Steven Gaydos, Vice President & Executive Editor, Variety moderated a conversation with the legendary Sir Patrick Stewart who was also honored by the 2017 Hamptons International Film Festival with a Creative Impact in Acting Award.
Sir Patrick spoke about playing Professor Charles Xavier in the latest X-Men epic Logan and reflected on the impact Star Trek: The Next Generation has had. Read a few highlights from the conversation below:
On working with Sir Ben Kingsley and other notable actors in the early stages of his career:
Ben and I joined the Royal Shakespeare Company within one year of one another. I was playing supporting roles with good understudies. Ben, I think in the first season, I don’t think he actually had a line to speak. But he sang very nicely and played the guitar. He and I were– in fact the same season that Ben joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, another actor, now tragically, sadly, already gone, Roger Rees was in the same company. And Roger didn’t have anything to do, he had no words, and in the Royal Shakespeare Company they stayed on, they worked and worked, and then ended up giving an absolutely magnificent Hamlet and Roger, of course, became internationally famous for playing Nicholas Nickleby, the Royal Shakespeare Company.
I was surrounded by brilliant actors, and I was mostly intimidated by them and fearful of them, but mostly intimidated, and at the same time mostly admired an actor called Ian Holden. He was my inspiration, so far as the theater was concerned. He had a way of speaking Shakespeare’s language as he had just formed it, and yet it was also poetic. He lived the roles that he played, and I watched him night after night after night, trying to work out how it was he did what he did; and attempt to emulate him.
But of the great well-known stars, perhaps Sir Ralph Richardson [was] the man I admired most. And there was also John Gielgud, and one of the big adventures of my life was this past year for six months in London, Ian McKellen and myself played the roles that Sir John and Sir Ralph had created in Harold Pinter’s masterpiece No Man’s Land. And not only were we playing those roles but we were actually saying those lines on the same stage on which they had performed this play, which was a thrill for both of us. So I had lots of heroes and idols, I didn’t think too much about myself. I was, I think, far too insecure and questioning as a young actor but they got inside me and as time went by, it worked.
On working on Logan:
Well, first of all, that you should pay me the compliment of talking about a project I’ve been in, and in the same breath mentioning Elia Kazan, nothing could make me happier than that. When we met to start discussing Logan, Hugh reminded me that we were in our 17th year of living with X-Men. I couldn’t believe that that was possibly true but indeed it was. 17 years since Hugh came, as a late replacement for another actor to do a screen test of Logan, and we had grown very close during that time, as all of us who were regulars in the series had grown close, and we were very happy to continue to make good movies. Because, a little like Star Trek, X-Men was always about something. It had a subject matter. It had a protest to make. It was about the challenges of being Other. Of being different. And how society could treat those who were different, and, perhaps the most important consideration in those movies and in society today.
On meeting director James Mangold and reading the Logan script for the first time:
And then I went to see James Mangold, who I’d only done one day’s work with in the past. And I hadn’t read the script– but he just talked about the vision he had for it, and I realized at once that we were going to be in a very different world from the conventional X-men world. And after he told me this, he pressed a buzzer and an assistant came in with a script; it was finally put in front of me. I took it home that night; read it. And I was, well, certainly, very, very moved by what I read. In fact I do remember a couple of times putting the script down because it made me so emotional. And I was excited. I was excited by the prospect of being so close to Hugh for all my moments in the movie. But, excited as an actor, because I had been working to establish a character, a personality of Charles Xavier, as an intelligent, not to say intellectual man. Compassionate, sensitive, caring, determined to save the lives of others. Determined to create a society in which the lives of those who were different would be accepted. And I began reading this script, and found there was this sick, confused, crazy, unstable and yes, dangerous individual– oh, not to say foul-mouthed! I said words in Logan that I don’t think were in Charles’ vocabulary at all in earlier bits and pieces of the franchise.
Hugh was already deeply committed to the story and the style of the movie. And James Mangold’s passion for it and his determination, not just to do something different, but to take the original lives, with all of the historic knowledge we have of Logan, and Charles, and other X-men who were referred to in the movie and uncover, expose them. Make them scared, weak at times. And that I found irresistible. And James, who pursued his vision rigorously on set, nevertheless I found was a director who was wide-open, and welcoming to actors’ impulses as well. So he would direct the scene, and then we would perform it, and based on what he had seen, I think particularly of the very first scene that Hugh and I share, a long scene in which Charles is crazy and rambling and Hugh is unhappy and anxious as Logan and worried and we did it once and immediately James’ view of the scene shifted, to embrace what we were bringing into the room. Shifted significantly! So that he would say ‘I like that, more of that, yes, more of that.’ And he’s one of the few directors that I know who occasionally would applaud at the end of a take, if he really liked it. Now that’s a charming, charming man. So, it was a focused and intense experience, performed in the heat of a Louisiana summer, and it remains and will remain one of the best experiences of my life.
On evolving as an actor:
I think of that scene [in Logan] around the dinner table in the farmhouse, and wonder how many superhero movies have a scene like that, right in the very middle of the movie, where good people sit around and enjoy a pleasant and simple dinner. I feel I’ve been fortunate many times over in my career that certain roles have come along at exactly the right moment. Not the moment when I know I can play them, but the moment when I can absorb myself in the role and learn something new. By trusting that taking risks and being as brave as possible might reap some benefits for performances as well as for the movie. And as I’ve got older and perhaps little by little more confident and less intimidated than I once was, I’ve found that I can explore myself and what I am in a role as much as I can explore the role. Because that was one of the things I always admired so much about American actors. British actors on the screen were, for me, brilliant impersonators, dazzling impersonators, but were they real? Did I think that they were breathing real air? Were they living in the moment? Not very often. And yet, in most American movies that I saw from the age of 8 or 10 upwards, that’s what I experienced, and I never quite realized that that was what I wanted to be. Well, slowly, it’s coming around to that.
On when he realized Star Trek was a phenomenon:
It was after we had wrapped the opening season, the first year– we did, I think, 26 episodes in that first year. And I had been aware that my friends and colleagues on the show were talking about conventions they had been to on weekends. And I said, ‘Do you mean like, actors’ conventions?’ ‘No, Star Trek conventions!’ And I realized I’d been invited to one or two and I’d always said ‘No, I can not possibly leave town, I have too much work to do for the coming week. But finally I was prevailed on to do one, after we had wrapped the season, and this was in Denver. And I arrived, flew to Denver, and was taken to the back of this building, and it looked like quite a big building, and they said ‘You have, 5 or 10 minutes til you go on stage’ and I said ‘Oh, okay, good’ and I drank some water, I was very nervous, and then I said to the guy ‘Look– is anybody there? Does anybody come and see this stuff?’ You know, I’m just an actor, talking on. And they said: ‘Oh yes.’ And, I was announced, as I walked on stage and… I’ve been lucky enough to get to know Paul McCartney, at one stage in my career. I liked him very much. And that afternoon in Denver, I felt like Paul McCartney. There were over 2,000 people in this auditorium. It was like an aircraft hangar. And they stood and cheered and applauded and cheered, and I was, as we say where I come from, Gobstopped. Couldn’t speak, didn’t know what to say, but I realized, wow, we did something, and it has affected people. And that was always one of the major reasons why I wanted to act. I wanted to change people in some way or another so that they leave the theater, they leave the cinema not quite the same as when they came in.
Audi is the premiere sponsor for the 25th Annual Hamptons International Film Festival.