Taking a Stand
by Brad Balfour
From the moment Patrick Stewart steps into a room, it’s clear you have a great actor in your presence. There’s something so compelling about him that when you look up “actor” in the dictionary, Stewart’s picture (maybe together with Ian McKellan) could be next to the definition. Besides his many years of experience interpreting Shakespeare, he re-defined the role of Starship Captain when he assumed the bridge as Jean-Luc Picard, commander of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek – The Next Generation.
Then when he was awarded the part of Charles Xavier, founder of the School for Mutants and mentor to the X-Men, he defined another keystone role. Ironically, as broad as these parts can be, it is Stewart’s dynamic presence, forged by years on stage that has made him–and several of his genre series colleagues – so brilliant in defining these characters.
Is it just by accident that you and so many classically trained actors end up doing science fiction and comic book movies?
I don’t think it’s [an] accident. I think producers and directors respond to something which, perhaps, they first of all identify in the material itself. I’ve said this – and you’ve probably heard me say it before over the years in connection with Next Generation – and certainly, it applies to X-Men, although we’re dealing with science fiction and fantasy. Technically, they are different genres, but they’re not real life. It’s not like watching Brokeback Mountain, or Hidden. This is heightened reality. It’s somewhat – in the very best sense – theatrical. It requires a physical and technical presence and expertise from the actors.
If you are going to believe it – certainly in the case of Xavier and Magneto, or perhaps even the captain… and Hugh [Jackman] has it to a terrific degree because he’s a magnificent stage performer – [it has to be about] whatever gets into our style as actors from years of blank verse and knowing that for three hours you have to carry an evening. [In theater] nobody’s going to call “cut.” You’re not going to go to your trailer and sleep for two hours. You have to be up there and sustain it. I think these are all qualities which directors and producers respond to – even though they may not be aware of them when they’re putting together casts – that can give a heightened naturalism.
Do you find that even with a playwright like Harold Pinter, when he is more naturalistic and grounded? I saw you in the play The Caretaker?
I do, and I think that it’s often a mistake. I’ve had a conversation with Harold about this. To think you can simply be naturalistic in these plays – you can’t. His style of writing requires something which is more than just ordinary everyday. Those massive speeches require huge technique which you cannot pick up as you go along. You’ve got to learn it. You’ve got to have technical tools to perform those roles. And I think the same thing applies to the kind of work some of us are doing in movies like The Last Stand.
You had quite a Shakespearean crew there, with you and Kelsey [Grammer as The Beast] and Ian [McKellan, Magneto]. Did you ever think of you [three] working together on a few Shakespearean productions?
Well, Ian and I are in the same season at Stratford. I’m now in the middle of this great “Complete Works” season. We opened Antony and Cleopatra three weeks ago. The [Royal Shakespeare Company] is presenting all 37 plays, all the attributed plays, all the poems, all the sonnets – everything that he wrote or might have written – in the next 12 months. I’m opening the season with Antony and Cleopatra, and Ian is closing it with King Lear. In the middle, I’m doing The Tempest as well. So I’m committed for the next twelve months to the company and to Shakespeare.
It would have been a true coup if we could have found Kelsey. Goodness, there are plenty of wonderful roles in Shakespeare that Kelsey could play, [that] I would love to see him play. But it is curious that Ian and I are playing the two opposite forces in this film and that we find ourselves once more under the same umbrella, which is the historic umbrella for us, because we’ve worked with [the RSC] over the years many times.
Did you talk about Shakespeare during the film?
Oh yeah. My season with the RSC was being negotiated at the time. So, I would go to him with what they were proposing and so forth. It was very helpful, actually. I was offered a third role in the season, and Ian said, “You don’t really want to do that. It’s a terrible role.” It’s a leading role, a title role, but I think he was right. On the strength of his advice, I didn’t do it.
The first scene in the movie where they use digital software – what was it like for you, seeing yourself and Ian digitally younger?
It was delightful. I wish we could have sat side by side [to watch it] because we would have enjoyed it together. It was very interesting. To begin with, they dressed us a little differently – in my case, a more casual, relaxed style. We were told that they were not going to try to do a lot with make-up, though there were certain things in the make-up trailer they could do. But not much – they took the gray out of my eyebrows and so forth. But both of us felt that we needed also, in the performance, to think about being 20 years younger. And so, the way in which we sat, the way in which we moved… I feel it now. Bodies move differently. There’s a fluidity which I don’t have anymore, not to the same extent.
