Patrick Stewart has returned to Britain after serving seven years on the USS Enterprise. His newest venture finds him firmly grounded. By James Mottram
Patrick Stewart is telling me a story. It's 1995, post-Next Generation and Jeffrey, Christopher Ashley's love-in-the-time-of-HIV comedy based on Paul Rudnick's stage play, has just been released. Stewart, in as radical a departure as one can get from playing the Captain of the Starship Enterprise, was the acid-tongued interior designer Sterling, cocking his pink beret in a role that could have been designed to wound the PC brigade. Speaking in a voice that could only have been honed by years at the RSC, he booms: "I remember driving up a boulevard in Los Angeles, and a car overtook me. This whole group of colourful characters all leaned out and cheered 'Thank you, thank you, thank you.' It made a change from the Vulcan sign, anyway."
It says a lot about his career. An actor capable of being all things to all men (and women - his Internet fan club is called "The Patrick Stewart Estrogen Brigade"), he has managed to transcend both his classically-trained Shakespearean background and the mantle of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Star Trek: Next Generation's dignified leader. Worshipped by 35 million American viewers, in a series that ran for seven years, Stewart is the man-least- likely to achieve the cult status he has. He was voted America's top TV turn-on in 1993 (an award he hopes he's still "a front-runner" for). Yet the 57-year-old, despite currently filming the third cinematic Generation instalment (tentatively Star Trek IX), is no Leonard Nimoy. Whatever literary ambitions Stewart may have, an autobiography entitled I am not Picard is unlikely to be one.
Dad Savage, his latest step towards diversity, is not quite the rural Reservoir Dogs that Stewart predicted it to be before shooting (a comment in retrospect he now regrets). First-timer Betsan Morris Evans has taken her lead from directors such as Shallow Grave's Danny Boyle. Stewart plays the eponymous Savage, a Lincolnshire tulip farmer who loses his illicit stash, hoarded in the woods, to his son's wayward pals. Constructed, much like Dogs from a series of jagged flashbacks, we watch the process of recovery and revenge, as Savage and his 12-bore face off with the thieves in a derelict house. It's yet another departure for Stewart, his first work on home soil for a decade.
"Savage is a rather eccentric, but very ordinary individual," says Stewart. "He's a petty criminal running a family business, but he makes good all his threats. He expresses contempt for - and in fact sees himself as - the law. He sees it as his responsibility to find out what happened. That kind of obsession, regardless of cost, is what attracted me." Finding the shoot odd - "particularly when you consider the other five actors were all in school when I was doing Star Trek" - Stewart felt much like the ex-pat performer, having left England 11 years ago for a "narrow-minded" Los Angeles. "It was very important for me to fit in. I felt I've missed out on working with a whole generation of actors and directors in Britain because of my absence. It hit home when one of my co-stars remarked: 'Patrick Stewart? I thought he was dead.'" Stewart's performance is undoubtedly the most assured of the film, though sparring against fledgling Brit-packers like Joe McFadden (best known for BBC's The Crow Road) and Helen McCrory (The James Gang) the comparison is unjust.
McCrory, who plays sister to McFadden's unhinged robber, would agree: "His work is so precise, so economical. He doesn't waste a bit of energy, or a look, because he just knows how to do it. He has the ability to focus into a camera; while you can barely hear him on set, he literally explodes on screen."
A performer of grace and poise, it was in roles such as Sejanus from the BBC's magnificent I Claudius and his Karla in Smiley's People and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy that these qualities first came to public attention. Sporadic film roles - notably Dune and Excalibur - brought him to the attentions of Hollywood, but his choice as the man to replace Kirk was as surprising as when Paramount chose a similarly unheralded classical actor in the form of one William Shatner 20-odd years before. Never one to compromise, Stewart caused his fair share of trouble on the show, complaining of sexism in the scripts and walking off a live-broadcast from a network morning show when a weatherman turned up in a space suit. Declaring the assembly-line production of the Star Trek films as "indecent", Stewart has watched Picard shift "from a more cerebral man to a romantic action hero".
A decade on and Savage is more than just a home-coming for Stewart, it's a cathartic reckoning with his youth. "The kind of young men that this film is about are the kind of young men I knew - and was - when I was a teenager in West Riding. I came from a semi-rural industrial town and I used to particularly feel my lack of education, especially when I got to drama school. I was inexperienced, felt out of place and didn't know much of the world. With the sort of boredom that these guys have, the need for adventure, the urge to get away, the fascination with cars and guns, their hostility - all this was the kind of thing I was aware of."
Growing up in Mirfield, West Yorkshire, Stewart and his two brothers, born to a sergeant major and mill-worker, suffered the iron will of their father. Stewart's escape, from a subject he remains closed on, was drama. Despite brief flirtations as a journalist and a furniture salesman, training began at 17 with the Bristol Old Vic. Nine years later, he began an association with the Royal Shakespeare Company that would last some two decades, collecting at the end the Olivier award for Best Entertainment for his one-man version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol.
While noting that 1997 "was marked by a year of strangely obsessed, not to say vicious and wicked, individuals for me" (Savage, Captain Ahab in a made-for-TV version of Moby Dick, CIA operative Dr Jonas in Richard Donner's Conspiracy Theory and finally Othello on stage in Washington DC), Stewart did announce his engagement to sometime Star Trek producer Wendy Neuss, five years after his 25-year marriage with choreographer Shelia Falconer broke up. Now enjoying a less emotionally intense 1998, Stewart is developing numerous projects - that he tantalisingly won't discuss - with his newly-formed production company, Flying Freehold. Only a voice-over in the animated Prince of Egypt is to be expected in the very near future.
Stewart has lent his support to New Labour, opening a rally in Plymouth, with a Picardian cry of "Make It So". Admitting to being an avid newspaper reader, Stewart has been watching his beloved England from afar: "I've been following very closely the rollercoaster that has been his [Blair's] first year. All in all, my feeling is - with one or two reservations, namely the question of welfare - that it has been a tremendously successful year." Too modest to say it, but Stewart could say the same thing.
'Dad Savage' opens today
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