In the rec room of an L.A. church, Patrick Stewart has dropped in on a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting.
He — or rather, his character, Walter Blunt — is supposed to be down the hall at Alcoholics Anonymous, but this sounded like more fun.
Blunt, a borderline alcoholic Brit, is the host of a nightly U.S. news program, Blunt Talk — which is also the title of this half-hour comedy from executive producer Seth MacFarlane, premiering August 22 on Starz.
“It’s been an amazing development for me, because [comedy is] not really what I’m known for,” Stewart says during a break. “Although there was a time back in the late ‘60s when I could describe myself as first-choice, low-comedy for the Royal Shakespeare Company.”
The role is an unexpected one for the formally trained actor famed for the sci-fi franchises Star Trek and X-Men. But this is hardly his first collaboration with the über producer: Stewart has voiced characters on MacFarlane’s animated Fox series American Dad! and Family Guy, and narrated his feature Ted and its sequel, Ted 2.
Their lengthy creative relationship prompted MacFarlane to create a starring vehicle for the actor, who cites Sir Laurence Olivier as one of his heroes. “I do remember, years ago, reading or seeing an interview with Laurence,” Stewart recalls, “and to my astonishment hearing him say, ‘Well, it is marvelous to move people, to hear them sob and gasp when you’re on stage, but nothing compares with hearing people laugh.’”
MacFarlane found his writer for the series two years ago in Jonathan Ames, best known for his semi-autobiographical HBO comedy, Bored to Death. Ames in turn found his inspiration for Blunt while watching CNN: “I saw Piers Morgan and there was this electric blue background behind his head. And then I imagined Patrick Stewart’s head in that frame, and I thought, ‘Oh, he could play a cable news broadcaster, and it would look really beautiful on screen.’”
Blunt now finds himself in the fifth season of his show and, as Stewart explains, “Things have not been going well. Walter is disillusioned about what can be achieved by journalism, he has been through his third divorce and he’s beginning to fall victim to temptations of all kinds: sexual, alcoholic and, on occasion, narcotic.
Blunt Talk may have been inspired by the British-born Morgan, but Stewart insists he isn’t playing the real-life newsman, whom he happened across one morning. “I was having breakfast at a hotel in Beverly Hills when I suddenly heard somebody yell out, ‘Hey! You’re making fun of me on television!’ It was Piers Morgan, who was sitting at the next table.
“I didn’t know Piers — we had never met — but I went over and talked to him about what it was like being a British journalist with his own news program in the United States. That was very helpful. We’ve met since then; we had breakfast together that next morning.
"[The character] is not him at all, though. It just happens that someone has actually done what Walter is now doing, but without the excesses of how Walter lives.”
There is plenty of excess for Blunt though, mostly supplied by his alcoholic manservant, Harry Chandler (Adrian Scarborough), then tempered by his tough, motherly manager, Rosalie Winter (Jacki Weaver).
For head writer and showrunner Ames, the series is not autobiographical per se. However, “anything one does as a writer, painter or musician includes elements of yourself or your experience,” he says.
“So there’ll be plenty of autobiographical elements in this show. Feelings, dreams, concerns, worries, anxieties, neuroses, phobias, predilections, enjoyments, distractions — all these things from my life find their way into the characters and into the scripts.”
As a producer with MacFarlane and Ames, Stewart was hands-on in the creation of the character.
“Jonathan and I live quite close in Brooklyn,” the actor relates, “so every couple of weeks we would meet on a Saturday morning at a coffee shop on Fifth Avenue and bat ideas around. Once Jonathan had written the first script and had a clear idea about where episode two would go, we came to L.A. and pitched the show several times.
"Everyone offered us a pilot, but Starz offered us two seasons right off the bat. That is unusual, and was a brave statement of faith in what we have.”
What they have is a show Stewart describes as “serious with a twist” and a lead actor who has been typecast all his life.
“But as the years have gone by,” he notes, “the types have changed. I remember in a production of Much Ado About Nothing, there were two characters — called Conrade and Borachio — who were played by two completely unknown actors called Patrick Stewart and Ben Kingsley. We behaved so badly in adding funny business that there was a formal complaint to the director that we had to be reined in.”
Luckily for Stewart, there appears to be no reining in of the misguided Walter Blunt. “When Walter quotes Oscar Wilde — ‘The best way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it’ — that is what defines his character. He firmly believes in living a life freely, even though it gets him into trouble.”