In recent months, a social-media love affair has unfolded between Sir Patrick Stewart and the city of New York. The venerable British actor relocated to Park Slope in 2012 to settle down with jazz singer Sunny Ozell (the two got hitched earlier this fall). Via Twitter, he’s shared experiences like shaking hands with borough president Marty Markowitz and even wrangling with the nefarious Time Warner Cable.
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Now, the erstwhile Starfleet captain has touched down on Broadway, starring in a pair of existential masterpieces rimmed with dark humor: Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land. He’s performing the two plays in rep alongside his X-Men costar and BFF-for-life Ian McKellen. (Shuler Hensley and Billy Crudup round out the ensemble.) We got on the horn with Stewart to talk about the lost art of repertory theater, why he’s fallen hard for Brooklyn and much more.
So I have to ask you about your lobster Halloween costume.
[Laughs] I thought it was a funny thing to do, but I have been somewhat stunned by the response to it. I’m just looking now to see that it’s had 36-and-a-half thousand retweets. My wife and I occasionally dream these things up together; it was she who bought the lobster costume online and then said, “This is what you’re wearing for Halloween.” I’m not sure I ever would have [worn it] in public, but the idea of sharing this ridiculous costume was a pleasant one.
You’ve been a pretty active tweeter.
It has really taken us by surprise to what extent people have enjoyed it. I get a great deal of satisfaction from using it for societal issues and concerns that I am involved with, but there’s also been this element of playfulness, which has opened up a new avenue of communication, which I am enjoying very much indeed. My daily reading of The New York Times—about which I’m obsessed—can be so utterly discouraging about the state of the world. So to [post] a photograph of me struggling with something as simple as Christmas lights, or standing perplexed outside a French supermarket called Picard, or eating my first slice of pizza—I look on these as being a sort of antidote to some of the ghastly things in the world.
There’s been a huge response to the shots of you and Ian McKellen around town in your Waiting for Godot bowler hats.
Well, that’s a different thing. That’s a very specific way of connecting the two of us with our run on Broadway—not as promotion, mind you, but rather the idea that these two guys in bowler hats have come to New York as tourists, and they’re having a wonderful time seeing the sights, and they happen to be Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.
Well, those photos have definitely brightened the days of many people across the Internet.
That is a really satisfying thought. And it’s not done manipulatively—it’s done because when Sunny and I do these things, we laugh a great deal ourselves. And if something amuses me, it might amuse someone else as well.
Like that quadruple-take video?
That was a genuine thing. One afternoon when Sunny and I were sitting in the mountains, I’d mentioned a double take. And she said, “What is that?” And then I said, “Oh, lord—it’s part of an actor’s bag of tricks.” And I showed her, and she said, “Hang on a minute, I want to record this. You’ve got to start again.” [Laughs]
What was the impetus for performing Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land in rep on Broadway?
Sean Mathias had directed Ian and myself in Waiting for Godot in the U.K. nearly five years ago, and it was a marvelous experience. We had plans to bring it to New York, but then another production was announced with a marvelous cast—Bill Irwin and Nathan Lane. So that rather destroyed our plans. I went to Sean a couple of years ago with No Man’s Land and said, “Look, I’ve wanted to do this play all my life.” And it became clear to me that Ian was born to play the role of Spooner. And Sean said, “Maybe we could do a deal here, because Ian really wants to do Godot again.” And from that it became almost an inevitability. There are four male characters in both plays. Why don’t we do them together with the same four actors? And we’re doing it on Broadway—let’s find two brilliant American actors and make it a truly Anglo-American production.
You’re also a coproducer. What makes you so invested in this project?
There are not many places in the world where you could see, in one day, two plays like this done with the same group of actors. And we were excited at the thought of bringing something that would normally only be thought of as an artistic endeavor—which you would associate with great nationalized, subsidized theaters—to the heart of commercial theater land. And we know we’re taking a risk, but we’re taking the risk because we think audiences might really have a good time.
True repertory theater, especially in the U.S., is rare these days. What do you think is the value in having the same company of actors performing multiple shows?
Well, it’s the tradition that Ian and myself come from. We’re both Royal Shakespeare Company actors. For both of us, I think, it was our idea of the most perfect location to work. And Ian has worked there much more than I have; he told me the other day that in one season at Stratford-upon-Avon, he played Romeo, Macbeth and I believe Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing. I’ve done opening nights in Stratford where we’ve done Henry IV, Part 1 at ten o’clock in the morning, Part 2 at two in the afternoon and Henry V at the top of seven in the evening.
Wow, that’s a Shakespeare marathon.
It’s in our natures. We know what we’re taking on. I mean, tomorrow we do both plays on the same day. It feels like a lot, it looks like a lot, and we’re both of us in our seventies, but we’ve both done three plays in a day [before]. Although age does have a different part to play in all of this. Because now, as Ian and I never tire of saying, the most important thing we do in the theater these days is sleep. [Laughs]
How is working with Ian, who’s a close friend and a frequent collaborator of yours?
