There’s a hushed, reverential atmosphere in the LA photographic studio where Patrick Stewart is spending the morning for our shoot. After all, this is Hollywood, and knights – Stewart received the honour a decade ago – are akin to royalty. But when the actor saunters in, the essence of cool, wearing a grey hoodie over a denim shirt, jeans and a flat tweed cap, he’s disarming; no demands, just a polite request for coffee.
“Americans sometimes call me Sir Stewart, but I insist that everyone calls me Patrick, Pat, Stewie or P-Stew,” says the acting legend, who is returning to his indelible role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, in Star Trek: Picard, 25 years after the hugely popular Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series ended. (Reviews have been positive, with Stewart being highly praised.) He is equally well known as Professor Charles Xavier from the X-Men franchise.
“I am in my 80th year,” Stewart muses, with mock incredulity. And it’s hard to fathom. Lean, handsome and of course bald, with those familiar, narrow eyes, sharp features and deep, resonant voice, there are lines, naturally, yet the actor looks decades younger, which he puts down to his working-class Yorkshire “peasant genes.” Eton, he was not.
“I grew up in a one-up, one-down council house in Mirfield; we were poor, we had very little, my parents never owned a car,” says Stewart reminiscing about his childhood home, where he grew up with his father Alfred, a regimental sergeant major in the Second World War, his mother Gladys, who worked in a textile mill, and his brothers, Geoffrey and Trevor.
“On certain days the rent collector would be at the door saying: ‘Mrs Stewart, I know you’re in there, open up,’ and we would hide behind the sofa. My mum would go ‘shhh’ and I would be laughing – I thought it was absolutely terrific.”
Who should walk in but Sir Paul McCartney? I’ve known him a little for many years
“He is a gent,” comments one of the crew about the actor, who has now changed into a black polo neck under a well-cut blazer. And that sums the man up. Like other illustrious knights of the realm I’ve met, such as his close friend, Sir Ian (McKellen), Sir Tony (Hopkins) and Sir Michael (Caine), Stewart wears his title lightly.
One concern he had “was that it might separate me from my colleagues; I didn’t want that. But I have to admit, I’m extremely proud it happened to me,” he says, before launching into a colourful story about a serendipitous encounter at “a fancy restaurant” in LA where he and his wife, American musician Sunny Ozell, were having dinner.
“Who should walk in but Sir Paul McCartney? I’ve known him a little for many years,” says Stewart. “He’s very affectionate and came over to give me a hug. Of course, Paul McCartney hugging an actor is going to attract attention!” (Stewart himself, incidentally, is known for being unashamedly tactile, memorably giving Ian McKellen a hearty embrace at the recent London premiere of his new show.)
Later, “who should arrive but Ringo,” continues Stewart gleefully, “who I’d never met!” McCartney made the introduction, “and there we were: Sir Ringo, Sir Paul and Sir Patrick. We take each other’s hands and go ‘YAY!’ in the middle of this fancy restaurant. That’s been the jolliest moment I’ve had in my knighthood. Of course, they’re working class boys like me and it was quite a meeting.”
New life and new civilizations
Stewart’s childhood was challenging. His father, a “superstar in the army, one of the last men to be evacuated from Dunkirk,” was volatile and abusive. “He was an angry, weekend alcoholic; he was violent to my mother.” Much later, the actor learned that “after my father came back from Dunkirk, he was diagnosed with severe PTSD, but it was called shell shock in those days and the only ‘treatment’ was people saying, ‘pull yourself together and act like a man.’”
Has Stewart forgiven him? “I have. I couldn’t help my mother when she was being abused, so later I became a patron of Refuge, the domestic violence charity.” He folds his arms. “Oh, how often I wish they were here to be part of what my life has become. They would be so proud and happy and I could give them things they never could afford.”
The actor has plenty of good childhood memories. Attending the local secondary modern, an inspiring English teacher, Cecil Dormand introduced him to Shakespeare – and acting. “When I was leaving school, at just 15, he said ‘have you ever thought of taking up acting?’ I laughed because I didn’t know anybody who had ever done that and said ‘no’. Well, two years later [after a brief stint in journalism] I was at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School getting a fabulous acting education.”
In 1966, “I got an audition with the Royal Shakespeare Company and they accepted me. Getting into the RSC had been all I’d ever wanted to do. I wanted to do Shakespeare with the best company in the world.”
Stewart’s humble roots may offer a key to his upbeat attitude; he counts his blessings. “I am happier than I’ve ever been,” he says, crediting his contentment to his relationship with Odell, his third wife. (He has a daughter Sophia, and a son Daniel, an actor, from his first marriage to Sheila Falconer). “Sunny’s half my age, and she has transformed my life. For one thing,” he says, “she’s brought music into my life in a much greater way. She has an album coming out next year.”
The couple met 11 years ago and married in 2013 with Ian McKellen officiating. “He got his credentials online from an obscure church I’ve never heard of. After which,” smiles Stewart, “he was flooded with requests from people saying, ‘I would like you to marry us.’ He’s turned them all down.”
