Patrick Stewart Finds Light in the Darkness
At the height of his powers, the actor has banished his demons by fighting for battered women, veterans
En español | It's take-out night at the Brooklyn, New York, home of Sir Patrick Stewart, and the British actor best known for playing Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation has focused his steely gaze on a Margherita pizza. But before he digs in, his new wife, Sunny Ozell, grabs a pizza slicer in the shape of the USS Enterprise starship, and Stewart, 73, whips out his smartphone. Ozell, a singer-songwriter, hums the first few bars of the original Star Trek theme song as she triumphantly cuts a wedge for Sir Patrick's camera.
The next morning, Stewart uploads the video onto Instagram, where it will wend its way to his nearly 1 million social media followers.
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About a year ago Stewart jumped into the roiling Facebook-Twitter-Instagram universe and has rapidly amassed an army of fans. Many of his daffy selfies have gone viral. A photo of the commanding Sir Patrick in a lobster costume was retweeted 39,000 times. And when he paired up for a romp around New York with good buddy Sir Ian McKellen, his costar on Broadway in both Waiting for Godot and No Man's Land, the duo became a social media sensation.
Turns out Sir Patrick Stewart is not the remote, stuffy Shakespearean actor many might expect. "He's really, really funny," says his friend Carla Gugino, who costars with him in the upcoming film Match.
And these days Stewart is having a lot of fun, not just with social media but with his abundant stage and film work — including a reprise of his role as Professor Charles Xavier in another X-Men sequel, to be released in May — and with the people he loves.
At the top of that list is Ozell, 35, whom Stewart met in 2008 when he was performing in Macbeth at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (McKellen married the couple on the banks of Lake Tahoe last September.) Still, Stewart's current high-flying state belies a torturous inner journey the actor endured for much of his life.
Far from the heroic, self-assured characters he's played — and the joyful person he is today — Stewart was for decades a man plagued by fear and stifled by rage. The roots of his struggle go back to a difficult childhood, marked by poverty and abuse that took him years to understand. Having only recently opened up about the trauma of his early years, he now behaves as a person liberated, and eager, finally, to step out and join the party.
"I have been inclined to be solitary in huge chunks of my life," says Stewart, enunciating the words in his recognizable baritone. "I don't think that's a good thing anymore. I think the interaction of being with people, especially people you like, is very important for keeping you sharp, alert, active, connected." And perhaps, in Stewart's case, younger looking than his years. On this day he is wearing cowboy boots, hip red corduroy slacks, a cotton henley that accentuates his pectoral muscles, and a stylish pair of front-connect readers. He is affable, though thoughtful, and while he says he "couldn't be happier," we understand by the depth of his gaze and the way he sometimes grips his forearms that it was not always so.
Patrick Stewart was the youngest of three boys born to Gladys and Alfred Stewart in Mirfield, Yorkshire, England. "From my calculations, I was conceived immediately before my father went to war," Stewart says, "and he didn't come home until September 1945 — so I was 5 years old before I ever saw him." Because his eldest brother was 17 years older than he was, Stewart warmly recalls having had his mum mostly to himself.
His mother worked as a weaver in the local mills, earning as little as $7 for a 45-hour week. She was gone each morning before Patrick left for school, and returned at around 4 p.m., reeking of the factory. "I can remember distinctly that oily, greasy smell of the wool," says Stewart.
The family was practically destitute. "Some of my earliest memories are of when a bill collector came to the door," Stewart remembers. "My mother and I would hide behind the sofa and pretend we weren't in. I thought that was a great game." The family's home was just two rooms. The toilet was outside, and Patrick, an avid reader, often took refuge there with a book and a candle.
Stewart describes his mother as a "warm, tender, sensitive person — timid, fearful of everything." He says her fearfulness rubbed off on him, making him "very cautious about things and unconfident." But he wasn't cautious about one thing: his desire to protect his mother from physical and emotional abuse by his father.
