Sometimes you get to interview a celebrity so iconic, a figure who played such an indelible role in your life, that your journalistic training flies out the window. You find yourself making the most amateur of errors: You want to be your subject’s pal.
Arriving for my Smithsonian interview with William Shatner I remembered that September evening, 46 years ago, when my brother, father and I opened a box of Mr. Salty pretzel sticks and watched the premier episode of Star Trek. During the next half-century—from his agonized cover of Rocket Man to the irresistible Denny Crane; from Saturday Night Live to the jaw-dropping intimacy of Shatner’s Raw Nerve—I followed his career sporadically, never quite sure if he was (a) totally unaware of his shameless self-parody, (b) the most self-aware actor who ever lived, or (c) an impossible amalgam of both.
Shatner, who recently turned 81, had me from hello. A bearish man who radiates warmth and charisma, my childhood hero (“call me Bill”) launched into our conversation as if we were old friends, reconnecting after a long absence. He was lively and aggressive during the interview, yet disarmingly vulnerable. His observations were all over the map—histrionic, abstract, often bombastic. He acted, sang, screeched, swore, and—for a few unsettling moments—took on my persona, playing me back to myself. There was a quality of “Vulcan mind meld” to the experience. I thought we’d had a pretty coherent conversation—but making sense of the transcript took a full week.
When it ended, I was as mystified as I’d been coming in. Did we really connect like that? Or did he snow me? It was like the experience of watching one of his Raw Nerve interviews, or music videos. You think he’s sincere—but is he? Does he even know? It’s both touching and scary.
William Shatner’s new documentary—“Get A Life!”—premiered Saturday, July 28th, on EPIX. I also recommend The Captains, in which he interviews five other actors who have commanded the Starship Enterprise and its spin-offs. They met him. They loved him. I did, too.
The Rumpus: I once read a statistic – and I can’t give you the source – that most Americans, at least, would rather lose a toe than have to speak extemporaneously.
Shatner: Than have to speak in public?
Shatner: Well, I think it depends on which toe. You see if you look at the construction of the foot, that big toe really gives you a lift in many ways
Shatner: So you say, “Listen: you either speak in public, and there’s 5,000 people, and I’m not going to tell you the subject—or—do you want the big toe or the little toe removed? If it’s the big toe, I’ll tell you the subject. It’s a conundrum.
Rumpus: I hope there’s some way I can use that. I like that conundrum.
Shatner: It’s a conundrum.
Rumpus: So how long do I have you for? how fast do I have to talk?
Shatner: No: it’s I who have to talk fast. It’s you who have to think fast. Half an hour?
Rumpus: Is that it? Then we’d better get started.
Shatner: I thought we were already in there.
Rumpus: This is for Smithsonian, so I have to ask you questions that the American public would be grateful to know.
Shatner: Here’s a conundrum the Smithsonian would be interested in, okay? Zoos saving species, or not saving species.
Rumpus: Can we do that separately? Because that’s an entire story in itself.
Shatner: Well, what’s the subject you’d like to cover?
Rumpus: I just want to ask you….
Shatner: Go! Ask me a question. Go.
Rumpus: I want to talk to you first about music… I love that cover you do of Pulp’s Common People, with Joe Jackson. It’s brilliant.
Shatner: Yes, but why is it brilliant? I acted that song, and Joe sang that song like the screaming banshee rock man he is, and it comes out the same. It’s the agony of a misogynist – who now in rhythm, and some melody — but I can’t do as much with the melody as he can do with the words. And that’s why I love Common People. And that’s why there are some songs I’m so proud of, and others I wish I’d done differently, or done better.
Rumpus: Who do you listen to now?
Shatner: I don’ know who I’m listening to on the radio. Like, I don’t know who that is (points to a nearby speaker by the hotel pool). That’s elevator music to me. But there must be someone going, “Ah… That’s Joe’s Frog Five.” But what we thought was elevator music—if you listen carefully— there’s a plaintive voice in there, saying something. Somebody has written a song. They’ve gone into a studio, and they’re playing something that somebody at this hotel is using to fill in the beautiful silences of nature.
