Even at nearly 80 years old, Sir Patrick Stewart is a commanding (pun intended) figure as soon as he walks in the room. Slight of build, he nevertheless is a magnetic, even majestic presence. The voice may be a little weathered and softened by time but it is still as resonant as you remember from Star Trek: The Next Generation, where his Captain Jean-Luc Picard made “Engage!” and “Make it so!” into eternal verbal fixtures in the Star Trek universe.
And now some 33 years after a semi-obscure, bald British actor became the third screen captain of the Federation starship Enterprise — launching a run of seven seasons on TV and four theatrical adventures — that same actor is returning the role that made him a beloved sci-fi icon. In Star Trek: Picard, Stewart’s now-retired captain finds himself on one more mission, this time possibly at odds with the Federation he once nobly represented, as he attempts to save the life of a young woman (Isa Briones) who may have ties to his own past as well as recent events that have rocked the Federation to its core.
Along the way, Picard (the show and the character) confronts the aftermath of a catastrophic supernova that has left the still-untrusted Romulans at the mercy of the Federation, deals with a mysterious uprising of artificial life, and brings back others from the Trek firmament — including TNG stars Brent Spiner (Data), Jonathan Frakes (Will Riker) and Marina Sirtis (Deanna Troi), as well as Voyager alumnus Jeri Ryan (Seven of Nine) — along with one of its deadliest menaces.
But as Stewart tells a small gathering of reporters around a table at a Pasadena hotel, where he and most of the cast are promoting Picard’s impending premiere, he was hesitant to reprise his most famous role unless certain conditions were met. “What I hoped we would address and what I talked about in our early meetings before I accepted the offer was that we would not be reflecting Next Generation so much as the world the way it is today,” Stewart explains. “And how it has changed in the 19 years since we wrapped the film Nemesis, because it has changed and it is mostly changing in ways that I think not good for the world. And I mean ranging from Brexit to global warming.”
Yet at the same time, Stewart was acutely aware that while the now 92-year-old Picard finds himself in a very different place in his life, career and relationship to the larger universe, he still was the same man in many ways. “Patrick Stewart and Jean-Luc Picard finally overlapped around Season 3 (of TNG) and there was no separation between them,” says Stewart. “I was him, he was me and I came very quickly to know how in any situation he was going to react. I didn’t have to work it out, I had an instinctive feeling about it and that exists still, even though the world that he is living in and in which he is very uncomfortable has changed so dramatically. That’s the most important thing for me.”
One of the most surprising things about Picard is that we hear Jean-Luc, a Frenchman, actually speak in his native tongue early in the show’s premiere episode. “I requested that,” says Stewart, who always played the role with a magisterial British accent. “Because I’m living in France and I’m on a vineyard and I’m growing grapes and I have French people working with me. The first thing I wanted to do was to be seen yelling loudly in French. Just for a moment, people might think, ‘is he going to speak French all the way through?’”
In addition, his closest companion in those first few minutes isn’t human — but not a being from another world either. “I wanted a dog with me,” admits Stewart about the pit bull that he affectionately refers to as Number One. “I felt that just having a dog in some of my scenes was going to say something about what his needs were. Myself, I’m obsessed with pit bulls. I think they’re the most beautiful, wonderful, gentle, intelligent, knowing, empathetic creatures. So I said, I’m going to make it a condition. He has to be a pit bull and we found one.”
Picard also lives with two assistants — a Romulan couple named Zhaban (Jamie McShane) and Laris (Orla Brady) — and will encounter the enigmatic young woman portrayed by Briones as well as a host of other new cast members. But Stewart agrees that the scenes he has with his fellow Next Generation crewmates have a special energy all their own.
“Inevitably they do,” he says. “We have a more than 30 year history and one of the great things that came out of Next Generation is that the seven, eight, nine of us, are even closer now than we were then, when we wrapped the show. It’s a love affair with these people. I adore them.”
He relates an example of the bond that still exists between the members of the TNG cast, even the ones not involved with Picard. “There was one day when we were shooting the episode with Marina and Jonathan, and who should turn up that day to visit us on the set but LeVar Burton and Michael Dorn. So we had Geordi and Worf there as well. It was for me a little overwhelming.”
While having so many old friends both in front of the camera and just stopping by the set might bring back fond memories of the past, Stewart nevertheless is quite aware and supportive of the fact that Picard is being produced at a very different time from TNG. TV shows now are inching ever closer to the production values of motion pictures — if they’re not there already — and the medium almost as a whole has shifted to serialized rather than episodic storytelling.
“It’s funny, I was talking about this yesterday,” answers the actor when asked about those changes. “About how the quality of some of the technology used for making film has changed and is becoming more and more delicate and more and more subtle in the way it’s worked. Then we moved on to talk about acting and the same thing is happening in the world of acting. It’s exciting for me to be sharing a set with a group of actors who are so much younger than me with very, very different experiences, but valuable experiences.”
More than three decades after first leading the ensemble of The Next Generation, Patrick Stewart now finds himself leading a (mostly) brand new Star Trek cast on a very different adventure. And with the show already renewed for a second season, the actor is boldly going back into space at a time when many others his age are thinking about slowing things down and staying closer to home.
Just before he leaves, Stewart is asked if he recalls the moment he knew he was going to do Picard. “I think that moment must have been sitting with my wife over a glass of wine,” he says. “We share all these things that are happening to us, and she was a fan as a child. She’s very much younger than me and she had kind of stayed very much in the middle of the road about this. But when I said, ‘I’m going to do it,’ she was absolutely thrilled and delighted, and that for me, gave me a huge amount of support. She doesn’t always go for things, but this time she did.”
Star Trek Picard premieres on Thursday (January 23) on CBS All Access.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye