Patrick Stewart Didn't Want To Reprise Captain Picard In A Post-Brexit World

Jan 12, 2020
Originally published on January 12, 2020 9:16 am

In the new television series Star Trek: Picard, Patrick Stewart reprises his beloved character, Starfleet Captain Jean-Luc Picard, 17 years after Picard's last movie appearance.

For seven seasons, the leader of the Starship Enterprise exuded wit, grit and refinement while protecting the galaxy from harm in a future that saw humans as peacekeeping explorers.

But when the Picard producers first approached the actor, Stewart was uninterested in returning to the character who defended a utopian vision when he felt the real world had taken a dystopian turn.

Stewart says, in a post-President Trump and post-Brexit world, the United States and the United Kingdom, in particular, distanced themselves from what the United Federation of Planets — Star Trek's fictional interstellar union of planets that share democratic goals — represented.

"The European Union always made me feel, well, we are heading towards our own Federation of Planets somewhere down the line that will come about. And I am angry, disappointed and embarrassed by our decision to leave the Union," the English-born actor said in an interview with Weekend Edition Sunday.

Much like Picard, Stewart is uninterested in playing a part — fictional or not — if it doesn't mesh with his beliefs.

It wasn't until the producers described the transformed landscape they envisioned for Picard that Stewart got on board. "The Federation" has swung isolationist, and the new Picard is very different.

"My interest was intensely sparked," he said.

When Star Trek: Picard debuts on CBS All Access on Jan. 23, we find the retired leader Earth-bound, living in isolation on a French vineyard.

"There was a time when he was captain. There was a time when he was admiral. And then he became involved in a huge refugee problem. And he made some errors of judgment, mistakes."


Interview Highlights

On whether Picard is a version of himself

He is, in a sense. He had to become that, apart from the fact that I profoundly respect his views on life, his attitude to freedom of expression, to democracy.

There came a point, maybe sometime in the third season, when I realized that the gap between Jean-Luc Picard and Patrick Stewart had gotten narrower and narrower. And finally, we began to overlap until by the time we had wrapped the series and we were doing the first of our movies, I knew who this man was inside-out, back-to-front because he was not wholly Jean-Luc Picard. He was partly Patrick Stewart.

On the shadow Captain Jean Luc-Picard's character has cast over his acting career

I was unprepared for the extent to which Patrick Stewart, the actor, would become identified with the role. And there was an instance: Soon after, I'd finished my work as Jean-Luc Picard, when I was campaigning to meet the director for a quite a modest supporting role in a movie. And he was very nice to me and very polite. But he suddenly said, "Look, why would I want Jean-Luc Picard in my movie?" And that made me feel so bad because I was proud of the work that I'd done. But at the same time, I was suddenly beginning to discover it was a bit of an albatross.

Most of that has gone now because the one thing I have continually said to my managers and my agents, diversity in the roles that I play is what keeps me committed to this job, and sometimes the difficult circumstances that we work under.

On what we can learn from Picard

Well, as our world goes one step forward and two steps back, I think there is much of the man that we certainly knew in Next Generation. His modesty, his patience, his affection — no, affection is too weak a word, his passion for humankind and for the future of the solar system that we inhabited.

One of the great things about Jean was he was a great listener and would only speak when he felt everyone had expressed what they believed. The crew of the Enterprise came to know that they were at liberty to speak the truth about what they believed and what they thought. And sometimes I think there are certain restrictions imposed on some of our people who run our countries, and they do not always talk about what they truly and passionately believe in.

NPR's Denise Guerra and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF CINCINNATI POPS ORCHESTRA'S "MAIN THEME FROM STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION")

PATRICK STEWART: Space - the final frontier.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Those stirring lines in that crisp British accent made Patrick Stewart a household name and an icon for the seven seasons of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" in the late 1980s and early '90s. His character, Starfleet Captain Jean-Luc Picard, had wit, grit and refinement. He was cool under pressure. As leader of the Starship Enterprise, he protected the galaxy and all of its life forms from harm in a vision of the future that saw humans as peacekeepers and explorers. Well, a lot has changed since then back here on Earth. And the new chapter in the "Star Trek" saga is called simply "Picard." And it's different.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK: PICARD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Why did you really quit Starfleet?

STEWART: (As Jean-Luc Picard) Because it was no longer Starfleet.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I'm sorry?

STEWART: (As Jean-Luc Picard) Because it was no longer Starfleet.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I am thrilled to welcome Sir Patrick Stewart to WEEKEND EDITION. Thank you so much for joining us.

