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The actor opens up about recent protests and why he wants to join the good fight
For more than 30 years, Jean-Luc Picard (Sir Patrick Stewart) has exuded pure class. A stalwart intellectual who loves his Earl Grey tea and opts to weigh all options rather than rushing to judgment, there's no question that he's one of the most beloved captains in the Star Trek franchise. But The Next Generation's charismatic and inquisitive captain of the Enterprise-D is not the man we meet in Star Trek: Picard's first season, and his unexpected disillusionment has been an intriguing journey to watch unfold.
The CBS All Access series paints the portrait of a fallen hero who, plagued by both regret and ego, sleepwalks through life on his family's vineyard after resigning from Starfleet over a failed rescue mission and subsequent ban on synthetic life. This provocative take on the beloved character, which is unlike anything Star Trek fans have seen before, breathes fresh new life into the man we thought we knew inside and out.
What's most remarkable about this refreshing and unfamiliar Jean-Luc is the way in which he treats death. When he is informed that his degenerative brain condition is fatal, the eponymous captain's immediate concern is being cleared for duty, even though he knows that returning to duty will also mean cutting into his already shortened timeline. But according to Sir Patrick Stewart, who plays the iconic captain, Picard's mission to save Data's (Brent Spiner) daughter, Soji (Isa Briones), is worth the risk of his own life if that means dying for a cause that he wholeheartedly believes in.
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In a conversation with TV Guide, Stewart explained why Picard so gracefully accepted his fate and continued with his mission in Star Trek: Picard's first season and reflected on how that meaningful journey parallels his own life. Stewart also opened up about how he's changed since leading Star Trek: The Next Generation more than 20 years ago and why this younger generation of political activists makes him hopeful about the future.
In previous interviews, you've talked about how Logan's unique approach to Wolverine and Charles Xavier was similar to how you wanted to handle Picard, taking the character to a place you hadn't before. Can you elaborate on those conversations you had with Alex Kurtzman, Michael Chabon, Akiva Goldsman, and the rest of the team about why you loved Logan's approach to Professor Xavier and how you wanted to apply that to Picard?
Sir Patrick Stewart: This all came about because I was so reluctant to return to Star Trek. If we include the four feature films, I think I was making Star Trek for 12 years or more. And it wasn't that I had, to put it crudely, had enough, but I felt that I had said everything that I could say about Jean-Luc Picard — his life, his work, his abilities and skills and so forth, and I had nothing more to add. So I had turned down, several times, proposals from different people about reviving Jean-Luc Picard.
When I was approached about Logan, I talked to James [Mangold], our writer/director, about my unease about continuing to play Charles Xavier. Then he talked me through how the world of Charles Xavier and Wolverine had changed and that it was the change in the world they were in which had transformed their characters, because survival had to be maintained in a very particular way. And when I finally saw a script and understood what they meant by that, I was absolutely thrilled and only too excited to return to this man, who the last time we'd seen him, had been a beautiful, brilliant, intellectual, empathic, sensitive, concerned individual who happened to be in a wheelchair and living in his school for gifted children. And now he was living in what appeared to be a huge upside-down oil tank in a nasty old version of the wheelchair that he used to ride about in and he was unstable. He was super emotional, subject to all kinds of mood changes, and a danger to other people and to himself.
Well, that had stimulated and provoked me so much that I couldn't wait to make a start of exploring Charles Xavier's life in these totally new, changed circumstances. So I explained all that to Akiva and Michael and Kirsten and Alex and they said, "But that's exactly what we're trying to do." And so, I asked them if they would talk to me about it, and they did. Then I wanted them to put it all on paper, these ideas, and the end result was a 35-page analysis done by Michael Chabon in which they described the new world and the new emotions and experiences that Jean-Luc was going to be invaded by. I was absolutely fascinated because I felt that I'd done everything with Jean-Luc Picard. There wasn't a situation that I could find myself in that I hadn't been in before with him, and now there was a possibility that all that could change. And indeed, it did, so that's what led up to my excitedly signing on to do another season.
How did you handle being the first person on the call sheet now, compared to 30 years ago when you were on Star Trek: The Next Generation?
Stewart: Well, I had rarely been number one on a call sheet on any movie or television series before [Next Generation]. On Picard, I'm a co-executive producer, as well, therefore with increased responsibilities and influence. When I signed up for Star Trek, I had no idea what I was getting into and I was terrified. I spent the first season of Star Trek... I just abandoned my life. All of it was about preparing for the next day's work, the next week's work, the next series' work. For the first two years, my weekends hardly existed because I spent Saturday and Sunday immersing myself in the coming five days of shooting. Well, it's not quite true. I did go out on Saturday nights. I love going to the theater or to a concert, listening to music, and that's basically what I did and all I did. I didn't meet people. I didn't see people.
I was so nervous about not being able to cope or handle the schedule or know the lines or hit my marks or come up with original ideas that it was only through completely immersing myself in the world of Jean-Luc Picard and the Enterprise, and all the people he worked with, that I could do the work and kind of stay sane. Although, if you talk to Brent Spiner and Jonathan Frakes, they will probably confirm that I wasn't that sane during that time, anyway.
It was a very different person who signed on for Picard. Just the acquiring of experience made such a difference that I now knew that I would turn up on time. I would know the lines. I would have done my research. I would have done my prep. I would have familiarized myself with all of the different options. That I knew I could do and it was now all about the adventure of how different is Jean-Luc. And I loved that, and that he was unhappy, frustrated, overwhelmed by feelings of guilt. Not just about the fact that he had walked away from Starfleet because of the whole Romulan rescue plan, but that he had allowed Data, the android, to die instead of him when they were on an exploding ship. And he was now living a rural life on a French vineyard, worrying more about the quality of his grapes than about the quality of the universe, and I was fascinated by that. So it was both, in one sense, starting all over again and, in another sense, already being at the finishing post because I've been Jean-Luc Picard for 12 or 14 years already.
In playing this version of Jean-Luc Picard, what new things have you learned about yourself? Did this experience open you to different ideas?
Stewart: Well, yes, because of the way I work. All those things that I have said Jean-Luc was full of now, living on his vineyard, those were things that I had to explore and examine. What will years of guilt do to your nature, to your personality? How do you deal with frustration and loneliness and unhappiness? All of those were qualities that had never existed before for Jean-Luc, and never for me, in the same way, in any role that I had ever done. And, as you're aware, my career has been diverse, both in theater and television and film. I have played everything from Shakespearean tragic heroes to half-hour comedy shows. And what was so intriguing about Picard was that I have this huge bank account of experience of Jean-Luc, but turned upside down, and I found that intriguing. Although I was still number one on the call sheet, that didn't necessarily make me number one on the set. I mean, there were, by the time [of] episode two or episode three, I was on the spaceship, but I was just sitting in the jump seat to one side while other people were in charge of the spaceship, and that meant examining what that felt like and I've found it fascinating.
One of the important things in my career, as I look back almost 60 years now, is that I can see the evidence that I have always been drawn to company experiences. Ensemble experiences... although I've done one-man shows, of course, but of being part of a group where everyone is highly talented and committed and hard-working and very pleasant to be with. I've found that I could embrace that, the not being captain, not being the boss, not being Admiral Picard, but something else. And it took me all the way through the first season because every episode was a new encounter and a new experience, which meant that I spent my weekend sitting at home examining what this new world would mean to Jean-Luc.
I don't think we've seen a captain in the position that Picard was this season, dealing with this terminal illness and on the level that this series does. But what was interesting to me is that Jean-Luc never treated his condition like it was the end of the world. He even says, "Anyone who treats me like a dying man will run the risk of pissing me off." So what allows Picard to have that sort of peaceful acceptance of death, which is a thing that so many people are inherently afraid of?
