There’s one word that describes how actor Sir Patrick Stewart is regarded by his fans: beloved. He’s like your favorite uncle with the bald dome and crinkly twinkle to his eyes — if that uncle also possessed the mutant ability to read the thoughts of everyone on earth simultaneously.
In Logan, the latest chapter in the Wolverine saga (and the last, apparently, for Stewart and co-star Hugh Jackman), the British actor goes further into character, facing bad memories, regrets, and a debilitating condition we don’t usually associate with X-Men: age.
Watching Professor X wheeling around his desert silo in the opening scenes, sputtering bits of TV evangelism mixed with Taco Bell ads like a television remote gone haywire, is disturbing enough; the copy of Ulysses lying next to his bed is a sure sign of a consciousness hurtling down too many streams at once.
In Logan, Charles Xavier is tortured by the memories of people he’s hurt with his powers — powers now made unstable by age and time. It’s the unspoken flipside to being a superhero: mortality still beckons at the end of it all.
But not for Stewart himself, who was wry, spry and willing to engage the media during the recent Logan press junket at Mandarin Oriental Taipei.
Many things have happened recently: Stewart proclaimed this his last X-Men outing (a week or so after Jackman announced the very same thing, causing Stewart to joke, “I feel like I stole your thunder!”). And whereas Jackman downplayed the political themes of Logan (Mexican-US border, refugees crossing over to Canada), Stewart embraced them, even going so far as telling one reporter he might become a US citizen to “fight” Donald Trump.
There is a lot of fight in Sir Patrick Stewart, and a lot of wisdom. He was a mentor to the younger Jackman on the first X-Men set back in 2000; seated together in Taipei, the two actors had one more go-round, recalling warm moments and advice from acting mentors. The British actor was absent from the red carpet runway in Taipei (suffering from jetlag, we’re told), but the mere announcement of his name by the Taiwanese announcer brought an even louder cheer than Jackman’s did — apparently, there are a lot of Professor X and Jean-Luc Picard fans out here.
PHILIPPINE STAR: What made the X-Men movies feel like a family for you?
SIR PATRICK STEWART: The people I‘ve worked with, I’ve always been drawn to ensembles. That drew me to the first X-Men movie. At that time, Logan had not emerged yet to be the central character of the ensemble. We were an ensemble. We would just sit around in a circle when the camera wasn’t rolling and just have a good time. Of course, the circle was much smaller then… (Laughs)
How about your young co-star Dafne Keen? How professional was she?
There was a scene with us three, in a car, 138 degrees in the summer. You know, there are long periods where the camera wasn’t rolling, we couldn’t get out of the car. And Hugh is very good at inventing word games, so we would play games, and we would sing songs. It was delightful. But the moment the director said standby, Dafne was a different person: focused, intent, serious and utterly committed. Lessons for all actors to learn, she was giving us.
How much of a box-office risk was Logan, with its dark tone and R-rated violence?
One of my teachers, Bill Ross, said something to me that applies which I’ve never forgotten: “Patrick, you will never achieve success by insuring against failure.” It took me decades to understand that.
This movie gave me every opportunity to put his advice into practice: forget about whether you’re good or not, or can act or not; just live in the moment with the character, go up and down and everywhere.
Is there a political message in this movie?
Putting yourself in others’ shoes. That philosophy is what actors do every day. We become someone else. We’re very lucky to have a job like this because it expands our awareness and horizons of what other people are and might be. Because we have to understand their lives, and live their lives, as authentically as we can.
In terms of the world at large, if only some of our leaders, political figures, could practice that — stand where that person is standing, see it as your problem, not just theirs — it could transform how we live. It is so rare. It just means we have empathy.
Your interplay is more poignant and humorous than anything we’ve seen in other X-Men movies. Was some of it improvised?
We did have a four- or five-minute improv across the dinner table in that farmhouse scene where Hugh invited me to talk about my experience of being a headmaster at the school. One line has survived in the movie — where I described it as a “special needs” school. I’m proud of that one!
HUGH JACKMAN (interjecting): Another line — it wasn’t right for the movie — but at one point Patrick gave a defense of education to the young boy at the farmhouse. He’s saying “Why should I stay in school?” And I remember your answer, and looking around, some of the crew had tears in their eyes. That should be shown to every kid in every school. I’ve got to get a copy of that. It was one of the greatest things I’ve ever had.
STEWART: I have two grandchildren, one a mixed-race boy who’s been having difficulties in school. And I was very concerned about that. So that speech I made to the boy in that scene is the speech I would have made to my grandson. So it came from an authentic place.
How was it, watching your final Professor X performance onscreen?
STEWART: I had no reason to think this was the last one at all. It was just thrilling to be working again with Hugh and (director) James Mangold. It was a week ago in Berlin, at the premiere, where I realized I don’t think we could do any better than this. This is a perfect conclusion: everything is in place that ought to be in place. So maybe I’m done now, too. It was kind of a spontaneous feeling I had when we watched credits roll at the end of the movie. And I’ve very, very content with that.
JACKMAN: My favorite moment making the movie, it involves this man, the three of us shooting in that car in Mississippi. We were on our way back to base camp, and Dafne was bouncing around, like she always did. And Patrick said to her, “Dafne, I want you to promise me something.” And she said, “Yeah, what?” “I want you to promise you’ll do theater.” And she goes, “Okay, yeah.” And he said “No, you don’t understand what I’m saying. When you’re the same age as Hugh and I, you’re going to realize that scenes like this — the one in the car, which is a beautifully written scene — you’ll realize that great scenes like this don’t come along all that often, and when you finish shooting them, you’ll never get the chance to do it again.” And that’s a sad feeling. And she was kind of too young to understand that.
And then Patrick said, “But when you do the theater, for six months or four months, eight times a week, you get to do it every night, and twice on a Wednesday, twice on a Saturday.” And I watched this girl go from “Yeah” to “Whoa!” and really take it in. And that is a moment I will never forget.