Meeting Sir Patrick Stewart is exactly what you'd hope it would be. He's warm and jovial, like the online persona he's built as all-around good guy and best pal of Ian McKellen. He's self-effacing in that way only Brits seem to be capable of. And, of course, there's his voice, which sounds like it emerged, freshly hewn, from the center of an oak tree. Even in the middle of a crowded restaurant on a day when he and his co-stars had been doing interview after interview, his voice rose above the din.
Stewart and his co-star Adrian Scarborough — esteemed as a British theater actor but less known to American audiences — were there, ostensibly, to talk about their new Starz comedy Blunt Talk, which debuts Saturday, August 22, and hails from the unlikely combination of Jonathan Ames (the man behind the wonderfully weird HBO mystery-comedy Bored to Death) and Seth MacFarlane (the man behind Family Guy, among others).
You can watch the first two episodes for free right now.
Stewart plays a respected newsman who seems to lose it all at once — like if the movie Network were turned into a self-consciously naughty cable comedy. Stewart's take on the character is less dirty old man and more the optimistic older fellow trying to make sense of the chaos swirling around him. It's not unlike Stewart himself, who's so famous for so many roles but continues to do and try just about anything.
As it turned out, that extended to our chat, in which we discussed the most embarrassing nights he and Scarborough had ever had on the live stage, why Americans are much snobbier about genre and medium than the Brits, and what a theatrical background brings to performing comedy. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
"I'm in my underpants, and I hear, 'Mr. Stewart, on stage immediately, please!'"
Todd VanDerWerff: You've both had such extensive experience on stage, so I'm wondering, in each of your careers, what has been the single worst night on the stage you've ever had?
Patrick Stewart: I was in a production of King Lear with the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing an important but minor character, the Duke of Cornwall. He gets killed off halfway through the play. There's a long scene, which is a huge scene for Lear and for his daughters. Cornwall only has one or two comments. It's a scene that goes on and on and on, and it's one of Lear's great legendary scenes. I had this line in the scene, "Hullah! What trumpet's that?"
God, we were doing two Lears that day, and Eric Porter played Lear. One afternoon, I think I lost concentration a little bit, and I came to and there was silence, so I said, "Hullah! What trumpet's that?" There was a snort of laughter from all the soldiers, the lads lined up in the back.
Eric Porter turned and looked at me, with these big eyebrows. I thought, "Fuck. Fuck, maybe it wasn't me." Then he went on talking. He paused. That's all it was. I come in with this line, and of course, then I realize, "Oh my god. What is hurtling toward me now? 'Hullah, what trumpet's that?'" The line came up, and I said it, and of course all the lads start snorting, laughing.
The moment the scene was over, I went straight to Eric's dressing room and apologized. "I lost it. I'm sorry, I lost concentration, and I thought it was my cue."
He was very tough with me. "Don't lose concentration again. It's very hard, that scene, and I need you to be paying attention."
Saturday night, same play, we're in the middle of that scene, and I am concentrating. I've got beads of sweat. I'm listening to every line, and looking at everybody. Then there's a silence, and I hear my voice saying, "Hullah, what trumpet's that?" I have no control over it. I've said it again, in the same wrong place. This time Eric whips around, and I swear, I thought he was going to tear my throat out. He was so angry, quite rightly so, too, because he thought it was a gag.
And then I have to say it a fourth time! Humiliating, embarrassing, and shameful.
One other thing. One night with Alan Howard, doing Antony and Cleopatra, there's a scene when his closest friend, Enobarbus, is very unhappy about how he's behaving, and decides he's going to join the other side.
I had a soliloquy which ended, "I will seek some way to leave him." This one night, I said this line so determined that I walked off, through the wings, up to my dressing room, and began to change into my other outfit for when I've gone over to Caesar. I'm in my underpants, and I hear, "Mr. Stewart, on stage immediately, please." I realize, I had one more scene to play with Antony before I went over to the other side, and I'd just forgotten it.
Alan Howard, may he rest in peace, was alone on the stage, and so he played the whole scene as a soliloquy, saying my lines and his lines as well. He, too, wasn't amused when I went to apologize to him. These things happen.
Adrian Scarborough: I had a very dear friend of mine who was playing Nancy in a production of Oliver Twist. I was playing Oliver Twist. I was a lot younger and slimmer than I am now, would you believe. I was proper waif-like. This was when I was 21.
