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August 29, 2010

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Captain Picardin the Middle Kingdom

SIR Patrick Stewart is famous as Starship Captain Jean-Luc Picard in "Star Trek: The Next Generation." He's committed to the next generation in another way, higher education. Xu Wei talks to Chancellor Picard.

Sir Patrick Stewart, a distinguished Shakespearean actor, is probably best-known in his television and film role as wise, strong and authoritative Captain Jean-Luc Picard in "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Fans also know him as Professor Charles Xavier in "X-Men."

But the 70-year-old film, television and stage actor is also a university chancellor, a champion of higher education and its power to transform lives. He also teaches acting.

Since 2003, in addition to performing on stage, Stewart has been the hands-on chancellor of University of Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, as well as professor of performing arts at that institution of 24,000 students from 130 countries.

He takes his involvement with university extremely seriously, spending as much time as possible with staff and students.

Last month, Sir Patrick visited the Sino-British College of the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology (USST), which has a partnership with Huddersfield. He presented awards to seven of its top Chinese students and delivered remarks.

"We celebrate individuality," Stewart said. "Please listen to your heart, to the voice inside you. Everything you do will be unique, special and will speak of you."

He explained his concept of education, quoting Woodrow Wilson, "Originality is simply a fresh pair of eyes."

"I don't want to be a figure who is just engaged in attending festivals and awards ceremonies," Stewart said in an interview later with Shanghai Daily.

"I want to get more involved in the life of the university. Returning from the US after many years to my hometown as chancellor of the university was an extraordinary honor."

He was impressed by the creativity and team spirit of the award-winning teams who tackled problems with creativity and persistence, urging them to meet challenges and turn their dreams and passions into reality.

The University of Huddersfield aids excellent Chinese undergraduates of USST, enabling them to study for one semester in the UK.

In June this year, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his devotion and services to drama, in a stage, film and television career that has spanned 50 years. It is said that the Queen is also an admirer of the star.

Stewart said the honor doesn't belong only to him; it belongs to all those who are dedicated to the theater.

Stewart discovered he was attracted to theater when he was a child.

He attributes his acting career to an English teacher who put a copy of Shakespeare in his hands and said, "Now, get up on your feet and perform." In other words, "Make it so," as Captain Picard often said.

After high school he pursued acting, worked as a cub reporter and obituary writer for a while but was told by his employer to choose between acting and journalism.

Stewart joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in his 20s and has performed not only Shakespeare but also modern playwrights. The company was, in a very real sense, his own higher education.

He has played King John, Shylock, Prospero, Henry IV, Cassius, Oberon, Leontes and many others.

In 2006, to great acclaim, he starred in "Antony and Cleopatra" and "The Tempest," and in 2007 in "Macbeth," for which he received the Evening Standard Best Actor Award and a Tony award nomination. In 2008 he played King Claudius in "Hamlet" and in 2009 he starred in "Waiting for Godot."

Acting comes naturally as Stewart moves between stage and film.

Next month he starts in a Broadway revival of David Mamet's two-man play "A Life in the Theater" (1977) - about the changing relationship between a young actor and a veteran.

He then plans a break from the theater for the first nine or 10 months of next year to reinvestigate film prospects. Stewart said it's good for him as an actor to have the challenge of moving from one medium to another.

"It's hard to explain where this kind of natural ability comes from; audiences never frighten me," Stewart told Shanghai Daily, though admitting he was reluctant to fully express himself when he started. "I love to give self-expression through characters, and speak myself through the roles."

Though each performing experience is an emotional journey, stage and film acting are totally different worlds. In his eyes, very few film roles present actors with the challenges of theater, in terms of complexity, range of characters and depth of characters. Only a few fortunate actors attain these roles. He has been one of them. He once said all his years of playing emperors and heroes in Shakespeare were only preparation for sitting in the captain's chair of the Starship Enterprise.

"I love filming, and I have been in love with the cinema since I was a child," he said. "However, no matter how much I love the cinema, the theater is my life. The fun I take from the genre is irreplaceable."

When Stewart teaches drama in college, he also notices that many young people are seeking fast, even overnight fame and expresses concern.

"As it happens in China, so also in the UK a lot of people want to go immediately to the top even though they don't have professional acting training," he said.

"For these people, the star-making reality shows seem to be a good alternative. However, what I want to say is that success is not judged by several years' media attention. Acting is a cruel and hard profession. Do it only if you have to, and the compulsion is so strong. Every young person has to take the profession very seriously from the beginning, then you have to devote yourself to it."

After years' acting in Hollywood films, the knight said he was glad to return to the British stage as opportunities in Hollywood seemed limited. He wants to play great roles in great plays with five-star actors.

Though today his work seems effortless, Stewart said it took him a long time to become a real actor.

"I think the basic quality for a great actor is fearlessness," he said. "But I used to be handicapped by fear for many years. At that time, I didn't like exposing myself too publicly and I was afraid to be a puppet of directors. I wanted to do it my way."

He is grateful to director Ronald Eyre who encouraged him to express himself in varied roles.

"When he asked me to play a psycho murderer driven by jealousy, Eyre told me that the role was just inside me and I would find him even though this process would be painful and difficult," he recalls.

He has found many roles within himself.

Asked, as he inevitably is, about a favorite role, Stewart replied:

"There is no favorite role; I have been fortunate throughout my career to work in many great plays and perform many important roles."

Stewart is also concerned about the situation of theater art in the UK, noting the biggest threat to theater is the economy. The government has said there will be significant cuts in arts funding and several theaters and arts associations have announced they may go out of business unless new sources of funding are found.

"The competition for roles is increasingly intense because there are so many gifted young people looking for work," Stewart said. "But creatively UK theater has never been stronger, and this is demonstrated through the quality of the work being performed."

It was Stewart's first trip to China. He said China's flourishing cinema has also strengthened his wish to collaborate with Chinese film makers in the future.

Star Trek fans might be surprised to learn that Stewart himself was surprised that he was cast in the TV series (1987-1994) as Starship Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

"Why would they cast a middle-aged bald English Shakespearean actor in this iconic role as captain of the Enterprise? It made no sense," he said earlier this month (Deadline Hollywood on August 12). "But I guess (creator) Gene Roddenberry had some sort of instinct for it, and his producer Rick Berman was a champion of mine. Even so, it all felt borderline lunatic back then.

"It took me a good while to grow comfortable in that role. I know that my experience with classic Shakespeare was a great help to me in finding this heightened language that was larger than life and utterly epic."


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