Every now and then, the Dubai International Film Festival has a habit of throwing a genuine legend in your path. Past years have seen the likes of Terry Gilliam, Samuel L Jackson and Martin Sheen stalk the corridors of Dubai's Madinat Arena, and this year the scent of Patrick Stewart, better known as Star Trek: The Next Generation's Captain Jean Luc Picard and X-Men's Professor Charles Xavier has hung over the festival like an overpowering, yet undeniably pleasant, aroma.
It's rare that an actor is talented, or lucky, enough to land one role as iconic as Stewart's two best known parts in their career. Stewart has managed both. Having now quit the X-Men franchise along with co-star Hugh Jackman following this year's critically lauded Logan, I wonder what the actor has planned for his third iconic role: "Well, I don't know about that, but I read somewhere the other day that 'an actor can never have too many franchises,' and I think that's very true," he says.
It was back in 1986 that Stewart's life changed irrevocably. Prior to that, he had been a successful, but largely unknown outside theatre circles, stage actor and member of the UK's Royal Shakespeare Company. Then came the call to hop on a plane to Hollywood: "It was a mystery. I just got this call to go to a meeting in LA with [Star Trek creator] Gene Rodenberry," he says. "Eventually I learned that one of his co-producers on Star Trek had been signed up for a course of public lectures at UCLA that I was involved in. One night he turned up with his wife and I was there doing some Shakespeare. He turned to his wife and said 'we've found our captain.'"
The co-producer in question may have been convinced, but Stewart reveals that Rodenberry himself wasn’t so sure: “It took six months before it was all confirmed because Gene wasn’t keen at all on the idea of me playing Jean-Luc Picard,” he reveals. “I don’t know what they did - maybe they paid him off - but eventually the studio decided I was their man and my life changed beyond recognition from that moment on.”
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Stewart's life had indeed changed, though it seems he was among the last to realise. The actor famously didn't even get his own apartment stateside for months after Star Trek:The Next Generation had proved itself a success, and he admits he was slow to recognise his own growing stature: "I was in denial about it for a long time. I think I was in denial for nearly two years," he admits. "When we filmed the pilot I was living in a friend's spare room and I never unpacked my suitcase because I was convinced they'd wake up one morning and say 'sorry Patrick we've made a huge mistake. Thanks for your work' and I'd make my way back to the RSC."
Stewart's friends back in the UK didn't exactly help cure his cynicism towards his impending legendary status either: "It wasn't helped by the fact that everyone I knew said 'this'll never work. You can't revive an iconic property like Star Trek. Just get a sun tan, make some money for the first time in your life, and come home in six months.' It didn't happen, and 14 years later I realised how true the saying was that in Hollywood nobody knows anything about anything. That's the one bit of advice I've had in my life that's definitely true."
The actor adds that his new American co-stars noticed his decidedly un-Hollywood mentality too: "My colleagues on Star Trek used to say I had a poverty mentality, which is probably true. I grew up in a one-bedroom house in the north of England with no hot water, no inside toilet, and that's doubtless affected me," he admits.
After seven years, seven seasons, 19 Emmy Awards and four feature films, Stewart had finally accepted that he'd made it, and it was time to move onto X-Men, where the actor would appear in seven movies before bowing out earlier this year. He admits that his departure from the franchise following this year's incredible Logan, a film that is frankly too good for a superhero movie, was an emotional affair: "I remember there was a point at the film's first public screening at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year," he says. "Hugh [Jackman, who plays the titular Logan/Wolverine] and I were sitting side-by-side, and at one point he reached over and took my hand because we were both very emotional at the way the film ends. It's very emotional and very bad things happen."
At this point Jackman had already announced his intention to bow out of the franchise, and it seems the emotional moment had its effect on Stewart too: "Of course I already knew that this was the last time Hugh would play Logan, he'd already announced that, and as the credits rolled I realised that there would never be a more perfect time to say 'au revoir' to Charles Xavier than what I had just seen," he reveals. "So the next day I called a press conference and announced that I would also be saying goodbye to X-Men."
That would seem to be the end of the X-Men for Stewart, but maybe not, he teases: "Of course, since then people have come up with a multitude of ideas that would have meant I wouldn't have said goodbye to X-Men, so we'll see."
Speaking with Stewart, however briefly, was an undeniable pleasure, and it's safe to assume that those who attended his hour-long Diff "in conversation with" on Friday afternoon were in for a treat. It's no surprise that this utter gentleman ends our conversation by talking not about what his work has done for him, but rather what it has done for others: "People forget how much Star Trek had to say, politically and about society and our roles in it," he says. "I've been stopped in the street, or in restaurants or bars, hundreds of times by people saying 'thank you. I only made it because of Star Trek.' That's an incredible feeling."
The veteran actor picks one such occasion as a defining moment: "I think the most moving moment was when I received a letter from a sergeant in the Las Vegas police department. He told me about his job and his life and what he does, but then he said 'there are days when I despair of humanity and what we do to each other. And on these days I get home, and I reach up to my shelf and take down Star Trek, and I'm reminded that it's all worth fighting for."
The actor is clearly moved: “What can I say? When people say that about your work, it’s meaningful. Do you know? It’s just meaningful.”
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