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‘On Stage, I Could Escape’: Sir Patrick Stewart On Childhood Trauma And Acting Success

Patrick Stewart grew up in a small terraced home in a town called Mirfield, on the edge of the Pennines. There was no running hot water, no indoor toilet, no central heating. For a long time he shared a bed with his brother, Trevor, who was five years his senior. Many local families were similarly impoverished. One of Stewart’s friends wore wellington boots to school, without socks, no matter the season – there was no alternative. For entertainment, he turned to one of four books his family owned: an ancient encyclopedia passed down by his grandfather, a couple of war volumes belonging to his father, and a large but tattered dictionary. “That was until I found the library,” he says, “which was critical.” He goes on, “Other than the radio, our home life didn’t have much to offer, and occasionally it had horror to offer.” Books, and later cinema, “became escapism.”

Stewart is talking over Zoom from the study of his Los Angeles home. The walls are wood-panelled and book-lined – he is a long way from Yorkshire now. His wife, Sunny Ozell, an American musician, briefly potters around before closing the door and leaving Stewart to our discussion, which he has in good humour, despite it involving talk of some of his life’s most fraught experiences. “You know, I didn’t talk about my family for decades,” he tells me. “The conversation we’re having, I would never have had. I kept it close. I’d say, ‘Oh, yes, they were fine, they were very supportive.’ And it wasn’t like that at all a lot of the time.”

Stewart has been the star of two major pop-culture franchises: the 90s Star Trek revival The Next Generation, in which he played Captain Jean-Luc Picard, and the X-Men film series, in which he played mutant daddy Charles Xavier. He did not become Picard until he was in his 40s, following 14 years at the Royal Shakespeare Company and several years at smaller repertory theatres across England. He has played Macbeth, Othello, Prospero, Shylock and Mark Antony. He has won two Olivier Awards and a Grammy, and been nominated for Emmys and Golden Globes. His voice is big and firm and notable. His head, which has been hairless since he was 20, is similarly recognisable. Now 83, he retains the baritone, but, by his own admission, he is less imposing physically. “Somehow I’ve lost 2in over the past two years,” he says, almost tutting. “I don’t know how the hell it’s come about. My wife, who’s younger than me, significantly, has said, ‘Well, it’s ageing – you shrink.’ I shrink? When will it stop!”

Though Stewart is a colossus of entertainment, his grand future was not foretold. “My experience was this little house in this little town in Yorkshire,” he says. This is the truth, but it is not the whole truth. Stewart has described previously the violent atmosphere in which he was raised – his father, Alf, a long-serving soldier, regularly beat his mother, Gladys, a mill worker, who in Making It So, Stewart’s new memoir, is depicted as beautiful and saintly and downtrodden. Stewart describes his father now as “a weekend alcoholic”. He continues, “Rigorously, from Monday to the end of the working day on Friday, he never drank. But Friday nights, the drinking through the weekend would begin, which made weekends always perilous, never fun.”

‘Acting is vital to the range of experience all people have’: Patrick Stewart as Prospero in The Tempest the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 2006. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The GuardianStewart and Trevor were often witnesses to Alf’s attacks. He recalls sitting on the staircase and overhearing violent goings on. Every now and then the boys would propel themselves between their parents’ bodies to prevent further harm, though they were not always in time. Once, Alf hit Gladys on the head with a pint glass, leaving her “barely conscious” and “bleeding heavily”. An ambulance arrived, and so did a policeman, who blamed Gladys for encouraging Alf’s wrath. Stewart remembers his father later removing his clothes and quietly placing them on his bed in a neat pile, as if nothing at all had happened.

This was the 1940s and early 50s, following Alf’s return from war. In his memoir, Stewart writes that “over time, my father’s rage dissipated and the violence stopped.” But during our conversation he contradicts that idea. “Of course, we knew there was still trouble in the family house,” he tells me. Stewart left home at 17 – he had received a scholarship to attend the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School – and he never lived in Mirfield again. Once, later in life, Stewart and his brothers visited their mother to attempt a kind of intervention. “We said, ‘Mum, we want to get you out of that house, it’s so bad for you, we can buy you a house, we’d love to buy you a house. And you can be by yourself and have your own friends there and there will be people to look after you.’ But she refused. She wouldn’t leave my father.”

