Patrick Stewart On Shakespeare, Ian McKellen’s Terrible Career Advice and Trying Not To Kill Paul McCartney

Taking us behind the pages of his new memoir, ‘Making It So,’ the acting giant revisited formative moments of his illustrious life and career at the London Literature Festival.

Sir Patrick Stewart has a vivid memory of the day he left home, with a packed lunch from his mum stowed safely in his bag, to sit his eleven-plus exam. The tests were a standardized part of the English schooling system and determined the future of your education—at age 11. “You either went to a grammar school, which was for academic people, or a secondary modern school, which wasn’t,” Stewart, 83, notes. The actor reached a junction on his journey and was faced with a decision. He could turn right, arrive at school and sit the exam with his friends, or he could turn left and embark on an adventure in his native Yorkshire, crossing the river and railway lines to reach the beginning of the Pennines landmark range of mountains and hills. Stewart chose the latter, thus altering the trajectory of his life. His headmaster and parents were unimpressed that he had missed the exam, but Stewart remained indifferent.

Film Independent At The Wallis Presents An Evening With...Sir Patrick Stewart
Sir Patrick Stewart at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

“I’ve been a socialist all my life,” the actor beams before setting the record straight that his decision as a young boy had nothing to do with politics. He simply didn’t want to go to the grammar school as he felt it would be “uncomfortable.” It just so happens that Stewart made the right choice, as a year after starting at his local secondary modern, he had the good fortune of being put in Mr. Cecil Dormand’s English class. It was here that he was introduced to Shakespeare, encouraged to start performing and set on the road to becoming one of the nation’s great stage talents and a beloved figure in film and on TV.

Subscribe to Observer’s Arts Newsletter

These life-affirming stories form the basis of Stewart’s new memoir, Making It So. I, however, am hearing the tales in person at London’s Southbank Centre, where the actor is holding court in the Royal Festival Hall during the capital city’s literature festival. Stewart is whip-smart when he launches into the vibrant stories of his past, his tongue-in-cheek humor taking center stage. He goes off-script, so to speak, throughout the night, trailing off into tangents and sometimes forgetting his original point. Seeing the wheels turning as he took us on a non-linear trip down memory lane made the talk all the more real and intimate.

Knighted by the late Queen Elizabeth II in 2010 for his services to drama, the award-winning actor speaks with great affection about his working-class upbringing in Mirfield, West Yorkshire. In his pursuit of becoming an actor, Stewart was encouraged to retire his homespun “Yorkshire twang,” but the essence of the place has never left him. However, he also endured difficult times during those early years when he witnessed his father, who served in World War II, being verbally and physically abusive toward his mother. “It’s not unusual for children who experience stressful, or even frightening, childhoods to be susceptible to taking responsibility for those problems. I certainly did,” Stewart admits, exploring his conflicted feelings about his father. “I did love and admire him. He was a Sergeant Major of the newly-formed Parachute Regiment. He gave me a great deal of his strength, his self-discipline, which was intense, and his dedication to work.”

Stewart discovered a love of literature at age six when he became familiar with the local library, but it would be another six years until he was formally introduced to the works of Shakespeare, which led him to the world of amateur acting. Although he remembers acting as a pleasurable pastime during his formative years, he also recognizes that through performing, he was able to become a different person. “I found that I liked being somebody else much better than I liked being Patrick Stewart,” he confesses.

Stewart’s most prolific role is arguably that of Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Having portrayed the iconic character in Next Generation, the actor reprised the role in 2020 for the reboot series Star Trek: Picard. Amusingly, Stewart has never been much of a sci-fi fan himself (more on that later); instead, he relishes in Shakespeare’s works, which have remained a stable constant throughout his life. In March 2020, ahead of the first COVID-19 lockdown in England, Stewart turned to Shakespeare’s sonnets as a source of comfort in a time of turmoil. Taking to social media, he posted a video of himself reciting Sonnet 116. Due to its instant popularity, he returned the next day—and for weeks thereafter—to recite another, coining the online series A Sonnet A Day. Without prompt, but much to the delight of the audience, Stewart launches into a reading of Sonnet 116 whilst on stage discussing his memoir. The shift in his persona and physical stance is palpable. The room is quiet, breaking out into rapturous applause after Stewart reels off the final line.

Below, in my edited and condensed highlights from the evening, Stewart brings life to the pivotal characters who have made an impact on him. Delivering vivid recountings of his most formative moments, he shares amusing anecdotes about his dear friend Ian McKellen and opens up about his unexpectedly eventful first meeting with Paul McCartney. He also reveals the future roles he’d like the opportunity to conquer, without gender barriers.

On his English teacher Mr. Cecil Dormand, who altered the direction of his life by introducing him to Shakespeare and the art of performing:

I’d heard of him [Shakespeare], but I’d never read a line or seen it performed. Mr. Dormand came into the classroom with a play called The Merchant of Venice. He started putting books on some of the desks, telling each pupil what character they would read. I was the last person to receive a book. I had thought I was going to be left out, and I was kind of relieved as I was nervous, but then he said, “Patrick, you’re Shylock [the play’s lead].”