Stewart: Well, you're speaking very much of a time that we are living through. My wife and I have spent lunchtime today talking about joining some of the protests that are happening in Los Angeles because I am passionately behind the spirit of those protests of the mistreatment, abuse, and antisocial behavior and violence that is extended to African Americans, and I want to be out there. You know, you can tweet or text or FaceTime as much as you like, but I watch these things on television and I know that that's where I want to be. I took part in my first political protest when I was 5 years old. My first act of civil disobedience was actually saying no to a policeman when I was 5 years old. So that was in the 1945, first post-Second World War, British election. And yet, as my wife was explaining, what one has to think about is the other aspect of these meetings of thousands of people, [which] is that you are putting yourself at potential risk because there is another situation joint to that, which is coronavirus and staying safe. And so, the choice remains of how big a risk can you take to show support for a movement that is so essential to our society and civilization.
That's kind of the position that Picard is in. Despite his condition, he sees what's happening to the synthetic beings and decides to act on it, regardless if it risks his life.
Stewart: What it meant to me was that when you have an objective and when there is a role for you to play, then the possibility of your death becomes less obsessive. It's something that might happen. The line that you just quoted, I have very much taken to heart. I fall into the category of high risk because I'm 79, and the one blessing for me is that I'm also in good health. And so, I'm not as vulnerable as so many people who have been killed by this virus have found themselves. When you have a function, when you have a purpose, there is a motivation behind everything that you do, and that is what I found in this return to Jean-Luc Picard.
Absolutely, and I think that's what makes Picard so meaningful this season.
Stewart: The fact that, in his home, in his vineyard, in his Picard estate, he is living with two Romulans who are working for him and looking after him, taking care of him, and that would have been inconceivable back in the days of Next Generation. But that is another way in which his world has changed, and the philosophy of equality, regardless of race or color or gender or background, is so important a subject to us today. And you know, Star Trek has always, sometimes in very gentle ways, but has hinted at 21st century society and how there can be a metaphor for the way we live now, in the way that a science fiction television series has been written and performed.
What I also loved about this season is how potty-mouthed everyone was. What do you think Picard's favorite swear word is and why? Have you ever thought about that?
Stewart: I think that Picard had actually taken an active decision not to abuse language that would be unpleasant for people to hear whether it is abusive or offensive in some way, and he stuck to it. Even if he wanted to say, "Damn, blast," or whatever, he would, for the most part, manage to deny himself that pleasure. When I came across the first swear word in the first script, I can honestly tell you, I was deeply shocked. I grew up in a family where swearing was second nature. Every other word was a swear word, and yet when I read... it might have been the F-word that I read and I was shocked and unsettled by it. I think I did have a conversation with Michael [Chabon] about this use of language and how comfortable were we with it. It was something that had never been a part of previous Star Trek.
But here's the other thing. The world we are living in has changed. It's changing. My wife showed me some videos on her phone of some of the violence aimed by police at protesters. African American people, women, young teenagers, old men. In one instance, a white old man. It is horrifying, so we have to look at this world and ask ourselves, "What can we do to make it better?" And that was always the theme of Next Generation and yet, in a different context, it's also the theme of Picard.
Does seeing how politically active and creative this younger generation has become give you hope for the future?
Stewart: Yes, and there are so many ways in which we've recently seen this illustrated. The young woman, the teenager, who held her telephone camera up long enough so that the horror of what was being done to that poor man [George Floyd] whose neck was being knelt on. It was a young woman [Darnella Frazier] who brought that to us.
Our world environmental hero is a young woman [Greta Thunberg], at the moment, and that is going to continue as well. I do find consistently that... because I look back on my youth and my teenage years and I honestly don't recall encountering that very much, but we are seeing examples of social commitment and of opposition to all forms of racism. It is one of the few things that I do find encouraging about our society today. Of course, I have grandchildren, too, and I listen to them sometimes and hear what they're doing, and I see all of the evidence that I've just been talking about.
What lesson do you think people can take away from Picard as we strive for a better world?
Stewart: The one commonality of Star Trek, right up to now, up to the beginning of Picard, is there can be a better world or a better universe because the universe has shrunk by the 24th century or 25th century, and it's something that we are seeing examples of in society today: that before we leave this life, there is much that we can achieve, that those who come after us will have better lives.
Season 1 of Star Trek: Picard is now streaming on CBS All Access.