It was on X-Men that Stewart and McKellen, who'd both been in the Royal Shakespeare Company but had never worked together, became close. "X-Men was so technically complex that as an actor you spent more time in your trailer than actually doing a job," Stewart explains. "So Ian and I would talk for hours and found out how much we had in common."
Later, the two — McKellen knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1991; Stewart, in 2010 — starred together in Waiting for Godot in London and on tour. For 22 weeks they shared a dressing room. "Although we were born within 50 miles of each other," says McKellen, 74, "Yorkshiremen like Patrick are at odds with Lancastrians like me. In Yorkshire they tend to be blunt, and in Lancashire, less so. Patrick is indeed straightforward. This helps his acting be crystal clear. But underneath, his nature is a very sweet one. And we spend much of our time laughing." McKellen, who is gay (he came out in 1988 at age 49), adds jokingly that there was never any hanky-panky: "We were always in separate beds!"
See also: Coming out at 50: Frank Dunn’s story
Joking aside, Stewart was having his own coming out of sorts: In a 2006 interview, he revealed publicly the story of his abusive father. "I'd never talked about it and just decided I would," he says with a shrug. Within months, the leaders of Refuge, the first safe house in England for women and children, asked him to host their annual fundraiser.
"People were moved to tears when Patrick spoke about his childhood experience of domestic violence," says Refuge chief executive Sandra Horley. Now one of the organization's key patrons, Stewart has fronted many of its high-profile campaigns.
He is also the face of Amnesty International's Stop Violence Against Women campaign, and last year he appeared at an event sponsored by the human rights group Breakthrough to launch its global campaign, calling for 1 million men to pledge to end violence against women and children.
His work on behalf of battered women is something he's extremely proud of. "I do it for my mother, because I couldn't help her back then," he offers. But these days he honors his father's memory, too.
Two years ago, while researching his family's genealogy for the BBC program Who Do You Think You Are?, Stewart interviewed the current regimental sergeant major of the unit in which his father served. "Those airborne troops were shot coming down in parachutes, surrounded by German forces and had to fight under terrible conditions," Stewart says. "It was a slaughter." With the BBC's cameras running, Stewart was shown a rumpled news clipping announcing the return home from World War II to Mirfield of Sergeant Alfred Stewart, who was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — then called shell shock.
"I didn't know," Stewart says. "I don't think my mother knew. I don't think anybody knew."
Stewart quickly consulted PTSD experts and gained an appreciation for his father's travails. "Civilian slaughter, his life endangered, the possibility of being captured and in a prisoner of war camp for who knows how long," Stewart explains. "He never got treatment. He was told to pull himself together and be a man." The discovery, Stewart says, has allowed him to "reassess" who his father was, but not excuse the behavior. And it has propelled his efforts to help prevent others from suffering. He has signed on as a patron of Combat Stress, a British charity that supports veterans struggling with mental health problems.
These endeavors have brought him full circle. "I work with Refuge for my mother, and I support Combat Stress for my father," he says.
And so his journey continues, and in partaking, the son has found his own reward. "I am very, very happy," says Sir Patrick Stewart, his grip releasing his forearms, his shoulders relaxed, his eyes clear.
Meg Grant is West Coast Editor of AARP The Magazine.
Also of Interest
- 10 essential boomer movies
- 10 budget-friendly trips for 2014?
- Get free, individualized tax preparation; find a Tax-Aide location near you
Visit the AARP home page for great deals and savings tips