"I was not a comic book reader," Patrick Stewart says, with a distinct note of apology. "Not those kind, anyway. I read storybook comics, and when I was much younger I read children's cartoons. But I never read, nor indeed had any interest in, any of the Marvel-superhero type of comics." There was a time when an eminent 73-year-old actor wouldn't feel obliged to apologize for that lapse in four-color literacy, but that was before superhero movies ate Hollywood. And it's partially his own fault: It wouldn't have happened without the success of 2000's X-Men, the first real Marvel superhero movie (1998's Blade doesn't quite count). With Stewart reprising his role as Professor X in X-Men: Days of Future Past, he took a few minutes to reminisce from his Brooklyn home about his pivotal part in X-history.
What was the first thing you heard about an X-Men movie?
The very first thing I ever heard about X-Men, the first time I ever heard that title used, was one afternoon when I'd been doing some ADR for [Superman director] Richard Donner, on a movie of his that I had been in. I got a note to call in at Lauren Shuler Donner's office – that's his wife, the producer. I walked in the door, Lauren picked something up from her desk and held it up. And I looked at it, and I said, "What am I doing on the front of a comic book?" And she said, "Exactly."
Fans had long felt that you were the only possible actor for Charles Xavier.
Yes, subsequent to my conversation with Lauren, someone told me, "Oh, that's crazy! Are you not aware there's been a campaign about linking you to Charles Xavier in The X-Men for a long time?" And I was totally unaware of this.
But after Star Trek, were you were reluctant to get involved with another franchise?
You're right. At first, my instinct was to say, "Thank you very much, but I don't think I would like to be part of this." In the late Nineties, I had become aware that, although marvelously helpful in many respects, my having some seven years of Star Trek: The Next Generation and – I can't remember now whether it was four or five feature films – had proved to be, in some ways, a little bit of a handicap.
How did that manifest itself?
I do recall a director of a movie that I had been campaigning to be considered for…I finally understood why it was so hard for me to see him. Towards the end of our meeting, he said to me, "Well, look, you're a fine actor and I'm sure I would enjoy working with you. But why would I want Captain Picard in my movie?" That was a bit of a blow. So I didn't get that kind of treatment everywhere, but it made me very much aware that it did exist.
But Bryan Singer, who by this time had been appointed director [of X-Men], said, "Come on, let's meet and talk about it." So I met him for lunch, and in the course of lunch, Bryan persuaded me that the impact of being part of an X-Men movie and who knows, other movies, could be nothing but positive. So based on his assurances, and coupled with the fact that I was a big fan of his work, I signed on.
Was your friendship with Ian McKellen a product of the first movie?
We had worked together once before on a stage production in the U.K. But it was really X-Men that cemented our friendship, because movies such as these take a long time to shoot. And the shooting process is detailed and often very, very slow. You spend much more time sitting in your trailer, waiting to work, than actually doing the job of acting. So Ian and I got to spend a lot of time hanging out in our super-luxury trailers. And of course it was fun for us, that we were playing the two characters who represented the opposing philosophies of the world toward mutant society.
What was the mood like on the set for Days of Future Past?
Well, it was a very pleasant reunion. To be with Bryan, of course, that was marvelous. Because Bryan had created the style, the standard, the format, and look and feel of the X-Men movies, with his work on the first two. It was just a grand thing to have him at the helm again, and to be working with Hugh Jackman and Anna Paquin and Ellen Page and, of course, Ian. On the first three movies, I was involved pretty much throughout the shoot, whereas on the new one, because of the way the story is laid out, we were only there for the first few weeks of the shoot. My last day of work on the film was the day in which we shot my scene with James McAvoy [who plays the younger Professor X], and that was his first day he worked on the film.
During the filming of X2, how many weeks did you have to spend in that Cerebro set, alternately being tricked into killing all the mutants or killing all the humans?
Remind me again. Oh my lord, this is very embarrassing. I have no idea what you're talking about.
That really is awful.
There was an actress playing another girl, who was actually another character….
Ooh, yes! And she was not who you thought she was. Yes. That, yeah, actually, that was a fascinating sequence. If you had said at the beginning that it involved a little girl…
Sorry, my bad.
But I think it was a shape shifter or something like that.
The third movie was more problematic. They had to rush the script, Brett Ratner came in at the last minute as director, and a whole lot of characters were abruptly killed. Were you satisfied with Professor X's fate?
Well, I don't see how one can ever be satisfied with being vaporized. [Laughs] It's not the way I would like to go out. And indeed, the actual process was extremely uncomfortable. They pointed a large nozzle at me, they had huge fans going, and this nozzle was blasting air with terrific force into my face — so that my face was being distorted by the blast. And I do remember Brett Ratner screaming above the noise of the fans, and all this stuff. "Keep your eyes open! Keep your eyes open!" [Laughs] That was the very last thing that you ever want to do with that is keep your eyes open! But when we shot that scene, we had already secretly shot a little, tiny scene that, in the movie, came after the credits. I don't know whether you're one of the very few people who actually saw that scene. So, I knew that they had laid down a format for my return.
Does the metaphor about prejudice working through this series help dignify this work for you?
Well, for Ian and myself, was a strong incentive to be part of this franchise. Because it was dealing with a contemporary issue. Concerning prejudice, and the treatment of outsiders, or those who are thought to be different, whether by race or gender or sexuality. That people should be allowed to live and express their individuality in their own way. And should not be victimized for being different.