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September 16, 2014

Patrick Stewart Talks About 'Hamlet,' 'Macbeth' and His IT Guy... Wil Wheaton

by Joel Keller, posted Apr 20th 2010 2:02PM
Sir Patrick StewartMost people know the recently-knighted Patrick Stewart from his movie and TV roles, many of which are of the sci fi / fantasy variety. Of course, there's Jean-Luc Picard of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation,' but there's also Charles Xavier in the 'X-Men' series and the voice of Avery Bullock on 'American Dad.'

But back in his native England, Sir Patrick is just as well known for his Shakespearean work, both on-stage and on the screen. Some of that work will be on display on April 28, when he reprises the role of Claudius (he first played the role on TV 30 years ago) in PBS's production of 'Hamlet' on 'Great Performances.' As Nick mentioned yesterday, the production, with David Tennant in the title role, mixes the classic dialogue with modern dress and settings to give the play a more contemporary feel.

Stewart will also perform in the title role of 'Macbeth' for a similarly-staged production airing on PBS later this year. I sat down with Sir Patrick in January, when he presented at the TCAs; we spoke about the two productions, what his classic training brought to his 'Star Trek' role, his guest turn on 'Extras' and how his first ever IT guy was none other than Wil Wheaton.

What are the difficulties of taking a stage production of a Shakespearean play, putting it on TV, and changing up some of the paradigms, like not having period costumes, or changing the language?

In the case of both of these productions ('Hamlet' and 'Macbeth'), they look as they looked on stage, in terms of their period. I have done both over the past five years. I've been in five Shakespeare productions, major productions. Four of them have been in 20th century dress. One of them, 'Antony and Cleopatra,' was set in period Roman and Egyptian costumes And I wouldn't have had it any other way. Because the costumes were redolent, and everything that was in the play.

On the other hand, I love William Shakespeare in (modern) dress because it immediately removes you from that, any slight awkwardness of being in costume and having to deal with, you know... And of knowing that sometimes you look like a painting and not like a human being.

David Tennant and Patrick Stewart in 'Hamlet' on PBSSo as an actor, it actually makes you feel more comfortable?
It does, yeah, yeah. I must say it does. And certainly with the 'Hamlet,' I mean, I had a series of beautifully made suits to wear, two of which were my own. The production couldn't afford to make all those suits for me. And then in the 'Macbeth,' where we gave it this sort of certain kind of iron curtain, cold war feeling, some unnamed European country... Although the big guy with the mustache seemed to remind us of someone... It just, I don't know, I find it liberating.

When these plays are adapted, usually into modern dress, what is the motivation usually? Is it to bring the viewer closer to the production?
That, as well as to give the play sometimes quite specific contemporary resonances.

'Macbeth' has definitely a noir-ish feel to it...
(chuckles) You bet!

What was the goal there? Was it to connect the play in the mind of the viewer, with a certain period?
We hoped that the references would spark images, sensations, associations, with contemporary society that would make the play relevant for today, without losing any of its rich, you know, 17th century status.

Are you trying to build a different world, or a different feeling in 'Macbeth' than 'Hamlet?'
Oh very different, yes. In 'Hamlet,' with its black walls reflecting surfaces, doors that open and close where there don't seem to be any doors there, mirrors everywhere, that sense of a society being, at the same time enclosed and observed. So it gives it almost a sort of laboratory feeling.

In a production like this where you're using modern costumes, but you're using the original language, do you think the viewer eases into it and gets used to it? Or do you think it's something that's difficult for viewers to get into, especially if they're not familiar with some of these productions?
Look, it's difficult for me. I go and see a play like 'Cymbeline,' say, or 'Timon of Athens,' or what did I see the other night, 'All's Well That Ends Well,' plays I've never been in, I'm not very familiar with them. Oh yeah, for the first five or ten minutes, I'm struggling, almost breaking out in sweat, concentrating on that language, you know, what's going on. It's hard. And if it's hard for me, who's spent 50 years with this stuff in my mouth, what is it like for somebody (clicks) who says 'Let's see what's on tonight' and turns on the television? So we are, all of us, hyper-sensitive to making it accessible.

David Tennant and Patrick Stewart in 'Hamlet' on CBSWhen you were working together, did you and David Tennant -- because of your 'Star Trek' history and his 'Doctor Who' history -- trade any sci fi convention stories or anything like that? Or talk about sci fi fans?
No, not really. We talked a lot about, 'How do you approach work like that?' David had been a Shakespearean actor before 'Doctor Who,' as I'd been. How do you deal with this, in his case -- well I guess it's science fiction, it's not fantasy is it? -- 'Doctor Who?' What do you bring to it? What in our work proved to be helpful to doing these other things? Where did the performance become released, based on previous experiences?

In your case, what did all your Shakespearean experience bring to playing a role like Jean-Luc Picard all those years, in a genre that's so different from what you had been doing?
Well, in a word, is difficult. But I would say it brought gravitas maybe.

Do you think that's what attracted a lot of people to that version of 'Trek?' Because there was more gravitas and more seriousness to it?
Yeah. I hope so. That's what we tried to bring. I mean, we had a lot of fun, too. Of course, fantastic fun. But yeah, we took it seriously. And so if I'm standing there talking to, you know, some alien on the view screen, or an oil slick, which I did once have a conversation with, or a grain of rice that I talked to once, you know, you better take that seriously.

Wil Wheaton used to write for our site; he would take the season one episodes of 'Next Generation' and do recaps with his funny spin on them
. What's interesting about his recaps is that in the first season everybody was feeling things out, and trying to figure out what was going on. When you look back now, did you think that it would still be such a well-remembered show?
(whispered) Noooo... No. I was told we wouldn't make it through the first season. Everybody I went to ask, 'What should I do, I've been offered this job, what should I do?' A few people I knew in Hollywood, their opinions ranged from, 'You'll be lucky to do all 26 episodes,' through to 'Eh, a couple years maximum.' Nobody... nobody... banked on it.

Do you think it's interesting that Wil's this geek icon now?
He always was. He set up my first computer. The then-head of Apple, Jean-Louis Gassée (was a) big 'Star Trek' fan. And one day, all these boxes arrived. I didn't have a computer, (just) an electric typewriter. All these boxes arrived and Wil saw them there. And I don't know, somewhere said (high pitched and excited) 'Wow! Man! You've got all this cool stuff!' I mean, literally, that was the dialogue. And he said, 'You gotta let me set it up!' So he came around with another friend of ours during the production, and he set up my first computer.

Then you knew that was a sign of things to come?
Sure. Absolutely. No question of it.

I still remember your guest shot on 'Extras.' When Ricky Gervais approached you to do that, what was your impression of it? Did you like skewering your image like that?

Well, I've never been given such an opportunity before. And I'll tell you how it happened. I'm in my market in Bermanzi and my phone rings. And I say, 'Hello?' And this voice says, 'Oh, uh, Patrick, it's Ricky, it's Ricky Gervais.' And I say, 'Yeah, yeah, sure, come on.' Because I've got a friend who does brilliant impersonations. And he says, 'No, no, no, no, it really is Ricky Gervais... listen, have you got a minute?' And he pitched the idea to me.

And I watch 'The Office.' I've been converted to 'The Office;' I didn't get it at first, but then I did get it. I'd heard about this series they were shooting. I saw (the script) less than 24 hours before we shot it. And every word in that scene is scripted. Nothing was improvised or made up. That's the brilliance of those two guys, Steve (Merchant) and Ricky. And it was one of the most fun mornings of my life.

Do people still come up to you and talk to you about that?
All the time. All the time. I, for a time, was seeing someone, and she called me up one day and said, "I just had a call from my father. He was on a plane and he saw you being interviewed when all you were doing was talking about seeing women's clothes fall off... (and he said) What the hell is this?" He believed it! He thought it was a real interview Now, I said, "Well, you just paid me a huge compliment. And Ricky."

[Follow @joelkeller on Twitter]

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Evie

I saw him London in the tempest and again in Chichester in Macbeth and twelfth night a couple of years ago. And saw him after the performance of the tempest. He is so sweet to his fans. I am so happy they are filming Macbeth now. Only sorry I never saw Hamlet live. Would have loved that (Have the DVD and David Tennant is also great in his role). Thanks for the interview.

April 23 2010 at 2:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
BaronHigbee

Excellent interview about an awesome person :D Look forward to seeing Hamlet next week! "Make it so"

April 21 2010 at 12:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Professor Zed

Thank you for this article. A terrific read!

April 21 2010 at 12:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Carla

I wish for the pleasure of seeing Sir Patrick in person....sigh

April 20 2010 at 11:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
peggles

I had the great pleasure of seeing Patrick Stewart's Macbeth when it was in New York a couple of years ago.
He was nothing short of fabulous. The entire production was superb. I cannot wait to see it again on television.

April 20 2010 at 10:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Joey Geraci

Patrick Stewart is so cool.

I love you, Patrick!

April 20 2010 at 7:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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