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The Last Word: Patrick Stewart on Picard’s Evolution, Going Bald, Helping Veterans

The legendary actor on the secret to great acting and returning to Star Trek

Mark Summers for Rolling Stone

Sir Patrick Stewart’s return to the Star Trek universe and the role of the captain that made him famous in Picard has been greeted with widespread critical acclaim and unbridled nerd enthusiasm. Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall hailed the show and rightly called Stewart “far and away the best actor to be a Star Trek regular.” When Rolling Stone caught up with Stewart, he was behaving as you might expect of a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company: practicing lines for a return to the stage and “sitting in my house in the country in Oxfordshire, with a nice big fire going because it’s overcast and cold.”

“I’m grateful to have somewhere like this to hide away,” he adds. “It is pretty British.”

During our Last Word interview with Stewart, we asked the actor to look back on his career, to share some life advice and reflect on why he was willing to take on a character he’d seemed to have left behind long ago. “The fact is, 18 years have passed since I last put on Captain Picard’s uniform,” he told Rolling Stone. “And the world we’re living in is a different place.”

What was the best advice you ever received?
In terms of the work that I do, Duncan Ross, a brilliant, brilliant acting teacher, gave me quite a stern talking to. He said, “Patrick, the most important thing you have to understand is that you will never achieve success by ensuring against failure.” I thought I understood what he meant, I thought I got it: “Yes, yes, you’ve got to take risks. You’ve got to be brave, you’ve got to gamble.” It was more than 30 years of being an actor before I really internally understood what he meant. Now, it’s become a habit of mine, before I make an entrance onstage every night, to say out loud but quietly, “I don’t give a fuck!” And I go work. And it works! It takes away anxiety and stress and worry, and all of those stupid wasteful things that don’t help you at all.

Were you hesitant to go back to your Star Trek character, Picard?
Hesitant? I turned it down. It was history. It was behind me and there was nothing more to be said about Jean Luc Picard or his life. When I met the producers I was 77. I’m 79 now, and there is a ticking clock, and there’s still a lot I want to do, but I had a lot of needs and longings than more Star Trek. But I have to admit, the script more than caught my attention. It was not returning to the world that I had been in before.

How so?
The fact is, 18 years have passed since I last put on Captain Picard’s uniform. And the world we’re living in is a different place. I’ve just been listening to the 5 o’clock news here [in England] and what’s happening with Brexit. Of course, both our countries are in the same kind of predicament in that we have a totally unsuitable person running the country. I use, as an example, the film Logan. No longer was Charles Xavier the sensitive, compassionate intellectual sitting in his wheelchair. He was a totally broken person. When I thought about if I was to consider Star Trek, I used Logan as an illustration — we continued the fundamental themes of the X-Men movies, and the principle characters were still there, but they were in a different world. Their lives had changed, there had been dramas and horror and tragedies, and things were now grim and perilous.

What was growing up in post-war England like?
Oh, Lord, I was talking about this the other day. I was born in 1940, and my father was already away at the war. He was part of the British Expeditionary Force that attacked France at the end of 1939, and it was a disaster. The German panzer divisions just massacred them. My father was not a great one for telling wartime anecdotes. But he did tell me about one evening: He was with a whole group of men who were trying to get back to the coast and save themselves, when they heard Winston Churchill on the radio announce that “today we have removed the last members of the British Expeditionary Force from the battlefields in France.” Well, Winston, you got it wrong, because there were certainly many hundred still there. My father was one of them. He got on the last boat out. So, this had a profound effect on him. He suffered seriously from PTSD. This was to affect him for the rest of his life. The only treatment that you got in those days was somebody would yell at you, if you were in the army, to pull yourself together and act like a man. So when he came home, he was not a happy man. He was discontented, restless, frustrated, and unwell. But that was not recognized at the time, and it made many aspects of my own life unpleasant.

And he was abusive to you and your mother?
He was, yes. He was a weekend alcoholic, which meant that from 10 o’clock on Friday evening, for the next 48 hours you had to be very careful what you did and said. But he would be drunk and he would be violent, and that continued for a number of years. It gradually lessened, partly because he realized that my brother and I were getting bigger. The sad thing for me is, I didn’t know that he was suffering and needed therapy and all of those things that so many returning veterans need today. For years, I’d given my father a very bad press, but I became a patron of a wonderful organization called Refuge, which is an organization dedicated to providing a safe house for women and their children who had violent husbands. But then, about five years ago, I learned about my father and his PTSD. I felt ashamed that I had used his name as a symbol for violence and anger, not knowing that he couldn’t help himself. I don’t defend him for the violence. Violence is never an option. Recently, I was invited to become an active member of a group called Combat Stress, and they focus on helping veterans with PTSD. So, I now try to balance things out, doing my Refuge work for my mother and Combat Stress for my father. I could do nothing for them when I was little, when I was young. Nothing. I would put my body between my father and my mother as I got bigger, and try to defy him, but it didn’t often work. In their names, now I’m able to, with the time that I have available, do more for them.

