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Cheryl North Interviews Patrick Stewart

June 16, 1999. (Note: This version includes material cut for lack of space from the version printed in the ANG Newspapers.)

Picture the following scene: The setting is a place quite inhospitable to humanoid life forms. Jean-Luc Picard, lying on his stomach, is nose-to-nose with a non-human life form. Picard, of course, is outfitted with a portable oxygen supply and has protective see-through gear over his eyes, but this only piques the curiosity of the alien creature. The two stare deeply into each other's eyes, and wordlessly, without the even the need for a Vulcan mind meld, they share a poignant, deep communication.

Well -- it wasn't really Picard, the fabled captain of the Starship Enterprise, but it was Patrick Stewart, the fabled actor from West Yorkshire, England who created the role in the seven year run of TV's Star Trek: The Next Generation as well as in the series' three blockbuster motion picture spin-offs.

Nevertheless, the event described above by Stewart, actually happened. Instead of on a faraway planet, it took place on the bottom of an earthly ocean while Stewart was scuba diving. The personable actor's piercing eyes became incandescent as he animatedly retold the tale during an interview Wednesday morning in his San Francisco hotel room.

"t was one of the great events of my life," he said, explaining that it happened when he and a few other colleagues from the Whale Conservation Institute were taken to a particular place where giant sea lions were known to gather.

"Sure enough, after a very short while, about nine of these wonderful creatures came to play. But this one seemed particularly curious about me, and nose-to-nose, we really communicated. He carefully investigated, but didn't harm, my diving equipment. My snorkel still has some of his teeth marks," Stewart said with a delighted chuckle.

Stewart, who has been lauded for his many accomplishments on television, in films, and on the stages of the world, is in town this week to perform as the Narrator, the Soldier, and the Devil in Igor Stravinsky's jazzy satire, L'Histoire du Soldat, (A Soldier's Tale) with the San Francisco Symphony. Performances will be at at 8 p.m. tonight, Saturday, and on June 23 at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. Tickets range from $12 to $76. Call (415) 864-6000.

"I was very nervous during yesterday's rehearsal on stage (Davies Symphony Hall) with Michael Tilson Thomas and the Orchestra," he explained. "This piece is especially tricky. It's usually done with a group of actors and dancers, but in this case I'm doing all the parts myself. Sometimes I have to recite the words in precise time with the music - and with Stravinsky's rhythms, it's not easy. But the whole thing is thrilling - a great adventure for me."

While Stewart has received such honors as the prestigious Will Award from the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. at the hands of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and a Grammy for his narrative work on the Best Spoken Word Album for Children, Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf, and much, much more, he is most often identified with the Picard persona.

"It embarrasses me a little to say it, but I truly no longer know where I begin and he (Picard) leaves off. A lot of me has gone into this man, and there are some aspects of him that I've tried to absorb myself," he said.

Reflecting on the pervasive popularity of the Star Trek series, he continued, "There is something larger than life about the series. Star Trek's dialogue isn't ordinary dialogue . . . There is always this element of the parable sewn into every episode. The underlying themes and myths are often about 20th century society or larger philosophical or poetic themes."

"It seems to many Americans, that who sits in the Captain's chair on the Enterprise is more important than who occupies the throne of England," he quipped. "It still is some wonder to me."

His own particular favorite among his many Star Trek episodes is one called "In a Light," in which his own son, Daniel, played the role of his son in the story.

While not particularly tall, Stewart, dressed in slim-fitting jeans and a casual blue checked open-collared shirt, appeared superbly fit and muscular. Even though he's approaching his 59th birthday and has only a faint rim of shaved hair visible on an otherwise bald head, there is something about his demeanor and bearing that causes him to be repeatedly cast as powerful men. Over the years he has played emperors, princes, prime ministers, and trade union leaders.

In modestly assessing his successes in portraying the great and the powerful, he said, "I really try to make them as accessible as possible, and yet at the same time, allow them to properly hold on to the authority that is built in to their various positions," he said.

"I look for the contradictory elements of the man's personality. If he is very articulate, I look for just what it is that makes him speechless. If he is strong, I try to find what makes him vulnerable."

Acknowledging Vice-President Al Gore's statement earlier that day, that the present world seems to suffer from a "deficit of decency," Stewart philosophized that a good part of Picard's appeal might be because the captain maintains a sense of "decency, even under the most difficult situations."

Then, as a broad smile spread irrepressibly across his face, Stewart recalled, "Yesterday, while coming up here from L.A., I chatted with a businessman on the same flight. He told me that most of the important things he'd learned about leadership, he learned from Captain Picard!"

In spite of his mounting successes in the performing arts, Stewart considers himself a late-comer to the world of music.

"Back in 1963 I had a job in Liverpool, England," he reminisced. "Everyday I crossed the Mersey River on a ferry and took a shortcut to the place where I worked, walking right past a place called 'The Cavern' - totally unaware of anything like the Beatles."

"As a child, I heard very little music, classical or otherwise. It just wasn't a part of my upbringing. The only part that it played in my early life was hearing my mother downstairs singing hymns along with a religious program on the radio on Sunday mornings. As a result, I'm probably one of the few people who know ALL the verses of hymns and Christmas carols. I know verses of 'Good King Wenceslas' that you've never heard before."

He came upon classical music even later, when dutifully accompanying his first wife, choreographer Sheila Falconer, to London performances of the English National and Opera North opera companies.

"I found that, eventually, it was not just a matter of doing my duty, but that I was actually enjoying the experience."

He encountered even more music while performing in the Royal Festival Hall's production of the play Every Good Boy Deserves Favour by Tom Stoppard and Andrei Previn, which involves a symphony orchestra. Stewart rather gleefully noted that he "actually got to sit in the middle of the violin section in the orchestra."

It was not until his 1987 move from England to Los Angeles that classical music seriously took hold in his psyche. "Since I was alone," he explained, "I found that I was increasingly turning to the classical radio station KUSC for company and relaxation and I particularly enjoyed listening to the disc jockey's analyses of the music."

Then, in 1992, he directed a production of the Stoppard/Previn play, in which he starred with four other cast members of Star Trek and the Orange County Symphony Orchestra. The next year, the show went on the road and involved the Chicago, Minneapolis and Atlanta symphonies.

He has even done some singing (he considers himself a "light baritone") and has performed in Hollywood Bowl productions of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, and as King Arthur in Lerner and Lowe's Camelot along with Jennifer Larmore and Rodney Gilfrey.

A dedicated polymath like Picard, Stewart's interests range far beyond his particular vocation. "One of the pleasanter aspects of notoriety is that you can make a difference in the world," he said. "Amnesty International is one of my deepest commitments. I believe in it because it fights against human rights abuses wherever they might occur in the world - in spite of politics. It occupies a lot of my free time."

His involvement in the Whale Conservation Institute stems from his longtime association with Dr. Roger Payne, the scholar/researcher responsible for the first recordings of whale song back in the 1960s. "One of my closest women friends had the good sense to marry Roger and we've been friends and fellow divers ever since," he said.

Next month he will travel to Tanglewood, Massachusetts where he will perform several works with the Boston Symphony, including Richard Strauss' Enoch Arden, for narrator and piano, with Emanuel Ax. And, he noted that one of his fondest hopes for the future is to promote and star in a revival Assassin, a work he considers Sondheim's best.

Music it seems, is destined to play an increasingly significant role in Stewart's life. Last month he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the shining citadel of the music world, the Juilliard School in New York.

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