with a cause....
have influence as the captain of Star Trek's USS Enterprise is one thing;
to wield power as the actor who plays him is something else entirely. Yet
this is exactly where Patrick Stewart finds himself, having donned the
uniform of Trek's Captain Jean-Luc Picard for more than a decade.
Disappointed with Generations, the first outing for the Star Trek : The Next Generation posse, and wanting to veer dramatically away from the heavy action-film tone of the last Trek movie, First Contact, Stewart presented firm conditions before agreeing to star in Star Trek : Insurrection, the ninth instalment in the Trek film series.
Not only was the British stage actor made the film's associate producer, but he vetoed several earlier drafts of the script, by Michael Piller, before agreeing to his rumoured $12 million pay cheque and profit bonuses. Stewart's credo? Out with the Borg; in with the babes.
"I wanted to see Jean-Luc Picard have strong feelings and tap into his passions," Stewart says, sipping coffee in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverley Hills."To hell with the captain's mental torment. I thought we should have less action. more humour. I was intrigued with the idea of making this film lighter, so that fans years from now can say, 'Oh, yes, Star Trek IX. That was the funny, sexy one.' "
More diminutive in person than you'd think from his larger-than-life on-screen persona, Stewart is also a lot quieter and thoughtful. But when he speaks, his regal baritone is so, well, engaging that nearly all of his sentences could warrant a spontaneous little burst of applause all their own.
"In the seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Picard only had sex twice," Stewart quips. "His predecessor, Kirk, was a regular Casanova. He had a babe in every galaxy. I personally like to think Picard had a very active sex life. I can't believe the captain just read Shakespeare up there in his room all those years."
"I spent most of the first movie being kind of depressed. I thought it was centreless. It didn't have a character locking the thing together. in the time I've had to reflect on the screen stature that Picard had in that film, I must say I'm not altogether happy with it. I thought that the storyline and the emotional line in Generations was, in fact, much closer to the kind of thing we would have developed in one of our episodes, rather than something that should be filling a much bigger screen of a feature film."
In the more recent First Contact, the crew of the Enterprise ws pitted against the most popular villains yet in the Star Trek legacy: the robotic, ruthlessly-assimilating Borg. Directed by co-star Jonathan Frakes, it evolved into one of the highest-grossingTrek movies ever.
"It was a very, very good story," Stewart says. "Much stronger than the first. But they were two pretty intense movies. After a lot of analysis of what was well done and what was less well done, I think we all agreed we didn't want to go down that road any more."
In Insurrection, the
Enterprise is drawn to a beautiful, remote planet populated by a small
group of technology-eschewing people called the Ba'ku, whose secret of
eternal youth is coveted by a nasty race called the Son'a - who strangely
enjoy an alliance with Starfleet Command.
"I don't like the idea of Picard being righteous, because that's just a step away from being self-righteous," Stewart says. "I wanted scenes in this movie that would make him look a bit foolish and a bit more vulnerable. It was a conscious and deliberate decision of mine to make Picard lighter this time."
Originally, Stewart and Tony
Award-winning actress Donna Murphy, who plays Picard's amour Anij, filmed
two kissing scenes. "They were the perfect pay-off to the relationship,"Stewart
remembers. But executives at Paramount didn't agree and ordered them cut
from the final print. "I was yelling and kicking and screaming about
that," Stewart says angrily "I'm still irritated."
Another talky scene between
Stewart and Murphy was also trimmed against the wishes of Stewart, Frakes
Aside from the excised kisses,
Stewart proclaims the film..."we talked about for the most part is present.
I think we took the script and put it on the screen very effectively."
Stewart thinks there should be at least a three-year gap before the next flick, however, instead of the now-standard two. " I always thought we should take a little longer break," he says. "To create a bit of an appetite for the movies. My hope is that the phenomenal success of The Phantom Menace will only intensify the interest in seeing another Star Trek movie. I think there's a possibility for another good one in us. I look at us up on screen and it seems to me that we're all in pretty good shape."
Stewart has sometimes been
the target of unfavourable press - in particular, a rather scathing unauthorized
biography - whenever he voiced his candid complaints about The Next
Generation series, but he's unapologetic about being so vocal.
After seven seasons, however,
Paramount decided to cancel Next Generation in favour of a sparkling
new film franchise. Stewart was glad they made the move. "I was very
happy to see the series end," he admits. "It had reached the point
where I felt I had given it just about everything I could."
