Before Star Trek made him a household name, William Shatner appeared onstage, on television, and in a handful of movies, including Judgment At Nuremberg, the Rashomon remake The Outrage, and the all-Esperanto feature Incubus. But as Star Trek's Federation Captain James T. Kirk, he became the center of Trek's slowly growing pop-cultural whirlwind, which for him included three years of television, an animated series, seven theatrical movies (one of which he directed), and a wide variety of books, video games, toys, memorabilia, media conventions, and more. After the original Trek series ended, Shatner landed many other memorable roles, perhaps most notably as the title character in the early-'80s cop drama T.J. Hooker. He's worked on a science-fiction book series (the TekWar novels) and its television spin-offs, and has co-authored several memoirs and non-fiction books, including Get A Life!, a sentimental look at Trek fandom that takes its title from a Saturday Night Live sketch which featured him berating his devoted, geeky fans. But his greatest fame still seems to stem from his Trek-related ubiquity, his instant recognizability, his unique acting style, and his association with memorable cultural artifacts, including his Priceline.com commercials and his unforgettable renditions of "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" from the 1968 album The Transformed Man. While gearing up for a wide variety of events–all of which are detailed on williamshatner.com–Shatner spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his early school and business failures, his theory of character creation, and his many upcoming projects.
The Onion: What were your earliest acting days like?
William Shatner: Well, I come from Montreal, and I was performing as a kid in Montreal from about the age of six on. I did some professional radio acting as a teenager, and I essentially put myself through college with radio acting in Montreal. When I graduated, I got jobs in professional theatres, repertory, and stock theatres in Canada for a couple of years. And then I went to Stratford, Ontario, where I spent three years with a Shakespeare company. We took a classical play from Stratford to New York City, and I got some good notices there and essentially stayed and did live television. And that brings you to the beginning of filming.
O: Obviously, if you were acting at six, your family must have been involved. But you've said in interviews that your father objected to you trying to become a full-time actor.
WS: Well, the concept of full-time acting hadn't entered anybody's head. It was "Isn't Billy amusing?" syndrome, and later, "Wouldn't he be better off spending his time on more lucrative projects, like some kind of business degree?" The idea of being a professional actor never occurred to anybody, including myself, for a long time.
O: Do you recall when it first occurred to you that you wanted a real acting career?
WS: Somewhere in university, I realized that I hadn't been to classes in months, and I'd get tired to the point of narcolepsy doing anything other than some form of performing, directing, writing, or acting.
O: Did you actually have a major at that point?
WS: I had a major in business, and I graduated with a business degree, but I was perhaps the worst student to graduate from that program. I proceeded to prove everybody right as to how bad an economics student I was by failing as an assistant manager in every theatre I went to that hired me, both as an assistant manager and as an actor. I lost money and tickets, and I couldn't keep track of anything. So eventually they fired me from assistant-manager jobs, but kept me on as an actor.
O: You were working simultaneously as an actor and a businessman?
WS: Yes, in those small theatres you get to do everything.
O: Did you ever have any kind of formal acting training?
WS: Not really. I just did it until everybody stopped objecting.
O: How did you get involved in The Brothers Karamozov?
WS: Well, I'd been doing live television, and I think it was my cheekbones that… [Karamozov star] Yul Brynner had big cheekbones, and a couple of the other brothers had already been cast. They were name actors, and I think the casting people at MGM saw my cheekbones and said, "He's the guy that should play the younger brother."
O: What about Incubus? How did that come about?
WS: Well, by that time, I had a certain popularity in movies and television and stage, and this gentleman who was quite well-known at the time was putting this film together. He came to me and I read the script, which was a very basic script dealing with elemental good and evil. And I thought it was operatic but really nice, and then he said, "We're going to do it in Esperanto." I had no idea what Esperanto was. He said, "Don't you understand that there are seven million people who speak Esperanto, and each one of them will want to come and see our movie? It'll be great for box-office." What he didn't realize was that there were three in New York, and two in Cincinnati, and one in Los Angeles. All the rest were in Tibet.
