"The compulsion to act was introduced to me by an English teacher when I was 12," Patrick Stewart says. "I found it primarily a means of escape, of detaching myself from a difficult and at times unsafe life and going into a world of make-believe where the world was predictable."
That's how it remained for several years. "But it was the one thing at which I seemed to have a natural talent and where I felt comfortable. I thought I would see if I was good enough to get a place in a drama school. I got a scholarship, because my family was poor. In the years I was in training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School I found I had discovered my life's passion."
That passion led him to a career of renown in theatre, movies and television, one that includes a long association with the Royal Shakespeare Company; performing with the Royal National Theatre; and starring on Broadway in a one-man A Christmas Carol, as Prospero in The Tempest, in Arthur Miller's The Ride Down Mount Morgan and as Macbeth (he was a 2008 Tony nominee).
Stewart achieved worldwide fame as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and Prof. Charles Xavier in the "X-Men" movies. Now he's on Broadway again, with T.R. Knight, in David Mamet's A Life in the Theatre. Stewart, 70, was born in Mirfield, Yorkshire, England, the son of a textile worker and a laborer who had been a regimental sergeant major in the British army. He has written about his family's poverty and domestic violence.
|photo by Carol Rosegg|
The English teacher, Cecil Dormand, "put a copy of Shakespeare into my hands. I started to read it silently. He yelled, 'No — it's drama. You have to read it aloud.' He put me in a play with adults at the school's drama society."
Stewart dropped out of school at 15 to work as a journalist — "I was awful" — but spent more time acting than writing. After the Bristol Old Vic, he acted all over England before being accepted by the RSC. "I knew from before drama school that Shakespeare was my great love. From the time Peter Hall created the RSC in the early 1960s, my sole ambition was to join it." His Broadway debut came in 1971 in Peter Brook's legendary RSC production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, as Snout.
A Life in the Theatre is Mamet's "love letter to theatre," Stewart says. His character, Robert, an older actor, has had a life different from his — "I've been lucky enough to have been more successful — but Robert's love for theatre, and the way it dominates his life, is something I've shared." And "I've at times seen in myself — and I've certainly seen in the company of other actors — Robert's not-quite-so-attractive aspects."
Stewart says his roles as Picard and Xavier are "entirely complementary" with his stage work. "The techniques are different, and the rhythm and pattern of the work are different, but the approach to how I act doesn't change — the fundamental thing is to pursue the truth."
Last June, Queen Elizabeth II knighted Stewart. "My old English teacher is still alive, and he and his wife were at the celebratory lunch at Buckingham Palace."
Is there a part Stewart hasn't played that he yearns for? "In 1966, I understudied Falstaff in Henry IV. Thank the Lord I never went on. I would have been terrible. But it's a role I've known that one day I would have to play."
Watch highlights from A Life in the Theatre: