Patrick Stewart: The Next Generation

The proper British actor who invented Captain Picard and is bringing him to the big screen talks about the agony of "Star Trek" costumes, the ecstasy of a certain country music songstress and the oddity of being mistaken for Ben Kingsley.

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It's a perfect New York day, and it only seems more perfect when, on the corner outside the hotel where Patrick Stewart is staying while he shoots Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey, I see a woman in a shirt hardly long enough to cover her crotch. The woman turns out to be Heidi Fleiss. I can't wait to tell this story to Stewart.

When Stewart opens the door, I realize I'm not going to tell him anything for the moment, because I'm struck dumb by how handsome he is. He's wearing faded jeans and a gray T-shirt. His feet are bare. He's got a gray goatee. His posture is impeccable.

"You're so much taller than I pictured you to be," I blurt out, standing in the doorway and not moving.

"And I'm not even tall," he says, drawing me into the room, depositing me on one of the flower-covered couches that look out on the Manhattan skyline, and taking a seat at the opposing couch.

"For an actor ..." I begin to say.

"Oh," he says, smiling, "in that context, I am tall."

"On the show, it's hard to tell, because of that costume, which, by the way, looks like the most uncomfortable thing ever worn. Is that why you kept tugging it every time you moved?"

"Oh, you noticed that?" Stewart says, eyes squinting. "The costumes were a couple of sizes too small, because they wanted them to be as tight and smooth as possible. The material pulled on every part of the body, and after 18 months my chiropractor said, 'You have to tell the studio unless they take you out of the costume you're going to sue them for the damage it's doing to your body.' So we changed to a two-piece costume. But with both costumes, they were beautiful when you stood still or moved as if you were on parade, but the moment you were active or sat down, they didn't look so good. One of the few ways to keep that smooth look was to do this" --here he gives the famous Picard movement, taking the front of his shirt with both fists and yanking downward. "I did it as a mere practical gesture the first year. And then word came back to me that it was catching on. People were imitating it, comedians were picking up on it. Then I started doing it with different qualities of action. I used it as an emotional tool, a gesture."

"I thought I was just noticing some tic," I say.

"Oh no, it's not a tic. During the time I did 'Star Trek,' I developed these one-man shows, to keep flexing my theater muscles. My background had been mostly in theater, so you don't want to lose that wonderful feeling of performing before a live audience. Anyhow, one of those shows is about the authority figures that I've played throughout my career ... emperors, kings, princes, barons, prime ministers, party bosses, trade-union leaders, whatever. At one point I say, 'And of course, this list of leaders would not be complete without one of the heroes that I've played.' And I walk over and go to my chair, and I do this." He does the Picard tug. "The crowd went wild, I didn't have to say a thing. Actually, Paramount wouldn't let me say anything! They saw an advertisement for the show, which said 'From Henry V to Captain Picard,' and they called my agent and said, 'We hope that Patrick isn't doing anything from " Star Trek," because that, of course, would be a breach of copyright.'" A decidedly un-Picardish smile is playing on Stewart's face.

"Did you just win a shopping spree at Tower Records?" I ask, nodding in the direction of the stereo system and hundreds of classical CDs, most still in their wrappings.

Stewart laughs. "I've come quite late in my life to music, and like many latecomers, I've become obsessive."

"Somebody told me that you were a Reba McEntire freak," I say, although now I'm pretty sure my informant was mistaken.

Stewart actually blushes. "It was one of those things. I remember the very first time I saw her. In my first year living in America, I was switching channels and this event was happening, and my finger hovered over the button, but it just went on hovering, because I didn't understand what was going on, but there were these extraordinary-looking people. What I had tuned in to was the Country Music Awards. The camera was panning along people sitting in the front row, and it passed by this redhead. That's all it did. And I leaned forward in my chair, as if I could have made the camera pan back again. Literally, my heart skipped a beat when I saw this woman. Of course, everyone in the world knew who she was, except me. Thank God some 10 minutes later she suddenly appeared on the stage and she sang. At that moment I was hooked. I went out that day and I bought The Best of Reba McEntire..."

"You don't look the type," I say.

"What you'll find, Martha, is that I have lots of surprises up my sleeve. And anyone who can sing, 'I walked into the kitchen, silverware's gone, furniture's missing, guess he got it all...' that's my kind of woman. One night I was on Leno. It was only some 15 minutes before we went on the air, and I said, 'By the way, who's doing the show?' And they said, 'Reba McEntire.' My knees turned to jelly. So I immediately found out where her dressing room was and knocked on the door and gushed. Then I went on the show and talked about her for most of the time. In fact, she asked if I could come on all her appearances! She even kissed me on camera, which was just delightful." He closes his eyes and smiles.

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