It brings with it a trust, and trust is such an important thing in live theater. It encourages you to take risks, to be brave in some of the choices that you make. Because if things go wrong, someone’s got your back, always. And that’s how it feels with these two plays, with Billy [Crudup] and Shuler [Hensley] and Ian. You’d think we’d been working together for years, although it’s only been four months. We are an ensemble. And that creates an atmosphere in which you can do your best work.
Godot and No Man’s Land are both fairly bleak pieces, but this production emphasizes the comedy in them. Was that a conscious choice?
I remember when I was a very young actor, being impressed by a remark of Laurence Olivier’s: He said the first thing he looked for in any role, no matter how tragic, was its humor. And I thought, Ah! Yes, of course. Because Olivier always had this twinkle in his eye. So I have always looked for that element, and it exists to such an enormous degree in both these plays. I mean, everyone knows that Waiting for Godot is a classic; but people don’t realize how fun it can be. Sam Beckett loved comedy and knockabout. He loved music hall and silent movies. Elements of that are very much in Godot. And Pinter is a brilliant, ironic, dangerously comic writer.
How do you feel about the theater scene here in New York versus in London, where you’ve worked extensively?
We are very blessed in London, as we have been for many decades, in having our great, subsidized national theaters. The kind of work that they do would not be possible [without] huge government subsidies. And luckily, people understand that this is a very important aspect of English cultural life. But it’s the huge talent pool that makes working in New York so exciting—creative talent and extraordinary actors. I was first on Broadway with what became the legendary Peter Brook production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1971, and I have been in love with Broadway ever since. There’s a sort of celebration of performance here, which is different from the U.K. We felt it last night doing No Man’s Land for the first time—people were excited to be participating in this event, and letting us know it. English audiences don’t always do that.
You recently moved to Park Slope. What’s been your favorite thing about living in New York so far?
My wife was living in Brooklyn, and when I came to visit her, I fell in love with the area. I feel like I belong to a community here. I remember we were walking down the street, and a couple of guys were sitting out on the stoop. And one of them, his head went up, and I thought, Oh, Lord, I don’t want to be signing autographs this morning. And this guy, he said to me [in Brooklyn accent]: “Hey, Mr. Stewart, welcome to the neighborhood. Enjoy!” And that was it. I just smiled from ear to ear, and I thought, I like this place.
Yeah, Brooklyn is pretty great, right?
A few weeks after I was so blessed to get my knighthood at Buckingham Palace, I walked into the pharmacy and [the pharmacist] said, “So what do we have to do now? Curtsy?” [Laughs] It reminds me of where I grew up—the same kind of community atmosphere. Already, I would say I’ve met half the people on my block here. I walk to the subway, I go to the market, and I’m in the street, I’m in the community. It feels great. And here we are, you know? I get on the F train and 15, 20 minutes later, I’m in Manhattan. That easy. When I was young, Manhattan was a dream to me.
You’re an outspoken supporter of charities that work to end domestic violence. Do you see it as a duty to use your voice to promote causes that you care about?
No, I don’t think it’s a duty. I am drawn to issues of domestic violence and specifically violence towards women because of my own childhood experience. I do this work on behalf of my mother, for whom I could do very little when I was a child. Now I can do something for women and their children who are in a similar situation. One of the most gratifying things in my life is that, I would say daily, someone stops me in the street or at the stage door and will mention the work that I’ve done there.
Also, because of a BBC program that I was involved in last year, I learned that in 1940, my father came back with the remnants of the British expeditionary force from France, absolutely defeated and decimated. And he was suffering from severe shell shock. I had no idea. It was never spoken of in my family. In those days, soldiers were told to pull themselves together and act like a man. Well, that’s not the most appropriate treatment for what we now know is PTSD. So I’m now a patron of an organization in the U.K. called Combat Stress. And I do this for my father, for whom nobody did anything back in the 1940s and ’50s.
That’s fantastic that you can be a part of that now.
It gives me enormous pleasure to do it. I wish I could do more. I’m also chancellor of a university in my hometown in England, and I’m so proud to have this job. I left school when I was 15—I never sat for an exam in my life! But here, I have been able to talk to high-school students about graduating and going onto college. I do these things because they were part of my life, and I feel that I have an authentic voice I can use in support of these causes.
How was it returning to the role of Professor Xavier in X-Men: Days of Future Past?
Have you had a look at the trailer? Whooo—it’s going to be awesome. I can’t wait to see it! Ian and I are only in a portion of it. There is time travel involved, and we’re stuck in our own time frame. Lucky Hugh Jackman gets to move backwards and forwards. We had such a great time filming it. And of course, we were reunited with many of our original X-Men, and a whole new, wonderful group. James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Fassbender…now that would make a repertory company right there! I would love to do a season at Stratford-upon-Avon with those people.
No Man’s Land and Waiting for Godotare at the Cort Theatre through Mar 2. X-Men: Days of Future Past opens May 23, 2014.