STEWART: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "The Next Generation," I must say, got me through my teens. It offered just this incredibly hopeful vision of the future where humans had evolved to be their better selves. Picard embodied that, you know, for a lot of people. He was a very decent man. What do you think when you look back at that incarnation of him now?

STEWART: I feel a modest amount of pride because we dedicated seven years to the series. And it was quite intense at times. And by the way, you played the opening voiceover. I wonder if you would have played it if you've heard what we did record once when somebody had the bright idea that I shouldn't have a French accent.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No.

STEWART: And this wasn't...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

STEWART: This wasn't a joke. It was absolutely serious. And somewhere, there is that recording that sounds something like this - (in a French accent) space, the final frontier.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) That's amazing. And how did it get killed? I mean, who decided that perhaps that might not be the best accent?

STEWART: Well, for the same reason I think that they didn't want me to wear a hairpiece - my very last audition when I was assured by my agent - it's down to you and another actor - and, by the way, I never ever - they would never tell me who the other actor was.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I would love to know.

STEWART: Maybe there wasn't one. I would love to know, too. But I did my last audition for the studio. And I wore a hairpiece, a very good hairpiece.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

STEWART: But then the decision was made - no hairpiece, no French accent, just as he comes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just as he comes - well, this Picard is very different. We find him at the beginning of the first episode earthbound, in retirement, writing books. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK: PICARD")

STEWART: (As Jean-Luc Picard) I never asked anything of myself. I haven't been living. I've been waiting to die.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What happened to Picard?

STEWART: Well, I'm sorry to tell you that, because the backstory is gradually revealed through the first season, I can't really go into detail. But there was a time when he was captain. There was a time when he was admiral. And then he became involved in a huge refugee problem. And he made some errors of judgment, mistakes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the world that he believed in sort of was different in a way.

STEWART: Yes, it was. And this was something that I talked about at my very first meetings, why I was going to pass on their offer. And then as they talked and I heard them discuss the atmosphere and mood this new series would be, then my interest was intensely sparked because in the 17, 18 years since we wrapped "Next Generation," the world has changed significantly, especially in the last few years. Both our countries know this. And, personally, I speak with profound regret about our country's decision to leave the European Union. I mean, the European Union always made me feel - well, we are heading towards our own federation of planets. Somewhere down the line, that will come about. And I am angry, disappointed and embarrassed by our decision to leave the union.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I am curious about your relationship with Picard. I mean, is he a version of you?

STEWART: Yes. He is. In a sense, he had to become that, apart from the fact that I profoundly respect his views on life, his attitude to freedom of expression, to democracy. There came a point, maybe sometime in the third season, when I realized that the gap between Jean-Luc Picard and Patrick Stewart had gotten narrower and narrower. And, finally, we began to overlap until - by the time we had wrapped the series and we were doing the first of our movies, I knew who this man was inside out, back to front because he was not wholly Jean-Luc Picard. He was partly Patrick Stewart.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, one of our editors who went to Juilliard remembers a session with you and the actors there. You had come to do "A Christmas Carol." And they were sort of told that it was very much frowned upon to ask you about your experience with "Star Trek." Was there a moment when you just didn't want to wear the mantle or the uniform of Picard?

STEWART: I was unprepared for the extent to which Patrick Stewart the actor would become identified with the role. And there was an instance soon after I'd finished my work as Jean-Luc Picard when I was campaigning to meet a director for a - quite a modest supporting role in a movie. And he was very nice to me and very polite. But he suddenly said, look. Why would I want Jean-Luc Picard in my movie? And that made me feel so bad...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah.

STEWART: ...Because I was proud of the work that I'd done, but at the same time, I was suddenly beginning to discover it was a bit of an albatross. Most of that has gone now because the one thing I have continually said to my managers and my agents, diversity in the roles that I play is what keeps me committed to this job and sometimes the difficult circumstances that we work under.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think Picard still has something to teach us?

STEWART: Well, as our world goes one step forward and two steps back, I think there is much of the man that we certainly knew in "Next Generation," his modesty, his patience, his affection - no, affection is too weak a word - his passion for humankind and for the future of the solar system that we inhabited. And one of the great things about Jean-Luc was he was a great listener and would only speak when he felt everyone had expressed what they believed. And the crew of the Enterprise came to know that they were at liberty to speak the truth about what they believed and what they thought. And sometimes I think there are certain restrictions imposed on some of our people who run our countries. And they do not always talk about what they truly and passionately believe in.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Sir Patrick Stewart. You can stream "Star Trek: Picard" on CBS All Access starting January 23. Thank you very much.

STEWART: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CINCINNATI POPS ORCHESTRA'S "MAIN THEME FROM 'STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION'") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.