Patrick Stewart Is Ready To Engage

REVIEW: ‘Making It So: A Memoir’ by Patrick Stewart

Patrick Stewart attends the 2021 Emmy Awards (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images)
July 7, 2024

To my mind, the most informative story about Patrick Stewart—the brilliant Shakespearean actor best known to the world as Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Professor Charles Xavier in the X-Men and its sequels—and the development of his acting process came not on the stage or in front of a camera. No, it was at the feet of a bricklayer.

It was spring break during his time at acting school, and the working-class Stewart needed some spending money. So he walked up to a contractor, asked for a job, and was sent to the contractor’s chief bricklayer. But this wasn’t any old bricklayer; this was a master bricklayer, a competitive bricklayer, the sort of bricklayer other bricklayers dream of laying bricks like. Stewart was given a very precise mortar mixture, mixed it competently, and stared in slack-jawed admiration at the man’s smooth, efficient laying. And then, with a feeling of horror, realized he quickly needed to make another batch to keep the machine rolling.

After being scolded as a "lazy bugger" for falling briefly behind, they retired for lunch. Stewart, who had previously worked as a journalist whilst looking for acting work, brought his inquisitive skills to bear. "At first, he just grunted monosyllabic answers," Stewart recalls of the bricklayer. "But little by little, he got caught up in what he was saying and in having an eager audience. And then I had the privilege of receiving a private lecture on working with bricks and mortar." He would later utilize this lesson, building a working fireplace in an early home he had purchased with his first wife.

That natural curiosity, the desire to understand someone’s thoughts and actions, the acquisition of knowledge he later found useful: These are the telltale signs of a great actor, someone who is interested in the world and its people and thus better able to relate to them and to get them to relate to his characters onstage and onscreen.

Stewart represents a fascinating mix of working-class ethics, having grown up poor but hard-working, and upper-class aesthetics, which he refined first in amateur plays and then in acting schools. This occasionally led him to mildly awkward encounters. My favorite story in his memoir comes on the set of Dune, where Stewart (who was playing warrior-poet Gurney Halleck) was introduced to the musician Sting.

"Do you … play in a group?" Stewart asked.

"Yes, with The Police," Sting replied.

"I broke into a broad grin," Stewart writes. "‘You play in a police band?’ I said. ‘Wow! How marvelous!’ I have never fully recovered from the sheer embarrassment I suffered when word got out on the set about my exchange with one of the world’s biggest rock stars."

This isn’t to say he was completely unaware of the cultural winds; some years earlier, he’d met another famous bassist, one Paul McCartney. But even then, Stewart was more thrilled by the chance to drive Macca’s car than to kibbitz about "Love Me Do." "Gearhead that I am, I was as excited to be behind the wheel of an Aston [Martin DB5] as I was to chauffeur Paul and Jane [Asher]. … Several times, Paul encouraged me to put the pedal to the metal. ‘Yes, go on, overtake!’ he said. ‘Faster, faster. You can make this! Go!’"

Needless to say, as someone prominent in England’s magnificent theatrical scene in the middle of the 20th century, Stewart has numerous stories about meeting all sorts of luminaries. He went on tour with Vivien Leigh, who was a delight. He worked with Malcolm McDowell a couple of years before he would make Lindsay Anderson’s If…., which was in turn a couple of years before he’d star in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and relates a funny story about McDowell forgetting his lines; turns out, Shakespeare didn’t intend for the lines "Come on, come on! They’re coming!" to follow the dramatic St. Crispin’s Day speech. And Stewart relates a sad story about working with the great Ian Holm (later to star in Alien, Brazil, and The Lord of the Rings) on a production of The Iceman Cometh during which Holm—a veteran whom Stewart had idolized—simply froze on stage.

Of course, Stewart’s work on Star Trek: The Next Generation is how most know him, and there are amusing stories about working with Jonathan Frakes, Michael Dorn, and the rest of the crew of that show. But the most important lesson of those years comes from before he was cast.

Stewart was in Los Angeles for a bit, hanging out with UCLA’s David Rodes and helping out with some workshops and Shakespeare master classes. Rodes asked him to help by playing the male parts during one of these evening events. Stewart said sure, why not. "My ‘pay’ would be a hundred-dollar fee plus dinner afterward at the newly opened Westwood location of TGI Fridays," he recalls. But one of the people in the audience was Robert Justman, a producer on the forthcoming effort to resurrect the cult TV show, Star Trek. He got in touch with Stewart’s States-side agent and arranged an audition with franchise creator Gene Roddenberry. Though unimpressed with Stewart at first—and never the biggest fan of the captain of the NCC-1701D, much to Stewart’s chagrin—Roddenberry eventually gave in to pressure from Justman and Rick Berman, and the rest is history.

The lesson, as always: Never turn down a gig, even (especially?) if it includes a free dinner at TGI Fridays.

In addition to being filled with funny little tidbits about Stewart’s career in the arts, Making It So is a breezy, joyful read. Despite intimations of an unhappy childhood—his father was somewhat abusive and distant; he grew up in a home that barely had a bedroom for him and his brother—he doesn’t linger on his unhappiness in a way that some memoirists feel the need to. And while Stewart clearly regrets the way his first two marriages played out, he expresses his sadness and moves on to other, happier matters.

Making It So is a fairly straightforward, incredibly entertaining story of a guy who worked hard, made something of himself, and enjoyed a charmed life as a result. I don’t know that Star Trek or X-Men (or Royal Shakespeare Company) obsessives will necessarily be blown away by what he reveals. But for the average fan, it’s a delightful look into the life of a great actor.

Making It So: A Memoir
by Patrick Stewart
Simon and Schuster, 469 pp., $35

Sonny Bunch is culture editor of the Bulwark, where he hosts the podcasts Across the Movie Aisle and The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood.