How Patrick Stewart Made the Jump to Warp Speed
"In his fond memoir “Making It So,” the actor traces the path from the working class to the Shakespearean stage to “Star Trek” superstardom.
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MAKING IT SO: A Memoir, by Patrick Stewart
A ruddy blush of modesty colors “Making It So,” Patrick Stewart’s engaging self-portrait of life on the British stage and the starship U.S.S. Enterprise. Humility is not, of course, the trait that first comes to mind with big-name actors, for whom a strapping ego would seem to be a job requirement.
And with his booming voice and clenched-fist persona, Stewart has usually registered as a take-charge, cross-me-at-your-peril kind of guy. He became internationally famous portraying the autocratic space captain Jean-Luc Picard on the long-running sci-fi series “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” a man given to terse dictums like the one from which this book takes its title: “Make it so.”
A veteran of some 60 productions with Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company, Stewart has also brought the chill of brute will to some of the canon’s most commanding heroes, on Broadway and in the West End. Yet what gave these interpretations their distinctive force was Stewart’s gift for conveying the doubt within the bluster. The dichotomies always read with acute clarity, whether he’s the magisterial Prospero in “The Tempest” (we see him thinking simultaneously, “I revel in my power! Power has corrupted me!”); the ambitious Macbeth (“I must be king! My thoughts really scare me!”); or Cleopatra’s Antony (“I love her! She’s ruining my life!”).
Those grace notes of insecurity would seem to come naturally to Stewart, now 83, whose autobiography is suffused with an air of dumbfounded surprise at his own successes. This is partly because serious celebrity came late to him. He was well into his 40s when he began playing Picard and pushing 60 when he took on the other role for which he is best known, the mutant Professor X in the “X-Men” series of films. His major above-the-title theater performances came only after his late-blooming fame onscreen.
But Stewart also belongs to a breed that has become increasingly rare in his home country: the working-class youth who stumbles almost by chance into theater, then pays his dues for decades. Stewart grew up in northern England in the town of Mirfield (population 9,000). His father was an army sergeant who unhappily became “an itinerant laborer,” his mother, a textile mill worker. With his older brother, they shared a claustrophobically small house with no bathroom.
Stewart’s father had been a charismatic leader in the military. (A fellow soldier said of him, “When he walked onto the parade ground, the birds in the trees stopped singing.”) He never adjusted to civilian life and would beat his wife when he drank. Stewart writes that only through “decades of analysis” would he begin to grasp “the impact of the violence, fear, shame and guilt I experienced as a child,” and that elements of his father’s irrational rage would creep into his later portrayals of Shakespeare’s tyrants.
As a boy, Stewart says, his “outrageous dream was to be a long-distance lorry driver.” Yet there were those who saw something special in a lad who always looked older than his years. He was nonplused when a church secretary asked him, “Are you aware that you have an aura?” An English teacher, Cecil Dormand, one of the book’s dedicatees, introduced him to Shakespeare and urged his pupil to participate in local theater programs. The boy discovered that being onstage was the place that he felt safest.
It helped that Stewart grew up in an age when theater was considered a part of everyday cultural life, even in tiny Mirfield, which had “at least seven active drama societies,” and that the country supported a wide and fecund network of repertory companies. When Stewart was completing his school years at 15, he was asked by Dormand if he had thought of becoming an actor. “That job is not for people like me,” Stewart responded.
But Dormand pointed out that young men with economic backgrounds like Stewart’s, such as Albert Finney and Richard Harris, were generating a new excitement in the British theater. After brief stints as a local newspaper reporter and a furniture salesman, Stewart was accepted at the Bristol Old Vic Theater School.
And so began an apprenticeship in repertory that led him to a place at the Stratford-based Royal Shakespeare Company in his mid-20s. The big, juicy roles were elusive, however, and Stewart lingers over the rejections like someone massaging a toothache with his tongue. He recalls more than once leaving the theater after performing a small role in “Hamlet,” starring a much-acclaimed David Warner, and being asked, “Are you anybody?”
By the current metrics of fame, it took Stewart two more decades to become “anybody,” when he was unexpectedly tapped for the role of Picard.
Trekkies should know that this pivotal moment occurs about 300 pages into “Making It So.” Stewart is generous with insiderly details about his experience on “Star Trek” (like his insisting on more comfortable spacesuits). But the book starts to feel more like a standard showbiz biography from this point — so many credits, so many life changes, so little time — as growing fame takes its toll on the personal life of Stewart, who would marry three times.
As a lover of theater lore, I was happiest learning about Stewart’s stage-centered life, even when he wasn’t center stage. He offers fascinating glimpses into the unorthodox working methods of great classic actors like John Wood and Ian Holm (who had a breakdown while performing “The Iceman Cometh”) and the directors Peter Brook, Trevor Nunn and Peter Hall.
I would love to have read more about Stewart’s enduring personal and professional relationship with Ian McKellen, with whom he appeared memorably in Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” paired in rotation on Broadway with Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” in 2013. It was McKellen who thrillingly advised Stewart, when he was playing Macbeth, that the key to the character can be found in the conjunction “and” in the soliloquy that begins, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. …”
Still, I’m not about to begrudge Stewart his blissed-out descriptions of the confidence-stoking benefits of the feast of popular success after years of famine. When it was decided that his signature television character would be resurrected for a new series, “Star Trek: Picard,” Stewart announced its arrival at a 2018 Trekkie convention in Las Vegas.
He recalls basking in the crowd’s thunderous response with a refreshing lack of ambivalence: “No more sheepishness, no more embarrassment — I like being liked.”
MAKING IT SO: A Memoir | By Patrick Stewart | Illustrated | 480 pp. | Gallery Books | $35"