O: Did you actually learn Esperanto, or did you just learn your lines by rote?
WS: I did it phonetically, but because I had the English script on one side and the Esperanto on the other, I kind of acquired the language in the best tradition of Berlitz, where they force-feed it to you. And I desperately had to know what I was doing in a very minimal amount of time, so I was Esperanto-ized.
O: What was your favorite role before Captain Kirk?
WS: I don't think in those terms. I don't know how to answer that.
O: Well, put it this way: What elements link the roles that you've most enjoyed playing in your life?
WS: Entertainment. If it makes you laugh or makes you cry, or somewhere in between, it would appeal to me. I had been in a Shakespeare company for three years and done a lot of Shakespeare. That was fun. That was interesting. It was a lot of work—anything other than Shakespeare was less work. I had a lot of interesting roles, but I don't point to them and say, "That was more interesting than that," because I don't know what the criteria are.
O: Shakespeare has come up a lot throughout your career, from The Transformed Man to your solo stage show to the interviews where you used to compare T.J. Hooker to Hamlet. Is there any particular reason for that, apart from the usual actor's respect for Shakespeare?
WS: No, I think pretense and erudition is probably the main motive there.
O: Are you similarly attached to any other playwrights, or is it just Shakespeare?
WS: No, the great playwrights that everybody admires are thusly because they're admirable. Clifford Odets, and Death Of A Salesman, and the great American plays that everybody admires—Tennessee Williams—because they express themselves in the American idiom, which as a Canadian I was still familiar with.
O: In Star Trek Movie Memories, you discussed "finding the emotion" for Kirk's death scene. What's your usual process for preparing for a character or scene?
WS: It's all basically the same for the writing, the acting, and the directing. You start with the spine of a story or a character. Even one word, or certainly one sentence, should be able to describe the basic characteristic that the scene has, or the character has, or the story has. And then you begin to detail that one spine, and you have offshoots from that spine, and it becomes more and more complex, but all of it stems from that one-word, one-line theme, which can give the character, the scene, or the play its uniqueness.
O: Do you think that the process of creating a character lies primarily in the hands of the writer, the director, or the actor? Is it always a completely collaborative process, or does it swing one way or the other?
WS: Well, in necessity, it's collaborative, because everybody gets to do their thing when the other is done. The writer writes, and the director gets it, and he does his thing to what the writer had. And then the actors get it, and to one degree or another, depending on the power of either persuasion or box-office, somebody gets to do their aspect of what they're doing… I'm being a little obtuse. Everybody contributes of necessity, because the end result is the actor. The words are coming out of his face, so you identify with the actor in that role, but you, the audience, don't know what's gone into making that face look like that.
O: Well, take Captain Kirk. Where do you think he came from, primarily?
WS: Kirk came from wonderment. Awe and wonderment. If you follow the theme of what I was saying, you take a one-word theme, so you would say, "How would Kirk approach this scene?" If you went back to the spine, the main thrust of the character was awe and wonderment about himself, about the world around him, about the individual, about the animal, about the alien, about the ship, about the molecule. He would be totally involved and interested because of the awe of what he was dealing with. Not fear, not anger.
O: Kirk's famous vocal cadence, his pauses between words, did that have anything to do with his sense of wonder at everything around him?
WS: Yes! I would think so. In fact, it was Shatner's awe and wonderment as to what the next line was, but it came out as Kirk's, as the character's hesitation in describing what it was he was going to say or do, because it was so exciting. It was so filled with the energy of what it was he was doing.
O: Your books describe the difficulty of the original Star Trek production schedule, which made it hard for you to learn and remember your lines. Later, when you were doing the movies, and there was maybe a little more time to work, did you find yourself struggling to preserve that hesitancy?
WS: Yes. I had forgotten what I had done 10 years earlier, and I had to look up some of the episodes to say, "What the heck did I do with that character?" And this [Kirk-esque vocal style] that people imitate, I didn't know what they were doing until I began to get it. I never got it. I'd say, "What are they doing?" to my family. "Who are they imitating?" I mean, did Jimmy Stewart know when they were imitating him? I worked with Edward G. Robinson, and I was having dinner with him, and I said, "Why do you go 'Mmnyah, mmnyah'?" He says, "Do I go 'Mmnyah'?"
