He, Claudius

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For any actor overlooked and underappreciated in his or her early days, take heart. Patrick Stewart has tales for you. Bypassed by the Royal Shakespeare Company twice while a young actor, he finally won the chance to understudy there and became a core member years later. Through the help of others, through his own perseverance, he became the noted star of today, earning the admiration and respect of actors of all generations.

But he started humbly—in life and as an actor. He eventually garnered supporting roles on television, diligently building a résumé of fascinating characters, from the darkly silent Karla in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" through the scheming Sejanus in "I, Claudius." Then came his leading roles, creating Captain Picard on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," headlining his own series "Eleventh Hour," and playing Professor Xavier in the vast "X-Men" franchise. He has meanwhile been a gift to the theater, topped by his adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" in which he portrayed all 40-plus characters. And yes, with the RSC, Stewart played Prospero, Marc Antony, and Othello (with an otherwise all-black cast).

Yet, Stewart says, he has been hoping for decades to play one particular role in a theatrical version. Viewers can soon watch him in this role of a lifetime, as Claudius (as well as the Ghost) on the PBS production of the RSC's "Hamlet," premiering April 28.

Speaking with Back Stage, Stewart revealed the struggles and joys of his career, as well as how he created this unusually successful Claudius.

Back Stage: It's hard to believe how much disappointment you faced at the beginning of your career.

Patrick Stewart: From the moment I left drama school in 1959, I wanted to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company—who were not the Royal Shakespeare Company, of course, until 1963. But I knew that the best Shakespearean actors and directors went there. I had been overlooked by them twice. They scour—they're like sports coaches. They came to see me in "Twelfth Night" in Manchester, and they took someone else. And then the following year I was in Liverpool, and I did "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and they took someone else. And at that point I thought, "I'm not RSC material. Clearly. What I do isn't what they're looking for." And so I went off to [the Bristol Old Vic Theatre]. Tyrone Guthrie was to come and direct "Hamlet." And I really wanted to be in it. And he didn't cast me. And in a fit of pique, I resigned from the company and wrote a letter—a sort of begging letter—to the RSC, saying, "Please see me." And they did, on this Sunday night in November. Cold and miserable and wet. And in the darkened, empty theater. And I did some Henry V, which I had just played, and I did something else, I don't know what the other thing was. And John Barton and Peter Hall got up on the stage, and they directed me for half an hour. And I quite quickly realized, "They're not trying to find out if I can act. They want to know, Am I flexible? Can I take direction? Can I change my ideas and thoughts about the thing? And luckily I stumbled to that and so did the best I could. And they took me into the company to play small roles and understudy. And the following year, a young actor called Ben Kingsley joined the company, not even to understudy but to walk on. Ben was a spear-carrier. And another young actor called Roger Rees joined at the same time, both of them as background actors. And often, when I talk to people leaving drama school or young actors, they say, "But I want to play Hamlet. I want to play Hal. I want to play Romeo." I say, "You know, there was a time when Ben Kingsley and Roger Rees accepted walk-on contracts. And then one of them ended up playing Hamlet for the RSC and the other playing Nicholas Nickleby—because they worked their way through the process."

Back Stage: I'm going to make you go back even further. You really started young?

