A couple of weeks ago, Sir Patrick Stewart was sitting in his hot tub in the hills above West Hollywood, trying to set his racing cranium at rest. “I realised that what I was feeling wasn’t anxiety – it was actually fear,” says the 76-year-old actor. “I know this will sound crazy, but it was fear that I will not work again.”
It is a surprising admission for a man who has just emerged from the most hectic year of his career. Stewart recently finished a rapturously received run of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land in the West End with his old friend Sir Ian McKellen. He is reprising his role as mutant mentor Professor Xavier in Logan, his seventh movie in the X-Men franchise. And his unabashed politics (he’s an ardent socialist, Remainer, feminist and anti-Trumper) have earned him 2.45 million followers on Twitter. And why wouldn’t you wish to see a knight of the realm tweet a picture of himself in a bath dressed as a lobster?
This Yorkshireman always looks like he knows how to have fun.
Nevertheless, when we meet at Soho House on Sunset Boulevard, Stewart is contemplating endings. Or rather his laptop. “Emails… Dreaded emails!” he intones when I arrive, snapping the damn thing shut.
We’re here to talk X-Men, which he does with no less enthusiasm than if it were Pinter or Beckett. After all, he was only a middle-ranking, middle-aged member of the Royal Shakespeare Company when he was given the career-changing role of Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: the Next Generation in 1987. He only said yes because he was assured it would flop and he’d be able to get back to iambic pentameter forthwith.
In the event, it ran for seven seasons and four films and made him a much wealthier – and healthier – man. He has a certain Californian radiance, and credits his wife, 38-year-old American musician Sunny Ozell, with keeping him on his toes.
Of all the X-Men movies, Logan is the one that asked the most of him. It’s viscerally violent, the first in the series to have an R-rating in the States (it’s been awarded a 15 certificate in the UK and is in cinemas on 1 March). The opening sequence features Hugh Jackman making full use of those adamantium Wolverine claws to fettuccini a few assailants. Does Stewart have any reservations about the violence? He pauses. “None whatsoever.”
But it’s also a more intimate and sombre movie, with writer/director James Mangold (Walk the Line) underlining themes of mortality and ageing. It’s set in 2029, where Logan (Jackman) is hiding out on the Mexican border, working as a limo driver for cash and trying to nurse the ailing Xavier (Stewart). “From the first moment I opened the script, we were barely in an X-Man movie at all,” Stewart says. “If you strip out all your knowledge of the backstory, it’s a movie about a couple of strange guys hanging out in Mexico. And it’s uneasy – it’s a dark situation we find them in.”
Jackman has said this will be his last turn as Wolverine. Stewart is more reluctant to close the door. “My character has already exited the series twice,” he reflects. “You can’t rule anything out in sci-fi and fantasy.”
All the same, he does carry with him a sense of an ending. He recalls the last time he left LA, back in 2004. Vaughan Williams came on the car radio, and he pulled over and wept. “What I had been in denial of was that I was incredibly homesick. Not sick for my home, but for the landscapes and for my friends and for the work I was made to do, which is classical theatre.”
Stewart has spent much of the last decade or so scratching that itch in acclaimed productions of Macbeth, The Tempest, Waiting for Godot. He returned to LA a couple of years ago for Blunt Talk, a TV sitcom in which he stars as a British army veteran-turned-cable newscaster, opposite his son, Daniel. It was, to his dismay, cancelled after its second season – and hasn’t yet been shown in the UK. “I’m really disappointed by that. It’s left all of us feeling a little hung up.”
Moreover, he cannot disguise his dismay at the dystopian turn that the world has taken this last year. He has been a vocal supporter of the anti-Trump demonstrations in the US. “It was not simply about Donald Trump. There was a sense that there is a movement determined to narrow civil liberties, to control people’s lives and to elevate the lie. I have a fundamental belief in human decency – and I believe that there are more decent people in the world than there are villains – but I’m actually scared. I’m scared about what’s happening here and I’m very scared about the outcome of Brexit.”
He was born in 1940 in working-class Mirfield in the West Riding of Yorkshire to a regimental sergeant major who was a war hero but struggled to adjust to civilian life. “The memories of the first ten years of my life remain very vivid and uncomfortable,” says Stewart. Having seen a continent “ripped apart by bloodshed and warfare” and then painstakingly rebuild itself, he cannot help but see Brexit as a reversal.
He recently made his first visit to continental Europe since the vote, travelling to Ghent to look at the Van Eyck altarpiece. “I felt a kind of despair that this union that had been so difficult to create should be unravelling. As far as I can see it is a completely retrograde step. Ah, but let’s talk about other things…”
Stewart’s greatest indulgence, he admits, is his art. “My wife thinks I’m a bit crazy. I have a wonderful Van Gogh pencil drawing of a man with folded arms looking straight at you out of the drawing. She came into the room and I was talking to him. ‘Hey, good to see you. I missed you.’”
Of all his passions, however, the one that seems to give him most pleasure is – wait for it – jigsaw puzzles. “At first I was a little embarrassed about it, as it was something I’d done as a kid,” he winces. “But when I would occasionally mention it, people would whisper: ‘Oh, you do jigsaw puzzles, too? What kind? How many pieces?’ It’s like a secret society.” He likes to have a puzzle on the go in each of his homes – one in LA, one in Brooklyn, one in London – and he’s currently about a third of the way through an early Cubist portrait of a woman in a chair by Picasso.
“It’s quite tricky as there are big areas of solid colour. But it truly makes you look at the painting and its detail, it teaches you a lot.”
He will have plenty of jigsaw time this year as he has vowed to take a new approach to work. Hence his aforementioned hot-tub crisis. “An agent once said to me, ‘Your availability is your greatest asset.’ So that’s what I’m trying this year. I’m trying to be brave and see what happens.”
He wants to have the freedom to take the sort of work he never had time to take. “The process of acting, the demands and challenges have become even more interesting to me as years have gone by. I’m trying not to be a faker any more.” A faker? Thou? “I was a very good faker,” he smiles. “This is very much how British acting was. Our actors were fantastic at pretending that something was real when it wasn’t.”
He believes there’s a singular Britishness to winging it, to turning up and aceing the task with seemingly no preparation. “I never believed for a moment that what I was seeing was real with [Laurence] Olivier. I admired it. It was clever and brilliant and dazzling. But it wasn’t life. It was style. British actors were brilliant at style – but where was the truth?
“So that’s what this year is about. I want to discover that.”