PS: [Laughs.] You played Oliver Twist when you were 21?
AS: I played Oliver Twist when I was 21, yes. I'd been a struggling student for four years by then, so I was eating one fishcake a week.
My friend Sally had to make an entrance through a trap door at the Bristol Old Vic, and the rake on the stage was so severe, and her heels were so high, that as she stood up she actually slipped off the stage and into a man who was wearing one of those headsets, because he was deaf. She got tangled up in his cables and couldn't get back on.
I laughed so hard that I wet myself. That was my worst nightmare.
PS: Very Oliver Twist!
"He said to me, 'But tell me. Why would I want Jean-Luc Picard in my movie?'"
TV: You two have a somewhat codependent relationship in Blunt Talk. Did you know each other before you worked on this?
AS: We had worked together before, but only very briefly.
PS: Two days.
AS: Two days, in a radio studio.
PS: I knew who Adrian was. He knew who I was. The theater world in England is a very small world, for those actors who work regularly in it.
TV: In England you can do film, you can do a TV show, you can do a play, you can do a radio show. What's edifying about bouncing between those things?
AS: Every day brings a new challenge. I've always wanted to mix it up and do lots and lots of different things. If I ever feel like I'm in the theater for too long, I always get itchy and want to try to do something else, as well. Love the constant stimulation.
PS: We're lucky if you can create a career that allows you this movement between genre and different types of media. I think there's less likelihood of actors becoming really trapped in one role, in one character, in the UK than maybe there is here. I'm a lot older than Adrian, but it's to do with our time as theater actors, because the theater has changed in England so radically since I was a young actor, working in regional theater. I left drama school and was immediately doing everything, right away. All kinds of stuff. In the UK, there's no class, or status, about what work you do.
When I lived [in the US], which I did from '87 to 2003, 2004, I often felt that people would ask you what you did because they could classify you. When I discovered being in a syndicated science fiction show actually was pretty low down the status ladder of Hollywood, it surprised and saddened me a little bit. When Star Trek was all over, I went to see this director whose movie I was really desperate to be in, and we had a great meeting. Then he said to me, "But tell me, why would I want Jean-Luc Picard in my movie?"
Our generation, we got so many opportunities. Nobody's going to say, "Oh, you're doing radio plays, are you?" Meaning, "Is that all you can get these days?" We work in the Young Vic, where you're getting 180 pounds a week, and everybody understands why you're doing it. Usually you're doing it because of the work, because the work is absolutely unique and special.
AS: And why you pop off one afternoon to do a commercial voiceover. [Both laugh.]
"Audiences don't understand how essential they are to the experience"
TV: What were you most surprised to learn about your characters over the first season of this show?
AS: I was far more three-dimensional than I'd first thought. The way Jonathan rounds out a character is incredibly thorough, and he has very, very clear ideas of where those characters are headed. He doesn't necessarily tell you. You pick up a script, and you find a development in your character that you didn't know about two episodes before, keeping you constantly excited about what you might find out about the next bit of your journey through the series.
PS: We were about a third of the way through the series when Jonathan said to me, "You know, you keep introducing an infantile element into the character." I had not thought of it, but I realized that I was, and I was enjoying it. There was this aspect to this powerful and intimidating newspaperman which was actually childlike. Seeing that clearly helped with so many of the strange situations that I found myself in.
TV: To bring things full circle, there's such a theatricality to this show. What do you think your theatrical backgrounds bring to performing comedy on camera?
PS: [To Adrian.] Do you think it has something to do with our very intimate and extensive knowledge of live audiences?
AS: Maybe that's what it is. Instinctively, you know how an audience is going to react to something, because you've had experience of doing onstage so much.
PS: I remember my acting teacher when I was at drama school saying, "Stage acting is a three way connection: the actor, the author, and the audience. They are all a part of this continually shifting, moving connection." Audiences don't understand how essential they are to the experience, and what an impact they can have on it. Maybe that helps with comedy on camera.
AS: We did have an audience, in the crew, who were wonderfully supportive and helpful. You knew if you could get them to laugh, you were getting somewhere.
Blunt Talk's 10-episode first season premieres Saturday, August 22, at 9 pm Eastern on Starz.