Thomas Middleditch and Patrick Stewart on Doing Standup, Nicknames and Crazy Fan Encounters

Thomas Middleditch and Patrick Stewart in

To keep up with the irrepressible wit of Thomas Middleditch, we turned to none other than Sir Patrick Stewart. The banter between the star of HBO’s “Silicon Valley” and the legendary actor — now creating his own memorable version of a talk show host in Starz’ “Blunt Talk” — ranged from jokes about their middle names (or lack thereof) to a far deeper exploration about what drove them to pursue their chosen careers. (And then there’s that moment when Middleditch asked Stewart to play “F—k, Marry, Kill,” but we’ll direct you to our website for that unforgettable clip.)

Thomas Middleditch: Do you have a middle name?

Patrick Stewart: I did have a middle name for about 18 months, because when I came to Hollywood in 1987, and tried to join the Screen Actors Guild there was already another Patrick Stewart, a member of the Guild. So there was a lot of negotiation over 18 months or so before I could use my full name. So I took an initial. And I chose an initial that would not have a disruptive effect on the whole word, so my name is Stewart, and chose the name Hewes, H-E-W-E-S. So you can say Patrick Hewes Stewart and you don’t really hear it. It’s not there at all.

Thomas Middleditch’s fashion available at East Dane
French Trotters shirt
Bryce Duffy for Variety

Middleditch: An unexpectedly detailed answer.

Stewart: I did warn you about the long answers to the simplest question.

Middleditch: Well around here, around Hollywood you’re called P-Stew. Everyone calls you that.   

Stewart: I like it very much.

Middleditch: It’s street. It’s quite urban.   

Stewart: Like many good things in my life it was my wife’s idea. Um, in fact Sir Pat Stew is …

Middleditch: There you go bringing in the knighthood.

Stewart: Well you know I have to …

Middleditch: First five minutes.

Stewart: What about you? Did you ever have a middle name?   

Middleditch: Of course, I still do.   

Stewart: I hope your story’s half as interesting as mine was.

Middleditch: No, it’s zero percent interesting. Thomas Steven, with a “v,” Middleditch.   

Stewart: OK, but would you like to tell us where Middeditch comes from?

Middleditch: A Charles Dickens novel. No, it doesn’t, but it sounds like it does.

Stewart: Darn! That would have been great!

Middleditch: But doesn’t it sound like it should? Thomas Steven Middleditch, back to the coal mines!

“It felt exciting that when I would do this thing, I would get …that laughter and applause and approval — these are all sad things to want.”
Thomas Middleditch

Stewart: What is the history of that name?

Middleditch: The Middleditches for many years, decades even, have been trying to figure that out. Everyone in my family has a different hypothesis. Some say agriculture. Some say, I think, my brother wants it to be like a soldier. He wants it to be like some kind of trench-digging thing.

Stewart: It’s a great name. 

Middleditch: Now P-Stew, what brought you back to television? You were gone for so long everyone said, “where is he?”    

Stewart: Yeah, when I disappear like that people always think that I’m with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, because nobody knows who’s there. It’s like going to some remote place in Alaska, though more fun.

Middleditch: Alaskan theater, by the way, is taking off.   

Stewart: I’ll investigate that another time. Yeah, it’s true. I had not done, certainly not series TV, since “Star Trek: The Next Generation” wrapped in April 1994.   

Middleditch: I’ve never heard of that show.   

Stewart: It’s a kind of genre show, with a rather small, specialized and highly intellectual audience. In fact, exclusively intellectuals. Which doesn’t surprise me that you’ve never heard of it.

Middleditch: Yeah I wouldn’t have heard, no. I’m kind of a sports guy.

Stewart: How did it all start for you?

Middleditch: Well, I believe much like you I got my, my first licks in the theater. The boards. I must give a big tip of the old hat to my eighth-grade drama teacher, Mr. Ken Wilson. I was always kind of a shy kid, but had a real ham inside. Like my impressions of my dad are always like, “Put on a proper smile Tom!” Because he’d be trying to take a photo I’d be like, ooooh, you know? But I also got teased a lot. And he just said, “I’m going to put you in a play” and then from that point on, I got into it. And took it a lot more seriously each year.

Stewart: So do you recall the first time you stepped onto a stage pretending to be someone other than Middleditch?

Middleditch: I do.

SWITCHING GEARS: Patrick Stewart toplines his first TV comedy series with Starz’s “Blunt Talk.”

Stewart: How did you feel?

Middleditch: It felt great. I got obsessed with “Kids in the Hall,” all that kind of stuff, but it was still pretty nebulous at that point. But I remember there was this bit, a routine, at the beginning of the play where I pop my head out and see the audience, get scared, and go back in. And this is like, you know, at that age, eighth grade, where you can do anything.

Stewart: I saw you do that on “Silicon Valley” the other night.

Middleditch: I’m known for that.   

Stewart: What was the emotional feeling of being on a stage eventually when you rehearse with lights flooding you and a darkened auditorium with people who you didn’t know sitting out there. How did that feel?

Middleditch: I can’t put it into like the feeling, the word, but I know it felt like this. It felt exciting that when I would do this thing, I would get that reaction, and that laughter and applause and approval — these are all sad things to want. But having that kind of stuff just sort of beamed back at me, because I did a thing.

Stewart: Was it largely comedy that you were doing then? Has it always been primarily comedy?

Middleditch: Yeah, it’s always been primarily comedy. Probably at one point in theater school, of which I dropped out…

Stewart: Well I’m interested because I was 12 when I was put in a play with adults for the first time. I’d done local pageants. In fact there is documentary evidence that when I was about 6 I played a character called Tom Towngate. Which was where I actually lived, in Towngate. I asked you this about how it felt because for me the experience, the very first time I walked on stage to rehearse in our school hall, with adults, I felt for the first time in my life actually safe.   

Middleditch: Oh really?

Stewart: And it was decades later and lots of very expensive but very fine Los Angeles therapy that I worked out what had happened. First of all, I was in a place, being in a play, where I knew what was going to happen. My family life was a little bit chaotic and sometimes a little scary and you never quite knew what was going to happen next, especially weekends. So, being in a play, everything was pre-determined. So I knew nothing bad could happen to me. I wasn’t being Patrick Stewart, who I didn’t care very much for anyway. I was playing another character.

Middleditch: Yeah. 

Stewart: And in this case a wealthy public school boy, which was as far removed from me as it could possibly be. So, the attraction was instantaneous and the impact was instantaneous. That I was in another life, in another world, being another person. And I, without becoming too introspective about that, I think that has remained as one of the primary urges in my life to do this job, this crazy job that we do. So you’ve just finished shooting the third season of “Silicon Valley,” which is an ensemble. Is there a particular attraction for you in that ensemble world rather than, you know, here’s the star of the show?

Middleditch: I wouldn’t be able to tell you the difference, because I haven’t really had that much experience being the sole pillar of any type of production. But I love it coming from, I guess, some theater and then mainly improv, because in comedy you need the other people to be on stage with you. Because there’s interaction, there’s scene work as opposed to standing and delivering jokes, say, in standup. I know for myself, I probably work a lot better in that, in the group environment. Only because if I am coming up short someone else helps.

Stewart: So you’ve done standup, a lot of standup.

Middleditch: Yeah. 

Stewart: I’ve done solo shows. And I found it lonely. I long to have another actor come on and say a few lines and then go off. I didn’t want them to stick around. Leave, and then I can get on with my own solo performance. But is there an overlap from the standup world?

“There is one standing joke that I have with my colleagues on ‘Blunt Talk,’ that I’m continually saying, ‘I’ve never done this before!’ ”

Middleditch: Both the benefit and the terrifying aspect of standup is when it’s going poorly, you’ve only yourself to blame. There’s no one to bail you out. But when it’s going great, all that approval is for you. There’s overlap, of course, because there are some comedians where their stuff is very tightly scripted and that’s a certain way of delivering jokes.

Stewart: That’s not you. No.

Middleditch: No, no. I find it’s nice to have things that I can go back to, so I know how I’m gonna end everything, but I do like to go off on tangents. I like stream-of-consciousness, trying to interact as much as I can, even though I’m terrible at what they call in the biz “crowd work.” It’s a funny term.

Stewart: Crowd work? Really?   

Middleditch: Yeah. Now, Patrick, Sir Patrick, P-Stew, your character in “Blunt Talk” is a bit of a ragamuffin, he’s into drinking, and having all kinds of fun. Have you played something like this, that we just don’t know about before? Or is this new? And what’s exciting as an actor to get into something like that?

Stewart: Well, in a couple of words, it is new. There is one constant kind of standing joke that I have with the crew and my colleagues on “Blunt Talk,” that I’m continually saying, ‘I’ve never done this before! This is the first time!’ Like I did an interrogation scene in a police interrogation room. Bare room, bare metal table, two detectives sitting — I had never played a scene like that before. And it was so exciting. I remember years ago a friend telling me he worked with Ian Holm, the British actor, and they were shooting a movie. And he came back into the trailer and he said to my friend, “I’m happy now. I can die contented as an actor.” And Tim said, “Well why?” He said, “Because I’ve just shot a scene when I ran along the roof of a moving train with a gun in my hand, there’s nothing more I want to do. “

Middleditch: Yeah, yeah.