O: Do you think that lack of self-awareness is typical?
WS: If somebody imitated you, wouldn't you wonder what they were doing? If I did your voice like that, would you wonder what I was doing?
O: I suppose so.
WS: Right, because your cadence is your music.
O: When you were doing the movies, did anyone ever say, "You don't sound enough like Kirk; you're not hesitating enough"?
WS: [Laughs.] No, because I was Kirk. I was creating the character. They might say, "That's not fast enough, that's too slow, that's too big, that's too small," but they couldn't say I wasn't doing the character, because I was the character. Anybody else playing that role would have, by definition, done something different.
O: One of the recurring themes in Get A Life! is that fans love Star Trek because of the peace and optimism of the Trek future. At the same time, Kirk seems to be a very direct, even warlike character, which doesn't quite fit that theme.
WS: Well, the dichotomy there is… Star Trek suggests that the world will be around in 2300, so that's the optimism. For somebody operating in 2300, I'm not sure that there might be as much optimism. I mean, if you were living in 2300, and you now had 20 billion people on Earth, and science was running out of ways to keep them alive, you might be just as pessimistic about life continuing as we are. But in the 21st century, the fact that somebody made it to the 23rd century, even in fiction, is reason enough to hope.
O: Within that framework, though, what is it that appeals to people about Kirk specifically? It can't just be the fact that he exists.
WS: Well, no. What appeals about him is everybody for themselves. I don't know. For me, it was the adventure of the week, and the question of how he would solve the dilemma that the writers were creating for him. But there were people who enjoyed other aspects that had nothing to do with the character I play.
O: Obviously, by being tied to this particular role throughout your career, you've gotten money, fame, and fan adoration. But putting those benefits aside for a moment, do you ever think about other directions your career might have taken? Do you ever have regrets?
WS: I want to talk to you about several things that I have just done, just completed, am doing, or about to do. All of it totally encompassing and interesting. I don't think of myself as being tied. Now, it's possible and probably likely that I am, and that I missed out on things I might have been offered, but I don't know that. All I know is that I am constantly intrigued by something I'm doing. I have a book coming out in September, another of the Star Trek books I'm writing that feature the Captain Kirk character. It's called Captain's Peril, and that'll be out in September.
O: Your Trek books feature characters from both the original series and Next Generation. Have you ever gotten feedback from the cast members about how you portray their characters?
WS: You know, nobody has. What an interesting observation. I've never thought of it before, but no, I've never heard from anybody, including Leonard [Nimoy], who's a dear, dear friend. He, as I, would not read the things if they hadn't been pointed out, and I've never really pointed them out to him. Now, he's written an extraordinary book of poetry. It's really beautiful, and it's coming out now. He sent it to me and I called him back and told him what a beautiful book it was. But Trek books are just not up his alley, I think.
O: How did the Mind Meld video interview between the two of you originally come together?
WS: Well, over the years, in several of the books that I've written, I've done what you're doing: interviewing people, and trying to get them to express themselves and drop that public mask, or at least get behind it somehow. I had been doing that for these books I was writing—one of which, by the way, is coming out in August, called I'm Working On That, which is a series of interviews with scientists who are working on things of great interest to me, and I hope to you. As a result, I thought I had some skills in interviewing, and I thought that something between Leonard and I… When we'd have these conversations, they were always intriguing to me. I thought putting something down on film might be intriguing to somebody else, although I didn't know. I breed a lot of horses, and you frequently get what they call in horses "barn blind": You think your horse is the greatest horse in the world because it's only been in your barn. Then you see it compared to other horses, and your blinders are lifted. So I didn't know whether I could effect this fantasy interview or not, and because I knew Leonard well, and because he allowed himself to be opened, something wonderful happened. Something transpired. Whether I could do that again with somebody I did not know, I'm not sure. I'd like to find out, and I think I will, but the art of interview is esoteric.