You were almost a journalist at some point, and then you chose acting over journalism.
I was a cub reporter. Strings were pulled. I had a very, very modest education. We left school at 15 in those days, and my local newspaper took me on. I was given a district of my own to cover, which I really enjoyed. I threw myself into the job, aware that I was very, very lucky to have a job like that. But I’d become massively involved with amateur theatricals. I loved it. I loved going to rehearsals. For one thing, it got me out of my house. But, there was a problem, which was that all my amateur acting interfered badly with my work as a journalist. I got into trouble. I was dishonest. I made things up. I invented stuff. Yes, yes, yes … Because to me, being at the rehearsal was more important than attending a council meeting. Finally, I was found out, when the huge mill in my town caught fire one evening, and someone called the newspaper and the editor said, “No, don’t worry, Patrick’s right next door.” Well, I wasn’t there. I was in the rehearsal room. I was found out and got hauled before the editor, who gave me an ultimatum: “Give up all this amateur acting, this ridiculous playing games that you’re doing, and concentrate on doing your job, for which we’re paying properly.” I didn’t like being talked to like that, so I went upstairs and I packed up my typewriter and I left. I went home and said, “I’m going to be an actor.” And they said, “How are you going to do that?” And I said, “I’ve no idea. I’m going to find out.” And I did.

How did you cope with going bald so young? Was it hard?
Yes, it was. I got very depressed about it because my hair fell out very quickly. I was 19. By the time I was 20, it was gone. I spent a lot of money — more than I could afford — on a really great hairpiece, a wig. And I would wear it to auditions. And usually what they asked for in the theater in those days were two audition pieces, which you could choose yourself. So I would do one as a character piece, wearing my hairpiece. And then I would very quickly take it off and do a totally different character, looking like a different actor. And I would say to them, “Hey, two actors for the price of one. You can’t turn this down, can you?” The worst part about it was I thought it meant my romantic life was over, would never happen, because what woman would like to go out with a bald 19-year-old? Very few. Whereas these days, nowadays, men with these fabulous heads of hair shave it. That’s fine, but I thought, “That’s it. Romance is dead for me, so just throw yourself into your work, Patrick. Make the best of it.”

You became famous later in life. What do you think it would have done to you if you’d been famous as a younger person?
I think I might have been a nightmare. The thing is, I got a chance to observe, because I worked for 15 months with Vivien Leigh, for example. We toured the world in three productions with her playing the leading role. I got to watch Vivien and many other brilliant leading actors. I used them as my benchmark. All of these people were beautifully behaved. I was madly in love with Vivien Leigh. She was always so kind to me, although I was actually the least important member of the company. I saw how you have a choice about how you behave and what kind of work you can do. And I used that information to try to do the best possible work I could.

You revived your one-man Christmas Carol show in New York this holiday season. The whole story is really a man looking back on his life. I wonder how you look back, and what that story taught you?
I am loving working on it again because it’s 16 or 17 years since I last performed this. I’m not the person I was when I created this role over 20 years ago, and I’m seeing the story very differently. And, of course, because what has happened in our world, I’m seeing it much more as a political document than as a lovely, sweet, adorable Christmas story. It’s full of bitter, savage attacks on the inequalities of life, particularly in London. Dickens was very sensitive to this and wrote brilliantly about it: When Jacob Marley comes to visit Scrooge that first night, and Marley is telling him how he ruined his life by being only obsessed with money, and Scrooge says to him, “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob.” And Marley says, “Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.” I never made quite enough of that before, because that’s what it’s about. It’s not just about being rich or poor, but it’s about, if you have resources, what do you do with them? This is about you making them available to people who have less, and you do all that you can to care for them. That’s not a spirit that’s abroad much in our world today, is it?

You are involved with the campaign for death with dignity and assisted suicide. What brought it to you and why is it important to you?
I’d always been intrigued about what they call doctor-assisted dying. When I was in my sixties, a friend of mine told me an appalling story. I knew that his wife had died. I didn’t know how. She was seriously ill with cancer, incurable cancer, and in extraordinary pain. He told me how he was living alone with his wife, looking after her, and one night he went out to walk the dog. So while he was gone, she put a plastic bag around her head and knotted it under her chin, and was dead when he got back. This story shocked me so profoundly that I decided to investigate more. I came across Dignity in Dying, and they’re a fantastic organization who campaign for a change in British law that would permit doctor-assisted dying, but only with the strictest, most severe conditions attached to this — because people are concerned about families wanting to get rid of some old person or somebody who has money and they want to inherit it, all that kind of thing. What we argue for is signed documents from two doctors that this person is terminally ill, will die within six months, and is of sound mind to make this decision themselves, and is under no pressure. If someone is in profound misery, and is a person of faith, the way in which I believe their faith can be celebrated is by giving them what they most need: a pain-free ending. It will give other people a choice to end their life in the way in which they wish to see it end. Of course, I put myself in their shoes, often. I’m 79, and I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.