To millions of ‘Trekkies’ around the world, he is Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who steered the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation. But to theatregoers, actor Patrick Stewart has a much longer established reputation.

After his keen involvement in amateur dramatics lost him his job as a local newspaper journalist and a year selling furniture failed to dampen his extra-curricular enthusiasm, Stewart trained at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and went on to work in repertory in Lincoln, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool and elsewhere.

In 1966, he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he appeared regularly for 27 years and where he remains an Honorary Associate Artist. His numerous RSC productions – under the direction of Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn, Terry Hands, Peter Brook and others – have included Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Richard III, Hamlet, King Lear, Henry IV, Henry V, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, Anthony and Cleopatra and The Merchant of Venice as well as The Iceman Cometh, Uncle Vanya, The Revenger’s Tragedy, Hedda Gabler and others.

From 1987 to 1994, Stewart assumed the starship helm from Captain Kirk in TV’s Star Trek: The Next Generation and, when the series went off the air, reprised his role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard on the big screen in Generations, First Contact, Insurrection and, vocally, in Star Trek: A Final Unity. He has continued his sci-fi theme with the X-Men films, co-starring Hugh Jackman and Sir Ian McKellen and now onto their third instalment.

Stewart’s other film credits include Conspiracy Theory, Masterminds, Safe House, Dad Savage, The Doctor and the Devils, LA Story, Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Excalibur. On television, he’s also been seen in the likes of I, Claudius; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Smiley’s People; Deep Space Nine, Death Train, The Canterville Ghost, Frasier and Moby Dick.

Since his RSC day, Stewart’s other stage credits have included The Tempest, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and his one-man adaptation of Charles Dickens' The Christmas Carol. In 2001, he returned to his Yorkshire roots to star in the West Yorkshire Playhouse production of JB Priestley's rarely performed Johnson Over Jordan. Two years later, he returned to the London stage, after a decade’s absence, to star in a revival of Ibsen’s The Master Builder.

Stewart is now back in the West End at the Apollo Theatre, playing opposite Dawson's Creek heartthrob Joshua Jackson in Lindsay Posner’s revival of David Mamet’s semi-autobiographical A Life in the Theatre. In the 1977 two-hander, set in a fading small town rep, he plays fading thespian Robert to Jackson’s aspiring newcomer John.

Date & place of birth
Born 13 July 1940 in Mirfield, Yorkshire.

Trained at…
Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

First big break
My first job. I didn’t have one when I finished drama school and I thought I was unemployable because everybody else had got a job at my school except me. I went home to Yorkshire thinking that was the end of my career. And then I was offered an ASM job. I ended up doing rep at Lincoln and that was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.

Career highlights to date
It’s impossible to say. How can you say ‘highlights’? You know, there are a multitude: getting a job at the RSC, going to Hollywood … all of those things are obviously highlights because they figured so importantly in what happened afterwards. And right now I’m in this play in the West End and the reviews we’ve had have been very good so this is a major highlight. Do I read the reviews? Yes, of course. I read the good ones - somebody else assesses them and then tells me which ones to read.

Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
Again, I’ve been blessed with doing so many wonderful plays. Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Arthur Miller’s Ride Down Mount Morgan, Ibsen’s The Master Builder - those are the last three plays I did before this and they are all great plays.

Which medium – film or stage – do you most prefer working in & why? Why do you like to return to theatre?
The best answer to this question was given by Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish director, who said, “I love the cinema but the theatre is my life.” I don’t think you can improve on that. From my point of view, the opportunity of meeting a new live audience every night, no matter how the previous performance has gone, is irreplaceable. And as fascinating and exciting as film and television are with their own particular challenges, they can never, never give you that. I could never envisage a time when I wouldn’t return to the theatre. I’d have to be disabled or something for that to happen.

Favourite co-stars
There’s a young American actress called Carey Preston … a New Zealand actress Lisa Harrow … Sir Ian McKellen. Then there are a lot of others I’ve been lucky enough to work with who I wouldn’t call co-stars because I didn’t have very much to do. I worked three times with Alec Guinness, which was a great treat. I worked once with Max Von Sydow. I worked once with Steve Martin, who was brilliant. In those cases, I was just playing a small role and they were the stars.

Favourite directors
In theatre, there’s an American director called David Esbjornson. Also Trevor Nunn, John Barton, Peter Brook, Peter Hall. It’s a very different art being a good theatre director as opposed to a film director. Not many can do both. You have to be smart to work in the theatre, you have to be really bright, and you have to be able to concentrate and observe. Those criteria also apply to film directors but in different measures I think.

Favourite playwrights
I actually hate this favourite game. The questions are based on the idea that there is a favourite. How can there possibly be? How can you say you like Hamlet over King Lear or Ibsen over Chekhov? Peter Brook said the other day, there are two great playwrights, Shakespeare and Chekhov. The classics are classics because they’re great and great art never ages. But I’ve also been lucky enough to work with some great modern writers – Tom Stoppard, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Edward Bond and others.

What roles would you most like to play still?
Dozens. There are some obvious ones I haven’t played yet and some that I have played that I’d like to play again. Macbeth, Lear, Falstaff, Malvolio. I’ve always felt, that if you are serious about doing classical work, you should have a go at all those roles really. Somehow not to have done it would be missing out on something important.

What’s the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
Our next door neighbour, Festen (at the Lyric Theatre, in the same block as the Apollo, where A Life in the Theatre is playing). I think it will definitely go down well in New York when it goes there. And coupled with that, the same director’s (Rufus Norris’) Sleeping Beauty, which was dazzling.

What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Oh bloody hell, funding, it comes down to funding.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I would be Michael Schumacher. I’m a race fan and I have raced myself. But Schumacher is astonishing, a brilliant driver who also happens to be driving an extraordinary car. I’d like to be Michael Schumacher for just one Formula One race where he starts at the back of the field.

Favourite books
The last book that I read was Yellow Dog by Martin Amis, which I thought was brilliant.

Favourite holiday destinations
I can never remember holidays… I don’t take many. I did actually have two short, seven or eight-day holidays last year, both of which were wonderful, both very different. One was in Greece, in Mykonos, and the other was at one of the Aman resorts in the Philippines. I also spent a lot of time hanging around in Japan last year. It wasn’t a holiday because my partner (the actress Lisa Dillon, who was performing in last year’s RSC production of Othello) was working in Tokyo and I just went along as a companion. But I was lucky to spend a month there, and it was a thrilling experience getting to know some of that country and its culture.

Favourite after-show haunts
Have a drink, that’s the first thing I do. Josh and I hold our post-mortem on the performance, right here in the dressing room. And then I go to eat, which I know is very bad, but I’ve been eating late since I was 18 and it’s too late to stop now. I have snacks during the day because I can’t eat properly during the day when I’m working so, by the time it gets to ten o’clock, I’m starving. I don’t talk about restaurants I go to for obvious reasons.

What would you have done professionally if you hadn’t become an actor?
I started out as a journalist and I lost that job because I was doing so much acting. Then I worked in a furniture store. I was a much better furniture salesman than I was a journalist. So who knows? I might still be selling Axminster carpets.

Why did you want to accept the part of Robert in this production of A Life in the Theatre?
I think it’s a brilliant play. I also think it’s an unusual play - 26 scenes in 84 minutes. And I know the circumstances of this play, I know who Robert is, I know what he experiences and what he’s been through. As a young actor starting out, I worked with Robert. For me, doing this play is, in a sense, remembering dedicated actors whose careers were not going anywhere but who nevertheless gave of themselves all the time. I think David Mamet’s portrait of backstage life is extraordinarily accurate. Not many backstage shows are, you know.

How does the play compare with your own experiences of a life spent in the theatre?
It compares very closely. Everything that happens in the play has either happened to me or I’ve watched it happen to somebody else, including having a nervous breakdown – that was not me, I saw someone else have one.

There are some hilarious send-ups of bad plays in the piece. Can you recall the worst production you were ever in?
No, actually. I never did plays as bad as these, not even in weekly rep. I never did a stinker, where I thought, what we have to do here is save the play. Usually one is trying to be as good as the play is. I do remember doing a play at Sheffield about the woman who invented the bloomer and I thought that was pretty silly.

