Verily, is there an English actor more worthy of respect than Sir Patrick Stewart?
The distinguished Shakespearean, birthed in Yorkshire in 1940, has wowed on the stage his whole career and continues to do so, most recently in a production of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land that he and his buddy Ian McKellen mounted on Broadway and then brought across the pond to London.
Before that, his portrayal of cerebral starship captain Jean-Luc Picard in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" was a major factor in ensuring the longevity of one of pop culture’s greatest science-fiction franchises.
Speaking of franchises, the X-Men movies, which set the template for this century’s superhero genre, are unimaginable without Stewart’s authoritative performances as mutant leader Professor Charles Xavier, a role he’s continued to mine for 17 years, up to and including this winter’s acclaimed hit Logan.
All that, and he’s the hand-covered face of one of the most popular internet memes on the planet; a withering facepalm from an image taken on the bridge of "Star Trek: TNG"’s Enterprise.
These are just the highlights of a vast and varied body of work by a man of eminent esteem. Who is now playing Poop.
“Well, diversity has always been one of my ambitions,” Stewart says with a laugh over the phone from New York, then suddenly stops. “I’m quite serious, it has.”
Few things are quite as out there as lending one’s distinctive, perfect elocution to a cartoon avatar of excrement, Stewart’s role in the animated The Emoji Movie. The film takes us inside cyberspace to the dimension where all those little pictures we use to express our opinions and emotions in posts, texts and emails live their actual lives.
"Silicon Valley"’s T.J. Miller provides the voice of Gene, a multi-expressional emoji on a quest through smartphone apps to attain a singular identity that will make him more user-friendly. Anna Faris, James Corden, Sofia Vergara, Christina Aguilera and Maya Rudolph are some of the other familiar voices you’ll hear alongside Stewart’s soft but booming baritone.
“So, um, I started out in weekly rep, where I was doing a different role every Monday night on the stage,” the actor continues, attempting to rationalize his potentially stinky choice. “I guess that’s in my bloodstream. I’ve always enjoyed contrast, difference, wherever possible. I’m sure you will appreciate that the producers of The Emoji Movie had that in mind, too, when they thought ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to have Charles Xavier and Jean-Luc Picard playing, y’know, a turd?’
“Yes, it would be,” Stewart chuckles. “I have to agree with all of that. And, if nothing else, it has given my grandchildren a big laugh.”
The consummate professional that he is, Stewart sought to add depth and dignity to the role’s pile of character traits, which were written by the movie’s director Tony Leondis, Eric Siegel and School of Rock’s Mike White. As a result, Poop turns out to be the smartest, most civilized and, of course, best-spoken emoji on the screen.
“Yes, well he deserves a little respect, I think, because he hasn’t gotten very much in his life so far,” says Stewart, following the actor’s credo of never judging one’s character by his appearance — or, in this case, presumed odour. “So I played him as a rather elegant and erudite fellow.”
Stewart, who’s been doing voicework on videogames for decades, has more recently been honing his vocals-only performance skills, most notably for a fellow who’s never let class get in the way of laughs.
“Well, don’t praise me if you think I sound funny; thank Seth MacFarlane for that,” says Stewart, who’s done off-screen work on the producer’s animated "Family Guy" and "American Dad!" TV series, and narrated the MacFarlane-directed films Ted and A Million Ways to Die in the West. “I love his comic sensibility.”
That kind of anarchic spirit has always appealed to this performer so deft at playing authority figures. Stewart can often be seen at human rights demonstrations in Britain. He has also taken steps to become an American citizen, since his third wife, singer Sunny Ozell, is one, and because he feels it will lend more legitimacy to protesting the reactionary populism plaguing both his adopted and birth countries.
“Political activity has been an important part of my life since I was five years old and carried a placard outside my polling station in the U.K. in the first, post-World War II election in 1945 — and committed my first act of civil disobedience by refusing to move on when a policeman told me to,” Stewart recalls. “So yeah, I’m an activist and there’s nothing I can do about that. I feel that if ever there was a time I wanted to be active, it is now. The United States is in trouble and the United Kingdom is in trouble.”
Trouble can lead to strange satisfactions, though. Like that meme showing a distraught Picard on the Enterprise bridge, which thousands have posted across social media with their own, often quite clever captions attributed to the clean-headed hero.
“There’s plenty to put your head in your hands about!” Stewart says, more happy than sad. “It’s charming to me that a moment, which I actually cannot recall, from Next Generation, has been an ‘open sesame’ to all kinds of satirical and political protests. And not all of it political; some of it is actually obscene and unsavoury, but we won’t go there.”
Clearly, this class act was born to play Poop.
Bob Strauss lives in L.A. where he writes about movies and filmmakers.
The Emoji Movie Hits Theatres July 28th.
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