With a positive attitude about his own life, when it comes to politics – on both sides of the Atlantic, Stewart doesn’t hide his dismay. “We’re living in the world of skulduggery in England and I’m ashamed. I am devastated that we’re leaving the European Union,” he says. “Whenever I went to France or Spain or Italy, I used to feel part of that world. Now I believe that we’re heading into deep and troubled waters with Brexit. It could be 20 years before the British economy recovers, it’s potentially calamitous.”
It’s very likely that Trump will win; those people who voted for him in 2016 still think that he will do them some good
A life-long Labour supporter, he reflects ruefully on the “disastrous” leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Who would Stewart like to see leading the party now? “David Miliband,” he says, “who isn’t even an MP anymore. He’s running the International Rescue Committee in New York [which provides global humanitarian aid] and doing a brilliant job.
A woman in the leadership would be terrific,” he adds, but doesn’t get specific.
As for the current prime minister: “I rather enjoyed Boris as London Mayor because he was comical, and passionate about some things that I also cared about, but all of that is gone.” He shakes his head.
Stewart remains a British citizen, but having spent so much time in the States over the decades – and married to an American – he has a strong interest in US politics. “I looked into citizenship because I was so dismayed about Donald Trump that I wanted to have a vote here,” but he decided against it. “I am a ‘resident alien,’ which is always a source of humour for people.”
He is rooting for Elizabeth Warren to win the Democratic nomination – and become the next President. “She is smart and compassionate and caring.” But he isn’t hopeful: “I think it’s very likely that Trump will win; those people who voted for him in 2016 still think that he will do them some good, but they’re the ones who are going to suffer most.”
Would Stewart ever enter politics himself? “I have been approached in Britain, and here in the United States as well, about getting citizenship and running for office. But I love my job way, way too much, and I’m not sure if I would be good in the life of a politician.”
To boldly go...
Our shoot complete, the actor suggests continuing our conversation at his house a couple of miles away, rather than in the stark studio. And soon we are sitting around the kitchen table in Stewart and Ozell’s new home, a vase of pink peonies in front of us. Over lunch from a local restaurant – Stewart’s ordered a chicken sandwich – he tells me the couple relocated to LA from Brooklyn, because it made sense for Star Trek: Picard. He’s lived in California, on and off, since 1968.
“I first came here with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Trevor Nunn. We were doing The Taming of the Shrew and I was Grumio. We had the most wonderful time; it was heaven on a stick! I loved it.”
His enthusiasm is infectious, notably for the role that turned him from a consummate stage actor into a global presence, practically overnight, with the launch of Star Trek: The Next Generation. “Before 1987, if you didn’t go to the Royal Shakespeare Company or watch BBC 2, you would have no idea who I was, because I hadn’t done anything in movies that was noticeable,” he says. Within a few months of Star Trek airing I became aware that I had become a recognisable public figure.”
As much as he “loved” the show, which ran for seven seasons, and was followed by four films, reprising his role as Picard was something Stewart was adamant he would never do.
“I was unprepared for the albatross around my neck that it would prove to be,” says Stewart recalling how after the series ended, he campaigned for a role in a film with “a very well-known director,” only to be told, “‘Look, you are a good actor but why would I want Jean-Luc Picard in my movie?’ That was shattering, and I realised there was a downside to being in a very successful series – becoming so identified with a character.”
Patrick Stewart and Jean-Luc Picard connected so strongly that eventually there was a complete merging
What lured him to sign on for the Star Trek reboot was a meeting with the high calibre team planning the spin-off series, where he discovered that the storyline was compelling and fresh: “It intrigued me.”
Eighteen years on, we find the eminent commander firmly earthbound. Instead of travelling through the galaxy, he’s languishing at the family vineyard in Burgundy.
“Picard has changed. Starfleet is not Starfleet anymore, it’s become suspect,” says Stewart. “The Federation is not what it was, Jean-Luc has been abandoned, cast aside. He’s discontented, guilty, desperate to remove his sense of responsibility over the death of Data [his ex-comrade played by Brent Spiner]. Picard believes he should have died and not Data.”
Immersing himself in Picard again was second nature, he says, because during those early Star Trek years, “Patrick Stewart and Jean-Luc Picard connected so strongly that eventually there was a complete merging. I knew who he was, and I still do. The years that have passed for Jean-Luc have passed for me as well and I can feed on all of that personal information about what it is like to get old.”
Ageing is a recurring theme. Stewart suffers from arthritis in his hand and uses medical marijuana, (“I’m a great advocate,”) which he says has helped ease the pain and stiffness. He clenches his fist, “I never used to be able to do this.”
Maarten de Boer for Square Mile
Marijuana use is hardly typical of a soon-to-be octogenarian – but then neither is regular meditation. “I do TM [Transcendental Meditation] which gives me terrific energy and calms me if I’m stressed.