Stewart: So, I think we all have those. So yeah, I have snorted cocaine on camera, which I have never done. I played my first post-coital scene, with Elisabeth Shue, which had all kinds of delights and pleasures attached to it. I’ve never actually started to undress a woman that, which I have done with a lovely actress. I, I  have never drunk so much alcohol. Not even when I played George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Middleditch: Yes. Naturally.

Stewart: I’ve been in prison recently, in the show. You know wearing an orange suit, never ever done that before. I’ve never sung rap songs before, which I did in the first season of the series. So it is a constant delight to be having these new experiences. But even for me, our careers in a way couldn’t be more different. Comedy has come very, very late. 

Middleditch: Yes. 

Stewart: And for that I think two people have to be held responsible. And everyone should know this, because if they don’t like what I do as a funny actor, then these are the two people that they should go and speak to. First of all, Ricky Gervais, who cast me in “Extras,” and Seth MacFarlane cast me in “American Dad” 12 years ago.

Middleditch: Yeah, yeah.   

Stewart: So these two guys first said, “You’re funny.” And this has led to this new life, at the age of 75.   

Middleditch: What’s your favorite, best fan encounter? I’m sure it’s been at “Star Trek” conventions.   

Stewart: There are all kinds of encounters at those events, at those conventions. I have not been part of that world for a little while now. But the most bizarre was some years ago now, 10 years ago or more. I was in Mexico and I had been exploring the great Mayan ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula. And there was one place in particular that had a complete sacred ball court.

‘SILICON’ STANDOUT: Thomas Middleditch stars as tech genius Richard Hendricks on HBO’s Emmy favorite “Silicon Valley.”

Middleditch: Like tennis ball court?

Stewart: Yeah, they played a ball game. They’re not quite sure what the rules of this game were, but there is a something that comes out from the side of the court, which is like a sunken pit that has a circle in it. Instead of it being a basket, it’s a vertical circle in the wall. I’d gone back there very late in the afternoon, knowing that the place would be closing down, because I wanted to have it as much to myself as possible, and then just let myself go with fantasies about the Mayan people. It all worked perfectly, sun had set, it was getting dusk, the call came out, “We’re closing the park, everybody has to leave now.” Then finally the moment came I had to leave, and I was climbing down off the back wall of the sacred ball court, just as a woman came around a corner. And then she said, “Oh my God it’s Jean-Luc Picard!” And all my Mayan fantasies just collapsed and crumbled in the moment.   

Middleditch: That’s a great moment.

Stewart: What about you? You must have them?

Middleditch: I’m not at that point really where I’ll impress someone so delightfully with my presence. Hopefully in some years. But I find now it’s really interesting just even being in just the game more, more legitimately here in Hollywood, the idea of just meeting people. Let alone them being fans of yours, but that you thought you’d never meet or were influential in your life. Like us developing a friendship has been great. I remember first season just came out and I was at some HBO party, and Marisa Tomei comes up and says, “I love your show!” And it’s like, oh that’s weird, I never thought that was going to happen.

Stewart: Yeah. 

Middleditch: I managed to meet a few of the “Kids in the Hall” and those guys were very influential for me, and just now that you get into this world you meet these people. Bob Odenkirk and David Cross from “Mr. Show.” These people that kind of formed your sense of humor. Ricky Gervais, met him a couple times. He wouldn’t remember it.

Stewart: But it was for me, the time at the Golden Globes when I met all your colleagues TJ, and Martin and the whole cast. I was in geek heaven to have all four, five of you around me at that time. And of course to meet the show’s creator, Mike Judge.  It was a big, big thrill. I want to mention one other thing if I can really quickly. I read something in the newspaper the other day that gave me so much reassurance. We’re all insecure.

Middleditch: God yes. 

Stewart: OK that’s a given. We’re all insecure. Well, I read a wonderful interview with Dustin Hoffman. He was in London for the opening of a movie. And he was being interviewed, and he was asked, was there one disappointment in his life? Was there one thing that he never quite achieved or wanted to achieve and didn’t? And he said, “Oh yes, absolutely. That I’m not Jack Nicholson.” And I want to say, “But you’re Dustin Hoffman!”

Middleditch: Yeah.   

Stewart: It doesn’t matter if you’re not Jack Nicholson, but that Dustin should have thought that really that’s what he would have liked to have been, he was an actor like Jack Nicholson. I find so charming and so reassuring that someone so distinguished and so remarkable can still have that feeling of but you know there was something else I could have done better.

Middleditch: Of course. Of course.