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Patrick Stewart says his time on 'Star Trek' felt like a ministry


It's Sunday, which means it is time to reflect on how we each find meaning in our lives with our Enlighten Me series with Rachel Martin. This week, she has a guest that is beloved by millions of fans, especially those who like to boldly go where no man has gone before.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Sometimes you find comfort in the most unusual places. It was 1997, and I was living in Japan, teaching English to middle school kids. I lived in a tiny village. And in those early days especially, I was pretty lonely, except for my good friends Jean-Luc and Data. The teacher who had lived in my apartment before had left a huge box of VHS tapes. There were enough episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" to keep me company for the duration of my time there. So don't worry, I did make real friends in Japan, but that show, those characters navigating the galaxy, were an important touchstone as I explored my own new world. For the most devoted of fans, "Star Trek: The Next Generation" represents far more.

PATRICK STEWART: Its impact on so many people has been extraordinary, ranging from people saying that it became their education to others who said, I was going to end my life, but I couldn't because I wouldn't be able to see "Star Trek" anymore.

MARTIN: That unforgettable voice is that of Sir Patrick Stewart, who played the captain of the Starship Enterprise on "The Next Generation" for seven seasons and in four feature films, and he stars in the latest TV iteration of the franchise, "Picard." I got to talk with Stewart about his new memoir called "Making It So."

There is a bit in the book, early in your career - I think it was your first job - but you were an assistant stage manager. It was your first job in the industry. And you write this beautiful description of what it felt like to be on the stage. And I wondered if you would read that for me.

STEWART: Yes, I can.

MARTIN: Thank you.

STEWART: (Reading) At the end of each performance, I waited for the last actor and the staff to leave the theater before switching off the lights and locking up for the night. Actually, I left on one light in accordance with an old theater tradition whereby a single bare bulb is left on, hanging over the center of the stage. With the theater otherwise deserted, I stood beneath this light every night, taking a moment to breathe in the auditorium and the vibrations of the audience that had just left it. I looked at the set, only recently populated by our company of actors. I was part of all this now. Indeed, I had responsibilities to fulfill, even if they were as a lowly assistant stage manager. This, I thought, is now my home.

MARTIN: Maybe I am projecting, but there is, I think, a sacred quality to how you describe that space. Is that accurate? Did you sense that kind of reverence or sacredness about the theater?

STEWART: Oh, yes.


STEWART: To stand in the middle of an empty stage in an empty theater and feel that I was at home was everything. But it took a while for me to get there.

MARTIN: Did you feel that on a television set?

STEWART: No, I didn't. Cameras made me nervous.

MARTIN: Yeah. You were not Gene Roddenberry's first pick to play Jean-Luc Picard. Taking this role was also going to take you really far from your wife and kids, who lived back in England.


MARTIN: Why did you take it?

STEWART: I wasn't going to take it. Indeed, a dear - very dear friend of mine and a very important English actor had said to me, don't do this, Patrick. It's not what you need to do. You're a very good stage actor. That's where you ought to be. Don't do it. Because I had learnt that the contract that I was being offered, which was six years - but I was told we would be lucky to make it through the first season. So don't worry about that. I remember one actor saying to me, look, you know, sign up for this, do six months' work, make some money for the first time in your life and get well-known, get a suntan and go home. And I thought, yeah, that doesn't sound too bad. I could live with that. And, of course, our first series lasted seven seasons, and then we made four feature films.


MARTIN: I talk to a lot of people about spirituality and about the value of spiritual communities, which I think are when people who have similar values gather together and have or seek transcendent experiences. And I think "Star Trek," in all of its incarnations, represents that to a lot of fans. It is a spiritual world. They treat it with religious reverence. Have you encountered that? I mean, do you get it?

STEWART: Yes. I see it very, very clearly and very strongly. It was about truth and fairness and honesty and respect for others, no matter who they were or what strange alien creature they looked like. That was immaterial. They were alive. And if they needed help, Jean-Luc Picard and his crew, his team, were there to give it. So, yes, in a sense, we were ministers. And I have heard now so many times from individuals who have been honest enough and brave enough to tell me aspects of their life, of their health, of their mental health, and how it was all saved and improved by watching every week.

MARTIN: I mean, how did that sit with you? That's an awful lot of responsibility, to be that minister. I mean, you're an actor in a show, and people ascribe to you this wisdom, you as a moral compass for them

STEWART: Yes. I was proud of it and what we did. And I talked to Brent Spiner and Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis and Gates McFadden and Michael Dorn, LeVar Burton. We talked about this kind of thing often. And it's a glorious feeling 'cause we're just having a good time. We love our jobs. I love acting. And it's...

MARTIN: But didn't that feel incongruous that you are...


MARTIN: ...You're acting and you're having fun and - but it had this profound impact? No?

STEWART: It didn't feel at all incongruous because, particularly given the role I was playing, was a man of such profound understanding and empathy. And to feel like that as a person was such a reward for what we were doing because we were enjoying our work, our job. But at the same time, we were changing people's lives.

MARTIN: Did playing Jean-Luc Picard make you a better person?

STEWART: It gave me an idea of how I might become a better person, yes. I was able to absorb that and make those feelings a strong and firm part of my life.


MARTIN: There are several references in your book to the supernatural - experiencing spirits or even hearing your mother's voice after she died. Do you believe in spirits? Do you believe in God? Do you believe in things that are bigger than us like that?

STEWART: Yes. Bigger than us - yes. I believe in presence. And that was why, I think, when I was an assistant stage manager in my first job, I stood on that empty stage under one light - bare light bulb. Because while I was there, breathing quietly, it was as though I was surrounded by all the hundreds of actors who had been on that stage for the last hundred years. And the sense of a presence of good and the presence of evil is what I ascribe all my experiences of this kind to. I believe in it. I don't talk about it very much. It's - and I'm a little uncomfortable talking about it because it sounds wacky but it isn't, actually.

MARTIN: Yeah, but you're Patrick Stewart and you can talk about whatever you want. And...

STEWART: (Laughter).

MARTIN: I mean, come on.

STEWART: Oh, thank you.

MARTIN: You don't have anything left to prove.

STEWART: Thank you. Thank you.

MARTIN: Let me ask you, though. Our time is very short, and I just have one more question. Does your feeling about transcendence and spirits - does that extend to a possible afterlife? You are 83. You have lost a lot of people in your life. You have had to say goodbye to people who have died. What do you think happens? Have you thought about your own mortality in that way?

STEWART: I don't know what happens, but I have a very, very deep and acute feeling that there is more than this life that we lead. But I know, in some people who I've had relationships with, this has been an obsessive set of feelings that they have - fearful and harmful feelings. And instead, I am determined to see them differently. But with - by simply...

MARTIN: You mean seeing the end of life differently?

STEWART: Yes, as a closure of a chapter, not the end of existence. And I believe in that. Increasingly now, as I get older, I brood a little about this, but not despairingly, not depressedly (ph) at all. But just asking myself, am I ready?

MARTIN: Are you, or is that still the journey? That is the longing - to be ready.

STEWART: Yes. I'm getting close, very close. And I am experiencing happiness on a level and of an intensity that I've never experienced in my life before.

MARTIN: I'm so pleased for you.

STEWART: Thank you.

MARTIN: The book is called "Making It So," the aptly titled memoir from actor Patrick Stewart. Sir Patrick, what a pleasure. Thank you so much.

STEWART: And for me too, a great pleasure and a privilege to have been talking to you.


DETROW: You can hear more of Rachel Martin's Enlighten Me series right here, same time next week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.