One thing Mamet’s play doesn’t touch on is stage door fans, but especially with your Star Trek fame, you have quite a few of those. How do you deal with them?
Barry Humphries (aka Dame Edna Everage) calls that Act Three. He’s right. Assuming, of course, there are two acts in the play, everything that happens afterwards in the dressing room or at the stage door is Act Three. It’s another part of the show. I’ve only once or twice in my life turned away from people at the stage door. And that was only because I wasn’t feeling well and I had to get home quickly. For this play, you must understand, a large proportion of those people are out there because of Josh, especially the younger ones. There are a lot of nights when it would be awfully nice to finish the show, have a drink with Josh, meet your guests and go home, and not have to be on again. But there you are, it goes with the territory.

I’m touched by fans’ enthusiasm. I remember very clearly my first first night a Stratford-Upon-Avon. It was a revival of David Warner’s brilliant Hamlet. Before that, I had been in rep and there was never anybody outside the stage door in Sheffield or Liverpool or Lincoln or wherever. In Stratford, I remember coming out and, for the first time in my life, there were all these people there. One of them looked at me and said, “Are you anybody?” I shook my head and said, “Nobody you should possibly think of knowing”, and I walked off.

When I was playing bigger roles for the RSC, then yes there would be people waiting. But I didn’t really have my own fans as such until Star Trek. Of course, everything changed then because the show itself has millions of fans. I don’t seek out fan attention, but I don’t mind it for the most part. I try not to get irritated when people don’t know what my name is. I’ve got used to being called Captain or whatever. Someone got quite angry with me the other day. He said, “You’re Mr Picard, aren’t you?” And I said, “No, I’m not”. He said, “You are, I know you are, you’re Mr Picard”. One of the best things is knowing that, having seen me on television or film encourages some people who normally wouldn’t to try the theatre. Over the years, when I’ve been doing Shakespeare in New York or whatever here or I do my Dickens show here in London or in New York or Los Angeles, again and again I get people saying to me, “we’ve never been to the theatre before, this is our first time”. And I say to them, “well, you damn well make sure you come back if you enjoy it”.

What’s your favourite line from A Life in the Theatre?
I have one I think is very funny but nobody ever laughs at it. You’ll find that actors are often fond of lines which amuse them but don’t seem to amuse anybody else. In this play, it’s near the beginning when John has said one of the scenes was brittle and I say, “Both of us, or was it only me?” It’s such an actor’s line that. Another line I love is at the end of the doctors’ scene, when I say, “Has anybody got a script?” I’ve got a t-shirt with this written on it which the director gave to me on the first night.

What’s the funniest thing that happened during rehearsals of A Life in the Theatre?
In the show, we bitch about an actress in the company. I said to Josh, “I know exactly where she’s come from this actress. She’s been in a television series, just like us, and she can’t get any more film or television work so she’s ended up in the theatre, but she queens it like she’s still a movie or TV star.” So we identified a particular individual for this character. It’s a private joke that only he and I and the director share. So every night, when we say “she was off”, we know exactly who we’re talking about.

What are your plans for the future?
Some time later this year we’ll be making X-Men 3 so I’ll be reunited with Sir Ian and Hugh Jackman and the brilliant and beautiful women, and we’ll be filming in Vancouver for a big chunk of time. I have some other theatre plans for this year and next, one in New York and two here in the UK. But I can’t talk about them much as they haven’t been announced yet and I’m still trying to juggle everything with X-Men. One of my reasons for coming back to live in England was to re-balance my work so that there is now a predominance of theatre. If I could split my time two-thirds theatre, one-third film and television, I’d be very happy. The RSC? Well, I think Michael Boyd is a terrific chap, and of course, I look on Stratford as my theatrical home so I would hope to be knocking on that door some time soon.

- Patrick Stewart was speaking to Terri Paddock

A Life in the Theatre opened at the West End’s Apollo Theatre on 2 February 2005 (previews from 27 January) and continues its strictly limited season until 30 April 2005.