Photo: Manuel Harlan
Patrick Stewart is on a Shakespearian high, playing a host of the Bard’s greats in back-to-back-to-back productions: Last summer he dazzled British critics as Twelfth Night’s Malvolio, and next year he’s taking on Hamlet’s uncle for the Royal Shakespeare Company. In between, he continues his role as the ambition-addled Macbeth, as BAM’s 1984-esque reimagining of the play moves to Broadway. Trekkies be warned: Macbeth may be a commander, but Stewart’s not reprising his famous stint as Jean-Luc Picard — Captain Picard was far too nice of a guy. Stewart, proudly, is not. And he’ll probably break our kneecaps for saying so.
Prior to coming to America, you were playing Macbeth while you were rehearsing Twelfth Night. Did you ever conflate the characters?
This is a common misconception of people who don’t do my job. That never happens. I once played Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and there was one scene where I had to stand silently for pages and pages and pages while some other actors were doing another scene. I decided I would use the time to run through speeches from another play I was rehearsing, Titus Andronicus. I could never, ever even get started. I simply could not bring the lines into my head because I was in the wrong context. So no— it never, ever, ever happens.
Do you have to play the role differently for an American audience? Do you have to dumb it down?
I have to ask you a question: Did you ask that just to be provocative? Because I cannot believe that a smart woman like you thinks that I am going to actually going to answer in the affirmative to that question. You’re being provocative, aren’t you?
Yes, we were. But there’s got to be some change, no?
Noooo. Why would there be? Why would we change our production just because we’re playing to people who speak with a different accent? It makes no sense at all. But you do change us, because American audiences always find more humor in everything than British audiences do. And that’s been the case with Macbeth; we’ve added running time on our production solely because of laughs. It’s just because American audiences are more receptive to humor and irony, and so they respond much more viscerally to what’s going on.
There is a line in Macbeth, “Thou wouldst be great; / Art not without ambition, but without / The illness should attend it.” Is ambition an illness?
If greatness is what you’re pursuing rather than just success, then you have to be single-minded, dedicated, and rigorous in your life plan. Families are less important, friends are less important. People sacrifice all of that if it’s greatness they’re pursuing. But if all you want to do is the best you can, which is a kind of ambition, then I don’t think it requires an illness to attend it. Look at the Democratic candidates. Do you not think that to be that ambitious there has to be a certain kind of sickness?
Now if you write that Patrick Stewart thinks that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are sick, I will come and find you and I will kneecap you.
We’re actually going to write that we were just threatened by Patrick Stewart.
Yes, you were. And I mean it. I have friends who are much nastier than me who will come and find you. You have been warned.
Okay, wow. Well, here’s a question you’ll really despise: Has playing Jean-Luc Picard taught you anything about Macbeth?
Why do you think that’s a stupid question? Look, I played that character for seven years, 178 episodes week in, week out, four feature films. Those years were very productive, they were very important to me, and they changed my life in every aspect. I am proud of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I am proud of the work we did, and I am proud of the character I played, because I know for a fact he’s been an outstanding role model to people. Is there any of him in Macbeth? No. There really isn’t. Jean-Luc Picard, supposing he were married to Lady Macbeth — which he would never have been because he is married to the Enterprise, as we all know — he would never have permitted these things to happen because he is not a violent man, and not a man who would put personal ambition before the good of others. Now isn’t that a nice answer?
—Sarah Maslin Nir