When Alfred Stewart concluded his military career as a regimental sergeant major of the Parachute Regiment, he returned home an angry, violent man. "He was a weekend alcoholic who beat up my mother and terrorized the house," Stewart says. "For years I thought of him as the enemy." Though Stewart says his father never hit him, he wrote in a first-person piece for the Guardian in 2009 that, by age 7, he knew "exactly when to insert a small body between the fist and [my mother's] face, a skill no child should ever have to learn."
Despite the abuse, Gladys never left her husband. "She loved him," Stewart says. "My brothers and I would say, 'You must leave him.' But she never would."
Stewart found his refuge in theater. He was cast in a school play at age 12, and he took to acting instantly. "I found the stage a very safe place to be," he explains today. "Everything is predictable when you're in a play. Because of the chaos in my life, I loved the certainty — and the opportunity to become somebody else and not myself."
Soon the boy was taking three buses on Sundays to be tutored by a professional actress who introduced him to Shakespeare and helped define Stewart's future. "I discovered I had an instinct for it," Stewart says. "From then on, all I wanted to be was a Shakespearean actor." Stewart left school at 15 and, after quitting a job at a local newspaper, began steadily working his way up in various repertory companies. In 1966 the Royal Shakespeare Company invited him to become a member. "My dream came true," he says.
That year, he married Sheila Falconer; they had two children — Daniel, now 45, and Sophie, 39. (Stewart has four grandchildren.) Though he is close to his children today, Stewart says his career took center stage during those formative parenting years. "I was an absentee father a lot of the time," he admits. "I worked continually. I did the best I could, but I missed many bedtime stories and kisses good night."
All the while, Stewart secretly struggled to avoid perpetuating the dangerous cycle set in motion by his father. "I knew that I had an urge to be violent," he says, his voice now quiet. But while he was able to control that urge, he wrestled with a profound burden that undoubtedly affected his relationships — and work.
In 1981, when offered the role of Shakespeare's Leontes, a brutally savage man, Stewart initially turned it down. "For years a part of my acting suffered because I was not prepared to embrace rage," he says. "I said I couldn't do it."
The English director Ronald Eyre sat Stewart down and told him, "I think this role already exists inside you. If you trust me and let that person out, I will make sure you're safe." Stewart agreed. "I realized I could use those feelings and not only would nothing bad happen, but quite good things might happen."
Stewart began taking smaller film and television roles and doing voice-overs in the early '80s.
Still, though he was ambitious, he nearly rejected a 1987 offer to move to Los Angeles to appear in Star Trek: The Next Generation, a reboot of the 1966-69 television series. He agreed to take on the role of the commanding officer of the USS Enterprise when his agent convinced him that the show would not likely succeed and Stewart would be able to return to England after the first season.
The series continued for seven seasons, spawned four feature films and gave Stewart a newfound financial freedom. "I had never owned a new car in my life," he laughs. "I always bought used cars. During the second Star Trek season, I bought a new car, excitedly drove it onto the lot and all the other cast members asked, 'What did you get?' I said, 'A Honda!' They all threw up their arms and rolled their eyes."
The actor loved the Southern California lifestyle and indulged in "lots of wonderful analysis," he says. He took to jogging along the beach, practicing meditation, and eating and drinking with more moderation. (He no longer runs, but now stays in shape by speed walking.) It was in California in 1992 that Stewart discovered he had sex appeal, after the readers of TV Guide voted him television's "most bodacious man." "That was unimaginable to me and kind of still is," says Stewart.
Having split with Falconer in 1990, Stewart was briefly married to Wendy Neuss, a Star Trek producer. In 2000, his fan base expanded when he landed the role of Professor Charles Xavier in X-Men. "I felt the patriarchal character of the X-Men universe needed to be anchored in a strong actor," says director Bryan Singer. "Patrick's got a lot of gravitas on-screen, and he fit the physical type of the character in the comic book, who wore his baldness well."
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!"
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.