So, there was an element of performance in this too. Watching it last night, it made me smile a few times, the two of us trying to make this physical adjustment to 20 years younger. But these two English guys who do this work – it’s extraordinary. I saw their demo reel in which they do cross-fades of before and after. My, oh my!
You obviously weren’t in the second half of the film. How much did you know of the story all the way through? Did they give you whole story to prepare?
I’ve seen the whole script. Eventually, I saw the whole script before I finished the movie. What I didn’t know was how the film was going to end because I was aware of three different endings.
There was an ending that was in the script, which everybody read. There was an ending which I had shot in the first 10 days of filming, which never appeared on the call sheet, nothing documented at all, the lines were handwritten on a piece of paper, there was a minimum amount of crew involved in the shooting of it, and there was even a recommendation that we didn’t discuss the scene with any other people in the movie – the scene in the hospital bed with Olivia Williams.
And then, a few weeks ago, Ian called me and said, “My dear, you’ll never believe it. They’re coming to London, and I’m shooting the last scene of the movie playing chess.” And I said, “Who are you playing chess with?” And he said, “They won’t tell me. I don’t know who I’m playing chess with.” So, we were kept in the dark. Had it not been someone from Fox last night who stood up to leave during the credits saying: “No, no, no. It’s not over,” I wouldn’t have seen that final [scene]. I assumed that they had decided not to use it. But, of course, there are hints dropped all the way through when Xavier is lecturing to the students, and I switch on the video.
That’s what you’re looking at. That bed and that man in that bed. And I must say that that aspect of movie making, of storytelling, has always intrigued me. I’m fascinated by these films that will lay down clues for things which you pick up or not. In fact, I didn’t see that Olivia Williams was also in the memorial scene. I missed her. So, they do lay a sort of groundwork for what curiously, intriguingly happens in those last moments after the credits. And as Kelsey said just now in our holding room – “It’s very good,” he said. “Maybe the cure doesn’t last. Maybe it fades, wears off.”
What do they [tell] you about what you will do in relation to that?
Nothing? Even a hint?
No. The studio, as far as I’m aware, is saying that this is it. This is the last stand. They’re being absolutely clear about that.
Are you pleased with Professor Xavier’s arc throughout this last film?
It’s not easy sitting down and watching something for the first time. Especially when there are question marks about what may or may not have made it into the movie, because nobody tells you these things. I was very pleased with what I saw. It’s a movie of terrific intensity and passion. I hope for the average audience it will make for a very exciting experience. It is sustained tension, which is the one thing that sets it apart a little from our first two movies. This powers through very impressively.
And you are satisfied with it?
I’m very satisfied with the way the Xavier storyline has made it onto the screen. It’s been a curious journey from the very beginning, given that we all started out with Bryan [Singer, director of the first two films], who’s a dear friend to all of us now. Losing him was painful. A number of us couldn’t imagine what this project would be without Bryan. Then spending a month with Matthew [Vaughn, director of Layer Cake], who I actually never got to meet. I don’t think we ever finally had a conversation.
I was filming a project up in Manchester all [that] time. Then one day, there’s this voice on the end of the phone. It’s Brett [Ratner who ended up directing], saying, “Hi! We’re going to make the greatest movie! It’s going to be fantastic! It’s going to be brilliant!” Well, I thought that if anybody can come in at this stage to do almost the impossible…. No prep time… I thought it couldn’t be done. “It’s going to get pushed. We’re going to lose half the cast…” No. Cameras rolled on the day that it had always been predicted to roll.
Why did the franchise lose Bryan for this film?
I think there were contractual issues, script issues. And then there was the question of Superman – details I just don’t know because people don’t talk about these things.
Obviously, you’ve been working on Shakespeare. Do you have some other things coming up?
