Interviewing William Shatner about “Star Trek” is like interviewing Neil Armstrong about Apollo XI. Chances are someone’s already asked the question you want to ask.
No, that’s not quite right.
Armstrong actually went to the moon. Shatner is an actor who played a character. And while everyone knows that James T. Kirk was born in Iowa, famously beat the Kobyashu Maneuver Test at the Academy, outwitted a Gorn and defeated Khan in the Mutara Nebulae, Kirk isn’t real. But when the rich familiar voice says “Hello,” everything in your fan-boy brain lights up and says “I am talking to the Captain of the Enterprise!”
Because you are. There might have been “Trek” without Shatner, but there wouldn’t have been 50 years’ worth. There’s a reason every new captain is compared against Kirk, and it’s because the man made the mold.
WS: A movie called “Better Late Than Never.” Henry Winkler, George Foreman, Terry Bradshaw, a young comedian named Jeff Dye — we went to Asia, along with a huge camera crew. We’d never been to Asia, and we proceeded to get lost in the Tokyo subway system and eat crickets and talk to elephants. It was an extraordinary adventure, and a story about how these strangers became good buddies.
JL: Never been there before, eh? You must be steeling yourself for headlines that say “Shatner Boldly Goes Where No Shatner Has Gone Before.”
WS: I am well steeled.
[OK, he must not have liked that “Star Trek” reference. Better dig deeper. Let’s see, his first credit was in a 1951 movie called “Crook,” a forgotten Canadian comedy. He was in lots of live TV, two chilling “Twilight Zone” episodes and, in 1962, he was a very good bad guy in a Roger Corman flick. That’s it. I’ll go with that.]
JL: In the movie “The Intruder,” you played a charismatic itinerant racist who whipped up a riot in a small Southern town. Were you concerned that you might end up playing heavies?
WS: I hear people talk about the good guy and the bad guy. I never got into that. I’m playing a character, and the actor can’t make an editorial statement in his performance. He has to like what he’s doing, project the reality of the character.
It’s still a mystery. Who can divine what causes evil and destructive behavior? You look around at the political shenanigans today, and ask “Why do people do that?” But they do.”
[That went well. Should I try a book question? It’ll have a high “Trek” quotient, but check out Shatner on Amazon.com, and he’s got a list of books that would make Stephen King lean back and say “That fellow’s prolific.”]
JL: You’ve got a new book out, “Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship With a Remarkable Man.” Why were you moved to write it?
WS: [Leonard Nimoy] was funny. He did so many things. There was his photographic career, taking pictures of fat women, people in ordinary clothes. He wrote poetry, he did Hamlet in Yiddish. Leonard was an extraordinary individual, and even I didn’t appreciate everything he did.
[I can’t avoid it any longer. We have to talk about “Trek.”]
JL: “Star Trek” is celebrating its 50 anniversary. Is there any “Trek” question you’re absolutely sick of being asked?
WS: That one.
[Oh, no. Oh, no. I’ve just been smacked down Kirk-style. Shields up! Mr. Sulu, target the resume pattern enhancers!]
JL: OK, well, given the depth and range of all you’ve done, is there a question about your career you wish people would ask?
WS: That’s a lazy question.
[RED ALERT! Scotty, I need warp speed now! Get me out of here! Wait … He’s explaining.]
Sometimes they ask me, “What did you mean when you said ‘yes’ in Episode 72?” and I have no idea what they’re talking about. But when the question is about what I was thinking when I was playing the role, I have recollections of that.
JL: Actually, you said “yes” in Episode 71. You said “no” in Episode 72.
WS: I don’t think so.
JL: Well, no, it was episode 71. See, the thing is, your fans know everything about Kirk.
JL: The internet has enabled people to share their fandom, but it’s also enabled people who seem almost pathologically invested in fictional entities.
WS: I always thought of the “Trek” fans as delightfully peculiar. I did a book and documentary on the people of “Star Trek,” and came to the conclusion that they were coming to the conventions to see each other. The TV show became a model of mythology, a system of beliefs.
Now the anonymity of the internet means you can say anything you want, and there are these really … festering psychos who pinch a pimple of hate by spewing on Twitter. But I’m tweeting to a lot of people, to avoid the blackness. The delight of communication far exceeds those people.
JL: Well, you must surely be proud to be a pivotal element of something that has endured for half a century. Have you seen the new movie?
WS: I have not.
JL: Even though you’re in it?
WS: I am?
JL: Yes, at the end. There’s a rather emotional moment, we see you in a picture. …
[OMG. I am talking with Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise and I forgot the spoiler alert. Worse, I have told Kirk something about Kirk that Kirk did not know. Mr. Chekov, back us away, slowly. It’s time to deploy the horse question. The horse question! Do it.]
JL: In “Star Trek: Generations,” you rode a horse, and it was apparent you knew your way around the equestrian craft. You own horses, and you started a horse-related charity, right?
WS: I’ve run a charity for the last 20 years, the Hollywood Charity Horse Show, now sponsored by Priceline and Wells Fargo. It raises about $400,000 to $500,000 a year. Every penny goes to the children and the veterans. There’s information at horseshow.org.
If the horse charity surprises you, it shouldn’t. If you think Shat’s just Kirk, there’s the long career fore and aft. If you think he’s just an actor, there are the books. The post-modern pitchman persona. There’s the charity. There’s just too much to the man to stick in one bucket. You conclude the interview, and say “Thank you, William Shatner.”
Then you hang up — and text all your friends: “I just talked to Captain Kirk!”