Stewart: Oh, yes. There is documentary evidence that I was in a local pageant about the town's history. I must have been 8. And then, like most English actors I know, there showed up an English teacher. It's always an English teacher. It's never an acting teacher. This man named Cecil Dormand was the first one to put a copy of Shakespeare in my hand. He was the first person to say, "This is not a dramatic poem; it's a play. It's about real people. Read it out loud and make me imagine you're making it up as you go along." He pushed the desks away to the sides of the room and made an acting space for us to study, in fact, "The Merchant of Venice." And then he cast me in a play with adults, to play a schoolboy. And the first night of rehearsal, my first scene came up, and I went onstage, and I felt totally at ease and at home. In fact, not only that, once we got to performing the play, I also felt safer than I felt anywhere else. And then, later that year, I got a call in the middle of a class to go to the headmaster's office, and of course I thought I'd done something wrong—which from time to time I did—but in his office, with him, was Cecil Dormand and a man I'd never seen before, who turned out to be the county drama adviser. And he'd been telling these two that they were organizing for the first time a residential drama course over eight days. He was touring round the schools, looking for likely students. Now, the minimum age was 14, and I was 12, so they all agreed they would lie about my age, because I always looked older than I really was, and I went home and told my parents, and they said, we can't afford to send you away. And I said, "Well, I'm told it's not going to cost anything." It was years, years, later when I learned my English teacher paid for me to go. I never thought. You don't think. You're just having a good time. He paid for me. And that's where it all began. There I met a woman called Ruth Wynn Owen who had been a professional actress, had been Peggy Ashcroft's understudy, and she became my teacher for five years, until I went to drama school. So every weekend I caught three buses to cross south Yorkshire, to her home, and studied with her, along with a handful of other young people who were all as crazy about Shakespeare as I was.

Back Stage: By the time you got to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, did you have this good voice, or did the school work on it?

Stewart: Ooh. Lot of voice work. But my teacher, Ruth, had worked on my voice, too. I spoke with a broad regional accent. I also spoke dialect. So not only did I have to learn a different way of managing my mouth; I had to learn different words, too. What I spoke would have been incomprehensible to you. So for about four years I led a double life. There was my weekend life when I spoke [received pronunciation] and my school life with my friends when I continued to speak in dialect. And then at drama school, intensive voice work. And then, over the years, I worked for years with Cicely Berry, who is one of the great voice teachers in the world. She is the head of the voice department at Royal Shakespeare Company. And I worked with Cic—I've had countless private sessions with one of the grandest voice teachers that exists, and an American who shall not be forgotten called Kristin Linklater, who was one of the biggest influences on me vocally. And it's just doing it. Doing complicated language in big theaters, where you've got to be heard. And it's a muscle. And it gets exercise.

Back Stage: How did you get work after finishing your schooling?

Stewart: I didn't get work. We were a very small school: I think there were 14 of us graduating. Almost every one of them got work immediately. I remember in the final school shows, I was sharing a dressing room with the young actor who was the star of my year, who went on to become a very successful director, and we shared a dressing room, and everybody was clamoring to meet him. He was also very, very good-looking. And nobody wanted to see me. When the performance was over, when the hammering would start on the door, I would open the door and then stand behind it, so as not to confuse the situation, because nobody wanted to see me. And I was very depressed. I remember one of my acting teachers finding me after the last night sitting alone in the auditorium and saying, "You're not feeling good." I said, "No, I'm not. I feel terrible. I feel as though my career is over before it started. Everybody else has got work." And he said to me, meaning well, "It's going to be 20 or 25 years before you really come into your…." I was 19. It was horrible. So I went home. I had nowhere else to go. Went back to my parents. Signed on for unemployment benefits. And started looking for work, a job. And then after about a month, I got a call from a weekly rep. I mean, this was the humblest of regional theaters, in Lincoln, who offered me a job as an ASM [assistant stage manager]. Well, it's called "acting ASM." You played small roles and you did stage management. And of course I snapped it up. And off I went. And I was not unemployed for the next 18 years. I must have done 60 or 70 plays in five years, playing everything from aged retainers to juveniles.

Back Stage: What of your Shakespearean training did you call upon when creating Captain Picard?

