An Interview With Patrick Stewart
(The following is an interview with Patrick Stewart in the August 22, 1995 issue of The Advocate. I am reproducing it here in accordance with the fair use exemption of copyright law that allows reproducing parts of a copyrighted work for purposes of "criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research".)
by Donna Minkowitz
"Have you ever seen homoerotic fiction about Next Generation characters?" Patrick Stewart wants to know. It's a question that William Shatner, who played Stewart's Star Trek predecessor, Capt. James T. Kirk, would never have put to a journalist. Then again, Shatner would never have appeared in a film like Jeffrey; playing a gay interior decorator who says his favorite fantasy is a liaison with Yoko Ono - "to see the apartment."
Jeffrey, a sexually and politically daring film about a gay man's love life in the age of AIDS, was adapted from an off-Broadway play by gay playwright Paul Rudnick. The film, which opens August 4,1995, stars Steven Weber as Jeffrey, a perennially horny waiter who's afraid of intimacy; Nathan Lane as a lascivious gay priest; Sigourney Weaver as an over-the-top Marianne Williamson type named Debra Moorhouse; Michael T. Weiss as Jeffrey's love interest; and Bryan Batt as Stewart's devoted on-screen lover, a chorus boy in Cats..
"Playing gay was not an issue for Patrick," says costar Batt. "I was almost star struck playing opposite him. But he had no phobias about it, no trouble at all." Batt and Stewart both have fond memories of the photo session they did on the streets of Manhattan to produce shots of them as a couple that would be displayed in the apartment their characters shared. "That was the most wonderful day, posing in front of houses with our arms around each other," Batt continues. "When you have so much respect and admiration for someone, it is incredible to do something like that with him."
Rudnick, who also wrote the script for the movie, was equally impressed with Stewart's attitude. "Patrick could care less what kind of rumors or gossip are circulating about him, " says Rudnick. "I think he relishes it."
Some Hollywood writers were surprised by the heterosexual Stewart's decision to play a gay man in such a flagrant gay movie. Star Trek: The Next Generation, the series that made him famous, never approached gay issues in anything but the most gingerly fashion. But Stewart, a 25-year veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is unafraid to go where no Star Trek actor has gone before.
In New York City's East Village, where the 54-year-old actor was rehearsing the leading role in The Tempest at the Public Theater, Stewart boldly opened up about the gay side of Star Trek - gleefully discoursing on the android Data's bisexual potential, the "lesbian hermaphrodite" episode, even the repressed homosexuality of Capt. Jean-Luc Picard.
But then, Stewart is used to exploring the hidden, unwanted, and neglected sides of characters - those he plays on both stage and screen and on his own. For much of his life, he says, he's used acting to help him embrace parts of his own personality that he had found hard to reconcile - qualities like vulnerability, vengefulness, and fear. Jeffrey has helped him accept things about himself that he "had not in the past associated with being a man", Stewart says - such as his profound love for some of his male friends.
No one can be a perfect picture of authority, Stewart insists. Even Captain Picard, one of the best-loved authority figures in television history, has his un admitted tender, helpless side, Stewart says: "Picard is essentially a frightened child."
Stewart's own childhood was frequently frightening - a period, he says, when "the threat of violence was always present." Perhaps because of this history, he has something of an obsession with playing authority figures - everyone from Henry V to Titus Andronicus to labor leaders. "I'm fascinated by power and the misuse of power," he once told a Playboy interviewer. Stewart also says that he and Whoopi Goldberg, who played the advice- dispensing bartender Guinan in the TV series, frequently rewrote Next Generation episodes to make them "go much more on the nose" with political issues. "It would be very appropriate," Stewart says, if the upcoming Next Generation movies made it their business to have gay characters.
The actor has been reluctant to go into detail about his personal life ever since his divorce three years ago inspired what Stewart called "bloodthirsty" tabloid coverage. In this interview he speaks for the first time about his girlfriend, Wendy Neuss, and about some of his fans who think he's gay.
