Patrick Stewart Montreal Coda

Patrick Stewart reflects on Coda and his time working in Montreal

An interview with the legendary actor as well the director and screenwriter of his new film Coda, Claude Lalonde and Louis Godbout, respectively.

Patrick Stewart has had a long relationship with Montreal. Nearly every X-Men film since 2000 has been shot here, and his long-standing role as Charles Xavier has brought him to the city many times since. For Stewart, though, returning for his latest role in the musical drama Coda was different. “The crew spoke French all the time, and my French is dodgy at best,” he laughed. “But I enjoyed it tremendously. A wonderful aspect of the job is exploring other people’s work.” 

Coda (not to be confused with the recent Best Picture Oscar winner) is an original screenplay written by Quebec screenwriter Louis Godbout, and the directorial debut of screenwriter Claude Lalonde (Les 3 p’tits cochons). The film examines the trials of aging and investigates the power of the sublime. Stewart stars as Henry Cole, a famous concert pianist in the twilight of his career. As his mental state begins to deteriorate and he struggles to perform, Henry strikes up an unlikely friendship with a music critic named Helen (Katie Holmes). 

The idea for the film came during a trip Godbout took to Switzerland, where Nietzsche wrote many of his books in the 1880s. Godbout studied philosophy and wrote his PhD on Nietzsche’s work. “It was kind of a pilgrimage,” he laughs. One of Nietzsche’s theories was that of amor fati, which translates to “love of fate” — it’s an attitude towards life that takes all the good and bad and views it as necessary. As Godbout was taking in the natural environment and listening to music, he wondered if he could capture that feeling in a screenplay. 

Patrick Stewart with Ian McKellan in Montreal
Patrick Stewart with Ian McKellan in Montreal during an X-Men shoot

Stewart loved the script and immediately saw himself in the role. “I went to visit him in England,” recalls Lalonde. “Then when he agreed to do the film, he came to Montreal and we discussed it every day with Louis. I asked about working in English, as both Godbout and Lalonde speak French as a first language. “My English is not that good,” says Lalonde, “but with emotion and music, it works. Anyway, I don’t think Denis Villeneuve’s English is any better than mine! So I don’t worry too much.”

Stewart learned the piano and learned what it meant to be a pianist for the role. He trained for months, and during the shoot, he would regularly brush up on his posture and movements with Godbout during lunch breaks. “The big challenge with any non-musician playing music is not to overdo it. Stewart tended to move a lot, and I’d remind him to relax. He is this great actor, and he studied as if it was his first film, so enthusiastic and appreciative.” 

Shot in Montreal and Switzerland, many key scenes were shot in Westmount Park, disguised as the Bronx Zoo. One day during shooting, Godbout recalls Stewart going on a walk between breaks. “Stewart is a dog lover, and a little dog comes up to him. He starts playing with the dog. This older woman must be wondering about this weird man playing with his dog. He looks up, and she’s totally stunned. She’s talking to Captain Picard! Stewart just wanted to know about the dog and told her all about his dogs.”

As a trio, Godbout, Lalonde and Stewart worked hard to bring the feeling of music to the big screen. Godbout’s script had already included the chosen musical piece. “It helped give us an atmosphere to work with,” Lalonde says. “We all loved the music and worked hard to make it work.” The movie captures both the burden and ecstasy of creation while also reflecting on what it means to be reaching the end of your life and slowly feeling that part of yourself fade away. 

Patrick Stewart with Katie Holmes in Coda, shot in Montreal

“When I was young, I was reckless,” Stewart explained about his process. “I believed I could do anything, but I discovered that that isn’t the case.” At that point, he started to devote himself to training and preparing for each role. “That meant hard work, training and exploration of what the process of being an actor really was. As I’ve gotten older, I find my anxiety about whether I’m doing it right has actually gone away. Before I shoot a scene or go on stage, I always say very quietly, ‘I don’t give a shit.’ It liberates me.”

“The film was never young,” says Godbout. “It doesn’t raise topics, and its values are perennial. It’s a celebration of beauty and the burden of getting old, being struck with the fragility of things.”

It’s a movie that explores the spiritual possibilities of art. While the film may seem suited to the small screen, as much of it as a personal drama, Coda reflects on the power of cinema. In an era where people think that the big screen only belongs to action films and superhero spectacles, Coda harkens back to something simpler but no less powerful.

“I know it’s not popular because we live in a very ironic time, but there’s a dimension of the sublime in the film that needs to be seen on the big screen,” Godbout says. ■

This article was originally published in the June issue of Cult MTL.

Coda opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, June 3. To read our review of the film, please click here.

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