Patrick Stewart on His Craft, 21st-Century Science and Robot Ethics

The actor whose leading roles in “Star Trek” and X-Men have taken him into the far future, reflects on where present-day society is headed

Patrick Stewart
Dan Winters

“I hope that the moral questions will be addressed as enthusiastically as the technical questions when it comes to artificial intelligence,” Sir Patrick Stewart says of an ethical quandary that once arose on “Star Trek,” in which he starred as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, a role he also commanded in several movies: Does a robot with consciousness have rights, or is it a slave? The question intrigues Stewart, 73, who is nearly as well known for his human rights work—he’s a prominent advocate of the United Nations and a generous patron of Refuge, a London-based service for abused women and children—as for the Shakespearean depths he brings to performing, including X-Men: Days of Future Past, premiering this month. Even that sci-fi series based on Marvel comic characters raises important social issues, he said when we met at his apartment in New York City, where he was appearing with his X-Men co-star Sir Ian McKellen in the acclaimed Broadway revival of two daunting, famously bleak plays: Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

“These days,” Stewart says, “I find myself continually torn between a sense of almost juvenile hopefulness and a real despair.”

SMITHSONIAN: Is your lifelong passion for human rights part of what attracted you to the role of Professor Xavier in X-Men?

STEWART: Actually, yes. I turned that down when it was first offered to me, and the director, Bryan Singer, whom I had not met, said, “Please meet with me. I want to talk to you, before we move on and talk to someone else.” And he talked to me about what he hoped to achieve with the first of those films; how the subject matter would be examining the rights of those who are different from others and asking, because they were different, did they have the same rights as everybody else. And he said in the film there will be two camps. There will be a camp led by Magneto, who believes that the only way in which the mutant world can protect itself is by fighting and destroying its enemies, and Xavier, who believes that there is, as Captain Picard would have done, another route which is peaceful and involves discussion and exposure and conversation and dialogue. And I saw it, I saw the point. So I happily signed on to be an active voice for the good guys.

X-Men is really more fantasy than science fiction. But today, there’s a movement called transhumanism, which believes that we should use all available technologies at our disposal to enhance human beings. To make ourselves better and to ultimately engineer our own evolution. Not only would we be healthier and live longer, we could modify ourselves to breathe underwater, to see wavelengths of light beyond our normal vision, to leap higher or run faster in ways that no one else can. What do
you think of that idea?

I think it’s fascinating! But I think that for the moment, at least, we are as good as it gets. And the good, the potential good in us is still to be that we can become better human beings to ourselves as well as to others. And I sometimes feel we’re only at the threshold of those discoveries.

How did a Shakespearean actor end up on the bridge of the USS Enterprise?

It was a fluke. In my business one should never worry too much about whether things are going right or not because you never know what’s around the corner. For a number of years, I had been a co-director of an organization that brought Shakespeare and actors to the United States for short residencies in colleges and universities. It was called AIR—Actors in Residence. I had become very friendly with a number of people, particularly in California. And when I had any downtime in England, the man who directed our program would make a few phone calls and set me up with a series of lectures or master classes or demonstrations in colleges around Southern California. I’d got to know very well a Shakespeare scholar at UCLA, so whenever I went to Los Angeles I stayed in his guest room. And while I was there, driving off every day to Pomona or to Santa Clara or to wherever, he said, “Look, I’m giving a public lecture in Royce Hall this week,” I think it was called something like “The Changing Face of Comedy in Dramatic Literature,” and he said, “If you,” and another friend who was an actress, “would be prepared to read some extracts to illustrate my lecture, it would be so much more fun for the audience than just having me talk.” So we did.

And among those who had signed up for the lectures was Robert Justman, one of the executive producers of “Star Trek.” He claimed, adamantly all his life—and his wife agreed—that halfway through this evening, when I was reading Ben Jonson and Oscar Wilde and Terence Rattigan and Shakespeare, he turned to his wife and said, “We found the Captain.” And it took them six months to persuade Gene Roddenberry [the creator of “Star Trek”] of that. I met with Gene the next day and Gene apparently said, “No, no, this is not the guy. Definitely not.” But it turned out differently.

Gene Roddenberry imbued “Star Trek” with a very optimistic vision. He believed human beings could create a better future. Based on just what you’ve seen and read today, do you think science fiction has abandoned that optimism and instead embraced a more apocalyptic and dystopian perspective?

Can’t say that I’m persuaded of that from what I see presently. Gene’s view of the future was fairly utopian and benevolent, mostly. And it’s one of the reasons, I always believed, why the series continues to be such a success. What is it, 50, 60 years? There’s nothing like it. No other show has ever had a history of this. And it is because of the fundamentally optimistic view of what happens in “Star Trek.” And Gene set up certain moral param­eters that we endeavored not to break through. And if we did, there had to be a damn good reason for doing it and you had to justify it. And that made those seven years for me, for the most part, very interesting because Picard was a thoughtful man. I used to get asked, “In a fight between Kirk and Picard, who would win?” And my answer always was there wouldn’t be a fight because Picard would negotiate his way around it. Picard saw force as a last resort. Absolute last resort.

On “Star Trek,” you worked with Brent Spiner, who had a very challenging role playing Data, an artificial human being. People are now beginning to talk seriously about the prospect of artificial intelligence. If we ever created a truly sentient artificial being, should it be granted the same rights as humans?

We addressed that issue very powerfully in an episode [“The Measure of a Man”]. A Starfleet Judge Advocate General presides over a hearing to determine whether Data is a sentient being or property. And I remember at one script conference, Whoopi Goldberg, during the period when she was with us on the show, saying what we ought to make clear in this­—that we’re actually talking about slavery. And it was a great point to make. If we create independent life but keep it under our control, what is that? It can be said to be a form of slavery.

I hope that the moral questions will be addressed as enthusiastically as technical questions will be addressed when it comes to artificial intelligence. We’re on the very perimeter of it all the time. I’m a chancellor at a university in England and we have a department which is working on very, very specialized kind of engineering. They are now putting sensors into the very heart of machinery that will tell you when there is a possibility that that machinery might go wrong.

And I’m fascinated by this technology. I’m happy to say that my university is in the forefront of this kind of research. And I’m excited by that but…in the same way that we’ve had to start asking questions about personal liberty, and what is the nature of privacy as social networking and aspects of reality television and exposures become more and more successful and money-making, we have now to look at what is the nature of privacy and what can one expect as a right.

Having heard you speak of both these roles, two roles that you are very famous for, of course, Jean Picard and Professor Xavier, it does seem that these two characters embody what you most want to see in humanity as we move forward.

I’ve been very lucky in that respect that, especially with Picard, and to a very large extent, with Xavier, too, they represented my own beliefs. And after Gene died, so sadly in our third season of seven years of "Star Trek," really, so sad that he should not have seen that out and enjoyed fully for a long time all the benefits of that great success of "Next Generation." It did however mean that we could radicalize a little bit some of the work we were doing. So that there became you’ll will find that from the fourth season on, there is a little bit more outspokenness, certainly about the good captain, from that point on. Because Rick Berman, who became the executive producer, supported some of the ideas that I had and supported some of the ways in which I would express those ideas. And so some of the most important, significantly weighty episodes came during that time when we allowed ourselves to come face to face with issues of civil liberties and human rights.

That episode which your character experienced torture I still see brought up from time to time when people discuss the ethics of torture and the idea, the belief that you can never extract truth from someone through basically physically tormenting them. That episode really does remain in people’s minds as the counter-answer to that.

I’ve had many lovely things said to me over the years, but only very recently, I just stopped to have a chat with these [policemen] and then I went on. And one of them followed me and said, “Can I have a word just alone?” He was a young policeman, red-haired guy. And he said, “I always wanted to be a cop,” he said, “Always, but it was watching "Star Trek" that I knew what kind of cop I wanted to be. Thank you. It was because of you and 'Star Trek.'” So when things like that happen, it makes you feel immensely proud of what we did.

Many actors have said they retain a remnant of their characters long after they’ve stopped playing them. Are there traits of Captain Picard that perhaps inform your preparation for other roles?

I can’t say that there’s anything about the “Star Trek” Captain Picard experience that directly informs what I do in other roles. But I had seven years to do the series and then four feature films to think a great deal about what command means, what authority is, what duty and responsibilities are, and I think I draw on them in many different ways.