I started reading these words and, I have to confess, there were so many that I didn’t understand. The narrative of what I was trying to read made no sense to me, but there was something else, a kind of mild exultation—which isn’t a word I would have used then, but it is now. It was a feeling of something rhythmic inside of me.

On how he used his premature baldness to his advantage, giving himself an edge in his early days of auditioning: 

My hair had all gone by 19. My father was also bald, as were both of my brothers, so I was not alone. I had a toupee made, and I would go to auditions wearing it. I’d do my first [performance] piece, and then as I was introducing my second performance, I would take the toupee off. And I could see people thinking, “What’s going on?!” I’d read my second piece and I’d then say, rather cheekily, “Two actors for the price of one!” And hey, it worked!

On how an off-the-cuff comment made during a game led to a glittering first encounter with Paul McCartney:

I was at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre performing The Happiest Days of Your Life. My colleague, the terrific actress Jane Asher, was Paul McCartney’s girlfriend. One lunchtime, we were sitting in a pub and somebody said: “OK, we’re each given a million pounds, what is the first thing you buy?” That was the game. When it came to my turn, I said, “It’s easy. An Aston Martin DB4.” A week later, word got around that Paul was coming in to see Jane. This was in 1964, at the height of The Beatles’ fame. I was in my dressing room after the performance, and I was in my underwear. The theater is different from film and television, people undress and take all their clothes off. There was a knock on the door and I said, “Yeah, come on in!” and Paul was standing at my door. He said to me, “I’ve been told you like Aston Martins. Here, drive this,” and he tossed a bunch of keys at me—among them, an Aston Martin key. He said, “Look, I’ll tell you what, Jane is ready to leave, you get some clothes on and you can drive us to Bath.” I’d never been to Bath, so I said,  “Alright, sure.” Paul and Jane sat in the back seat, cuddling, and Paul kept saying, “Come on! Put your foot down.” All I could think was, “If I kill Paul McCartney, that’s all I’d be remembered for.” I got us back to Bristol safely. He has become a friend, which is still as exciting as that first meeting.

On the terrible advice Ian McKellen gave him in the 80s when he was offered the role of Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: New Generation:

Ian told me, “Don’t do it! You’ve got a great career ahead of you on the stage.” I thought, “Perhaps he’s right.” Then I learned that it was a six-year contract and it was ten months of every six years that we’d be working. We did four feature films after that, so the job that Ian recommended I turn down actually went on to last twelve years. Ian has admitted, in public, that he was wrong.

On crediting the 2000 film X-Men solidifying his cherished friendship with Ian McKellen: 

X-Men was a great adventure. The first film had such a wonderful cast, and it was then that I got closer to Ian. We’d both been at the Royal Shakespeare Company but were never in the same play. While filming X-Men, we had these huge, luxurious adjoining trailers. He would invite me in for coffee in the morning, and I’d invite him over for tea in the afternoon. And if we worked nights, maybe we’d have a glass of wine. It was a delightful experience, and Ian has been such a great friend of mine since. He married my wife, Sunny Ozell, and I. He found some organization, I think it was called the Universal Church, and he got accepted as a member, giving him legal permission to perform the marriage.

On the reason he initially struggled to embrace his reprisal of Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: Picard: 

I will not be loved for what I’m about to say, but I have hardly ever been a science-fiction fan. It didn’t appeal to me. I think that was my problem in the first season of Picard and why I wasn’t good enough—because I was uncomfortable. How I first approached the series was not good. After so many episodes of Next Generation, I felt I had said everything there possibly was to say as the captain of a spaceship. But the producers met with me and told me it was going to be unlike anything that had come before, and they did create a wonderful experience for me. COVID hit our production before the end, so we had to film seasons 2 and 3 back to back. It was a little trying, especially for the old guy: me.

On the Shakespeare roles he has yet to conquer and why gender shouldn’t determine the roles you can play in the theater:

I keep going backwards and forwards on them, as my stamina is not as good as it used to be, but I’d like to try King Lear, and Falstaff in Henry VI, Part 1 and 2. Falstaff is a great comic role; the complexity inside it is just magic. I think he’s the most complicated man in Shakespeare, so I really want to have a crack at it. During my early days at the Royal Shakespeare Company, I understudied a wonderful actor, Paul Rogers, who was playing Falstaff, but he was never ill.

I have portrayed Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, but I would also like to play Cleopatra. I feel brave enough to say it because I’m serious. The best Shylock I’ve ever seen was performed by an actress. An extraordinary performance. There is a turnover of creativity, particularly in the theater. It doesn’t happen quite so much with film and TV. In Shakespeare especially, with scripts that are so complex, the actual sex of the person isn’t quite as important as it is in other dramas.


Patrick Stewart On Shakespeare, Ian McKellen’s Terrible Career Advice and Trying Not To Kill Paul McCartney