Rumpus: It’s a human need
Shatner: But I love the musicality of words. I was talking to a musician last night in Philadelphia, and they’re writing music to a book. I said, “How do you do that?” He says “well, you do the book.” I said, “Well why don’t you start with a childrens’ fairy tale?” Fairy tales are supposed to be a story of inherent indigenous fears and dramatizations of human nightmares and cares and worries. Why don’t you do that? And the words, “Once upon a time,” don’t the words suggest the music? The word I love – I’ve forgotten the word – but this once upon a time – [sings] Baaa Ba Baaa… Now suddenly the composer, out of the words, is grasping the melody, rather than—in so many cases that we hear—the melody is written first, and they write the words to it.
Rumpus: It carries its own inherent rhythm.
Shatner: It carries its own rhythm, it carries its own musicality, That’s the way I think of words.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about the way you act. Some actors are a blank slate— like Meryl Streep. But in all of your work, there’s a base coating, a kind of substrate….I wonder if you could define the single quality that unites all your work?
Shatner: No! To me, it’s me. To me, it’s… you’ve written something for me to say, what is it you want me to say, what is the character? Even Meryl Streep, as wonderful as she is, has to bring to her role – her. She can’t embody you, she doesn’t know what’s …. [Shatner begins to take on my appearance and personality]… a gray, curly-haired, good-looking guy who’s athletic, who has an intellectual, and I’m sort of going to be sort of the hand, the observing reporter, I’m a little concerned about the recording device, and I’m here, and I’m intent on wearing dark glasses so I can’t really see your eyes, but I’m here, so now, a little quizzical, amused…. So I can play that. But I bring to it me because all I’m doing is imitating you.
Rumpus: Is your substrate even definable?
Shatner: No! To me, It’s me. In Common People it’s the guy. The guy! The guy! The guy’s a misogynist. The guy says, “You bitch… you wanna make love to common people? You think you can walk in my shoes because you want to walk in my shoes? You idiot! You fucking idiot! You can’t walk in my shoes! You egotistical piss-ant!”
He builds up to that because, first of all, he’s on the make. He builds up to that anger. To think that she can be like the common people, with her father… And all that’s inherent in the lyric. I can grasp that, and then dramatically mold that to bring it to a crescendo. Where the rock singer, screaming! And the guitarist, screaming! The ending, the agony of the ending! I’m in the same agony – but I’m saying the words.
See, in my album Seeking Major Tom, I did all cover songs— I did 20 cover songs. A lot of people loved it, and some people didn’t like it. And I did Bohemian Rhapsody… Do you remember Bohemian Rhapsody? It’s one of the great pieces of music. Well, Freddy Mercury had one of the great voices—lyrical, high, almost soprano, a high tenor voice— it was a gift. I haven’t got that. But what I could do was… this guy had to leave because he had a gun, he pulled a gun, he shot a man, and now…Now I gotta go! Mama, I’ve got to go! And that record is my fantasy of what happened to Major Tom when he stepped out of the capsule in the David Bowie song. Then it all becomes a series of songs. But his real background is Bohemian Rhapsody. That’s where this character, Major Tom, came from. In my fantasy. About this record. Well. There is a guitar solo that starts screaming, the strings start YAAAAAAAAA!!! starts to scream! Okay? I took my lyric right up to where I knew the guitar solo was beginning, and SCREEEEEEEEEAMED into the guitar, so the guitar and I melded. Now: Play that, one day, and see what you think. It’s my interpretation of Freddy Mercury’s version of Bohemian Rhapsody that has nothing to do with Freddy Mercury.
Rumpus: In terms of the roles you’re given, there’s often this commanding tone. You’re often cast as the Man in Charge. Is that really who you are?
Shatner: It never used to be, in my opinion, like what do I do now or what the hell is this, full of confusion and knowledge that I don’t know what I’m doing. So what has happened is, I still realize I don’t know what I’m doing—but I’ve come to the conclusion that nobody else does, either—either knows what they’re doing, or knows what I’m doing. So in that mass confusion, there has to a voice saying, “Well here’s where I am. I’m sitting at the pool; I don’t know where you’re going to go.”
Rumpus: I saw your documentary The Captains over the past few days, during which you interview other actors who have played command roles on Star Trek and its spin-offs. One of the poignant things you said in there was that, for much of your life, there was this sense of inferiority. Do you think you’ve gotten over that?
Shatner: Have I gotten over that? You know, essentially not. It’s just I don’t put myself in those situations. I once said to a girl, who was a society girl and I was having a fling. and I said “Am I anywhere near the people you go out with? Have I got anything?” That’s how badly I felt about myself. I look back on that question and I think, “What kind of a guy must I have been?”
