Over the course of 94 minutes, the young, punk-rock heroes of the indie thriller Green Room (out April 15) are stalked, stabbed, and shot at by a group of white-supremacist skinheads, all at the behest of a most unexpected man — Sir Patrick Stewart.
The actor, 75, plays Darcy Banker, the owner of a neo-Nazi punk bar and the man who has to “take care” of a visiting band (Star Trek’s Anton Yelchin and Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat) after they stumble upon the scene of a brutal murder. As the leader of his bald army, Darcy doesn’t lift a finger. His weapons are cold pragmatism and frightening logic. Both of which mean bad things for the band — and for us, watching between our fingers. Seeing the wise, moral commander of the starship Enterprise and the wise, moral leader of the X-Men ordering murders and casually dropping the N-word is disquieting. Stewart has another word for it: fun. And that’s a new development. “I love my job, and I’ve loved it for 55 years,” he tells EW. “But having fun was never an important part of it.”
He established himself as a staple of the Royal Shakespeare Company beginning in 1966 and continued on that path through the late ’80s, when he made the unexpected jump to American television and worldwide fame with Star Trek: The Next Generation. But his last 10 years have taken on a much different shape. “I get more actual fun out of the day’s work,” he says. “The roles of Jean-Luc Picard and Charles Xavier have helped to create an impression of who Patrick Stewart is. It ain’t accurate.”
Stewart first stepped out of the shadows of those two characters in 2005, when he took on two comedic roles. The first was a recurring gig on Fox’s animated sitcom American Dad!; the other was as a nudity-obsessed version of himself on Ricky Gervais’ HBO series Extras. Then, in 2013, Stewart moved to Brooklyn and married singer-songwriter Sunny Ozell — who is 38 years his junior — in a ceremony officiated by his good friend, and fellow Sir, Ian McKellen. But perhaps even more than those events, Stewart sees a simpler explanation for the shift in the breadth of roles he’s choosing lately. He chalks it up to longevity — the comfort and confidence that only come, he says, from “the feeling that a place in the profession has been achieved, perhaps a place that I never anticipated having when I was much younger. That has brought with it some relaxation and the urge to be looser and freer.”
Still, playing a lethal neo-Nazi mastermind seems like a daring leap. Stewart says he couldn’t deny the power of the script by writer-director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin). Interviewing Stewart often feels like you’re listening to the audiobook of a Henry James novel, and the story of how he decided to take the role is no exception. At his home in the Oxfordshire countryside, he says, “I had settled down on one early autumn evening — it was already getting dark — to read Green Room.” Around page 35, he locked the windows and doors and poured himself a stiff whiskey soda. “Now, why did I do that?” he asks. “Because the screenplay was unsettling me so deeply.”
All Stewart asked for from Saulnier was some background information on Darcy — the actor is a rigorous preparer and read several books on white supremacist groups before filming — and one, small addition to the script. “It was an under the breath f—,” Saulnier says. “It was huge, my favorite part of the movie. He made a point, ‘Jeremy, I have to do this.’ I said, ‘All right, let me hear it.’ Then I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s my favorite.’ “
Within a week, Stewart signed on and flew to Portland, Ore., to deliver the most unnerving film performance of his career. The low-key quality to the character’s brutality was an adjustment for Stewart, who acknowledges a tendency to “go a little bit big,” a habit born of the stage. But he nails Darcy’s twisted moral indifference and precision venom, and we, the audience, experience horror… and a secondary thrill: the knowledge that we are watching an artist at the height of his power.
“I don’t know how these 55 years of my career passed so quickly,” Stewart says. “It’s the only dismaying thing in my life. I struggle daily to slow time down.”
Now, at least, he’s having a hell of a good time, too.
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