"Hello, I'm Patrick Stewart," says Patrick Stewart, gliding through the doors of a West End hotel, as if I don't already know. The owner of the most famous cranium in the world doesn't, it seems, expect to be recognised. It's impossible not to recognise him, though, even with his mask of a beard and narrow strip of hair on his usually shaved head. He's a striking figure, not to say highly attractive, with his devilish smile and darkly alert eyes.
Stewart is, of course, best known for his role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the television series Star Trek - The Next Generation, although he also has a distinguished theatrical career under his belt. He talks animatedly about his years in the UK before Star Trek, when he played King John, Prospero and Titus Andronicus on the stage and appeared in such classic TV series as I, Claudius (1976) and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1980).
He has never, at 62, been more visible than now. He has appeared in cinemas twice in the past year - in the gloriously over-the-top sci-fi hit X-Men 2 and the rather less well-received Star Trek: Nemesis, the last of the Star Trek feature films. Flick the TV remote for long enough, and chances are you'll see him in a Star Trek rerun, looking all stately in his figure-hugging uniform. These days, he's something of a sex symbol, too - he has been repeatedly voted the sexiest man on television by American viewers, and has a large gay following.
"Oh, yes," he says gleefully. "It's an enormous compliment. Although it would have been nice to have it when I was 18. Then, I could really have done with a bit of help."
We meet for breakfast in the Covent Garden Hotel, not far from the theatre where he's playing Halvard Solness, the lead role in Henrik Ibsen's The Master Builder. "He's a man about to implode with guilt, fear and superstition," he says. "People are saying the play is erotic, which it should be, because 20 minutes in, this beautiful, very young woman turns up and says to Solness, 'Here I am. I've been waiting for you for 10 years. I'm here for the taking.' The play is all about emotion. It's all about very potent and out-of-control feelings that we've all had at one time or another."
Stewart is a man of intense statements and giant gestures. He clasps the air and clutches his head as he talks. He frequently finishes sentence with "do you understand?", holding my gaze to make sure that I do. But the voice is really the thing - so rich, so resonant, so authoritative. He swills vowel sounds around his mouth like the finest port. Just hearing him order breakfast - "Eggs, very lightly scrambled, grilled tomatoes and toast, very well done, blackened but not burnt" - is quite thrilling.
He has a flat just up the road, in Drury Lane, as well as a house in West Yorkshire and another in Los Angeles, where he has spent the majority of his time in the past 15 years. He is clearly stung by accusations that he has abandoned his rightful home by settling in the US.
"I went to do a job," he protests. "I've had my house in Yorkshire for 14 years. I'd love to be based in Yorkshire all the time, but since I've not been invited on to Emmerdale, I don't spend much time there." When I tell Stewart that I've never quite got the appeal of Star Trek, he smiles mischievously, replying, "Well, there are probably a couple of other people in the world who feel like you." He was 47 when he auditioned for the series. Initially, he thought he was being brought in for a small part as "a token Brit"; when he discovered that he was being put up for the role of Captain, he didn't take it seriously.
"I really couldn't see them employing a bald, middle-aged English actor to play the successor to the legendary James T Kirk," he says, modestly. "Of course, when I got it, I was very excited, but then I learnt that I had to sign a six-year contract. I said that it was out of the question, that I had other things to do. I took it primarily because I thought it would never last. People assured me that it would be lucky to last a season."
One hundred and seventy-eight episodes and four feature films later, Stewart has retired as Captain of the Starship Enterprise. He doesn't regret a thing. Quite apart from the money - "The last job I'd done had earned me around £120 a week. I was clocking up those fees every 15 minutes!" - the role has given him long-standing commercial status. He says that he would never have been able to play Scrooge as a one-man show on Broadway in the early Nineties without that kind of kudos. But as the series took off, he found himself accused by journalists of squandering his talent. In a fit of pique, he told one: "Sitting in the Captain's chair of the Enterprise is rather like sitting on the throne of England, though marginally more important."
"They used to ask me, 'Why, why, why?', as if I was somehow slumming it. It was ridiculous to suggest that I was betraying my background. What crap! What snobbery!" Did he ever worry that the role might eclipse his achievements on the stage? "For a while, yes," he replies. "But not now. For huge numbers of people I will always be Jean-Luc Picard, and that's fine. I really believe we created an admirable individual."