I thought your character in Jeffrey, Sterling, was quite butch for an interior decorator. In fact, it was butcher than the actor who played him in the New York stage version. Your version was definitely gay, but with a strong sense of authority and a real butch presence. Did you see him that way?
Well, I suspect that you're probably better able to make a judgment on that than I am. My principal unease as a straight man playing a gay character was that I should not fall back on shallow clichés - particularly given that he was an interior decorator and somewhat flamboyant and outrageous. I asked [Jeffrey's gay director] Chris Ashley and Paul Rudnick on a daily basis if I was overstepping.
When I first read the script, I was very moved. And then again, when I saw the movie, it moved me intensely. It made me cry.
What moved you about it?
Different things move me as I get older. I am invariably moved by age, for example. I saw The Madness of King George recently, and it was the vulnerability of weakness and age that I found so moving. Extraordinary kindness, gentleness, and any expression of deep love reduce me to tears these days. And the ending of Jeffrey- in which we see my lover, Darius, finally having qualified for a white cat's costume and being so sensitive and kind and forgiving and gentle with Jeffrey and with Sterling - I found intensely moving.
Some theater critics faulted the play for not really making it clear whether Jeffrey was afraid of AIDS, afraid of intimacy, or afraid of both.
Really? I would have thought that it would be difficult to see it as anything other than a combination of both. If it were only a fear of AIDS, it would be quite a different piece of work. Jeffrey is afraid of getting close, close in any lasting sense. That's why, one suspects, he's been very promiscuous. It always seemed to me that that was an issue in the film. And that's set alongside the relationship my character has with Darius - which has been long-lasting.
You may or may not be aware of this, but there are some people who, for whatever reason, are absolutely convinced you're gay.
So I'm told! This has come to my ears only fairly recently and here in New York. And, of course, I wondered if this could be in any way connected with my work in Jeffrey. Maybe there is something that is observable, that I am unaware of, that people are reacting to. If there is, I can only say that I feel very good about it.
From an evolutionary point of view, the acceptance and embracing of aspects of one's personality is wonderful: To feel areas of vulnerability that I have not in the past associated with being a man. To also be able to admit, as I have been able to in recent years, to deep love and affection - sometimes verging on passion - for some of my male friends and male colleagues. It is wonderful to feel at ease and comfortable with their arms around me and mine around them. To have a kind of delight in that. All this is a very recent experience.
Do you have any discomfort over the realization that some people believe you yourself are gay?
Well, so far as I'm aware, I'm conventionally a heterosexual male. And yet I find something quite flattering in these suggestions of others that I'm something else.
You've said playing a gay man in Jeffrey gave you a kind of physical freedom you hadn't felt before.
As an actor, I've always been very, very attracted to how physically developed the work that I do is. It's always been a big part of my work. And it's one of the things I'm working on in The Tempest. So when I came to do Sterling, I was conscious of looking for a physical characterization for him that was not my own. I like the feelings that I get when my body keeps telling me that this is not me.
And because there were certain physical intimacies in the role that would be new to me, I found I had to allow my impulse to be more open physically, to be more flexible physically, to take over in all kinds of ways. The very first day that we all met, there were six of us in that rehearsal room—the writer, the director, and four actors. Three of us were gay; three of us were straight. And then Steven [Weber, who plays Jeffrey] suddenly grabbed Michael Weiss—who plays his lover—grabbed him by the face and kissed him on the mouth and said, "There! I've done it! I've gotten it out of the way!"
Was there any special hurdle or turning point for you?
There was the day the designer wanted to have photographs on the set of our apartment that showed myself and Darius and Jeffrey in different kinds of situations. The photographer went off with Bryan Batt and myself, and Bryan and I walked through the Village as, for all intents and purposes, two lovers out on a sunny Saturday afternoon. The photographer, using a long lens, took photographs of us from a distance. I would be dishonest to myself if I did not say that it was a curious feeling - because we were not in front of a camera, we were not on a stage.
What did you think when you saw the final photographs?