Alf died in 1980, three years after Gladys. (When Gladys died, Stewart’s eldest brother, Geoffrey, who left home before Trevor and Patrick did, half-joked that perhaps their father was responsible.) And yet Alf continues to loom large in Stewart’s life as a locus of shame and pride and influence. “There were years when I hated my father so deeply and feared him, too,” he says. But he also thinks of Alf as an impressive man. He recalls a moment when one of Alf’s army peers told him: “When your father walked on to the parade ground, the birds in the trees stopped singing.” Stewart was astonished. “I think my discipline comes from him,” he says now. “My self-discipline – sometimes at a cost. But the impact of him, the subtle impact, I have only come to understand. This is the result of 25, 30 years of therapy.”

In Making It So, Stewart expresses regret that he didn’t speak more with his father before he died. The same thought surfaces during our conversation. “I wish so, so much to be able to sit down with him,” he says. “To say, ‘OK, I’m 83 now, you’re 100 and whatever, let’s talk.’”

Vision in blue: full outfit by Tom Ford. Photograph: Jessica Chou/The ObserverThe conversation, he hopes, would be “frank and open”.

I ask him what they might have talked about.

“I would have liked to have said to him, ‘Dad, there were so many aspects of you and your life that have taken me by the hand and led me on my way through adulthood and into old age. You are, in many respects, an example to me. And in other respects, you are still a bad man.’”

I tell Stewart that I am surprised he has been able to locate the good in his father, to consider him a positive figure, and we wonder together what that might have taken. “I’ve already mentioned the ‘T’ word,” he says, meaning therapy. “It was a friend who introduced me to the idea of therapeutic sessions and they’ve been a part of my life ever since. Invaluably and particularly since I’ve come to live in the United States, where if you don’t have a therapist you’re weird.”

In 2012, Stewart accepted an invitation to participate in an episode of the BBC history series Who Do You Think You Are? The episode focused on his father’s position as a sergeant major in the British army’s Parachute regiment. “I remember standing on a spot in France,” he recalls, “and the historian who was with us on the shoot said to me, ‘You know, I think I could guarantee your father stood exactly where we are now.’” Stewart was astounded, but the historian went on. “He reminded me that I’ve talked a lot about the violence in my home. And he said, ‘Well, yes, your father had PTSD. But what he would have been told back then was that he had shellshock – that was the term they used.’ And he said, ‘It can stay with people their whole lives. They never can release themselves.’”

To Stewart the discovery was a breakthrough. I ask now if becoming aware of his father’s illness made it easier to comprehend, if not excuse, his actions?

“It’s not a get-out,” he says. “But an understanding, yes.” Then he goes on, “I always used to feel that my father and his violence is what had the biggest impact on my life. There have been times when I have been violent. Rarely to other people, and never to my children. But I can get angry. And it comes from my father.”

I ask if he means he becomes angry at himself.

“Yes,” he says. “Denying myself certain things. Because I felt I didn’t deserve them.”

“Why did you feel undeserving of things?” I ask.

He doesn’t answer for a long time.

Out of this world: as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek. Photograph: AJ Pics/Alamy“Because I didn’t do enough to protect my mother,” he says. “Because I didn’t respect my brothers enough, though I liked them very much.” He is even ashamed, he says, of skipping the entrance exam to grammar school, deciding instead to roam Mirfield’s hills alone. “I suspect that might just have been fear. Fear that I might pass, be elevated into this different world, which I couldn’t have handled, I know I couldn’t have handled it. Perhaps I did myself a big favour.”

I ask what it feels like to have achieved everything he has done despite his inauspicious start.

“I think I’ve been in denial about my life for a very long time,” he says. “I never really took on board how successful I had become. Even today I sometimes think, ‘You’re a lucky son of a bitch, Patrick,’ when something unexpected or good happens to me. The fact that I am talking to a newspaper about my life and career, a newspaper I read… And to be doing a seven-city book tour, not about acting, but about being a writer, about my life… This has perhaps more than anything brought me into the realisation of how much great good fortune I’ve had in my life. And I’m still having.” Nobody from Stewart’s childhood ever thought to write, or even aspired to write. “People say to me, ‘What would your dad say about you having written a book?’ I mean, people who hold it in their hands, they ask, ‘Would they believe it?’” He smiles. “No, they would not believe it.”

Stewart jokes that he almost began his memoir with the words “Once upon a time,” such is the fairytale nature of his life story. In Making It So he writes: “World-conquering ambition was not part of the makeup of Northerners – at least not ones in my family.” When he was 10, his “outrageous dream” was to become a long-distance lorry driver. But extra-familial adults in Stewart’s life recognised his promise, almost certainly even before he did. At secondary school, an English teacher named Cecil Dormand began casting Stewart in adult plays, and a local drama adviser helped him to access a week-long acting course, where he met an ebullient, slightly older student named Brian Blessed. Stewart describes his life to me as “Dickensian”: a lowly boy is offered help by generous benefactors, and rescued from hardship and violence. “These people slowly began to penetrate my life.”

While Stewart was growing up, amateur drama clubs were popular and many. “There were, I think, 11 different religious houses in my town,” he recalls, “and every single one of them had a drama club.” That so many adults made a hobby out of acting granted him aspiration to the industry. “Over the years I’ve come to understand what a profound impact that had on me. That you were not considered odd if you went on stage, pretending to be someone else. Nobody laughed at you. Nobody made fun of you. Even my pals, who usually would have made fun of me, they would not do it about play acting.”

‘I keep thinking of things that I’ve forgotten to put in my book’: Patrick Stewart wears jacket by Viggo, and jumper by Paul Smith. Photograph: Jessica Chou/The ObserverIt was Dormand who first introduced Stewart to Shakespeare. “I couldn’t understand a word,” he recalls, of being asked to read a monologue from The Merchant of Venice. “I couldn’t even pronounce some of the words.” But “I escaped. And my dream became more of a dream. Not just of having a different life. But, for the few minutes I had on stage, actually living it.”

Making It So is dedicated to Dormand and another teacher, Ruth Wynn Owen, once an understudy to Peggy Aschcroft and later a voice coach, who developed Stewart as an actor and is responsible for his received pronunciation. When I ask if he would have achieved what he has done without the confidence given to him by these adults, he says, “I think something would have happened, but it would have taken much longer.” I wonder if that underplays their impact. Had he not been advised to apply for a scholarship to drama school, he would not have gone – there was no other money. “Here I was, a secondary school boy, getting everything paid for,” he says. “My schooling, the goods I needed, tights, ballet shoes, work clothes, scripts, all of that. [The scholarship] paid for everything.” His time at drama school went well, but still Stewart didn’t walk into a job. At repertory auditions early in his career he would turn up in a wig, then whip it off halfway through to reveal his bald head, hoping to impress on directors that if they hired him into their company they were getting two actors for the price of one. (It worked, eventually.)

But Stewart is aware that without support he would not be where he is and it pains him to witness the cuts to government funding for the arts. “Only yesterday I received an email from someone who runs a small private theatre in the north of England asking for my support. Their grants had been cut to almost nothing. Could I help? Could I spread the word? I assume scholarships still exist in some way, but I don’t think they exist with a view to the arts. And I know that this seems like ‘show business’, like ‘entertainment’… But it’s much, much more than that. Acting is vital to the range of experience that all people have.”

Stewart is a longtime Labour party member. He blames the Conservatives for cuts to arts funding. “Thatcher was the first person to reduce subsidies offered to theatres,” he says, “and it’s just got worse. It’s always worse under a Conservative-run country.” When I ask what he thinks of Rishi Sunak’s government he replies, plainly: “Well, I’m happy to say that I think as a government they’re in trouble,” and then, “I think it’s unlikely we’re going to see them in Downing Street for much longer.”

‘I’ve got ideas. I’d like to do more comedy. Laughter is glorious’: with his wife Sunny Ozell. Photograph: Jeff Spicer/Getty ImagesStewart wrote Making It So during the pandemic. He had turned down previous offers to write a memoir on account of being too busy with acting. But when Covid closed film-sets and theatres, Simon & Schuster offered him “a nice deal”, and with encouragement from his agent and from Ozell, he accepted. It has taken him three years to write the book, though he feels, “I have been preparing to write it most of my life.” There may yet be a sequel. “Ever since my book has been locked in place, I keep thinking of things I’ve forgotten to put in it. In the end you think, ‘Maybe I could write a postscript.’ An ‘also, by the way…’”

I wonder what other parts of his story Stewart might mine for content. His early life, his acting career, the relationships he has won and lost along the way – it is all there. Stewart has been married three times. His first two marriages ended following affairs Stewart had with younger women. In Making It So, he writes: “In a life chock-a-block with joy and success, my two failed marriages are my greatest regret.” Following his first divorce, in 1990, he fell into a brief period of stasis. His children, to whom he’d sometimes been distant on account of his work schedule, found it difficult to forgive his digressions. “I felt my life had lost its way,” he tells me. He was 50 and self-medicating. “Sleeping pills, yes. Alcohol, yes. They became a part of my life. But, eventually, I became able to deal with that. Again, that’s the advantage of beautiful therapy – that you can talk to someone. Of course, most of the time they say, ‘And how did that make you feel? What was that like?’” He laughs, as if suddenly incredulous that a boy from small-town Yorkshire might see fit to participate in psychoanalysis. “You know, I think most of us spiral downward from time to time. There are moments when we ask questions of ourselves, unfairly perhaps. My hope is that it’s all behind me.”

