Maybe it's impossible to spend time with Patrick Stewart and not have the conversation move to the extraterrestrial. The man has killed it as Prospero, Scrooge, and Macbeth on the boards – that's theater talk – but to most of us cretins, he will remain Jean-Luc Picard, chrome-domed captain of the Enterprise, or Professor Charles Xavier, the benevolent, wheelchaired mutant egghead in the X-Men series.
Here in America, the Brit-born Stewart is an alien of sorts. We're walking the streets of Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood, where the 73-year-old lives with his new bride, Sunny Ozell, a 30-ish singer whom Stewart characterizes as "quite good. Thank God. How horrible would it be to be with someone and have to lie to them?" He's headed home for an afternoon nap before one of the last performances of No Man's Land on Broadway, but he stops to point out his new environs. He has an air of wonderment – like, well, Picard beamed down to some urban utopia.
He gestures toward where the Americans made a stand during the Revolutionary War, allowing most of George Washington's army to escape to Manhattan. Over there are the stables where Stewart claims the Gambino crime family stored their garbage trucks and "other things they kept in the garbage trucks." He slaps hands with some shady characters hanging out on a stoop. Up the street is a boarded-up storefront that makes Stewart smile. He whispers in his stentorian voice: "Behind those windows a man restores old radios. They're really supposed to be quite lovely."
Stewart has lived a life filled with both sorrow and joy. There was a violent father, a pair of failed marriages, and going bald at 20, which pretty much destroyed his film chances. But he's stepped into the light in his later years: cast as Picard at 46; voted TV Guide's, uh, Most Bodacious in 1992, at the age of 52. Stewart was knighted in 2010 and carried the Olympic torch through London two years later. He is now enjoying the twilight with a new girl and a senior bromance with Sir Ian McKellen that has them eating hot dogs in Coney Island. But life isn't that simple. If you spent much of your boyhood hiding from the rent man and stepping between your mother and your abusive father, and then playing with darkness on stage as an adult, not even a Brooklyn stroll can be either good or evil.
Park Slope is best known for its Subaru wagons, which double as troop carriers, trucking around swarms of children who seemingly multiply overnight, possibly as a result of a mysterious gene mutation concocted by malevolent Manhattan fertility doctors. Stewart passes a horde of kids pouring out of an elementary school. He is nearly hit by a flying backpack and a skipping boy. He swims through the youth and sighs when he reaches the other side of humanity.
"You know, Sunny and I have talked about it," says Stewart in a comic, resigned tone. He arches his eyebrows. "If these kids all became aliens at the same time we wouldn't have a chance."
It's an odd comment, but probably true. He chuckles and walks on, safe in the knowledge that if all the grown-ups in Park Slope were slain by tween mutants, Patrick Stewart would have the fewest regrets. He has made it so.
The great revenge of going bald in his youth is that Stewart is essentially ageless. He looks pretty much the same as he did at 47, when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987. His wife comes from a family of skiers, so he recently learned how to ski. One day at Lake Tahoe, Sunny took him on an intermediate run and reassured him at the top that they would stop and take several breaks on the way down. Alas, Stewart was already gone; she didn't catch up with him until they hit the lodge. He recently started doing Pilates because McKellen does it. "I thought, 'Bloody hell, if Ian can do it, I can do it, too.' " There's even a picture on Twitter of Stewart doing a one-handed pushup, but he claims he comes by his slender frame naturally.
"I come from peasant genes," says Stewart, as he sits down for a pre-theater lunch.
He isn't kidding. He recently looked into his family genealogy and found no one fancy, no one grand; his great-grandmother signed her wedding certificate with a cross. It makes his life trajectory all the more remarkable. At an age when most actors are kicking their feet up in Malibu or some other mystical Shady Acres, Stewart is finishing up a five-month run on Broadway doing Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot with McKellen – where Sir Ian occasionally goosed him to keep things interesting – and Harold Pinter's No Man's Land eight times a week.
(Photos by Mark Seliger)
Now a Spanish vacation looms, a round of press on X-Men: Days of Future Past, and a new project that he's jazzed about but can't discuss. He is living in a sweet, old world best represented by an Ozell-filmed video of Stewart giving a theatrical quadruple take (he actually lost track and gave the rare quintuple). More than 4 million viewers, many of whom posited that Stewart was stoned, have watched it on YouTube. (He says he was not.)
The shocking thing about the recent state of Stewart isn't that he is a great actor, but that he's actually funny. It couldn't have happened a few decades ago.
"I was always too frightened about making a fool of myself," he says with a sad smile. "That dominated so much of my early life."