I only have to say that the whole collection of photographs that came out of that shoot are, I think, some of the most beautiful photographs I've ever been part of.
When you were walking around New York arm in arm with another man, were you frightened of being name-called or harassed?
No. Until you just raised that question I realize that was never, ever in my mind. I was not at all uneasy about being identified as Patrick Stewart. I'll tell you what I was frightened of. I was uneasy about being identified as Jean-Luc Picard! And I can't think why. You can meditate on that.
You've told an interviewer you felt "much discomfort" about The Next Generation's treatment of women.
I felt that the writers and producers could not escape from their own essential rigidity in their attitudes to women. They were continually featured as sexual objects, as softer, weaker, and therefore - it always seemed to me—second-class individuals. And because I believed and still do that the show represents what our underlying philosophies are, it doubly irritated me that in that area I thought we were failing.
There is a kind of boys' club about Star Trek, do you understand? It's in the air all around the show, in the producers, in the front office, in the writers' building. Our actresses were not finding sympathetic ears for the things they had to say, and I think at times they simply got exhausted by the battle.
You've frequently mentioned being moved by Whoopi Goldberg's comment about watching the original series with Lieutenant Uhura, who was a black woman, and she could think, Well, one of us made it. How do you think gay people feel when we turn on the show and think, Wow, it's the 24th century, but none of us made it into the 24th century.
I think gay people would probably feel dismayed. As I recall, there was one episode that very obliquely dealt with something other than conventional heterosexual life. Something with the planet of hermaphrodites...
Where they all looked like lesbians.
Now, that would really upset the producers! But you're right, it was singularly absent from the show. Given what growth and advancement have been made in the past 20 years - even in the most rigid male bastions like the military—one would have thought that Star Trek would be the ideal environment for projecting oneself 400 years forward and saying, "All right, this has happened in 20 years; what might we have achieved in 400 years?" Still, it's not over. As we speak, there are people feverishly writing the script for our next movie. And it would be very appropriate right now if this issue of an alternative sexuality could find a place in it.
Some people have thought Q was gay.
I did. Again, I would say this was an impression given you entirely by the quality of the performances rather than by anything that was deliberately placed in the script. [Laughs] John [de Lancey], whose work was brilliant on the show, had a kind of boldness about him, a way of looking at Picard that was provocative. And yes, there was the scene in the bed - although we didn't make that up. That was written, so we've got to commend the writers for that.
Then, of course, there's the theory, which I always found interesting, that Q is simply the other aspect of Picard. That notion was always very attractive to me.
If Q is the freed nature of Picard, and Q might be gay, is there some possibility Picard is repressing homoerotic parts of himself?
It is certainly possible. Picard's had plenty of affairs and relationships.
But he got laid only twice in seven years of the show, you said in an interview.
[Counting] It's pathetic that I have to count on my fingers how many times he got laid over seven years, isn't it! Well, I imagine he and [his occasional love interest] Vash probably did it more than once. And there was the alien woman who lured Jean-Luc down to her crashed spacecraft. The actress was marvelous, and things got pretty romantic between them. Until we discover she is not a beautiful alien woman but a rather conventional looking alien man.
I've always assumed that the android Data was at least theoretically bisexual. I mean, if he knows 379 ways of pleasuring and has no prejudices against homosexuality...
Yes, I'm sure you're right. But I think that's a question best addressed to Brent Spiner [the actor who plays Data].
Have you ever heard of Kirk-Spock fiction?
It's a genre that's been going on for years, ever since the original series. It imagines a passionate romance between Kirk and Spock.
Oh, yes, I have heard of this. I don't have much of an opinion, but from the little that I know about those two characters, it would seem like there might be an intense attraction of opposites in that relationship. I have seen several homoerotic drawings of some characters in The Next Generation. I've seen the good captain with [Cdr. William] Riker and Data. The drawings showed them together in shower scenes. There wasn't any kissing or touching, but they were clearly erotic drawings. They were all shown naked and in kind of erotic postures.
