothes, don’t we? And that was my first, can you believe it? In a 56-year career, that was the first time I ever put on a skirt and high heels.”
He’s on a roll, now, animated with delight at the retelling of this story. “I found it terrific fun. It’s quite changing in the way it makes one feel, though the biggest problem was the four-inch heels. I took them home for a weekend and my poor wife, Sunny, had to tolerate me tottering around the house so I could get used to walking normally in them.”
It’s one of many new experiences this veteran of stage and screen has found on the Blunt Talk set. From the surreal, to the mundane, like (“and this may sound odd to you”) a police interrogation scene—the kind that’s been the hallmark of drama, especially on television, for as long as Stewart has been performing, just never with him. “And my first post-coital scene, which I was lucky to share with the beautiful and brilliant Elisabeth Shue.”
Part of the fun has been the company he keeps, especially since Stewart’s heavy investment in the conception of the show meant he was able to bring aboard friends like Adrian Scarborough, who plays Walter’s former Falklands War compatriot and manservant Harry. “He’s England’s best kept secret,” Stewart says proudly. “He’s known in England, and all the professional directors there know him well and know the quality of his work, but what is exciting is that he’s entirely unknown in America. People are seeing his brilliant work for the first time.”
There’s a clear parallel with Stewart, who might have been known a little for his work in I, Claudius and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy before the Star Trek juggernaut hit, but who had not until then become a recognizable face for most American audiences. “I remember our executive producer on Star Trek, Robert Justman—who had been responsible for me getting the job—saying to me, the week that our pilot aired, ‘You do realize that more people watched you on television this week than have seen you in your entire career?’ It was a sobering, but exciting thought.”
Blunt Talk is Stewart’s first major TV lead since Trek, whose fans will be delighted by the appearance of Brent Spiner at Walter’s regular piano bar. “He had the most challenging role through the whole series on Star Trek,” says Stewart, “and he never got a nomination for any acting award.” So much of Blunt Talk, in fact, is drawn from Stewart, that the juxtaposition with Walter’s insanity is all the more amusing. Daniel Stewart, Patrick’s son, plays Walter’s son; Walter has a penchant for reeling off Shakespearean monologues; and the personal memorabilia that decorates his office—including a torch-bearer’s jersey from the 2012 London Olympics—is largely on loan from Stewart’s own collection.
“We actually had to take down the Olympic uniform,” Stewart whispers, conspiratorially. “As it turns out, you can’t link Olympic images with anything else that might be considered… bad taste.”