It’s only in the last six to eight years that I’ve begun to realize how big a role my father plays in the characters I play. I think, in many respects, I’ve actually been channeling my father for years. I played Macbeth five years ago in a sort of modern version of it, set it in an Iron Curtain country....I’d grown a mustache, and when I looked in the mirror I had a truly shocking realization that my father—who was a soldier—was looking straight back at me. He would not have been flattered to have known that I was basing Macbeth on him. But...he was a man of great presence and character and dignity. Roles do stay within you. Sometimes they just go underground. And sometimes it can take a little while to set them free.

James Dean once said, “To my way of thinking, an actor’s course is set even before he’s out of the cradle.”

Yes, I’d read that. I would have liked to have asked him if he could just say a little more about that. Why do people become actors? Why did I find, at the age of 12, that Shakespeare was easy for me? I had the most basic, basic education, but my English teacher put a copy of Merchant of Venice in my hands and I understood it and could speak it well from the very beginning. I came from a working-class family from the north of England. Nobody read Shakespeare...actually, that’s not quite true; my oldest brother did, but I didn’t know that for many years. And nobody in my family was an actor or performer. Why would I have this impulse and why would I find the stage such a safe place? ’Cause it is. A lot of actors have acknowledged that. It’s safe up there. Life gets complicated when you go back out on the streets again.

Your character, Hirst, in Harold Pinter’s play No Man’s Land, appears to be coping with dementia. How did you prepare for that role?

Quite a few years ago, I did a movie—which unfortunately was never released—about a character who was in the early stages of dementia and Alzheimer’s and who knew it was happening and whose memory was already starting to go. And I did quite a lot of research then, including, with their complete understanding and agreement, talking to patients who knew that they were ill and who were willing to talk to me about what it was like. I brought that experience to studying the play.

But I had one other thought while we were in rehearsal. I have twice in the past consulted the great neurologist Oliver Sacks about roles. So I asked the guys, “What do you think if we asked Dr. Sacks to come in and just watch a few scenes?” And he did. He’s a big fan of Pinter, as it turned out. So we ran some selected scenes from it, many of them involving Hirst and his confusion and so forth. And then we sat in a hot circle around the great man and asked him, “So how did it seem to you?” And he said, “Well, I know these people very well. I see them every week in my consulting room, in my clinic, in hospital beds. There’s no mystery here. This confusion, this misidentity, this delusion—all these things are present.” And in the case of Hirst, [these traits] are magnified by a vast consumption of alcohol, which is the worst possible thing if you are an elderly person.

So I had a lot of help and I totally trusted what Harold had written. When challenged in a role—not with every role, of course—I have always looked for someone I could talk to who might be able to illuminate a path or give me some understanding.

I’ll give you one very dramatic incidence. When I was rehearsing Othello in Washington, I did a production which became quite notorious called the “photo negative” Othello. I played Othello as a British, white, mercenary soldier in an African-American society. So we turned the whole racial nature of the play on its head. And I had a good friend who worked with the great criminologist, John Douglas, the man who virtually created the philosophy of profiling, and had handled many major cases of serial murderers and understood the nature of murder and brutality.

So I asked if he would see me and I went to his office one day and said, “Alright, I’m going to describe a murder scene to you and I want then you to tell me what happened.” And I described the scene in Desdemona’s bedroom. When the people break down the door and find her dead. One of the things I remember that he told me about which I put into the production, and people commented about it afterwards, was if there’s been a violent death, usually of a woman, the condition of her clothing is very important. If the clothing is all disarrayed and the body is partly naked or uncovered, the chances are the perpetrator was a stranger. If the body has been carefully covered or signs of a struggle have been erased and the body’s been covered up, it is almost certain this was a family member or someone who knew her. And so that’s exactly what I did; at the end of the killing Desdemona, her dress was up around her neck and everything else. And when she was dead, I quietly straightened her clothes out and made her look at nice as possible, and people used to freak out in the audience about that, but it came from the great man himself who had observed this often enough to know what it meant.

Photograph by Dan Winters at Industrio Studio NYC

Groomer: Joanna Pensinger/Exclusive Artists Management

Stylist: John Moore/Bernstein and Andriulli

Jacket: Suit and Shirt by Paul Smith

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