Sir Patrick Stewart is about to get high. A lot. In fact, the hallowed acting legend has already started—albeit right now it’s only hash.
He’s indelible in America for his years as Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He’s immortalized in popcorn-flick history for shepherding X-Men’s Professor X from comic book cells to the big screen, and worshippers of fine acting genuflect to him for his ferocious takes on classic roles (Captain Ahab, Ebenezer Scrooge) and for being one of the finest Shakespearean actors the world.
Now Stewart is, at age 74, about to boldly go where he’s never gone before.
He’s entering a new stage of his career. He’s about to be fun. He’s getting a little frisky, letting his wild side out. He’s taking risks. And he’s getting high…on screen, at least.
“It’s so much fun,” Stewart says, sipping tea in a Manhattan office where he’s promoting his new movie, the film-festival darling Match, and surreptitiously solidifying his status as the World’s Hippest Actor, Young Hollywood be damned.
The themes of Match are as Shakespearean as you’d expect from the work of Sir Stewart: family secrets, betrayal, violent tension between fathers and sons. But it’s also a film that has him smoking hash, recounting sexual conquests, and instructing Carla Gugino on the importance of regular cunnilingus. Not only that, our conversation is taking place just weeks before he leaves to shoot Blunt Talk, a live-action TV comedy from Seth MacFarlane that will have him playing a British TV anchor attempting to conquer American cable news and, as the name suggests, an illicit-substance enthusiast.
After years of sternly mugging in front of green screens, earnestly warding off alien threats and CGI bad guys, and treading the boards quoting the Bard, Stewart has finally earned—and is enthusiastically using—a license to act out.
“It’s always been there,” he tells me. “It’s just that I never thought it was marketable—and I don’t mean that in the crudest sense.”
Of course, this is Sir Patrick Stewart. “Act out” is in different context here than it would be for, say, Miley Cyrus. We’re talking posting goofy photos dressed as a lobster in a bathtub on Twitter; not twerking. We’re talking about an unexpectedly fruitful collaboration between a knighted thespian and Hollywood’s controversial court jester, Seth MacFarlane, on projects from Family Guy to Ted to the upcoming Blunt Talk—which, airing on Starz in 2015, will be Stewart’s first regular TV role since he vowed to live long and prosper.
Then there’s the slyer form of acting out: acting against type, a formidable feat for an actor of Stewart’s age and why Match—a small film, but one that provides Stewart with his meatiest leading movie role in decades—is such a turning point in his career.
Stewart’s character, Tobi, is an effervescent Julliard dance teacher, basking in the freedom of his later-in-life embracement of his sexuality. His enthusiasm for everything—from the arts to frank discussion of sex—explodes, allowing Stewart to trade in the seriousness and stuffiness we’ve branded him with for a gregariousness that’s a joy to watch. Tobi’s joie de vivre practically pirouettes out of his body, only to be stifled in the cruelest, most sudden fashion when a grown man (Matthew Lillard) and his wife (Carla Gugino) misrepresent themselves in order to dig up uncomfortable secrets about his past.
Don’t be fooled: this is a heavy piece. There’s a novelty, sure, in hearing Sir Patrick Stewart bellow lines like, “You want to hear more about the fucking?” But, and this should be no surprise, Stewart finds enough humanity to siphon any element of camp out of such dialogue. So as the arguing over the responsibility of fathers and the demands of sons escalates to nearly operatic levels, Match becomes a Rorschach test of a film: you begin to see your own paternal issues, whatever they might be, in it.
Stewart himself relates to that latter point. Though much of our conversation light-heartedly flits between the silliness of Seth MacFarlane and the cuteness of Stewart’s social media presence, he never breaks out of that meaningful whisper, that crisp cadence that’s made the sound of his voice an instantly recognizable signature, as if he’s speaking directly to your soul. That whispered delivery intensifies as we begin talking about how the film reverberated for him personally.
Growing up in a poor Yorkshire household, Stewart regularly witnessed his father hit his mother, an upbringing that Stewart has spoken at length about how it’s informed his activism and career. It’s a history that gives extra weight to a scene in which his Match character, Tobi, enraged, stops Lillard’s character from hitting his wife.
“One of the charms of being an actor is that no experiences are ever wasted,” Stewart says, showing signs of vulnerability but steadfast in creating the air that a very wise person is about to teach you something very important. “They all get put into that bank account of life experience, and you never know when you’re going to need to tap it. So they just lie there, waiting for that opportunity to come along. So you can say, ‘I know what’s going on here. What it feels like.’”
As you kind of want when you’re in a room talking one-on-one with Sir Patrick Stewart, almost every story devolves into a rambling, nostalgic tangent. “I can’t think of why this connects to Match and why I brought it up,” he even says at one point, laughing to himself, after spinning a yarn about his time at the Royal Shakespeare Company with Ian McKellen and Ben Kingsley and Helen Mirren that, indeed, had nothing to do with the film (but which was still expectedly fascinating).
This tangent, however, one about the director who finally convinced him that “it was possible to release these internal things and know that bad things weren’t going to happen as a result of it,” was very applicable. He was set to play Leontes in The Winter’s Tale—“a really unspeakable individual”—and didn’t want to play the part because he was such an unlikable character and unpleasant man.
The director, Ronald Eyre, set him straight. “Eyre said to me, ‘Well the fact is that this guy is already inside of you. He’s there. It’s too late. All you need to do is have the courage to let him out. And if you do, I won’t let you fall. Nothing bad will happen.’” Stewart says. “I remember the day he said that to me. I knew no other way of working after that.”
It’s tempting to apply that advice, albeit in a much lighter interpretation, to Stewart’s recent embracing of not just his dark past, but his silly present-day inclinations.
Stewart, you see, has become an unlikely Internet star, joining the army of self-aware, candid, and game-for-anything young Hollywood celebrities who are investing in social media and the viral potential of every public appearance in order to reinvent themselves. The result is that Stewart is cultivating a public persona that reaches new levels of likable.
He’s wily. He’s playful. He’s mischievous and shrewd. He’s basically the septuagenarian version of Jennifer Lawrence.
His talent is indisputable. His respectable reputation is, at this point, protected by the strongest Kevlar. And, because of this, he basically has carte blanche to buy into the modern cultural mandate that celebrities are as goofy as we are, as fallible as we are, and relatable enough to be our new best friends.
Yes, you too can be buddies with a knighted actor who captained the Starship Enterprise. Or at least that’s what he wants you to think.
“When you enter into the world of social media you have to take on board the fact that your life is going to be viewed a little differently, and you are inviting people in in a way that just being an actor on stage or on film doesn’t do,” Stewart says. “Now you’re connecting. In fact the word to use, I now understand because I’m about to increase my social media exposure massively, is called engagement.”
(Sir Patrick Stewart just used the word “engagement.”)
You can see examples of that savvy in the way he’s been dealing with faux controversy, like when he was mistakenly outed as gay by a British newspaper. “Well, @guardian it makes for a nice change…at least I didn’t wake up to the internet telling me I was dead again,” he tweeted. Stewart, whose best friend and out actor Ian McKellen officiated his wedding, is of course a longtime LGBT ally, and treated the news perfectly.
“Oh, the first person I heard from of course was Ian McKellan, who congratulated me,” he says when I bring up the incident. “It was delightful and turned something that could’ve been, I don’t know, awkward into something lovely.”
There was also the aforementioned photo of Stewart dressed as a lobster in a bathtub, which was one of the most viral photos of 2013. Or the Jimmy Kimmel bit from this week currently making the rounds in which he plays each of the most annoying people on an airplane. Or there’s the series of photos he shot with Ian McKellen, in which they posed as tourists all over New York.
Stewart speaks of all of these things with all the grandfatherly wonder you’d expect from a person in his seventies familiarizing himself with things like Twitter. “It established Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart, knights of the theatre, in a totally different way,” he says about that photo series, for example. “I think people had viewed us as Charles Xavier and Magneto, or Gandalf and Captain Picard, and I found that more exciting than I expected.”
And he wraps all of this—the social media presence, his new playful public persona, and even Match—into his foray into ribald comedy, which he says began with Ricky Gervais inviting him to guest star on Extras and blossomed when he began working with Seth MacFarlane.
“It’s always been there, but there just hasn’t been an opportunity,” he says. “I’m excited by the possibilities. I’m right on the threshold of getting out of the shallows and diving into the deep end.”
Naturally, there should be no doubt about his abilities to navigate those waters, or captain that ship.