While Patrick Stewart admits the general moviegoing audience — especially in the United States — knows him for his more “blockbuster” roles, the actor told me in a phone interview that “Match,” the small independent film opening Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, is more like the bulk of his work over the years.
“Contrary to what people might expect, the world of ‘Match,’ the conditions under which we made it, and the kind of screenplay it is — is really is closer to my career than my association with ‘X Men’ and ‘Star Trek,’ ” said Stewart.
Yet, he clearly recognizes “that it is how I am seen,” which is why he made “Match,” another small film (yet to be released) and an upcoming TV series.
“It was a conscious decision on my part to undertake these smaller projects with the feeling that they are of high quality, even though they will never reach anything close to the size of the audience you would see for something like ‘Days of Future Past.’ But, nevertheless, the level of satisfaction in making them is very high for me.”
In “Match,” Stewart plays an eccentric former dancer who has become a noted teacher and choreographer.
The film was written and directed by Stephen Belber, based on his play. The character of Tobi is actually based on a real person, Alphonse Poulin, a ballet teacher at the famed Juilliard School in New York.
“I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time with Alphonse,” Stewart said. “We had lunches and dinners together, and he invited me to his apartment. I saw his knitting collection. The sweaters that I so proudly brandished about in the movie are Alphonse’s own work
“But most importantly — and this was the highlight of getting to know him as I prepared for the movie — he invited me to attend his classes at Juilliard. I went to three 90-minute-long classes where he worked those young people, those beautiful and brilliant young people, so hard. He would say, ‘We’ll take a break now.’ and I timed one of those breaks and it was exactly 1 minute and 10 seconds!
“I had never seen such hard work — and of course, I got to see Alphie’s devotion to dance, his devotion to teaching and his devotion to his students. This is the very center of his life and has been the very center all along.”
In addition to the exposure Stewart got from getting to know Poulin, he mentioned that his first wife had been a classical dancer, choreographer and teacher. “So I was very familiar with both the classical and the modern dance world,” he said. “I attended a lot of heavyweight ballet at the Covent Garden Opera House in London, as well as a lot of contemporary ballet too. Dancers were many of my close friends. I have been very lucky in my career that I worked with movement and dance teachers who were outstanding. If I go right back to my early teens, I was working with one of the best movement teachers in the U.K. Physicality has always been a huge part of my work.”
So, obviously, the role of Tobi seemed a perfect fit for Stewart.
One aspect of the character — choosing career over having much of a personal life — also resonated with Stewart, who was very candid about making a comparison to his own life.
“I’ve been an actor for over 50 years. And even I can look back and see times when I made choices that were essentially career-based and ignored personal things. Those decisions had an impact on my personal life, my family life. At the time, it seemed the appropriate thing to do, but looking back over years, you will see that perhaps there was some damage done there. We can become very obsessed in the world of show business with the importance of what we do, and overlook other aspects of living. So I was able to relate quite strongly to much of the themes of the story in this film.”
Before he hung up, Stewart shared some tidbits about upcoming Starz series, “Blunt Talk.”
“The idea was brought to me by Seth MacFarlane, who I’ve worked with for eight or nine years, thanks to my role in ‘American Dad’ and my occasional appearances on ‘Family Guy,’ plus ‘Ted’ and ‘Ted 2.’ … I loved the idea. I’m a big fan of Seth’s work. He has given me an opportunity as much as anybody has to explore a different kind of performance.
“I play a character called Walter Blunt, who is an English media star living and working in Los Angeles, whose career has taken a bit of a downturn. He has a five-night-a-week news program, which also includes investigative journalism and interviews and so forth. The big thing is he is always trying to show Americans how they should live and be — which has a certain obnoxious sound to it, doesn’t it?”
The way Stewart described the character naturally led me to ask if it was based on Piers Morgan, the ex-British tabloid journalist who succeeded Larry King on CNN.
Stewart laughed and shared a funny story. “A few weeks ago I was staying at a hotel in Beverly Hills, and one morning down at breakfast I found myself looking a couple of tables away and staring eyeball-to-eyeball with Piers. He yelled out, ‘You’re playing me! How dare you!’ because obviously he had heard about the project. I went over and assured him that I was NOT playing him — far from it, despite what the outline of the role might look like.
“Piers was very generous. We met for breakfast the next morning. I spent an hour with him and he shared his experiences of working on an American TV show as an anchor and investigative reporter. He was terrifically helpful. He even said that if we asked him, he would consider having a role in the series, which was very nice of him.”