In his memoir, Stewart describes his relationship with his children as “a work in progress”. When I ask how things are now he looks briefly rattled and casts his eyes downwards. “It’s very sad,” he says. “I love my children. But our relationships, they haven’t worked out.” Stewart maintains strong links to his grandchildren – less so their parents, though in the book he seems on good terms with his son, Daniel, who followed him into acting. He goes on, “It will always be a place of sadness in my life.”

Still, there is happiness, too. Stewart married Ozell a decade ago. The ceremony, which took place in California, was officiated by Sir Ian McKellen, a man Stewart “fell in love with” while they worked together on the X-Men films. McKellen had become an officiant online specifically for the union, and he wore a ceremonial cloak. “It all happened so secretly,” Stewart recalls, “at 11pm in a closing Mexican restaurant.” Only a few close friends attended. The vows were repeatedly interrupted by a waiter demanding the group order food before the kitchen closed for the night.

‘There are so many things I would like to have said to my dad’: Patrick Stewart wears suit by Gabriella Hearst, shirt by Paul Smith and shoes by Manolo Blahnik. Photograph: Jessica Chou/The ObserverMcKellen, who is aware of his friend’s difficult beginnings, describes Stewart as “an honourable man”, a “man of principle” and “a bloody-minded Yorkshireman”. (McKellen is from Lancashire.) “Going around with Patrick is like going around with the pope,” he told me. “Not that people genuflect, but he’s touched so many lives.” McKellen, who is 84, is now appearing on stage in London, a fact that excites Stewart, who is keen to return to acting. “I’ve got ideas,” he says, towards the end of our conversation. “I would like to do more comedy. Some of the comedy I’ve done, I’ve loved it. To be aware of people laughing at something I’ve done is the most satisfying thing. I like it more than crying – I’ve seen people crying. But laughter is glorious. And I like being on camera very much and I hope to do more theatre. Occasionally, people will call me up and say, ‘How about King Lear? You’ve never done King Lear. You should!’” He pauses. “There are possibilities…” he goes on, “and that’s exciting.”

Photographer’s first assistant Jesse Belvin @gangganggenhis; second Assistant Wacunza Clarke @dinbaedin; prop stylist Chloe Kirk @cb kirk; wardrobe Warren Alfie Baker; makeup stylist Peter De Oliveira; shot at Dust Studios

‘Read it out loud, you idiots!’In this extract, Patrick Stewart recalls his influential teacher – and a first meeting with William Shakespeare

The subject that most captivated me was English literature. In my second year at the Mirfield Secondary Modern School, I was assigned to the Eng-lit class of Cecil Dormand, who was also my form master. He was to have a transformational impact on my life.

Mr Dormand was tall and handsome, with an informal manner that put us kids at ease. He wasn’t too informal with us – if he caught a pupil glazing over with an inattentive stare, he wouldn’t hesitate to nail this pupil in the head with a piece of chalk. We actually loved him for this. If you somehow managed to think fast enough to catch the piece of chalk he’d aimed your way, you received a “Bravo!” from Mr Dormand and a round of applause from the rest of the class.

But the real reason I became devoted to Mr Dormand was that he was the man who introduced me to the works of William Shakespeare. One day, early in the term, he placed a copy of The Merchant of Venice on every desk. At the time, I did not know that Mr Dormand was also an amateur actor and director. Nor did I have any idea what the hell The Merchant of Venice was.

Mr Dormand told us to open the play to Act IV, Scene 1. He went through the list of characters in the scene and attached a pupil’s name to each role. Just when I thought I was going to get away with not having a role, he ended by saying, “Stewart: Shylock.” The name meant nothing to me. I had no idea that I’d been cast in the most challenging, complex role in the play.

“All right,” said Mr D, “start reading.” We all bent our heads over the strange-looking columns of print and started reading. Silently. A moment passed before Mr D erupted: “Not to yourselves, you idiots, out loud! This is a play, it’s action, it’s drama, it’s life. Start again.”

We did, and we were dreadful. None of us could make sense of what we were reading, what the story was, or what most of the words meant. “Adversary”? “Void”? “Dram”? “Obdurate”? Nobody in our world used words like that.

As I listened to my classmates struggle, desperate to comprehend what was going on, I suddenly saw the name Shylock hurtling towards me on the page. I had just enough time to see that immediately following the name was a huge speech. Oh, hell, I thought, I’m buggered. I took a deep breath.

Making It So by Sir Patrick Stewart is published on all 3 October by Gallery at £25. Order it for £22 from

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