Sunday 20 October 2019

'You can see this as a family film... or as an anti-Brexit one' – Patrick Stewart talks Merlin, medical marijuana and #MeToo

The 'Star Trek' veteran Patrick Stewart tells Craig McLean about medical marijuana, playing Merlin and the positive effect the Harvey Weinstein revelations have had in Hollywood

Stewart at 78: 'I started doing Pilates a month ago. I'd recommend it. It's a little boring but...'
Stewart at 78: 'I started doing Pilates a month ago. I'd recommend it. It's a little boring but...'
Boldly going... again: Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard

Patrick Stewart has his fists in my face. He's challenging me. Two years ago, the actor couldn't clench his hands. Now, on close inspection, I can see that his finger and thumb joints are knobbly, swollen and arthritic-looking. But they're flexible.

"How did that happen?" he asks.

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"Steroids?" I suggest. The 78-year-old shakes his head. "Marijuana."

My eyes must widen, because he hastily qualifies that statement.

Boldly going... again: Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard
Boldly going... again: Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard

"Medical marijuana - let me be very clear about that," Stewart states, lest the idea of a stoner septuagenarian star causes a Liam Neeson-style PR crisis for the film he is promoting.

"I have cream, which contains cannabinoids, that I put on before I left the house this morning," Stewart continues. "I have a marijuana spray, which is fantastic. But it's the cream that has given me this flexibility."

Stewart is in impressively good health but he's under no illusions as to how compromised his life would be were his hands to succumb to arthritis. It explains his passionate support for the legalisation of medical marijuana in the UK.

"It's a real battle, but we're trying to change the law. People far sicker than me have had such benefits from cannabinoids."

Beyond that, Stewart is about to up his fitness game. In less than two weeks, he heads back to Los Angeles, where he lived between 1987 and 2004, for another crack at the cult role that first took him there: Captain Jean-Luc Picard. The ever-expanding Star Trek universe is about to fire up the warp factor once more with a new TV spin-off focusing on the boldly going Starfleet officer.

Stewart is also co-executive producing the series. So, on the advice of his wife, Sunny Ozell - an American musician, 38 years his junior, whom he married in 2013 - he's starting work on his stamina with the best personal trainers LA can offer.

"Luckily I've got a peasant body that gets built up really easily," he says. "And I started doing Pilates a month ago. I'd recommend it. It's a little bit boring, but, for instance, Ian McKellen is a passionate Pilates guy and he's doing great. He's in terrific shape."

The two actors have a lot in common: both have knighthoods, both are admired for their command of Shakespeare, but neither too proud to star in a Hollywood blockbuster. And now they have something else on which they can compare notes: the art of playing a wizard.

Directed by Joe Cornish, Stewart's new film is The Kid Who Would Be King, a modern retelling of the myth of King Arthur in which a London schoolboy finds the legendary sword Excalibur. The effortlessly charismatic Stewart plays a centuries-dormant Merlin with gung-ho teenage glee. "Patrick said to me: 'Look, I know Michael Gambon, I know Ian McKellen'," relates Cornish, "'all those great actors who played the pointy-hatted, white-bearded wizards - I don't want to do that.'

"And I said: 'Well, this is different because Merlin arrives in the modern world naked. So he acquires clothes from people he meets. He ends up wearing an old woman's coat, a Led Zeppelin T-shirt, and if you saw him in the street, he would just look like a tramp or a wino. And when he sneezes he turns into a younger version of himself'."

Stewart's response was instant: "All right, I'm interested."

Talking to me now, the actor admits that he also liked the grown-up, modern-day political resonances in the old-fashioned children's adventure. The adolescent hero (played by Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of Andy Serkis) must save a land that is "divided, lost and leaderless".

"You can see this as a family movie about a mythic character and be utterly unaware that there is an element of societal criticism," notes Stewart. "Or, you can see it as an anti-Brexit movie."

Stewart, who grew up in wartime poverty in Yorkshire, has been a placard-carrying Labour party supporter since the age of four. Nonetheless, he has no time for his party's stance on the dominant issue of the day.

"I was never a [Jeremy] Corbyn man," he sighs about the UK Labour party leader. "I think I know what Jeremy and his friends are up to. It is a form of socialism, I suppose. But it's not an honest kind of socialism.

"The game he's been playing for the past few months" - he mimes someone wishy-washily pivoting from position to position - "it became clear to me quite quickly that what he was doing was not concerning himself with Brexit.

"He was concerning himself with power. And he's been manoeuvring for that throughout last year and this. I think he would like a hard Brexit and the disaster that would quickly follow. Then he can step in - obviously there will be another election - and he will fight his way into power. And he will be prime minister. And I don't think that is going to be a good thing."

It is, he says, "exactly" like David Cameron, who put party politics above the good of the country when he called the 2016 EU referendum.

"The two of them, plus [former Labour leader]Ed Miliband, are concerned with their own self-interests. It's not about the country. It's not even about the party! [Their attitude is:] 'It's about me'," he says. Stewart also addresses another divisive figure, Bryan Singer, with whom he worked on five X-Men movies. Singer, the director of the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, has been accused of sexually assaulting four men when they were under age. Singer denies the allegations.

"Most of the experience with Bryan I really enjoyed. But what is happening is so good," he says, smoothly pivoting the conversation. He's referring to the calling to account of transgressors, the #MeToo movement, and the improved diversity in his industry.

Since the Harvey Weinstein revelations, the number of films and TV shows employing women in leading roles, both in front of and behind the camera, has increased, and that includes the movie Stewart has just finished filming: a reboot of Charlie's Angels.

"Elizabeth Banks wrote, produced, directed and stars in it. Awesome!" he rhapsodises, that teen-like glee brimming over again. "And is a terrific person."

That gender reorientation, he affirms, "is the best thing that's happened in showbusiness since I've been in it."

But now, reluctantly, Stewart must go. He rises to his feet, smoothing smart black jeans over a pair of cowboy boots. He owns three pairs, one in each of his homes (west London, the Cotswolds, Brooklyn). He bought them when he first went to Nevada to meet his wife's family. He turned up in runners, his normal riding footwear.

"Not in Nevada," the Ozells tutted, and promptly took him to a western supply store. "And they changed my life. I feel like a different person when I'm wearing them," smiles Stewart, the improbably coolest cowboy in the West End of London.

'The Kid Who Would Be King' is in cinemas now

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