Star Trek Changed The Way Patrick Stewart Thought About Acting

Let's set the scene: A classically trained Shakespearean actor comes to Hollywood to star in a science-fiction TV show. Surely he recall that experience dismissively, as a money job and nothing else. Not if the actor you're thinking of is Patrick Stewart. On the contrary, Stewart looks back very fondly on his time as Captain Jean-Luc Picard; there's a reason he's recently sat back down in the captain's chair, after all.

In a 2011 interview with the BBC, Stewart named "Star Trek: The Next Generation" as the high point of his career, even while maintaining, "I love the cinema but the theater is my life." Stewart said that "TNG changed everything," for him. Here's how.

Stage versus screen

In that same BBC interview, Stewart talks about how he started acting. His first role was in a "The Merchant of Venice" production, thanks to some encouragement from an English teacher of his. Stewart said that, for him, "the stage was a far safer place than the real world," and on stage, he felt like "a giant" and as if "[he] can do anything." He was still told, however, that he would never be a leading man thanks to his premature baldness. While he proved these naysayers wrong, the chance to play the lead is what drew him to "Trek." 

In a separate interview with the BBC, Stewart said:

"Crudely what attracted me [to Picard] was the fact that he was the captain. I had thought originally that I was being cast as some token Englishman on the crew ... It's perfectly clear that as the captain I was going to be having the dominant role in most of the episodes and that was appealing too. I wasn't interested in coming to Hollywood to sit around."

Even once he said yes, Stewart didn't quite know what he'd gotten himself into. "Star Trek" wasn't the first time he'd acted in front of cameras; he'd appeared in a handful of mini-series and had supporting parts in "Excalibur" and "Dune." However, on "Trek," he was shooting 12 to 16 hour workdays all while being a sea away from home. Instead of letting his disillusionment win, Stewart came to enjoy the work, even reciting the technobabble (he especially likes the phrase "space-time continuum").

Newfound fame

If Stewart was unprepared for the work experience on "TNG," then he hadn't even considered the response. He recalled, with just a touch of self-deprecation, that, "right up until 1987, when I went to Hollywood to start filming 'Star Trek: The Next Generation,' if you didn't go to the Royal Shakespeare Company you'd never heard of Patrick Stewart. It was after that, that everything changed."

Indeed, before "TNG" debuted, the LA Times had called Stewart an "unknown British Shakespearean actor." Speaking to the Guardian in 2022, Stewart recalled it was a "Trek" convention where he realized the scope of the show's, and by extension his, audience.

"Throughout the first season of 'The Next Generation,' I was continually getting these invitations to attend something called 'conventions'. And my reaction was no because that had nothing to do with what I was trying to achieve: I wanted the show to have an impact on screen, not me standing on a platform talking about it. But at the end of the season, I accepted one in Denver. They took me to the back of this big building and I said, 'What if no one turns up?' And they looked at me like I was talking gibberish. I walked out and there were more than 3,000 people in this vast auditorium. And it overwhelmed me — not just the enthusiasm for my being there but an intense sense of affection and respect. Which wasn't something I'd always experienced in this profession. After that, I'd do three or four of these conventions in each season."

Considering how Stewart has said he feels safe and secure performing on stage, it's not surprising he took easily to convention appearances. He was still on-stage, only now he had a bigger audience than ever before.

Becoming Professor X

While "TNG" became a positive experience, Stewart also admitted to the BBC that if he'd known beforehand the show would run seven seasons and become his life for almost a decade, he wouldn't have said yes. That's why when he was offered his second most famous role, Professor Charles Xavier in "X-Men," he hesitated — he didn't want to do something overly familiar.

He recounted his hesitation to the Guardian: "I said, 'Look, I know this isn't science fiction but it's fantasy, and I've done that.' But they persuaded me that it wouldn't be like 'Star Trek,' so I did it. And yet again I was proved wrong. Both shows broadened my sense of what it was to be a professional actor."

The stage may be where Stewart always felt the safest, but if he'd never left it, he would've had a less rewarding career. When the BBC asked Stewart about his eclectic career, he quite succinctly summed up the unexpected fruits he's reaped: "I didn't look for variety, but I realize now I've been incredibly fortunate to have such a diverse quality of experience as an actor."