Rumpus: How old were you?
Shatner: Thirty. I was divorced, so I don’t quite remember the year. I was young enough to ask the question, but old enough to know the answer. And I didn’t know the answer. I truly felt like all these people are better than I am, you’ve been going out with them, what are they like? I felt inadequate because she was with some guy who either had money or position.
Rumpus: I find that surprising. This was post-Kirk. I mean, there’s been a lot written about what you brought to the role of Captain Kirk. What, ultimately, did Kirk bequeath to you?
Shatner: A career!!
Rumpus: Your one-man show, Shatner’s World, was a phenomenal success. Can you describe how it evolved?
Shatner: [It started when] I was asked to do a one man show in Australia.
And I said “Well I’m not going to fly all the way to Austrailia and do a one man show—I’ve never done it.”
And they said, “Well, come on down, we can book you in five or six cities.”—I don’t remember how many cities there are in Australia! —”And we’ll book you in those, it’ll pay enough.”
And I said “But I don’t know what to do!”
And they said, “Well, we’ll send over a director and he’ll talk.” So this guy came over.
And I said “Well, what are you going to do?”
And he said, “Well, we got some clips….”
And I said “Well, I’ve got this stories and that story, and this clip will fit in there….” I essentially put together a sequence of events.
And they said, “We’ll have a moderator on the stage w/ you.”
I said, “Well that’s not a one man show!”
“This is the way we do the one man shows.” [The moderator] will come in and ask me these questions, and we’ll sit in two chairs and talk.”
I said, “That doesn’t sound too exciting”
“No, no, we’ve done that, it works, it’s really good!”
And that’s what I did, ok? An extended interview, if you will, with some footage. We finished the six cities, got good reviews, and people clapped and I sang some songs. And I thought, well that’s over. I’ve done that.
And then Canada said, would I tour Canada? Same kind of show, and they offered me an interlocutor who was a nationally known character. So okay, we sat around and did another, I worked the show out a little bit better, and got to Toronto—which is the high point in Canada—and they usually tear you apart. And they didn’t tear me apart. It was very well attended.
Then New York said, “Would you come to New York?”
I thought, well that’s different. First of all, I’m going to get rid of the interlocutor, the guy who asks questions. That’s not a one-man show; I’ve let that go on long enough. Now I’ve got to rewrite, I’ve got to refine, and now I’ve got to make each of those stories dovetail. I’ve got to have a beginning, a middle and an end, I’ve got to say something, I’ve got to have some meaning in what I’m doing.
And so I spent months talking to myself, obsessed, I would tell the story and I’m trying to the right word. Because the right word is musical. As you well know. You find the right word, the rest of the sentence falls into place. if you don’t have the right word, you’re fumbling, you do two, three sentences and it’s still not right. Until one night you wake up and say, “That’s the word!!” And you’ve got to write it down because, if you don’t, you forget it in the morning. It’s gone.
Now I had the show in my mind. The New York people came to Los Angeles, and we started to put the visuals together. And I thought, “This isn’t good enough, I’m fucking going to be laughed at, I’m going to be laughed off the stage. This is terrible.”
But the more I did it, the faster it got, the more rhythm it got, it started to take shape – but it still wasn’t good enough. And I had one week in LA trying to put it together. Then I got to New York, and I had a couple of rehearsals in New York, and then I had one preview.
It was the night before the preview that this agent, my wife and I went out to eat dinner at the Four Seasons. Because I wanted to be careful of what I ate, I ordered a little hamburger, just a cooked hamburger is all I was going to eat. The agent ordered raw fish, my wife ordered something else.
I either got stomach poisoning or the flu that night. And I’m looking at a Broadway opening in which I am scared to death.
At this point now, what are you going to do? Laugh me off the stage? I’m not going to die, I’ve got enough money in the bank to survive, I’ll be able to pay the rent…. But to be laughed at – to be said “Who does this guy think he is, I mean what the fuck? A one man show, in New York, without an intermission?”
Some days later I stepped on to the stage of the Pantages Theater in LA—a 3,500 seat capacity house—to do a sound check. I looked up, and the seats went on forever. Three weeks before, I had been at a oratorio there. Twelve hundred voices. Now I was alone on that stage to do the same thing: to entertain people. By myself. Do you know how awesome that is, what a kind of staggering…. but this was after the Broadway opening.
So I go into my Broadway opening frightened to death that I’m going to fail. And I have the stomach flu—which means you can go from here to there, to the toilet, because you have no command of your bowels whatsoever.
Rumpus: I lived in Nepal for a long time, I understand that feeling.
Shatner: There you are. I had the Nepalese runs.
And I’ll tell you the life lesson I learned, though I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to use it again: You never know what you can accomplish until you try. The problem is—what people don’t talk about is—a fair number of times, you fail. You try to climb K2, and you die.
But there is a great deal to be gained by trying something that you’re horribly afraid of—because even if you fail, you’ve learned something. You learn that you don’t want to fail again (laughs)! All I know is, I’ve never been so frightened of anything. I faced that fear, and was successful.
Rumpus: Well it’s also part of your life and your legacy. How do you see that? How do you basically view the mythology now? Do you think it’s a valuable mythology that you contributed, do you think it’s just another television show as some other people said?
Shatner: Well apparently it’s not another television show. I didn’t know that, I still really on some level don’t know that. what people – I did a Twilight Zone where a Czechoslovakian acrobat in a furry suit stands on a wing. And I look horrified, because nobody else can see the furry guy on the wing. When I did it, it was amusing, I needed a job badly enough so I didn’t have any discretionary… I didn’t say “Oh, this is terrible” or “Oh, this is good.” It was. “Oh good, I’m getting a paycheck, I can pay the rent.”
For some reason, this show tapped into a universal unconscious that neither I nor anybody else — let alone Rod Serling—was aware of. They don’t know. Mythology? I’m runnig a television show! They’re desperately trying to come up with enough ideas to make the 22 half hour shows; they’re not thinking ‘mythology.’ But certainly—in this case—they hit on something. ‘Is there a little guy on the wing?’ I mean, they’re all making jokes. What is that? So you have to surmise that, because it lasted longer than the half hour it was on the air, it’s tapping into something.[It seems that] every time they play a TWILIGHT ZONE, that show is on. Why? it’s just a half hour show in which a very young, inexperienced actor is doing a number. Why? Why are people always coming up and saying “Hey, I saw that show, whooo, guy up on the wing, jeez! Every time I get on an airplane I think about it!” Why? Every time you get on an airplane you think about it? It taps into that fear [of flying]. How’s this thing getting up in the air?
Rumpus: Well then, what does Star Trek tap into?
Shatner: They’re tapping into a need to explain their world. The mythology is a group of people out seeking life, limb and liberty. I mean, they’re out looking for the meaning of life, and their own life, and relationships, and an explanation of who they are, and all these mystical wonderful questions that people ask and have no answer. Mythology tries to answer in some story form. Apparently we’re hard-wired for story. So when a Greek comes across a large bone, that we now know is a dinosaur, he says “Hey Xerxes, look at this! What the fuck is this?” And Xerxes says, “Well, it must’ve come from a giant! I’ll bet that giant lived over there on those hills, and I bet they had fights with the Gods, because they were so big!” And they got a whole explanation of this bone that turns out to be a dinosaur bone!
Rumpus: So you think mythology exists to basically explain the unexplainable, or to set a code of conduct?
Shatner: I think probably both. First of all, mythology needs heroes and it needs villains, it needs heroes to fail, it needs heroes to struggle. Everybody does. “Oh my god, the guy I worship, the guy I love, fails and tries again? Fears failing, and then succeeds? Kills the Minotaur?” Come on!
Rumpus: Is there someone like that for you? Outside of myth, somebody whose career inspires you?
Shatner: No! I think maybe I’m embodying it for myself. I don’t know.
Rumpus: When I watched The Captains, I did get the impression that you were acting out this drama for yourself.
Shatner: I’m not consciously doing it, but when I see it happen I think, “Shit—Why did I put myself in the position of doing a one man show on Broadway? Why would I do that? And when I was afraid, why didn’t I call up and say, “Hey, you know I’m ill?”
Rumpus: Keith Johnstone is a great improv teacher; he wrote about risk and said, “There’s two kinds of people: people who say ‘no,’ and people who say ‘yes.’ The people who say ‘no’ are rewarded by the safety they gain, and people who say ‘yes’ are rewarded by the experiences they have.
Shatner: That’s exactly what my one man show is about. It’s easy to say no. “No, Nah nah nah, I don’t want to do that, I’m not going to go there, I don’t like that.” Saying yes embodies risk. Yes to new ideas, yes to new opportunities, yes to doing a one man show in whatever town I’m in. That’s the tough part. That’s what my whole show’s about: saying yes.
