Patrick Stewart stars as Tobi, a Julliard teacher and former dancer in “Match.” Based on writer–director Stephen Belber’s Tony-nominated play, Stewart’s hermitic Tobi opens up to a couple from Seattle who are supposedly doing research for a project about the New York City dance world in the ’60s. When their ulterior motive surfaces, the narrative takes a surprising turn. The indie premiered at TFF on April 18. TheBlot’s Dorri Olds caught up with the veteran actor.
Dorri Olds: How have people reacted to “Match”?
Patrick Stewart: They have no idea what’s coming. I can almost time to a second when the first tear appears. Then, soon after, I’m surrounded by people who are weeping.
What were the risks you took with this film?
Playing an American was the biggest challenge. We couldn’t afford to have a dialect coach on the set and there are one or two sounds in the film that I make. Oofh. [Winces] But I say, oh well. My character spent most of his life working abroad so maybe that’s why he sounds weird. [Laughs]
Was there a risk playing Professor Charles Xavier in “X-Men”?
I perceived a big risk in that, which is why initially I’d turned it down. From the time that “Star Trek” finally came to an end, I had experiences that showed me there was a handicap to having been in such a successful and popular television series and films. I had been pursuing a supporting role in a movie. I’d seen the script, and loved it and really wanted it and was desperate to get in to see the very successful film director and persuade him I was the guy to do this. Finally I did. We had a lovely meeting and he said, “I don’t have any doubt that you’d be perfect for it but I have to ask, ‘Why would I want Captain Picard in my movie?’” So, when “X-Men” came along I thought, “I’ve already got one albatross around my neck. Why would I want to have two?” But then I met with the director and you know the way directors are. They say the greatest things. [Smiles]
What advice would you give actors to avoid being typecast?
I always cite Dustin Hoffman as one of my heroes for the choices he made at the start of his career. It’s extraordinary the contrast of roles he played. I’m sure he was being asked to do roles like “The Graduate” over and over and over, but what did he do? “Midnight Cowboy,” “Little Big Man,” “Lenny.” Whenever you went to see a movie of his you never knew what kind of experience it was going to be. Nicholson was also like that with his choices.
What have you discovered about yourself through characters?
This role in “Match” was such a great experience. The past becomes increasingly interesting to me. I had an experience recently in which I learned things about my father.
Can you give an example?
After the war in 1945, he was a weekend alcoholic. Very upright and splendid Monday through Friday, but by eight o’clock on a Friday till midnight on a Sunday he was a drunk. He was violent and beat up my mother and home was a scary place to be on the weekends. While shooting a documentary about his military career for the BBC, with the camera rolling somebody presented me with a news clip which said Sergeant Alfred Stewart was one of the last soldiers to leave France after the disaster of the British Expeditionary Force in 1940. He was suffering from severe shell shock. We know now what that means and I sat down with an expert on PTSD who said my father was an absolutely classic case. Back then he would’ve been told, “Pull yourself together and act like a man.” My mother and I never knew that he was suffering. I thought I’d gotten my father absolutely in place in my mind, but how wrong I was.
Do you look back over the past 40 years as your character does in “Match” and feel regret or longing?
In the last year or two I have been trying to reach out to people who were very close to me when I was first acting, because I’m curious to try to make contact with the person they knew then who was called Patrick Stewart. I’ve lost him. I don’t quite know who he was or what he was. I struggle now to remember what it felt like 40 years ago. I can give you dates and names of plays and things but I struggle to recall the experiences. It’s probably because I spent less of myself in those days than I try to do now.
Do you think that is a natural trajectory in an actor’s life?
I have no idea. It was mine. Just before I finished my training, the principal of my acting school called me and gave me a serious talking to. The last thing he said was, “Patrick, you will never achieve success by insuring against failure.” I thought then, “Yeah, I get it.” But it took about 30 years to truly get what he meant, which is don’t play safe, be brave, risk everything. What’s the worst that could happen?
Watch excerpts from this interview with Patrick Stewart, seated with “Match” director Stephen Belber: