Patrick Stewart

PS-picChances are you know Patrick Stewart from his iconic role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Or as Professor Charles Xavier in the blockbuster superhero-movie franchise X-Men. You may have recognized his voice on FOX’s animated comedy American Dad. Or seen him in a number of stage plays, many with the Royal Shakespeare Company. In his long, varied career, which dates back to the 1960s, the one thing Stewart hasn’t been known for (outside of several memorable guest-starring spots) is live-action comedy—until now. In Starz’s Blunt Talk, Stewart plays Walter Blunt, a British journalist hosting a news show on American cable TV whose wild antics get him into trouble both on and off screen. Renewed for a second season, Blunt Talk was created by Jonathan Ames (Bored to Death) and is exec-produced by Seth MacFarlane. Stewart tells World Screen about embracing comedy and working with the show’s ensemble cast.

WS: Tell us how Blunt Talk came about. I understand Jonathan Ames wrote it for you?
STEWART: I was approached about three years ago by Seth MacFarlane, with whom I have worked for almost 12 years on his animated series American Dad, and occasionally on Family Guy. He asked me how I would feel about doing a half-hour comedy show. I said that if he had anything to do with it, I would love to, since I had never done a half-hour comedy show before, except for making guest appearances. Very soon after that he introduced me to Jonathan Ames, and we took off from there. Jonathan and I both live in Brooklyn, so we would meet every two or three weeks in a coffee shop, and we would talk about ourselves and tell anecdotes and discuss our interests and so forth. Out of that the show grew.

WS: How did those conversations define the traits of your character, Walter Blunt?
STEWART: We started talking about an idea that came from Jonathan—it was not Seth’s idea that the show should be about a media person. Jonathan has said that he was watching television and came across Piers Morgan, the English journalist who had his own nightly show on CNN, and the thought struck him: Wouldn’t it be interesting to see Patrick Stewart as a rather provocative and unruly host of a cable news show? That’s how the idea began. I filled in some of Walter’s backstory—his upbringing in the U.K., his education, and the time that he spent in the British army in the Royal Marines, most notably during the Falklands War in the ’80s. Jonathan came up with the idea that the Falklands War so dismayed [Walter] about life in the military; he found it to be corrupt and not at all about the kind of justice for the world that he was interested in seeking. So when he came out [of the Royal Marines] he decided he could probably better serve the world as a journalist. That’s how that aspect of the story began. And then we talked about relationships. I think Walter’s had three wives and is presently single. He is passionate about creating a better world, particularly in the United States. He cares a great deal about the U.S. but feels that the country can do much better for itself and for its people. Issues like race, prejudice, gun control, politics, campaign financing—all these things are of interest to him. We must have spent about six months talking, and then Jonathan put things down on paper and very gradually the passionate but unruly character of Walter Blunt grew.

WS: Does comedy require a different set of acting “muscles” than drama does?
STEWART: I think it does, yes. I’ve been lucky to have a very diverse career, with years and years with the Royal Shakespeare Company and then television series like Star Trek and a film franchise with X-Men. But there is one major difference about shooting a comedy show. Nothing changes from the point of view of how truthful you want it to be, how realistic, how honest and open. But, then, there’s always, Where is this funny? Where is the humor in this? How do we find it and how do we [convey it]? I found that to be very refreshing. I have been somewhat identified by two characters I am the most well known for: Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek and Charles Xavier from X-Men. I’m nothing like either of them! I like to think I have a touch of a comic attitude toward life and I’ve always enjoyed comedy—particularly the sort of somewhat scandalous comedy that Seth MacFarlane specializes in. I am thrilled to be working in comedy, to be talking about laughter and humor, and it has proven to be one of the happiest experiences of my life.

WS: Talk about your relationship with Adrian Scarborough, who plays Harry, Walter’s valet. Your scenes together are brilliant!
STEWART: I have watched Adrian over the years on TV, in film, and on the stage and have always admired him very much. Three years ago he and I were cast in a radio play for BBC Radio 4. It was about the thriller writer Raymond Chandler and his relationship with Billy Wilder, who directed a movie based on one of Chandler’s novels. And we had a marvelous time. It was only two days’ work, but we got on very well and loved working together. When Jonathan Ames told me about the ideas he had for the character of Harry, he said, What we need is a younger Bob Hoskins to play this role. So I began to think about who there might be to fill that category, a Bob Hoskins-like English character actor. And almost immediately my memory of this radio play came to mind, and I suggested Adrian. They put him on tape in London and loved it at first sight. I saw his taped audition and it was marvelous. He is so truthful and real. He’s so witty in how he plays [a scene] and has a truly eccentric nature. I have a feeling that when this series comes to an end, we shall find that Harry might have proven to be the most popular character.

WS: How did the rest of the ensemble cast come together?
STEWART: I knew the work of Jacki Weaver—a marvelous actress with two Academy Award nominations—and I was thrilled when she agreed to play the role of Rosalie, Walter’s producer and, like so many other women, one of his ex-lovers. I knew of Dolly Wells, whose series Doll & Em I had been watching and whom I admired very much. I also knew of Timm Sharp, who plays Jim. We were assembling, I thought, a very distinguished cast right from the very beginning. And our two younger cast members, Karan Soni and Mary Holland, are also wonderful. We’ve got a very tight ensemble and we all get on terrifically well and have a lot of fun. People have described Walter as being dysfunctional, but the fact is that his whole team is pretty dysfunctional, and that is a source for a lot of humor.

WS: In a behind-the-scenes interview I watched with Jonathan Ames, he mentioned that you improvised a great line in the first episode. Was that something that was encouraged throughout the show?
STEWART: Jonathan is very comfortable with [improvisation] and so are our directors. I recently dipped my toe very soundly into the world of improvisation. There is a brilliant group out of Chicago called The Improvised Shakespeare Company, and that’s what they do—improvise Shakespeare’s plays. I’ve worked with them whenever I can, whenever I’m free, for the last three years, and I enjoy it immensely. So improvisation no longer holds the terror for me that it once did. And Dolly, Mary, Timm, they are all comedians, they all have their own stand-up routines, so it fits in very well with our group that we have a showrunner who is enthusiastic about improvising. We always speak Jonathan’s lines first, and then when we think we’ve got the scene we’ll do it a couple more times and maybe add some other [lines].

WS: How have you seen the television landscape evolve over the course of your career? How has it broadened the types of roles available to you?
STEWART: I tell people that I’ve always been typecast, but in my case the types keep changing. In a sense, Charles Xavier was a natural follow-on from Jean-Luc Picard, but comedy has entered more and more into my life, largely through what I do on social media. I have a lot of fun on social media, with my Twitter account and Instagram and Facebook, and that has brought me significantly different work. I’m so happy about that. I’ve not given up my love for Shakespeare and other drama. In fact, this year is a perfect example of the kind of work that I’m pursuing: the first four months of the year are taken up with [the second season of] Blunt Talk, then I am doing a very big, spectacular studio movie—I can’t say what it is yet—but I do that in May/June, and then in July I go to London and I start rehearsing with Sir Ian McKellen a wonderful Harold Pinter play called No Man’s Land. So not only have I got television, film and theater, but I’ve got different material in each one of the genres that I’ll be working in this year.