In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people the same 11 interesting questions.
William Shatner is one of the select few people who can be referred to as an actual living legend. The 90-year-old Canadian native started out as a Shakespearean actor, and is most famous, of course, for his portrayal of Star Trek’s Captain James T. Kirk over the course of the original TV series and several movies—one of which he directed. After Star Trek wrapped, he starred in several other TV series, from T.J.Hooker in the ’80s to playing the Big Giant Head on 3rd Rock From The Sun to his Emmy-winning turns on The Practice and Boston Legal in the 2000s.
One of Shatner’s many creative pursuits is the spoken-word album, starting with 1968’s The Transformed Man, which included spoken covers of hits like “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Despite less than stellar initial reviews, Shatner has gone on to release several albums in the same format over the years. On September 24, he drops a new one, entitled Bill, released on Joe Jonas’ Let’s Get It! Records/Republic Records. Bill contains a string of autobiographical spoken-word songs featuring vignettes from Shatner’s life, with collaborators like Jonas, Brad Paisley, John Lurie, and Joe Walsh. He reports that the new release is getting “extraordinary reviews, to put it mildly.”
Ahead of the album’s release, we got to speak with William Shatner briefly (hence the short responses) to discuss the new record and run our 11 Questions by him. His classic Shatner reply: “I don’t know whether I have 11 answers… but okay.”
AVC: Congratulations on the new record! What inspired you to meet up with Joe Jonas and work on this project?
WS: I’m not sure, but I know [producer Dan Miller] had a hand in getting it to Joe Jonas, who heard some of the cuts and said, “I want to represent it,” and took it to Republic.
A friend of mine [writer Robert Sharenow] and I would, over the years, have dinner in New York, and talk about each other and our work. And one day, Rob invited Dan to that dinner, and it turns out that Dan was a Grammy Award-winning musician, who’d worked with They Might Be Giants. And at some point during the meal, Dan said, “We should make an album.” And Rob said, “Why don’t we make an album?” And that was that.
And we agreed that it would be autobiographical. So Rob and I began to talk about what events we wanted to write about. Incidents. Crossing a bridge on the way to leaving my parents’ home to go make my future at the age of 21, an 18-wheeler almost kills me. And the song is about how we all cross bridges and all have 18-wheelers coming at us and and how we can survive. That’s the song called “The Bridge.” There are a variety of songs like that. A song called “Masks,” how we all hold a mask up—actors hold a mask up, but everybody holds a mask up. We’re different people to different people.
So it became an album written during COVID, separated by thousands of miles. Rob was in New York City and Dan was in upstate New York, and I was in Los Angeles. So by phone and by Zoom and by God [Laughs.], we fashioned songs that were very, very close to me. Part of my history done poetically in collaboration with Rob and I, and then sending them on to Dan. And Dan putting a bit of music and my performing on a microphone on the iPhone and then sending it back and forth, back and forth as we rewrote and rerecorded.
WS: I was born in Montreal, and for two weeks, every summer, we rented a ramshackle home on a deserted lake in the Laurentian Mountains, which are about 60 miles north of Montreal. So for those two weeks, it was city boy in the country swimming in the lake. And my dad would come up those two weekends and he and I would go fishing. Fishing was a big deal for us. There was a moment when my father caught a huge fish and he was standing with a foot on each rock and yelling with joy, and his feet slipped, and the fish got away. It was just a great disappointment, but I shared it with my father, and for some reason I remember it.
2. What’s something that’s considered a basic part of your current career that you struggled to learn?
WS: What I’m doing now is… I’m ad-libbing. I’m doing performance art. I’ll do this—like what you just asked—and do something there that will inform or amuse, entertain the audience. And I’ll do that for an hour—or two, sometimes—and entertain without any prepared material. So that’s an interesting performance part that wasn’t part of the years before, that has become so.
3. Did you pick up any new skills, hobbies, or get into something you hadn’t before during quarantine?
WS: I’m involved in horses. I have a specific skill called reining. Reining is maybe the most athletic equine sport. I have more than one horse at the stable about a half an hour from home. And I was able to drive out to the stable, without coming into contact with anyone; they’d have the horse ready. And I would rehearse these athletic moves. I would have this horse doing the moves like a jumper would go over the jump again and again and again, perfecting the techniques. That’s what I would do almost every morning, and then come home and write this album.
4. What restaurant do you not live near, but make a point to hit every time you’re in the right town?
WS: Well, if I’m in New York and I have somebody else to pay for it [Laughs.], I’ll go to one of those five-star restaurants and have the studio or the executive producer pay for it. Give me a name.
AVC: Sorry, I’m in Chicago, I wouldn’t know…
WS: Oh, if I’m in Chicago, it’s Gene & Georgetti.
WS: A cloak of invisibility. I would use the cloak of invisibility when I stood in front of the mirror.
WS: I don’t know how to answer that. I don’t go to parties. I’m more involved with dogs and horses. I could tell you a horse I like. [Laughs.]
I tell you who I admired and that I wish I’d spent time with: Marlon Brando lived not far from where I live and I wish I’d met him, sat down and talked about a variety of subjects. And Laurence Olivier, also. I was on the periphery of people who knew him. I would love to have met both of those gentlemen.
WS: When I was a kid, I mucked a stable, shoving horseshit around, and although I still do that, it’s more verbal than material.
WS: I am a member of a fictional family: the family of man. And the unity between all of us is severely threatened these days. And I’d like to get that back, and I think we all should.
9. What’s the first piece of art, or earliest piece of media, that inspired you to go into your field?
WS: Again, I’m flashing on a moment. In the theater. I saw Laurence Olivier on the stage, and he was looking at his watch. And then I realized that the character he was portraying is such a superficial person that he was showing off this cheap watch—there’s nothing written—he’s just showing off this cheap watch to somebody he’s talking to. And it has nothing to do with the dialogue. It reminded me of what you can do when you’re acting.
WS: Probably Tom Bergeron.
AVC: Oh, he is funny. He was so great on Dancing With The Stars. How did you know him?
WS: I don’t quite remember. I remember being an admirer of the show, so I would watch the show all the time for a variety of people. He wanted me to be on the show, learning to dance, and the beautiful girls… And they would ask me every year to be on the show. So when I met him, we just started talking.
AVC: So you didn’t want to do Dancing With The Stars?
WS: I was busy. They needed like three months; it was too much.
AVC: This has probably already happened somewhere.
WS: [Laughs.] Well, the easiest thing would probably be a chopped liver sandwich. And I would say, “What am I, chopped liver?”