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Life Lessons From Sir Patrick Stewart

The Shakespearean-trained actor discusses driving fast, Barbie — and speaking out


VIDEO: Patrick Stewart Learned to Lighten Up and Love Himself

The actor Patrick Stewart, 83, published Making It So: A Memoir, in October.

Expand your orbit

The world I was born into was very enclosed, small. But when I was 7 or 8 my mother took me to a movie, and not a kid’s movie — there were some romantic scenes that made me feel a little uncomfortable. Still, though I couldn’t follow the story exactly, I took so much of it with me. It invited me into a broadening civilization that if I had not gone, I might never have experienced.

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Acting as a teen

I had a father who was very troubled, and his troubles led him to violent behavior that was contemptible. But mixing with adults like my English teacher allowed me a look at the broader world. I suddenly found myself in the company of clever, well-educated people. And what a relief I wasn’t Patrick Stewart when I was being Hopcroft Minor in The Happiest Days of Your Life, because Patrick Stewart’s life was pretty crummy a lot of the time back then.

On acting

I was probably 13, and there was a review which said, “and Patrick Stewart was barely adequate.” It punched me. And I think it gave me the feeling of “I’ll show you.” Later, a professional actor that I met when I was very young said to me, “Patrick, the important thing is you mustn’t give a damn about what you’re doing. Just do it. Let it come out.” It was a very important lesson — and one I try to stick to, even today.

Find your people

The school I was attending, not an academic school, ended at the age of 15. My local newspaper, persuaded by my headmaster and English teacher, took me on as a trainee journalist. I finally convinced them to let me do a theater review. The next morning, I put my copy down in front of the editor and then I heard this groan. He said, “Patrick, what’s this? What does ‘intimate’ mean?” And I said, “Oh, well, um, uh, closeness, um, uh, connection.” And he said, “We can’t have language like that in this paper” and made a big deal of crossing it out with a red pen. The phrase “intimate theater” meant something to me, but it didn’t mean anything to Henry Pickles.

Instagram sensation

I was having a glass of wine with Sunny [wife Sunny Ozell] and I began to say the first line of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. And she said, “Could I film that? I think we should post this.” I said, “Oh, no. It’s like me showing off.” And she said, “People will be interested.” It exploded. It was hard work, but it is extraordinary that now calls from the other side of the street are “I love Star Trek! I love X-Men! I love your sonnets!”

Don’t be such a snob

Barbie has never been in my life at all. All of a sudden, my New York Times is full of Barbie, Barbie, Barbie. So I said to my wife, I must go see it because of the impact it’s having; it has got to teach me something. Well, I struggled for the first hour. I thought that I wasn’t going to make it. It was turning cuteness into something substantial and, really, cuteness isn’t. But when we got to the last scenes, my eyes were full of tears. And I found myself connecting my life experience to the one that the film was illustrating.

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Driving royalty

Paul McCartney’s girlfriend at that time was in the theater company I was working in at Bristol in 1964. We were playing a game in a pub: If you had a million dollars, what’s the first thing you’d buy? I said, “An Aston Martin.” A couple of weeks later, after the Saturday night show, I was changing in my little, tiny box of a dressing room, and there was a knock on the door. I was in my underwear, and I said, “Come on in.” Because in the theater we don’t bother about those things, unlike the movies, where you have somebody guarding the door. And the door opened, and there was Paul. And he said, “Jane tells me that you like Aston Martins.” And he tossed me a set of keys and said, “Take me and Jane for a ride.” And all I could think of was, If I crash this car and kill Paul McCartney, that’s all I will be remembered for. So, it wasn’t really fun.

Have fun

I made a remark at a cast meeting at Star Trek that everybody was having too much fun. One of the actors said, “Patrick, we’ve got to have some fun.” And I said, “We’re not here to have fun.” For years and years all my dear colleagues from Next Generation have quoted that at me. I’m continually reminded what a fool I was. Because, yes, nothing but fun would be wrong. But to have fun as a part of the serious process was very important.

Finish the job

In the original final scene of Star Trek: Picard, there’s a dog by my side and you hear a woman’s voice saying, “Supper’s ready.” On the last day of shooting, we had so much unfinished work and I was flying to London the next day. So, I said, “Look, it’s only me in front of green screen. We can shoot it anytime. All I need is the dog.” But we never got to shoot the scene. I wish we’d shot it. Because it still lives in my head.

Domestic violence

For many years I was reluctant to speak about aspects of my childhood. I was ashamed that my father did the things that he did. As I got older, little by little I found that I could occasionally mention them. Then as my career took off, I was being invited to support organizations. I was uneasy about becoming involved. And indeed, it did attract enemies, even threats.

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Make ’em laugh

One of my ambitions, should my work continue, is to do more comedy. Making people laugh gave me so much satisfaction. Because I’ve been in productions where I’ve seen people sitting wiping their eyes, and I feel sorry for them.

Loving soccer

My day yesterday began with watching my beloved home team win their first game of the season. My wife added it up and said, “You’ve supported Huddersfield Town Football Club for 74 years. This has got to be close to a record.” My uncle took me to my first Huddersfield Town soccer game, and I watched all of my first professional soccer game sitting on his shoulders. Now, of course, I sit in the director’s box! [Laughs.]

Exercise your brain

I’ve become absolutely committed to jigsaw puzzles. I’ve fallen in love with abstract painting puzzles. I finished one yesterday by Paul Klee which was very challenging. You have to get to know the painting so well. I use 1,000-piece jigsaws — I can’t do bigger than that because they take up too much space. We get big sheets of cardboard and then spray it with glue, and then I take it to a local framer. I used to have them made with glass, but I’ve stopped doing that because they’re jigsaw puzzles.

Obey the law

I’ve taken part in two races on professional Formula One racecourses and am a big fan. And I have two Porsches, one in England and one here in Los Angeles. But people have said, “You’re wasting that Porsche,” because I have become rigorous about maintaining regulations: maximum speed, school zones, stop signs. And it annoys people so much.

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