You and the other cast members frequently make up alternate, campy versions of your scenes. And you've said your favorite is one where Picard is "an ass-paralyzing coward who at the slightest mention of trouble will leap into Number One's arms and howl that he doesn't want to die. "Was there a suggestion of homoeroticism in that?
Not so much a homoerotic fantasy as to show that Picard is essentially a frightened child.
You've described your own childhood as very violent—where you were afraid all the time. And you've also talked about liking to play people in power. Is there a connection between those things?
It was mostly a childhood where the threat of violence was always present, but I was not being beaten on a regular basis. It's just that there was violence in the air, and that created a certain sense of chaos in one's life, because nothing was ever really certain.
It's difficult to know what came first, whether others saw these things in me and therefore gave me these power roles or if I would have assumed them anyway. I do know that for many years as an actor, I had difficulty expressing certain emotions because I think I had conditioned myself for so many years not to let them out. I'm sure I did that because it just simply wasn't safe to let them out.
Which emotions were you the most concerned about showing?
Anger—that's one of them. Any truly intense feelings of love and happiness were also difficult. That's beginning to change.
You've said that you're very interested in power, in its use and abuse. Does this have something to do with your having grown up in an atmosphere where power was—
Misused? Yes, it could be. My father was a very impressive individual, and he gave me and my two brothers many excellent qualities, certainly in terms of perseverance, discipline, stamina. And in some respects a certain code of ethics - which, of course, was not consistent unfortunately, but nevertheless it existed.
I remember two or three years ago my eldest brother showing me my father's army pay book. When a military man leaves the service, on the last page of the book there are areas in which the commanding officer will comment on how the soldier has performed. And when my brother showed me this, it was like we were looking at a design. Because there were dozens of these areas, and opposite every one was written the word exemplary. Exemplary, exemplary, exemplary.
Why is the word exemplary so significant to you?
I've often wondered just what kind of strain it must have put him under to live like that—in his public life, anyway.
And that strain in some way fits in with the misuse of power?
Yes, it's part of why the use and misuse of power are interesting. They interest me from the point of view of the way governments operate and certainly in the way governments operate in respect to the weaker, less fortunate, disadvantaged members of society.
You're a big supporter of Amnesty International, and you did a public-service announcement for them after that episode where Picard gets tortured by the Cardassians. Did you follow the campaign to get Amnesty to champion people imprisoned for homosexuality?
They were quite resistant for a lot of years, but finally they agreed to do it.
The secretary-general of American Amnesty is someone I know quite well. I'd be interested to ask him about that. Isn't that curious? I suddenly realize that for all the years I've been a member of Amnesty, I've never made that connection. One can be so blinkered in certain aspects of life in not making proper and appropriate connections between isms. While feeling yourself to be involved in certain ways, you're not so involved at all.
I've often thought that Next Generation was much more political than people thought—more political than a non-science fiction show would have gotten away with.
Very much so. I say that with confidence now because, to my great sadness, [Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry is dead. Because Gene actively resisted any political labeling whatsoever. For me, I've been interested in the politics of the people of the world most of my life since my childhood. My father was an active trade unionist, and I became involved in the trade union movement - just as a member but an active one in my union. There was never any question that I would, because I was brought up as a socialist. I still feel that conditioning, if not indoctrination, very strongly within me. It's one of the conditioning aspects of my childhood that I'm very happy to have.
In the last three or four years of the series, with the active and very enthusiastic support of the producers and writers, we did go much more on the nose with political issues. I always thought that was terrific! And I think it gave our show a lot more substance.
What were some of the plot themes you're thinking of? I assume the torture two-parter—
Yes, it was. Although that one fell into my lap with an almost perfect script; we hardly changed it at all, it was so good. Particularly the second part, the home life of the torturer interspersed with the torture scenes.
I loved that episode, with the revealing of the torturer as also a warm family man—putting those things together.
Yes, and that Picard should say to him, "Don't you have any feelings about your child being here, witnessing this?" Raising those incredibly complex issues. This is a sophisticated TV show!