O: At various points in your career, you've had opportunities to be involved, at least tangentially, in NASA projects and other scientific ventures. I'm Working On That seems like part of that trend. Would you have had an interest in hard science if not for your science-fiction roles?
WS: I do. I am curious about many things, and find the world around me, and the people and objects and things in it, equally fascinating. There is a great deal of that awe and wonder in me. I was reading science fiction before Star Trek, and found it delightful that I could meet some of the people I had read and admired while working on Star Trek. But I think that Star Trek sharpened that interest, because it gave me the opportunity to meet either the scientists themselves, or those writers who would take a scientific theme and fictionalize it. So, yes, I think Star Trek did do a job.
O: Projects like I'm Working On That and Mind Meld showcase the serious side of your personality. But you're probably better known for your kitschy pop-culture contributions, like The Transformed Man and your "Rocket Man" performance.
WS: The Transformed Man was an attempt to illustrate that the lyrics in some modern-day songs are equally evocative as some of the literature that has been written in the English language. And so fresh music, new music, original music was written to some of the arias and literature, and different orchestrations were written to some of the lyrics, and the cuts really are juxtaposed so that you get a contrasting lesson in themes in the song and in the literate piece. What happened, then, since each cut was about six minutes long, for radio play they took one cut, which would be a song. So the audience didn't understand what I was doing. When they played it and laughed about it and had fun with it, I went along with it, because it was good fun. I understand how people would take a song that I was performing as an actor and think, "Does he really think he's singing?" But if you play the record, the record has some serious attempts to linking, and to synthesizing, certain elements. And "Rocket Man" was a joke—not a joke, but something they asked me to do in a small-show, nightclub atmosphere—and it wasn't going to be broadcast, so I did Frank Sinatra doing that song. But I tried to bring my own unique approach to "rock-it, man" and "Rocket Man," and that's where that went. But I was doing that kind of thing on talk television for years prior to that.
O: If it's not really possible to appreciate the concept album split up into individual tracks, as it has been on various compilations, why not bring the album back into print?
WS: Well, I just had no interest… I don't know where the rights are, for one thing, although it's not a bad idea. It just didn't seem to be worth it, in terms of sales. I'm not out to convince anybody of anything. And I don't sing.
O: With some of this stuff, and certainly with the film Free Enterprise, you've been typed as having a self-parodying sense of humor. Do you think that's true?
WS: No, I wouldn't call it parody. In Free Enterprise, I was playing a character named Shatner, a vainglorious sort of tilting-at-windmills kind of character. But other than the name… If it hadn't been named Shatner, I wouldn't have recognized it as me, although other people may have.
O: Given the fact that the character was named after you, you had to realize that people would identify…
WS: Right, I understand that, but you're asking for my opinion. I wouldn't have characterized it as self-parody.
O: I take it you have a great deal of freedom in your work these days, as far as coming up with projects.
WS: Yeah, I do what I want. I'm going to do some new TV commercials for Priceline. They could be fun.
O: You're still enjoying those?
WS: Well, I did have fun with the songs, and we're bandying about themes now. It won't be singing. It'll be something else, but it could be fun. I did host a show called 100 Greatest One Hit Wonders on VH1, and they got the highest ratings of any show this year, so they've asked me to do some more. Some time in these coming weeks I'm going to do four shows for VH1 on one-hit wonders. Then I'm doing the wraparounds for the SCI FI Channel's William Shatner's Fright Night, starting Aug. 3 and going for 13 weeks. It's 13 weeks of horror films, which I'll take seriously. Because some are pretty good and some are camp, so it's horror as a technology and as entertainment.
O: Do you have any part in selecting the films?
WS: No, the producers selected what they think is their 13 best. It was out of a library of 200, and I wasn't about to watch 200 horror films. Oh, and the Temecula Valley International Film & Music Festival is giving me an award, and I'm going to appear there in September.
O: What's the award for?
WS: For singing, I think. No? Okay. Lifetime achievement, though I'm not quite sure what it is I achieved.