Patrick Stewart: 'If I showed up again, and I was in the audience, I'd feel cheated'
Patrick Stewart is in reflective mood. A lengthy promotional tour for his new film, Logan, has seen him criss-cross the world in recent weeks, no joke for a 76-year-old. "Mustn't complain, though," he says with a smile, "we're working." He's spry, and friendly, but gets a little wistful when I mention the fact that this might be his last X-Men film.
He's "tremendously fond" of Professor Charles Xavier, the messianic mutant academic he's been playing on an off for almost 20 years, and admires his "intelligence, his compassion, his dedication to protecting his kind". But the Xavier we meet in Logan is not the Charles of old. Written and directed by James Mangold, Logan has a gritty, grim and at times positively funereal tone that's a thousand miles from the bubblegum charms of most superhero movies.
In it, Logan, aka the Wolverine, is reduced to driving a stretch limo for drunken débutantes along the Mexican border. It's the near future, Logan is crippled with what looks like arthritis and uses most of his money to buy medication for Charles, who's now 90 and suffering from some sort of dementia. That's dangerous territory for a man whose all-seeing brain has been classified by his enemies as a weapon of mass destruction, and Logan is struggling to keep Xavier safe from sinister government agents who want to get their hands on him.
It's grimy stuff, and in fact the opening scenes look like an avant garde production of Samuel Beckett's End Game. "Rumours had been drifting down to us about the new film," Stewart says, "but you never find out much because the studio is rightly paranoid about stuff getting out - you know, they send you an email and 10 minutes later it bursts into flames.
"So it wasn't until I finally had a script and I got to Charles' first scenes, and I read the description of where we were, and I thought God, what have we got into here. You know, some abandoned petrochemical works in the Mexican desert. It was dark." That abandoned facility is the spot Logan has chosen to hide his ailing mentor, inside a rusting metal dome that prevents Charles from transmitting his tell-tale brainwaves. There he's tended to by Logan, and a strange accomplice who's played by Stephen Merchant and bears the very Shakespearean name of Caliban.
There's an air of finality to the film, partly due to its storyline, but also to the fact that Hugh Jackman announced before production began that this would be his last Wolverine film. And it now seems it may be Stewart's X-Men swansong, too.
"This is not me trying to jump on Hugh's announcement," he explains carefully. "But last Friday night in Berlin, when I was watching the film for the second time, I was very moved by the closing scenes. Hugh and I were sitting alongside one another, and we were both wiping away the odd tear. And as we sat and watched the credits roll on and on before we went up on stage to say hello to the audience, I found myself thinking, well that is such a beautiful ending to this movie, so emotional, so potent, so accurate of the relationship of Logan and Charles to the X-Men universe, so this should be goodbye for me, too. I think if I showed up again, and I were among the audience, I would feel really cheated."
The franchise has been good to him, turning him into a global superstar and completing a process started by his Star Trek TV success. Stewart was a highly respected classical actor known more for his stage work than his rare forays into TV and movies when he was cast in the role of Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the mid-1980s. He was doing a Shakespeare workshop in Hollywood when the producer of Star Trek: The Next Generation spotted him and had a brainwave.
Stewart had barely heard of Star Trek, and was initially reluctant to sign a contract that would bind him to Hollywood and keep him away from the London stage. But the show was a huge hit, ran for seven years and spawned four successful feature films, which in turn led to X-Men. But sci-fi is a far cry from Stewart's roots in the British theatre.
Born in Yorkshire in 1940, he grew up in a working-class family and was one of the last generation of British actors who were encouraged to drop their 'regional accents' and adopt the plummy tones of standard English.
"When I was 12," he remembers, "thanks to the very enlightened West Riding County Council, I was chosen to attend an eight-day residential drama course for amateur actors up in the Pennines. I thought they were just free, and it was only some years later that I worked out that my English teacher at school had almost certainly paid for me, because my parents couldn't afford it - we were poor as crows.
"And there I met there a retired actress called Ruth Wynn Owen, and she agreed to work with me. I would take three buses and then walk two miles to get to her house on Sundays for drama classes. I wasn't alone, there was another young man, two years older than me, called Brian Blessed, who was attending the same weekends. She had a beautiful voice and spoke beautiful English, and quite early on she said to me, if you are serious about working, you'll have to learn standard English. So with her I did, and for a few years I led a double life, Monday through Friday I talked like that [does a frighteningly perfect broad Yorkshire accent], then it would all change on Sundays!"
Sometimes, he would forget which accent he was supposed to be using. "On a couple of occasions in the playground I would say 'pass the ball, please' in this posh voice, and thump! Who are ya?
"But Ruth Wynn Owen was right, at that time, for me, she was right. Because I didn't carry the kind of pugnacious cachet of some of the actors, like Albert Finney, or Tom Courtenay, Peter O'Toole, Richard Harris, where they didn't give a fuck. I wasn't like that, I was quieter."
His standard English and beautiful speaking voice helped Sir Patrick rise through the ranks of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and led to intermittent television work through the 1970s. He had quite an impact playing the murderous Roman soldier Sejanus in I, Claudius, an acclaimed BBC series that made the names of several leading theatre actors, including his childhood friend, Brian Blessed.
"It certainly made the television career of Derek Jacobi," he says, "and then there was John Hurt, of course, may he rest in peace, what a damned shame. There was me and Brian, George Baker, and Sian Phillips. It was an incredible cast."
Though he initially found it hard to juggle TV and film success with his love of the stage, Stewart now successfully manages theatre and movie work, and in recent years has acted in Waiting for Godot on Broadway with his friend and X-Men co-star Ian McKellen.
Stewart is based in Brooklyn now, but maintains strong links with his homeland and has never been afraid to politically engage. Last year he wrote an impassioned pro-EU piece in the Guardian in advance of the Brexit vote, and admits he was devastated by its outcome.
"It saddened me and it sickened me and it made me angry," he says. "To the extent that last Friday, at a press conference in Berlin, I just spontaneously decided I had to make a statement, so I did. And Twitter went at me like crazy, people are complaining that I had apologised to all the Europeans in the room for the British people. But that's not what I did - I said how I personally felt embarrassed and ashamed by what had happened. But of course the Daily Express picked it up, and they called me 'luvvie' twice in the same little article, and it implies, you know, he's just an actor, what right does he have, who's going to take him seriously?
"Just because I'm an actor it doesn't mean I can't express an opinion."