Stewart: Use of language and the importance of language and the potential in language to deliver complex thoughts and ideas and emotions simply. What authority means on stage. Even just how to stand and move and sit was important. I know how to sit in the captain's chair of the Enterprise. I know how to give orders. I know what it's like to be in charge of a country, to run a dictatorship. I've done all these things. This actually isn't very different, except we're wearing different, funny costumes. And of course I took this further, finally, one day realized that the bridge of the Enterprise was essentially an Elizabethan theater, and we had entrances, and we had the raised area at the back, and we had the place of command, which was right in the center of the front, and we had the view screen, which was the auditorium. And it was essentially the most theatrical of spaces. And we talked a lot about this, and once Brent [Spiner] and Jonathan [Frakes] and Marina [Sirtis] and LeVar [Burton] and myself realized it, we began to use it like a stage. And when I began directing the series, I would deliberately stage it as if there was an audience watching—stage it as big set-piece scenes. So it was a huge help to me to have had that sort of background. And as I used to jokingly point out, we had no pockets in our uniforms, and some of the actors—apart from not having anywhere to put their cigarettes—they didn't know what to do with their hands. I'd spent all these years wearing tights and no pockets.

Back Stage: So you have been thinking about Claudius all these years.

Stewart: Yes. And particularly thinking about what a remarkable man he is—what a clever, smart, compassionate, affectionate, well-meaning man he is—who made one horrific mistake, like Macbeth. I'd always had this theory that Hamlet's father must have been a terrible king. And it must have been evident to everybody, for years, the man who should have been king was Claudius. The old Hamlet, as far as we know anything about him, his response to everything was to put on his helmet and go out and thump somebody. He was a soldier, he was a warrior. One of the reasons why Hamlet has this idealized vision of his father is that his father was never around. It meant that his wife was left alone for long periods, too. I remember having a long conversation with Penny Downie [who plays Gertrude] about my absolute conviction that it had been an adulterous affair for years. And they're so perfect together. It's just a shame that he happened to poison his brother; it was a pity, really. He is an absolutely outstanding individual. What is the first thing he does? There's a problem with Norway. He sends ambassadors. He negotiates. And there's a little tiny moment in the play that often gets cut or overlooked, when Polonius says, "The ambassadors from Norway, my [good lord]/Are joyfully returned." There's a peace. No war. And that's what Claudius has achieved. He is going to be a brilliant king—except that it can never come about. The man who gave me this idea was Trevor Nunn. I once had to do Claudius' prayer speech in a recital. And knowing that Trevor had directed "Hamlet," I said, "Just give me half an hour to go over this." And he did. He said, "That first line, 'O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven,' it actually smells. It's in his nostrils." It's not just a fancy phrase. There's a bad smell all the time. And the bad smell is his insides. He's rotting from the inside out. And it was a brilliant note, and of course I sent him a little email the other day, thanking him for the note he gave me 25 years ago, which I was able to use in the film, with the sort of vomiting because the stench in his mouth is so awful. This is the genius of Shakespeare: Claudius opens his mouth in Act 1, Scene 2, and confesses. What he says is, "Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death/The memory be green...." "Green." All the associations of what "green" means. Fresh. Springlike. But also rancid. Decaying. Rotten. Putrid. He's actually saying, "Yes, I've actually poisoned my brother, and I can't bear it." It's a confession. But I have nightmares that I've committed a horrendous crime, sometimes. Not recurring, but I have had them too often. Usually it's murder. And I have hidden the body. But did you ever see the film "Deliverance"? Some men kill another man and bury his body. Where they bury him in a valley gets flooded. And the last shot of the movie is of the still waters of the lake that has covered this valley, and suddenly a hand comes up out of the water. Well, that's what I dream about. And that's what Claudius lives with all the time. It's just wonderful to play somebody who superficially is so in control, and on the inside he's screaming in terror and horror all the time. Like Trevor said, the smell never goes away; it never leaves him. And it's a great note, that. It's the kind of note that only genius directors give you.

Back Stage: One final question. Claudius sat with you for 25 years. Another role you're itching to play?

Stewart: Oh, well, Falstaff. I never played Hamlet, and that's a regret. Falstaff, in the two parts of "Henry IV," is the middle-aged actor's Hamlet. It's a great, great, great role. And the lucky thing is, there's time. I don't have to do it next week. I can do it in five years' time, hopefully, and it will still be there.