It appears to be more by chance than manipulation that Stewart has managed to find credibility in both highbrow and populist entertainment, never going into one at the expense of the other. As fans are often at pains to point out, Star Trek may be adored by the masses but it certainly isn't lowbrow. "There is a utopian aspect, too," he says. "Planet Earth is a perfect world - there's no poverty, no racism, no sexism, not even money. There's individual respect for the outsider, too. It's essentially very optimistic." Stewart won't, no matter how much I cajole him, be rude about Trekkies, the more - shall we say - obsessive breed of devotee.
"The 'loony fans', as you call them, are a tiny minority who are given far too much significance by you and your colleagues," he rumbles. "Our fans range from ex-Secretaries of State in the States - and at least two Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - numerous senior political figures, and academics in their legions. I know one vice- chancellor of a university who set his meetings around Star Trek episodes." Much though he may defend his lengthy foray into science fiction, it's clear that over the past 15 years, he has yearned to be back on the stage. Making the X-Men films was "a blast", but he finds the endless waiting around involved in shooting a film a profoundly unsatisfying way to work.
"I became an actor to work on stage, not in front of a film or a TV camera, and even now I still feel that way," he says. "You can spend years of your life making films that never see the light of day. That kind of disappointment can really crush you."
What's more, he despairs of Hollywood's attitude to theatre actors. "The perception is that if you're doing a play, it's only because you can't get a film. When there was the threat of the actors' strike two years ago, suddenly everyone wanted to be on Broadway. They were setting up projects all over the place. Once they realised the strike was off, they dumped everything."
The youngest of three brothers, Stewart grew up in a working-class family in Mirfield, West Yorkshire. He describes his childhood as "unpredictable, chaotic, sometimes frightening". In the Second World War, his father was a sergeant major in the Parachute Regiment. He returned home a hero, only to find himself forced to take labouring jobs to make ends meet.
"It was only as I got older that I began to understand his disappointment and frustration," Stewart says. "He had gone from being this charismatic, significant and powerful individual in a regiment to doing menial jobs. That created a lot of tension - do you understand?"
Stewart dropped out of school at 15. For a while, he worked as a junior reporter on a local paper, the Dewsbury & District Reporter, but was sacked for spending too much time in the theatre. Looking back, he's disappointed by his lack of ambition. "I wanted to work with the best provincial theatre companies and gather a bank account of experience," he explains. "I never saw myself as a leading man, and was never attracted to the West End, partly because it seemed out of reach, but also because it was a world to which I couldn't relate."
He was just 18 when he started to lose his hair, a result of inherited alopecia. Within a year, it had all gone. "That was very traumatic," he recalls. "There I was, on the threshold of all this excitement - girls, sex, you know - and suddenly it was all over. That was one of the things that really handicapped me when I was young. I thought I was deeply unattractive. It made me timid."
In spite of his timidity, Stewart says that he felt at home on the stage. "Acting was my only means of self-expression. The first time someone put me on a proper stage, I experienced the safest environment I had ever been in, the opposite to home. There was a structure to it. I knew exactly who I was and how it was going to end."
Stewart can recall being moved along by a policeman for demonstrating outside a polling-booth during the first post-war election, when he was just five. He was marching with a placard and singing loudly. He has said that from that moment, he was a Labour supporter. When I ask if he still is, he almost falls off his chair with fury.
"You say still?" he thunders. "Still? What the hell are people going to do if they don't support Labour? Who else is there? I stand by the party absolutely. It doesn't mean you're an enthusiast for every action that the Prime Minister, the Cabinet or the party takes. But, fundamentally, it stands for what I believe is the most just kind of society we can have here. I lived under those 18 years of Conservatism, under that monster Thatcher." While Stewart's loyalty is impressive, his passion is unexpected, given his long absence from home. There are, however, plans to return to the UK permanently, if only he can convince his second wife, the American producer Wendy Neuss, that England is their future home.
He loves the lifestyle that his success has afforded him, and revels in being flown to premieres all over the world by film studios, just to be photographed on a red carpet. "When I was a child, all my pocket money went on the movies, and, somehow, to be part of that world is a great thrill. The best thing is that I don't have to do any of it. Being here in London and doing Ibsen is an attempt to balance all that out."
Stewart is philosophical about the lateness of the arrival of fame and fortune. "I'm both grateful and a little wistful. I'm perhaps envious of what lies ahead of young actors, but I'm grateful that the kind of success I had came when it did. I was just about well balanced enough for it not to be overwhelming, and not to believe the publicity. That's the biggest danger, you see: believing that you really are more important than everyone else. We're not, you know. We're just actors."
'The Master Builder' is at the Albery Theatre, St Martin's Lane, London WC2 (020-7369 1740) to 17 AugustReuse content