Sir Patrick Stewart, icon of gravitas and beacon of commanding grace, is snorting cocaine. He’s downing shots of whiskey, chomping down a marijuana edible, and rapping along to ’80s hip-hop while driving his muscle car to the L.A. street corner where he picks up a transgender hooker.
“Might I nurse on your breast?” he asks her. “Things haven’t been going well for me at work and at home. To suckle would be great comfort.”
Of course, this isn’t actually Sir Patrick Stewart, the hallowed thespian who is among the greatest Shakespearean players we’ve known, indelible as Star Trek’s erudite, stately Captain Picard, and the father figure to a world of misfits thanks to his Professor X in the X-Men films.
No, this is the 75-year-old knighted actor subverting a reputation he has spent a five decades-strong career cultivating in Starz’s new comedy series Blunt Talk, a Patrick Stewart Gone Wild comic showcase if there ever was one. And if the spate of startled-to-delighted headlines reacting to Blunt Talk’s first trailer, which hinted at some of the show’s most ribald moments, signals anything, it’s that Stewart’s fans are thrilled to see this unexpected side of the star.
“The public have largely known me through Star Trek and X-Men, where I play a very proper, very upright, worthy, empathic, intuitive, intelligent intellectual,” Stewart tells me. “So I can see why people are getting a kick out of seeing Patrick Stewart, with whom they associate all these qualities of Picard and Xavier, being outrageous. I can see why that is attractive.”
In Blunt Talk, which premieres Saturday night, Stewart plays Walter Blunt, a British newsman pontificating at an American cable news station named UBS—a purposeful allusion to the station in the film Network and an insinuation that Blunt is a mad-as-hell descendant of its hero, Howard Beale.
When he is put under arrest for solicitation—not to mention driving while intoxicated and assaulting his arresting officer—Blunt must attempt to curb his vices and work with ragtag producers to win back the trust of his skeptical American audience, which is turning off his news program in droves.
Stewart’s journey to being spanked by his valet while wearing nothing but a towel in Blunt Talk (set your DVRs!) was born out of his unlikely 11-year professional relationship with Family Guy mastermind Seth MacFarlane, who cast him in American Dad and has since worked with him on a series of other projects, including Ted.
“Seth MacFarlane’s henchman hijacked me one night. Tied me up and threw me into a van and I was driven out somewhere upstate and kept there without food or drink for about, oh, three minutes until I would agree to be in his new live-action comedy show Blunt Talk, so I had no choice,” Stewart recounts with a mischievous glint in his eye.
“OK, you want the real reason?” he laughs. “There was no being thrown into a van—it was actually a very bouchon restaurant in Beverly Hills,” he says. “Then I was introduced to Jonathan Ames, and Seth faded into the background.”
MacFarlane enlisted Ames, best known for his cult favorite HBO comedy Bored to Death, to create a show for Stewart, the kind of offer Ames says one agrees to immediately. It was during a bout of channel surfing that Ames received divine inspiration. He stumbled upon CNN at a moment when Piers Morgan happened to be broadcasting in front of an electric blue background.
“I thought, ‘Wow, Patrick Stewart would look amazing in front of such a background giving us the news,’” Ames remembers. “I did have a thought that it would be something out of Orwell, Patrick Stewart looming as a newscaster.”
Blunt Talk and Walter Blunt aren’t directly inspired by Piers Morgan, but the comparisons are hard to ignore. Though Morgan hasn’t exactly been nabbed by cops for suckling a trans hooker’s breast, he has, as a British newscaster moralizing to American audiences, been a divisive presence in the States.
Soon after signing on for the series, Stewart heard a voice holler at him during breakfast one morning at a hotel in Beverly Hills: “You’re playing me, Stewart? What are you up to?”
It was Morgan, whom Stewart reassured could call off his lawyers and rest easy; he wasn’t about to be bastardized in a sitcom. The two had breakfast the next morning and Stewart grilled him on what it was to be English broadcasting the news in America. It was a valuable, though Stewart says, off-the-record, conversation.
More valuable, perhaps, was the time Stewart spent shadowing Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow. Both allowed the actor to spend an entire day observing the creation of their respective shows, from morning content meetings straight through to broadcast. With both, Stewart observed “the enormous respect that was shown to them, and how unmistakably they were in charge—of content, of execution.”
It was a learning experience that taught him to—and this shouldn’t be a surprise, as this is Sir Patrick Stewart we are talking about—take the role of Walter Blunt very seriously, as Blunt is a newscaster whose mission is to bring truth to the American people. So for all the hilarious and uncouth misconducts of Blunt and his staff—“sex and drugs and shenanigans,” as Stewart’s co-star Jacki Weaver explains—there’s an overarching goodness and nobility at the end of the sinful means.
Might it be a little frustrating then, given some of the show’s more enlightened ambitions and the seriousness with which Stewart treats his performance, that so much of Blunt Talk’s pre-coverage spotlights the sensational? (“See Patrick Stewart Snort Coke!”)
“Well, that’s not unfamiliar,” Stewart says. “And we knew it would be the sensational and the scandalous moments that people would connect with, partly because maybe there are some actors who wouldn’t attract such surprise.” Then, with a smirk: “I’ll name no names.”
It’s not all self-seriousness though. Stewart says he’s getting a “huge kick” out of living out these on-screen firsts. The drugs and the boozing and the cursing, sure. But there’s another first he was most nervous about.
“I’ll be perfectly honest with you, and this is a little humiliating, but until I climbed into bed with the beautiful and brilliant Elisabeth Shue [who guest stars] I had never shot a post-coital scene before,” he says.
To prepare, Stewart called three actress friends to farm out desperate advice: “How far do I go? What will she be expecting of me? Is it just a closed-lip kiss? Is there any tongue? Would that be appropriate with somebody you’d just met? What if I had a caress of one of her breasts? Would I get slapped in the face and a lawsuit brought against me?”
According to Ames, the scene couldn’t have gone more smoothly. Sir Patrick Stewart, it turns out, is a good actor.
The end result of Stewart’s performance in Blunt Talk is further evidence to support Stewart’s long-held claim: “I’m more fun than my characters.” MacFarlane, who produces Blunt Talk, explains why he has crusaded to include Stewart in as many comedy projects as possible: “Why is this great comedian being wasted on drama?”
This recent embrace of Stewart in roles both vaudevillian and Shakespearean accompanies a charm offensive in his public life, including a spate of adorable viral videos (most recently in tribute to Taylor Swift), expertly charming tweets, and one of Instagram’s must-follow celebrity accounts.
“It’s brought a new perspective into my life, one in which I can allow myself to take a slanted or slightly twisted—some might even say warped—view of my life, the things that happened to me, the encounters that I had, and turn it into something entertaining,” he says.
The “serious” Sir Patrick Stewart hasn’t gone away and neither have those acting roles.
“But I’m so content—oh that’s too mild a word—I’m ecstatic to be able to dip my toe into comedy because comedians were my heroes when I was a kid,” he says. “To be modestly joining those ranks gives me enormous pleasure.”