In 1988, as he was playing Jean-Luc Picard in the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Sir Patrick Stewart started working on a one-man stage version of A Christmas Carol in order to keep in touch with the theater. More than 30 years later, he’s found his way back both to Star Trek, leading CBS All Access’s new Picard series premiering in January, and to A Christmas Carol, which he’ll be performing on December 11 and 13 in New York to benefit City Harvest and Ars Nova. Stewart thought he’d put Picard to bed years ago and only decided to return after getting the hard sell from the show’s producers, though Scrooge, he says, whom he inhabits for most of his spare, one-man stage show, “has never really left me.” Stewart performed A Christmas Carol in New York in 1991, 1992, 1994, and last in 2001. As he prepared to take on the Dickens classic once again, Stewart talked with Vulture about seeing the story’s economic moral differently in the present and the opposite and yet complementary worldviews present in two of his lifelong roles.
Let’s start with Star Trek. What convinced you to come back to Picard?
To be honest, I didn’t want to. I had determined long ago that my time with Jean-Luc and Star Trek was over. I had given everything I could to the character in the series. But when this also came through about two years ago, I agreed with my agent that we would go and attend the meeting with [producers] Alex Kurtzman and Akiva Goldsman, and because their inquiry of me had been so polite and enthusiastic, I wanted to explain to them face-to-face why I was going to pass. I did.
They listened to me talk for half an hour or so. They said fine, they understood all that, but they had a few more things they wanted to say and they talked in a little more detail about their vision for Picard. There was a lot of information; when the meeting broke up and we left, I said to my agent, “You know, would you mind asking these people if they could put everything they said in writing so that I can read it, study it, think about it?” In less than two days, I had over 30 pages of copy, which I studied very carefully. One of the points that I had made in the meeting was that the only possible way I could consider returning to that life would be if, for example — and this was only an example — we did something like Logan, the final X-Men movie I made with Hugh Jackman; then you would have my attention.
They came back with quite a lot to say about that, and they were very enthusiastic about creating a world that was very different from the one that we got used to. I met with them again and we talked and talked and I told them about my uncertainties and doubts and little by little I found that they were all being addressed and being addressed in such an interesting way that I was intrigued. This was not going to be Star Trek: The Next Generation, Part Two. That’s why I said yes.
What convinced you to come back and do A Christmas Carol again?
I began developing it during season two of Next Generation, so it is by now nearly 30 years old. Every single autumn, without exception, I have been approached from someone from somewhere, from Australia, from the far East, from Canada, from the U.K., to come back and do Christmas Carol again. Luckily, there was always so much work going on. I simply didn’t have the opportunity to look again. But when I was approached by the Ars Nova and by [its founder] Jenny Steingart, I went to see the theater and I was intrigued by it, because I had never done Christmas Carol in a theater so small. The last time I did Christmas Carol was 16 years ago, and it was in a 1,600-seat theater.
I began to think about how would I do Christmas Carol in such a small space. It’s 99 seats. The window opened up for me, and Jenny said, “You can do as few or as many performances as you want.” Well, I’m now in my 80th year, and this is a two-hour show, and I’m alone, and I never stop talking. I wasn’t sure that my body and my brain were up for it. So I began learning and working and exercising and going through different sections of it, and I became finally convinced I thought I could have a shot at it. I signed up for just two performances with a day off in between, because I didn’t know how my voice would stand up. Anyway, we did our final full rehearsal [Monday] and I got through it all and was just a little tired and nothing more.
Are you approaching the text differently this time around?
The smaller space means that I can be more conversational than I would be in a 1,600-seat theater. Here, I could talk as I’m talking to you now [Stewart is speaking over the phone with his remarkable smoothness] and everybody’s going to be aware of what I say. Therefore, I could tell a different kind of story. That is what brings me to be the connection between Picard and A Christmas Carol. I believe that the world I’m in now has never been so troubled and dark a place. I’m a war baby. I was born in 1940, so I have some experience of the sounds of war. My father was away for the first five years of my life. I never knew who he was until he came home in 1945. But the times we’re living through now are exceptional and alarming. I felt that there was an opportunity here to say something about that in both shows in a very, very different way.
With Christmas Carol, I am leaning much more heavily on Dickens, the social critic, than I ever did before, where I just told a story that was grim at times, ended happily, and had Tiny Tim and all these lovable characters. I’m now looking at something a little bit darker, and we’ll see. I’ll know by Friday night whether it’s worked or not.
It must be interesting to return in a moment of political crisis to these two widely different characters, someone like Scrooge who is a cynic for so much of the show, and Picard, who has a much more hopeful outlook about people.
Nobody has made this parallel quite so strongly as you just have, so I’m intrigued by it, and it will give me an extra little impulse [Wednesday] night when I go out and bond with an audience … and of course when — I hope, nobody’s confirmed it yet — but I hope to return later next year to Star Trek: Picard, that we can tell good stories and provide good entertainment and let it speak about the world we live in at the same time.
One last question: I saw that, because Picard is working at a vineyard in the new series, people have put out Picard wine. I was just curious if you’d gotten to taste it yet.
No, I have not. But I do have several bottles of it, and when the occasion is right, they will be opened. I’m very fond of wine, particularly red wine.
I hope that it’s up to your standards.
I’m sure it will be. Thank you for the comments that you made. I shall brood on those for the next couple of days.
This interview has been edited and condensed.