Patrick Stewart Talks TNG CastingBy Christian
March 27, 2001 - 11:17 PM
Before returning to film with 'King of Texas' and 'Star Trek X', Patrick Stewart (Jean-Luc Picard) is currently playing in a stage production of 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' in Minneapolis. Speaking to National Public Radio, Stewart revealed this was also the play he was working on before he got cast as Captain Jean-Luc Picard.
"It's connected, happily connected to 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'," he said in a radio show about his long acting career. "I did this play in 1987, at the Old Vic theatre in London, and it was successful, and there was an immediate move to transfer this production to the West End of London. But the actress playing Margaret didn't want to make the transfer, so we were held up by a recasting process."
"During this time I was summoned back to Hollywood for the fourth time for a meeting about a new science-fiction series, called 'Star Trek: The Next Generation'. I'd been over there three times earlier, and I've got to tell you, I had not taken any of these meetings remotely serious. For one thing, it seemed incongruous that they would be interested in an English actor with my background for such a series, and I'd never programmed a Hollywood television series into my future at all. So I just didn't believe in it. What it did provide was my children with a lot of opportunity for jokes about pointed ears and such around the dinner table. And that was fine. I was happy to let it rest there. But then I went back just a few days after production at the John Rick closed, quite early one early Monday morning I auditioned for the Paramount executives, and by lunchtime I was told that I'd been cast, if I wanted the role and I had the whole week to decide, until the end of the working day on Friday and I spent every minute of that, because it was an agonising decision."
Stewart explained, "for one thing, I was supposed to be transferring 'Virginia Woolf' to the West End, for another thing, my home was in London. I had other theatre plans as well, and really, a television series just wasn't on my schedule. But, as you mentioned at the beginning of the program, everyone I talked to, and I talked to some experienced Hollywood people, and my agent and friends, they all assured me that there was no possibility that the revival of any Star Trek series could be successful. Therefore, I should come for a year or so, make some money, get a suntan, and go home to carry on with my life. Well, it didn't work out that way and after a couple of years all of us on the series realised that we were likely to run the full six years of our contract, in fact, we would go on to run for seven years. And it changed everything in my life."
The most important change for Stewart was that he was more widely recognised. "Film and television, even though I've done it, it was a good way of replacing the leaking windows in my house, it was a good way of paying my childrens' schooling. Television and film were perks, but the theatre was what I'd always believed would be my life. And I was really hardly known outside that very small world of London theatre, in particular classic theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon and the old Witch in London. I was a Shakespearian actor, that was what I was known for. And that's probably the one most significant change, in that, Star Trek, I think is now seen everywhere, and so my reputation is somewhat wider than it was fourteen years ago."
Even though Star Trek gave him fame, he also managed to avoid being typecast. "I'd been an actor for 27 years when I got on Star Trek," Stewart explained. "So I had all that behind me, it isn't as though I was a young actor, soon out of school and getting a television series with nothing to return to. Also, you've got to remember, that is what I liked doing. This is my life, what I'm doing here in Minneapolis."
In addition, Stewart made a concerted effort to distance himself from Picard, and make people recognise him as the actor Patrick Stewart. "I got scared at the start of the second season, when it was clear that Star Trek wasn't going to go away. It is possible that I could have [focused only on 'The Next Generation'], and it would have been fine under some circumstances. But I'd heard of actors, there are stories of people who lose their nerve, literally lose their stage nerve by being in front of a camera too much. The pressure of learning lines, of being in front of an audience is so intense that they prefer the much more safe and cushioned world of cinema and television. I didn't want that to happen. So, yes, that's true, I started devising a series of solo performances, and the one condition of all of these was that I could fit them, all of them, into the trunk of my car and do them at weekends. And that's how something like Christmas Carol, which is the one that's probably the most successful of all of these, was devised."
Especially this one-man 'A Christmas Carol' show became very popular. "It was a very potent work-out for me everytime that I did it, which kept my stage muscles in condition. And you know, there is this reciprocal arrangement here, because when I would come back after the weekend from doing one of my one-man shows, back on the bridge of the Enterprise, I would be bringing that energy, that intellectual commitment to it, into the Star Trek work, and I think it made a difference, equally, the sort of confidence that I was getting from the success of 'The Next Generation'. That kind of exposure, the knowledge that people would come and see me, even if they would just come to see Captain Picard, they would come and see me and do something on Shakespeare or Dickens or whatever. So it was a shared experience between television and theater."
On the radio show, Stewart was asked what he thought of the show's writing. "I'm glad you mentioned the writing, because it was outstanding," he reacted. "I can tell you that there's no piece of work that I've ever done, with Arthur Miller or with Edward Alby, that we treated the text, the script, the words that we had to say more seriously than on 'Next Generation'. All of us had a passion to try and make the script articulate, intelligent, comprehensive, interesting, gramatically corect. Jonathan Frakes, who played my first officer Commander Riker, his father is an English teacher, so we always had to be sure that we were gramatically correct in order to get Jonathan's father happy."
Looking back, Stewart believed he had also taken some things away from the show. "A lifestyle I've got to confess which was more comfortable than what I had enjoyed before," he began. "I appreciate that enourmously. A lot of security, but in addition something finally began to rub off about Captain Picard. The character Gene Roddenberry had created was a man who is very successful at working with others, and particularly at listening to others. You probably remember from the series how many times Picard would say, 'tell me what you think. I want to hear your opinions. Give me your advice. Give me your counsel. Give me your direction.' I had never been a good listener. I wasn't especially interested in what other people had to say. I always wanted to be the one with the opinions, and I had a mouth that would run on and on and on."
"I do believe that I have learned not only to listen to others better as a result of playing Captain Jean-Luc Picard, but taking it one step further and doing what he did so succesfully, particularly in his encounters with alien lifeforms and this is going to sound somewhat comical, I realise as I try to finish this thought of putting myself in other people's shoes," he said, laughing, "as many of our alien lifeforms weren't wearing shoes as far as I can recall. Oil slicks don't have shoes on them. But you know what I mean, you get the point."
Finally, Stewart talked about his early habit to answer all fanmail himself, a habit he quickly lost. "I was just naive. It didn't last for too long. Maybe the first six months of the first season. I wasn't accustomed to getting fanmail. I just wasn't. If I got half a dozen letters a year, it was gratifying. And it started as a trickle, and I thought, 'oh, this is really very nice', so I would write postcards, you know, I would just handwrite these things. And then the trickle grew and finally I was spending my weekends trying to deal with the fanmail, until someone said, 'Patrick, you don't have to do this, there are people who you can appoint.' Now I'm not saying that nobody ever wrote letters for me, but nobody has ever signed anything for me ever, unless they have done it illegally, which I'm told is happening a lot on the internet. But now I have an assistant - assistants who deal with this matter."