“If I’m on set and they say ‘it’s going to be 15 minutes before we’re ready,’ I will just go down and meditate in a seat. I love meditating in very busy places – the best meditation I ever did was sitting on a parapet at St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice on an August day when there were crowds of tourists going by. It was one of the most satisfying meditations ever because there was so much noise and bustle, I was surrounded by it all around me. It was a delightful experience!”
However, this young soul in an old body doesn’t welcome the modern digital addiction.
“I find it dismaying the obsession with phones. The other day in London, I saw someone got off the Tube, and they had their phone in their hand as the door opened. This person stepped onto the platform, and then stood there looking at their phone right in front of the door so nobody else could get off!”
A story that will be all too familiar to every Londoner.
Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart holding hands in a cinema in Berlin watching their own movie!
Stewart’s life has been laced with synchronicities – everything seemingly interconnected in some way. For example, the decision to revisit Star Trek mirrors his return to Xavier in the 2017 film, Logan, something he had never planned on doing, having appeared in seven X-Men instalments.
“But it was brilliantly written and irresistible. Charles Xavier was unrecognisable from the cool, compassionate, sensitive intellectual everyone knew. Instead there was this ranting dangerous buffoon, staggering about singing jingles in his wheelchair.”
Hugh Jackman’s Logan meanwhile, “was driving a shitty old limo to earn money to keep Xavier in medication,” Stewart grins at the unlikely prospect. The film is close to the actor’s heart. He tells me about a screening he attended with his co-star.
“I found myself getting very emotional as I watched Xavier die and I thought, ‘Come on, Patrick, it’s a movie, pull yourself together.’ Then I looked over and saw Hugh wipe his eye and I thought, ‘if Hugh Jackman can weep at a movie, I can.’ Then Hugh reached over and took my hand, and that finished me off…
“Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart holding hands in a cinema in Berlin watching their own movie! Hugh is a prince among men,” continues Stewart. “I can’t go into any details, but I am pushing a project that I hope will bring us together again.”
Maarten de Boer for Square Mile
Maarten de Boer for Square Mile
The final frontier
Our interview has run its allotted time, yet there is more to talk about and the actor promises we can reconvene later in the week. A man of his word, I’m invited a few days later and ushered into the living room. Ozell is at home and serves us tea (Yorkshire Gold, naturally: you can take the boy out of Mirfield) and shortbread.
I’ve noticed on Stewart’s Twitter feed that the couple are serious dog-lovers, but there’s no sign of one today. Because they travel so much they often foster from a shelter. He gestures to a framed photo of a pitbull, “That’s Ginger who is now an international superstar because she’s done so much social media.” Saying goodbye to the dog “was heartbreaking, we fell hopelessly in love with her.”
Why pitbulls – they have a bad reputation? “I know, when we used to take Ginger out for a walk, people would cross to the other side of the road. But she was just the sweetest and most adorable, good-natured dog. It’s how they’re brought up and trained that is the problem. In England, they’re a banned breed, so we couldn’t take Ginger back with us.”
With a flat in London and a house in Oxfordshire there are regular visits to the UK, where Stewart’s children and four grandchildren live. Those visits should get more regular in the coming years. “I hope as I get older and my work begins to diminish, which it must do at some point, I shall spend more time with them.”
Right now, it’s a bit of a dark time, but it will change and it will improve
For now, with a second season of Star Trek: Picard announced, there are no thoughts of slowing down. “I’m working more now than I ever have done in my career,” says Stewart, who’s constantly booked for stage and TV work and appeared in last year’s films, The Kid Who Would Be King, a modern twist on the legend of King Arthur, in which he played Merlin, and Charlie’s Angels. “It means my mind and my body are stimulated constantly.” Remarkably fit, long walks have replaced his former “obsession” with squash.
I ask the actor where he’s happiest. He points to the shelf behind me, which is lined with jigsaw puzzles. “It’s become a passion. Sunny asked me about my childhood and I said, ‘I wasn’t popular with my friends because I would stay in all day doing puzzles.’ I only had two so I would break them and make them again because we couldn’t afford any more. So, she came home one day with two 1,000-piece puzzles,” says Stewart who keeps and frames them these days. “Right now, I am working on Da Vinci’s The Last Supper.”
Religious art aside, Stewart isn’t a “believer – I’m not a person of faith,” he says, nor does he believe in an afterlife. “This is what we get. That’s it.” He does, however, describe himself as spiritual. “‘Spirit’ is what connects me so strongly to other people. I believe in humankind, that we have a capacity to lead compassionate, loving, brilliant lives.
“Right now, it’s a bit of a dark time, but it will change and it will improve,” he says cheerily, and gazes out of the window at the lavender LA sunset. “It’s beautiful,” he says, “It’s fabulous. I love it.”
Episodes of Star Trek: Picard will be available to stream on Amazon Prime within 24 hours of their US release.