More Instinct, Less Arsehole: Things I’ve Learned as a Moviemaker by Patrick Stewart

Few actors are as iconic as Sir Patrick Stewart.

In the roles of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Jean-Luc Picard and X-Men’s Charles Xavier, the English actor has branded his imperious visage upon the imaginations of nerds and non-nerds alike. His voice, once heard, is not forgotten. In fact, chances are you’ll read the below points in his deep-throated boom.

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Sir Patrick Stewart, Matthew Lillard, and Carla Gugino in Match.

Stewart’s prominence as one of the premiere stage actors of his time (as well as his long career in non-Trekkie television) can make cinephiles jealous, so when a moviemaker manages to land him, audiences pay attention. In his new drama, Match, Stewart plays a dance choreographer in New York who gets drawn into revisiting his deliberately opaque past over the course of an apparently innocuous interview. Stephen Belber, who wrote the original play in 2005, directs, with Carla Gugino and Matthew Lillard playing Stewart’s conversational foes. It’s a complicated character that demands a sensitive, intelligent interpretation—i.e. tailor-made for Sir Patrick. – MM Editor

1. At the beginning, watch everything you do on screen. I have known actors who claim they have never watched a moment of their own work. That’s just stupid, and probably bullshit anyway. It is one—but only one—of the means of doing the job better.

2. Don’t film in the director’s own home. I did, once. He was obsessive-compulsive. It was supposed to be my character’s home, but it never felt like it. My dressing room was his bedroom. Very weird.

3. If there are film actors you admire, watch them again and again and keep asking, “Why, why, how, how.” I once sat next to one of my heroes at dinner—Karl Malden. I asked him why in On the Waterfront, at the end of the scene in the ship’s hold when he is being hoisted back up, did he choose to take a crumpled cigarette packet out of his raincoat pocket and light up. Was it his idea, or Kazan’s? He said, “Nah, I just needed a smoke.” Yes—be in the moment.

4. You may feel a role is not right for you, but if someone you really trust says, “You’re wrong, you should do this,” do it.

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5. If you like and trust the camera operator, ask him stuff. For seven years filming Star Trek: The Next Generation, our operator was Lowell Peterson. When not confident with a director, I would look at Lowell after a take and with the subtlest movement, he would nod or shake his head. All I needed.

6. And on the subject of asking: Question everybody. Everybody. What’s this, how does that work, why do it this way, has it always been like this and—most important—what’s your name?

7. Instinct, instinct, instinct. Back to Mr. Malden again. Trust it, trust it, trust it.

8. Always, always be there for off-camera. I know, I know, Film Acting 101—but there have been times… And beware the actor who does his off-camera a certain specific way, and then on camera does it totally differently, making you look like an arsehole.

9. Be prepared to shoot your big scene or last scene on the first day. This year I shot my death scene on day one. Why does that happen so often?

10. If something—a prop, a set, a stunt, an action—feels unsafe, don’t do it. Or at least tell someone. It can always be changed (see The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker).

11. Have fun. It is possible to do great work and have fun. I spent too many years being an uptight arsehole. MM

Match opens in theaters and on VOD on January 14, 2015, courtesy of IFC Films. Photographs courtesy of IFC Films and DFree/Shutterstock.

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