Patrick Stewart as Merlin in his most recent film ‘The Kid Who Would Be King’ (2019)

All the World Is Still a Stage

17th May 2019

Sir Patrick Stewart is one of our most recognisable English actors, revered and respected on both sides of the Atlantic, and with a long and eclectic career on stage and screen. The Yorkshire-born Royal Shakespeare Company alumnus, star of two of the most enduringly popular science fiction franchises of all time, says life never stops changing and evolving, and that the best is still yet to come. Danny Bowman tells us more…

He’s bold, charismatic, strong, controversial and effortlessly funny, but there is a serious side to Sir Patrick, someone who can justifiably be referred to as British acting royalty. A man loved by critics, audiences and fans alike, from Star Trek: The Next Generation, the X-Men franchise, and countless Broadway and West End plays, he is also a lifelong supporter of English Premier League club, Huddersfield Town, proving brilliance, versatility and humility in equal measure.

He left school at 15, and recalls “I didn’t really mix with other pupils and would truant. I could spend hours wandering around the Calder Valley and for me it was freedom and inspiration, the like of which I’d never have in school”. From there, he went to work as a reporter for a local newspaper but quit when his editor told him that he wasn’t working hard enough, that he was spending too much time at the theatre. It turned out to be the best marching orders he ever received. He spent a year working as a furniture salesman and saving money, and then was accepted by Bristol Old Vic Theatre School at 17.

His 27-year long association with the RSC started soon afterwards, and following a spell in the 1980s with the Royal National Theatre, he went to Los Angeles beginning another enduring connection – which still runs to this day – on the USS Enterprise. He was also knighted in the 2010 Queen’s New Year’s Honours List for his service to drama.
In most recent movie, The Kid Who Would Be King, Sir Patrick has been able to join another small yet elite band of actors – all two of them – in playing the role of Merlin on the big screen: Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Michael Gambon, creating their own Knights of the Round Table, so to speak.

“It was only a matter of acting justice that I was asked to play this role,” he jokes, “because, my dear friends Ian and Michael had already amazed the world by their interpretations of a wizard, and I felt rather left out of this exclusive little circle!”

Sir Patrick was positive about The Kid Who Would Be King from the start. “I was instantly enchanted – particularly, I have to say, by the idea that this was mostly going to be children, and children are the centre of the film. I would also be sharing the role with another actor, because Angus Emery plays Merlin and as I am sure that you know, Merlin was living backwards; in his life he was actually getting younger… like me, right?”

Old-school magic meets the modern world when young Alex (played by Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of Andy who plays Gollum in Lord of the Rings) stumbles upon the mythical sword Excalibur. He soon joins forces with a band of knights and the legendary wizard Merlin when the wicked enchantress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) threatens the future of mankind.

It’s a big production and a big plot at a time when, you would imagine, the 78-year-old should be contemplating putting his feet up.

“I don’t believe in that for one second,” he chortles back. “If acting and performing are the things in the world that most makes you feel alive, why would you want to strangle that passion? I would say I’m reliant on working for my very survival!”

The actor admits he certainly feels much more of a father figure to the industry now, than at any time in the past. He knows he has nothing to prove; perhaps only the kindness and tolerance of someone who has experienced occasional lows mixed in with profound highs.

“It’s all about them breaks,” he laughs. “I always recount the situation where I got the job for Dune, and David Lynch, the director thought he had cast someone completely different.”

Lynch had seen Sir Patrick backstage after a matinee of Henry IV, “possessing long, grey hair, sweating, cadaverous and looking imposingly regal. He thought that’s who I was. So, when I came face to face with David in his hotel room in Mexico City one afternoon – I walked in and he looked up and said quite simply and inquisitively: ‘Yes?’… But we got over that, and it was a wonderful experience to work with no CGI or green screen or anything like that, it was all pretty practical. I fear those days are gone… gone forever.”

Summing up a brilliant career, Sir Patrick would rather return to the start. “People speak about where they came from and the leg-up that’s apparently needed. Well I didn’t have one – I’m proud of that fact now, although for a long time wasn’t.”

He reflects that he had a plain, largely poor, upbringing and had ‘to fight for the breaks’, but he also had a great drama teacher (Mr Dormand) to whom he gives credit, adding that “no amount of privilege can guarantee you that”.

Now, he says, for him “it’s a case of trying to pay that forward in whatever way I can.”

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