Patrick Stewart: Starz's 'Blunt Talk' Is a "Liberating Experience"

"A lot of people have been saying, 'Patrick Stewart doing comedy, that doesn't seem right,'" Stewart tells THR. He shares why the show has been a "delightful and very creative experience."

Patrick Stewart has spent much of his 50-year-plus career as a dramatic actor. So when he opted to return to television in his first full-time, live-action leading role since Star Trek: The Next Generation ended in 1994, and wound up in Starz's half-hour Blunt Talk, he understands why people seem thrown by the shift.

"A lot of people have been saying, 'Patrick Stewart doing comedy, that doesn't seem right,' " Stewart tells The Hollywood Reporter. "But the fact is, thanks to people like [frequent collaborator] Seth MacFarlane, [Extras co-creator] Ricky Gervais and Jon Stewart, I have been dipping my toe into comedy more and more over the last few years, and finding it just makes me very happy. There is the famous quote, [that Edmund Kean] apparently on his deathbed said, 'Dying is easy; comedy is hard.' What I've found is despite our long hours, comedy was not just not hard, but as a performer, [it's] a liberating experience."

"I now agree with Laurence Olivier, who years ago dismayed me by, in an interview, saying no matter how wonderful it was to make people gasp, sob, cry, scream or weep, it had nothing to compare with making an audience laugh," Stewart added. "I thought at first, 'Oh, come on, Sir Laurence, you're a dramatic, tragic actor; I don't want to hear about you making people laugh.' And then I read something else about him -- he was a great hero of mine -- which was when he starts to study a character, any character, the first thing he looks for is the humor in it. I can now say I've joined the platform of Laurence Olivier, certainly as far as his feelings about comedy are concerned."

Stewart spoke with THR about playing Walter Blunt, the show's shifting tone, his joy over introducing Adrian Scarborough to America and more.

Blunt Talk was a different kind of experience because Seth approached you about working together on a comedy before a series was hatched. How does it change how you approach a character when you've been a part of the project before it really was formulated?

It's the first time. It has been a delightful and very creative experience. Seth brought the idea of a half-hour, live-action comedy show to me -- he actually brought it to me the morning after he hosted the Academy Awards. (Laughs.) Which I thought was amazing; I told him he would probably more likely be in handcuffs being flown out of the country after the Academy Awards, but nope, he turned up for lunch! Seth asked if I would meet with [Blunt Talk creator] Jonathan Ames. We got on so well. We talked about our own lives, rather than put ideas together about the show. That was a marvelous way for us to get to know one another and make contact — and to get a feel for the things that interested and subject that might arise during the series.

Ames has a personal and idiosyncratic style of writing. He has a vocabulary which seems to be completely different than anybody else's. Even when Jonathan writes the simplest lines of dialogue, he does it using language that's odd, startling, unusual, interesting and very often, funny. Given that you look back at my career of over 50 years of doing this job, I've been lucky to speak some pretty nice lines by some pretty good writers: ranging from Shakespeare to Arthur Miller to Harold Pinter to Edward Albee. The great thrill for me, was in finding that playing Walter Blunt, I was in exactly the same place. 

Jonathan has one element of Shakespeare: Shakespeare was the first dramatist to create character through language. None of the principal characters in Shakespeare's plays talk quite like any of the others … MacBeth's language is quite different from Hamlet or King Lear's. And King Lear's is instantly recognizable. Jonathan does the same. In Blunt Talk, the characters are what they say and how they say it. For me, it's a very important thing to say about how Jonathan has created at least the first 10 episodes of this show.

How have you found that impacts the way the story is told?

Every episode in the 10 has a different characteristic. Its mood is different. Of course, the subject matter changes. But there are very well-defined characteristics to each episode, so it's not in any sense, as if there is a format for this show. It has meant that Jonathan and his writers can, in a sense, start all over again with each episode. Episode one and two connect, because that's important in launching a series. But after that, some are outlandish and outrageous, some of them are wacky, some of them are quiet emotional. There's one episode where Rosalie (Jacki Weaver) and myself go in search of her husband (Ed Begley Jr.) whose character has Alzheimer's and has disappeared. The whole panic of looking for a person who doesn't know where they are or who they are is a desperate search. To suddenly find that Jacki and myself were in the middle of a drama about something very serious, was refreshing. I see no reason why that should not continue on for the [next] 10 episodes.

What kind of feedback have you gotten to the premiere?

Really good responses, universally. At times, it's a tough show to watch. There are subjects and scenes that can be challenging. But the responses have been so strong. It pleases that people describe the show as being funny and fascinating. They're responding to what I've been talking about -- the extraordinary writing. It's not a show about gags and routines. It's entirely a character-based show.

What's Walter's arc like in season one?

I get an opportunity to express that early in the series. The trauma of what happens to Walter -- all of the results of his own actions; he's not a victim at all -- spending a night in prison, being charged with a whole host of ugly crimes and events. He grasps this as an opportunity to change his life. His life as led him into this disaster where we are at the end of episode one, and he wants to turn around, not only his life, but the kind of show he's presenting on Blunt Talk. He is being reminded that he left the military and went into journalism because he wanted to tell the truth about the world. And his disillusionment with the military where he was a high-flying officer was his experience in the Falklands War, which was such a politically constructed war, that it totally disillusioned him about what good he might do as a member of the military. He wanted to use journalism as a force for good. Having all this mess in his life in the first episode, he's now turning himself around, and the show around, so he can again bring clarity and passion to nightly news; that he hopes, inch by inch, little by little, will make this a better planet to live on.

One of the lighter sides we see of Walter is when he's with his friend/manservant, Harry (Adrian Scarborough). Jonathan mentioned that you were the one to suggest

If ever Patrick Stewart did anything good and sensible in his life, it was recommending Adrian Scarborough. Adrian is not well-known as an actor in the U.S. -- I don't think he did film or television here at all. He's excitingly an unknown quantity. But I had worked with Adrian on a radio drama. In England, actors -- all actors, no matter how important or famous they are -- they do, from time to time, radio. Because it's still considered an important part of an actor's career program. Adrian and I did this hourlong play about Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. I was Raymond Chandler and Adrian was Billy Wilder; they had a relationship, once, when Wilder directed a movie based on one of Chandler's books. It was only two days, but I had such a wonderful time with Adrian, I liked him so much, and thought his performance was so subtle and truthful.

After Jonathan and I got around to talking about the permanent group of characters, and who they should be, I recommended Adrian. They put him on tape, and everyone fell in love with him, right away. They thought they found Harry, instantly. And they're right.

For me, it's one of the most exciting things about this show: it's bringing Adrian Scarborough to Hollywood, and giving him a platform. I think people are going to love that character. He is a bit of a rogue, but he is, possibly, more lovable than Walter is. Because, really, Walter does make a mess of so many things. I just hope for Adrian Scarborough, it will be a very, very successful experience. I feel it will be.

Blunt Talk airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on Starz.