Patrick Stewart: ‘Supporting Gay Rights Is Natural’

By Jase Peeples

Originally published: The Advocate 1/23/15

There’s one particular scene during Patrick Stewart’s new film Match, in which his character Tobi discusses the joys of going down on a woman. When I tell him the scene caught me off guard he lets out a long laugh and says, “Well, to quote Tobi from the film, of course it caught you off guard, because ‘most cunnilingus conversations do.’”

He continues, “I can’t recall having ever seen a movie where that was actually a topic of conversation. But it’s not obscene. It’s not offensive. In fact, I think it’s very witty and entertaining.”

Even as my inner 13-year-old giggles at the fact that I’m discussing the subject of oral sex with Captain Jean-Luc Picard, I find myself nodding in agreement. The film’s unflinching honesty is one of the main reasons Stewart says he was attracted to the project, and the 74-year-old actor adds that this part gave him an opportunity to upend ageist attitudes surrounding sex.

“These problems only exist through young people, who feel that they invented sex and that it was created specifically for them and that it’s only them and the people of their generation who understand the pleasures and delights as well as the problems of being a sexual person,” he says. “Of course, those things just don’t go away at all. But there has always been this kind of offensive aspect to the idea that someone over 40, male or female, should be sexually active, and that’s absolutely absurd. Like my character in the film says, it’s one of the greatest gifts we have been given and it has to be celebrated.”

Stewart says he knew he wanted to play the part of bisexual Juilliard dance teacher Tobias “Tobi” Powell the moment he finished reading writer-director Stephen Belber’s screenplay for the film of his Tony Award–winning play.

“There are very few roles each year that come along which have this level of detail and complexity, as well as narrative development,” he says. “The depth of satisfaction in mining all that is so intense and is, for me, the primary attraction of this job that I do.”

That “job” has spanned more than five decades and encompassed roles ranging from Captain Ahab in Moby Dick and Claudius in Hamlet to modern fan favorites like Professor Charles Xavier in X-Men and his iconic role in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

However, Stewart says the story of this drama — which unfolds when Tobi is interviewed by graduate student Lisa (Carla Gugino) and her husband, Mike (Matthew Lillard), about the master dancer’s days as a performer and the painful decisions and sacrifices of his past — not only provides him a platform to speak on social issues but resonates with him on a personal level.

Above: Tobi (Patrick Stewart), Mike (Matthew Lillard), and Lisa (Carla Gugino) in Match.

“As a young actor I was married in my 20s and had children pretty quickly, but I was so dedicated to making a career as an actor, which meant traveling and being away from home for long periods of time,” he says as his voice shifts into a more somber tone. “I had to make a choice often whether I would accept a role that might have been something like a two-year commitment where I would only be able to see my children one day a week or sacrificing that opportunity to focus on family.”

Stewart’s sacrifices paid off, securing his status as one of the most prolific actors of the Royal Shakespeare Company long before his career entered warp speed as the captain of the starship Enterprise. Yet, despite his success in big-budget productions, he admits he prefers the challenge of a complex character to the grand spectacle of science fiction. “There’s a pleasure that comes out of a character of such complexity, intensity, and mystery. We don’t get to explore that kind of thing much with the principal characters of either Star Trek or X-Men.

Nevertheless, it’s those pop culture favorites, coupled with his extraordinary talent, that have propelled Stewart to the status of an icon, and his longtime support of equality has earned him a large LGBT following along the way.

Born in Mirfield, Yorkshire, England in 1940, Stewart says his attitude toward LGBT people wasn’t something cultivated by his upbringing but always felt instinctual.

“When I look back to my early career and early experience, my ease and comfort being in the company of and intimately close with gay and lesbian colleagues and friends was always, for me, the most natural, and I might even say at times appealing aspects of the life I was living,” he says. “I think this is where the theater is such an appealing world, because it embraces everything and always has. So there was never a moment where I made an intellectual choice that I would be a supporter of gay civil rights. It was always a natural and uncomplicated choice. Then later in life, as I got to know well-known activists like Ian McKellen, I was only too happy to join campaigns, march, and support in whatever way I could because it always seemed to me to be something that much too much fuss was being made about.”

Stewart’s genuine support shines through in his real-life adventures with McKellen, whom he describes as “the dearest of friends.” His gay X-Men costar performed the wedding ceremony for Stewart and his current wife, Sunny Ozel, in 2013. But the close friendship he enjoys with McKellen has led to inaccurate assumptions about Stewart’s own sexuality on more than one occasion, including an article published by The Guardian in 2014 that misidentified the actor as a gay man after he congratulated another X-Mencostar, Ellen Page, for coming out.

“Quite frankly, I was utterly flattered by that assumption,” he says. “And indeed the first contact I had was from Ian McKellen, who sent me an email saying, ‘Congratulations!’ And I accepted the congratulations and said, ‘I think this is a very distinctive honor that I’ve been awarded.’”

He says he responded in “the only way I could,” by playfully tweeting the news outlet with the message, “But @guardian I have, like, five or even SEVEN hetero friends and we totally drink beer and eat lots of chicken wings!”

The Guardian is a newspaper that I love and have tremendous affection for,” he explains. “I wasn’t going to get all upset and stuffy about somebody being a little bit careless in their research.”

He chuckles as he adds, “Or frankly who had looked at some of the evidence and made an assumption.”

The “evidence” he refers to are photos like the delightful images he shared via social media shortly after The Guardian’s gaffe, which featured Stewart and his BFF celebrating the end of their most recent Broadway runs by touring New York City together. “Yes, I’ll acknowledge we were a bit cheeky at times,” he says of their outing in the Big Apple. “We were photographed walking hand in hand on the boardwalk at Coney Island, sitting with our arms around the gay pride statues in Manhattan, and in front of [the iconic gay bar] Stonewall. So yes, we were aware that we were being a little bit cheeky and even a little bit provocative, but we both enjoyed that.”

While Stewart says neither he nor McKellen will likely return for the next installment of X-Men, he had hoped the two would be able to team up again with him making a guest appearance in the new sitcom Vicious, which features McKellen and Derek Jacobi as a cantankerous gay couple.

“I had been teasing Ian all along from the very beginning when we were on Broadway last year saying, ‘There’s got to be something for me in this if you and Derek are in it. Surely they’ve got some extraordinarily wise, sexy, older gay friends that are in the series,’” he says. “Then I was deeply disappointed when I had to turn down exactly such an invitation before Christmas because I’m working in Los Angeles for the next four or five months. So they did try, but it didn’t work out.”

Hopefullly we won’t have to wait too long for the next adventure of these two gifted youngsters.