No. There’s really nothing at all. This is it. God knows when I’m going to see the inside of another studio, because I made this very conscious decision two years ago that I wanted to re-balance the work that I was doing. It also meant leaving Hollywood and returning to live in the UK, which I have done. I’ve sold out my Los Angeles life. It was because of many, many reasons, but one of the things was that I needed to get back to the work that originally made me become an actor. I was missing it. The years were going by. There are already roles I didn’t play that I’m too old to do now. Even one or two people have commented that I’m too old to play in Antony and Cleopatra. To play Antony, I don’t think it’s true, but it did come up a couple of times. So, I had a lot of catching up to do. I made this fifteen-month commitment to the RSC. I did a new television series in England last year for Granada, which has been quite successful, about dangerous science. It’s not science fiction. It’s real science – science in the world that is leading us astray. Other than things like my appearance on Extras with Ricky Gervais, that’s it. When X-Men has opened, there’s nothing. I do have a very exciting project I’m hoping will be filming, and you may have heard it. John Logan has done a brilliant adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, setting it in the present day, which Michael Almereyda is going to direct. And I’m co-producing and will play Shylock. We’re assembling a wonderful cast, and we’re hoping to be shooting in November or December of this year.
You talked about re-thinking your career before. Once you’re done with all this Shakespeare, are you going to do more independent films?
I would love to. Independent films, in a certain sense, have passed me by. And given that I’ve had the Star Trek franchise and the X-Men franchise – you cannot have too many franchises in a career, I believe, and I’m kind of irritated that I didn’t get to be in Lord of the Rings…
Then you really would be the king of franchises.
But Ian’s representing and doing a pretty good job. In terms of subject matter, scripts, and so forth, much of the really interesting work is being done in the small budget, independent movies. I’m very excited by what I see, and at some point, would love to be part of it. It’s just that when you say, “Fifteen months I’m not available,” that’s a big chunk of time. So, my agents… I don’t talk to them. I haven’t talked to them for months. We have nothing to say to one another.
Is it different to come back to Hollywood to make an X-Men from making it while you were living in the belly of the beast?
As far as I’m aware, not a moment of this movie was shot in California. It was all filmed in Canada.
With the Hollywood mindset.
It doesn’t feel like that. No. I think it’s partly because we were in Vancouver, which is where we shot number two. The first one had been shot in Toronto. You are, in a way, set free from some of the craziness of working in Hollywood. And given the very fragmented nature of this – for instance, I never saw Jimmy Marsden. I never worked with him at all. I never saw Rebecca. I always had a feeling that what we did on our holidays was shooting X-Men because it’s such good fun. It’s such a terrific and relaxing time doing it, and Vancouver’s such a great city to live and work in.
I haven’t felt the Hollywood thing. I’m much more comfortable not to be negatively aware of the business that surrounds Hollywood. There is so much negativity, and for artists – for directors and writers. It’s very easy to feel a failure very quickly in Hollywood because there always seems to be so much you could be doing, but you’re not, because somebody else is doing it. So being away from that has got to be good for you. I’m now back in this world where I feel much more in control of my career and work. And that’s good for one in every possible way – personally, domestically, certainly creatively.
You talked about the technical skill that goes into creating these roles. When you go back to the stage after this long departure, do any of the technical skills in working on these films inform you?
I don’t think technically. No. It does work the other way, but I don’t think technically. When I was facing our previews for Antony and Cleopatra, I had to get my voice back up to proper stage condition. In front of a microphone, why do you need a voice at all? I couldn’t embark on some of those 50-line speeches unless I was warmed up and prepared for it. But it does do something, and it’s very interesting to me, having gone from X-Men to rehearsing something like Antony and Cleopatra.
Being attached to a project like The Last Stand, which is such an important piece of work – important for the studio, huge amounts of money spent on it, a vast amount of talent attached to it, opening worldwide on the same day – it’s a major event. This theater that I’m playing in Stratford, we have 450 people each night. It’s very, very modest. It gives you a feeling about your work, being involved in something like this.
And watching the movie last night, and comparing it with my life in Stratford-Upon-Avon, it’s very pleasing to feel oneself at the center of a project like this. What I’m talking about is confidence. It’s being able to step onto a stage and say not only am I Marc Antony, but I’m also Charles Xavier and Captain Jean-Luc Picard. All of these things you carry with you, and to a certain extent, of course, the audience is aware of them, too. But the movement from film to theater is much more subtle in its impact. In the other direction, it’s technically much more complex. I also think that one thing you get from theater is a sense of family.
Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 14, 2006.
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