Patrick Stewart has an innate gravitas, but who knew he is such a huge Beavis and Butthead fan?
Sitting across from Sir Patrick Stewart this week, on the eve of the premiere of his new series Star Trek: Picard, I was overcome with a certain childhood nostalgia. It was as if that hero from my evenings after school had been beamed into the room from a mid-90s tube TV. But then I felt something else, too: I was nervous.
Now the nature of my work brings me into frequent contact with various celebrities, and I’ve become inured through experience to the usual feelings of awe and apprehension — to that flutter in the belly churned up in proximity to the hugely famous. But Sir Patrick Stewart is no mere movie star. He is a presence — and there before him, timorous and humbled, I didn’t want to ask him questions so much as bask in his resounding warmth.
When I was a boy of about six or seven, I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation every week with my older brother. Like a lot of boys my age, I saw Captain Jean-Luc Picard as a sort of benevolent authority figure — someone to trust and look up to, like a firefighter or kindly policeman. So it was with astonishment that I received the schoolyard rumour, circulated credulously, that the man who played Picard, a serious actor who performed Shakespeare, loved Beavis and Butthead. I remember the debates this gossip entrained with my brother. We wanted to believe it. It simply didn’t seem possible.
I decided to settle the debate, a quarter of a century on: I put the question to Stewart. The staid features of the 79-year-old face slowly broke — into the mile-wide grin of a mischievous child. “Heh heh heh,” he snickered, in precise imitation of Beavis’s shrill, maniac laugh. “Shut up, Beavis!”
It was remarkable, hearing Patrick Stewart launch into a spontaneous Beavis and Butthead impression. At this point I reflexively checked my tape-recorder, desperate to safeguard the only evidence that it wasn’t a hallucination or a dream. “I love that show. I’m so sorry that it’s gone,” he continued, voice choked with genuine regret. “I don’t know why it appealed to me, but it did. It was brilliant, that’s why. Incredible characters. Heh heh heh heh.”
The sober thespian tittering over crass cartoons. It’s an irresistible contrast, for the same reason that he’d long ago seized our imaginations as schoolchildren. Sir Patrick Stewart just doesn’t seem the type. Does this juxtaposition of the highbrow and the lowbrow — of Shakespeare and Butthead — reflect some duality within him? “I would call Beavis and Butthead extremely highbrow,” Stewart protested. “Not lowbrow at all.”
Of course, he understood what I mean by the distinction. And he conceded that he has always had an affection for, even an affinity with, the broadly comic. “I grew up loving Laurel and Hardy. In fact, my grandmother babysat Stan Laurel when he was a few months old — she ran a boarding house in the northeast of England. I worshipped them. And of course I loved Chaplin, and when I was a little older I fell in love with Danny Kaye.”
Stewart is the sort of actor who can make anything sound serious. He has an innate gravity; whatever he says, however ridiculous, comes out utterly plausible and grave. On The Next Generation, he could say stuff like, “following a magnetic wave survey of the Parvenium Sector, we’ve detected an anomaly which cannot be identified” — and he could say it with such effortless profundity that you’d swear it was King Lear.
This was not a gift Stewart endeavoured to cultivate, when he first started acting. He never wanted to do this sort of dramatic theatricality at all. “I always thought, when I became a professional, that I would just move into comedy,” he explained. “But it never happened. I became this sort of, ugh, somber, dreary, kind of pompous figure.”
In 2005, Stewart appeared in an episode of Extras, the Hollywood backlot satire created by and starring Ricky Gervais. For those accustomed only to Sir Patrick’s decorous Star Trek line readings, the cameo was a revelation — a bawdy, uproarious scene-stealing bit of farce. Stewart played himself as an aspiring screenwriter, whose masterpiece-in-progress revolves around his character seeing naked women. (“Suddenly her clothes fall off, and I’ve seen everything,” Stewart enthuses lecherously.) Things “changed a little” for Stewart after Extras, he said. “So now maybe down the road I shall get another career going doing comedy.”
In the meantime he has returned to familiar territory. He’s back in Star Trek, back as Captain Jean-Luc Picard. It’s been nearly 26 years since The Next Generation ended its seven-season run. In Picard, Stewart gets back into the rhythm in about 26 seconds. The series opens with a dream sequence set aboard the long since decommissioned starship Enterprise, in which Picard, now a retired admiral, enjoys a Texas Hold’em lesson with Commander Data, the android played by Brent Spiner, who reprises the role. The show soon moves in surprising new directions — the plot concerns Data’s mysterious legacy and a set of twins with dark secrets — but these first moments make clear that Stewart’s easy gravitas as Picard hasn’t diminished.
Those expecting Picard to bear a close resemblance to The Next Generation may of course be frustrated by the show’s insistence on establishing its own identity — one deliberately and conspicuously unlike previous iterations of Star Trek. But for Stewart that was very much the point. “I was looking for diversity, but particularly diversity in a move away from The Next Generation,” he told me when I asked what he wanted to see on the page and on the screen. “No disrespect to The Next Generation, because I’m very proud of everything we did on that show. But I had moved on — so I wanted this series to show me signs that it, too, would move on. And I was finally unprepared for the extent to which they embraced that.”
As my precious time in the company of Patrick Stewart drew to its inevitable close, I reflected that I was no longer nervous — his warmth, his gravity, had put me at ease, and now we were chatting freely. It was this spirit, I believe, that animated The Next Generation, and it’s this same spirit, still exuding from Stewart, that animates Picard, regardless of its differences in tone and direction.
Isa Briones, who stars in the show as Dahj, told me that Picard, and indeed Stewart himself, were meant as aspirational models: “People love Picard so much because we’ve lost faith in our world, and we are looking for a leader with a moral compass and who cares about people.” Which does seem to make him a space-age Bernie Sanders figure. “I’m very fond of Bernie Sanders. Good guy,” Stewart said in agreement. “Maybe that’s where we’re going: Captain Picard for president.”