"I started started preparing
for the end of the series by creating solo stage shows for myself, which
meant I could literally throw everything in the trunk of my car and drive
to college campuses on weekends, get myself on stage and keep those muscles
The danger of being so readily identified with TNG's much loved captain became clear to Stewart one night the Summer after The Next Generation finished its run. Performing as Prospero in an outdoor performance of The Tempest in New York City's central Park, Stewart says, "I made the mistake of tugging on the front of my doublet. there was an instantaneous burst of laughter. I was very careful never to do that again."
But on balance, the actor believes that the character that made him famous won't interfere with his career. "When I first walk in front of the camera," he says. "They'll say, 'Ah, Jean-Luc, we recognize him, despite the charming little moustache.' but i believe audiences are smart enough to let go of that pretty quickly. Also, that's my job as an actor : to persuade them that, you know, Jean-Luc Picard is left behind and this is someone entirely different."
Breaking convention and, indeed, expectation is something Stewart relishes. His first post Star Trek movie role was as the flamboyantly gay New Yorker in the independent flick Jeffrey, which attracted attention purely because it was Stewart's first post Picard outing. The actor, however, reckons it succeeded in shattering any sense of stereotyping. "It distanced me as much as possible from the good captain," Stewart said at the time. "A bitchy New York queen."
For the romantic comedy Let
It Be Me, Stewart donned both an American accent and a wig in the role
of a homeless ballroom dance instructor. He returned to the captain's chair
, of course, for Star Trek: first Contact, but quickly jumped genres
again and took well-received roles as nasty villains in the 1997 Summer
action pictures Conspiracy Theory (opposite Mel Gibson) and Masterminds.
"I've had four and a half
very happy and interesting years," Stewart says. " It's been very
diverse. Real challenges stretching roles."
Something else surprising
about the thespian is that, despite his lengthy association with The Royal
Shakespeare Company, he's not the culture snob you'd expect. In fact, Patrick
Stewart takes quite a ribbing from friends over his love of the now defunct
MTV cartoon Beavis and Butt-head...
In the new Star Trek flick,
Stewart's Picard has a lengthy scene with Worf and Data in which they sing"A
British Tar" from Gilbert & Sullivan's HMS Pinafore. Again,
to some surprise, it's not Stewart's cup of tea.
It turns out the overgrown
kid who'd be a larger-than-life starship captain would much rather ride
giant roller coasters - "It's been too long since I've been on one."
- or play one of his favourite video games than tread the spaces between
"I have many long-term plans for theatre work that I'd like to see happen over the next five or six years or even ten years. Usually, I plan six months in advance for theatre projects. but it's a difficult situation because films tend to come up on fairly short notice. Moby Dick was an exception, where I had ten months' advance notice. Sometimes theatre work presents problems when film projects come up, so I've tried to keep a balance between my theatre work and film projects."
The actor has also begun
work as a producer, establishing his Flying Freehold Prods at the
Paramount home of Star Trek. His company, helmed by former Voyager
and Next Generation producer Wendy Neuss, is searching for scripts
with both wide commercial appeal and smaller works from first time writers,
for Stewart to not necessarily star in, but to produce and direct.
If anything, Stewart says,
this diverse work makes coming back to Jean-Luc Picard a pleasure. "Yes,
definitely," he says. "It's like they say; sometimes the best thing
for a marriage is an affair. I spent four months of this year back in the
good captain's skin, and I'm very content at how that feels."
After more than a decade of playing Picard, however, the actor says his lasting fear is of the character getting stale and predictable. this is why he 's so eager to flex whatever power his fame has given him to promote his ideals. "My worst horror is to find myself just going through the motions," he says. "If that were to happen it would be like a death."
As for the current series
- Deep Space Nine is in it's final season and Voyager will
become the sole Trek series in production after Spring 1999 - Stewart
pays little attention. just as he doesn't like to involve himself in the
marketing aspect of Star Trek - which he considers a sort of necessary
evil, acknowledging the fact the series is a huge licence-to-print-money
Voyager - indeed,
any series that follows it - won't be able to succeed on the marquee value
of Star Trek alone, Stewart predicts. "The key is in the stories,"he
says. "A lot of very, very hard work will have to be done to find the
right stories and tell them in the right manner."
His feelings about his on-going
relationship with Star Trek, however, remain strong. "I'm committed
to this," he says. "I believe there's another good film with this
cast and I'm committed to keeping the standard as high as possible."