Rumpus: What’s the hardest thing about doing the show, physically, at 81 years old?
Shatner: When I come off that stage. I use a chair as a prop. I dance with a chair, and I sing a song at the end that Brad Paisley wrote, and then [the audience] stands up, and they applaud, and I think, “My God, the love,” and I’m almost crying from the emotion that’s coming across the footlights, and what I’ve given. And then I leave the stage, and I can hardly walk. My quadriceps have tied up.
Rumpus: Arthur C. Clarke has a great epitaph…. from the time I was 15 years old to when he died recently…
Shatner: Admired him.
Rumpus: …they actually carved onto his tombstone: “He never grew up, but he never stopped growing.”
Shatner: That’s beautiful. I wish I could be as erudite and as lyrical as that.
Rumpus: Have you given yours any thought?
Shatner: Well, I’ve got mine right now. Just in this moment, I hadn’t thought of it: “What was I afraid of?”
Rumpus: That’s beautiful. That’s great. What can I say?
Shatner: I got to write that down! What was I afraid of? Because I’ve been thinking about that. Because the advent of death to me is frightening. I’m overwhelmed with fear and sadness. Look at this! To leave all this!
So what does this tell us? Does this tell us that you need to have a dialogue to have these thoughts? Do great writers have their own internal dialogue? Or does this come out of discourse? Is that what Plato did?
Rumpus: I think Plato had his own discourse. I mean, arguably, he invented Socrates. But don’t you find that when your walking on the beach, or riding one of your horses, that something loosens up in your mind? Your internal critic leaves, and you’re able to entertain …
Shatner: One of the more profound moments like that for me was I was for film reasons I was at the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal. It’s a holy place. And every night I went out, wrapped in my sleeping bag. I wanted to have an insight, I wanted to have an epiphany. I waited and waited, every night, for the epiphany. It never came. And on the last night, I gave up. I wrapped myself tighter, I made my way back to the shack that we were in and in that moment I had the epiphany, which is: I don’t have to be here to have the epiphany! [laughs] in a grain of sand, and of course now I’m repeating the Sages! you could be, I could be, “look at that the way that pool of water works, look at that! and what is water and what is the blue, and I’m having the epiphany I don’t have to be in this cold 14,000 feet! You don’t have to sit under the bodhi tree!
Rumpus: That’s a very deconstructionist epiphany.
Shatner: A deconstructionist epiphany? That’s a complex thought.
Rumpus: You brought up something interesting earlier, about discourse inspiring revelations. I’ve written a few books, and my favorite part of the publishing process is always the question and answer period after the readings. You don’t know what’s going to come up, and it can inspire your thoughts in strange ways.
Shatner: Right—if they’re intelligent questions. As opposed to, “Why do you wear your sunglasses with a string around them? Are you afraid of dropping your glasses? What are you afraid of?”
On the other hand, I found—in being obsessed by the show that I was writing—that the period of time between 5 and 7 in the morning, I’d wake up in a half-daze and was getting a lot of great ideas. My dilemma was, if I got up to write wrote them down, they were gone—so you can’t get up. But if you don’t get up, by 7 o’clock you go, “What the hell was I thinking about at 5?”
And isn’t that interesting? Because that morning reverie—when you’re half-awake and half-asleep—the religious people think that’s when God visits you. But in my reality, it’s that your mind opens up because you’re half asleep. If you open yourself to the creative thoughts, the jazz, the riffs, anything can be there. Your whole life can be changed by a riff between 5 and 7.
Rumpus: Do remember them? Have you found a way?
Shatner: By repeating them. And then saying, “this is so important I can’t forget this.” And then you forget it! That’s a conundrum, and I don’t know how to solve it.
Rumpus: Is there anything you wanted to do, always wanted to do, but you haven’t done?
Rumpus: You’ve already done an awful lot.
Shatner: No!! Come on!! No no no no no. I want to discover a truth for myself that is really true. Whether it’s a piece of scientific knowledge, or a philosophical truth. “What was I afraid of?” I hope that’s true. But I don’t know. And I won’t know until it’s too late.
Timothy Leary—I do an homage to him in my show. He said, in his dying breath, “Of course.” And the audience [in my show] is listening. Of course what? What the fuck did he mean by “Of course?” Did his toe become his Tao? Did he see the unity of everything? Or did he say “Off course?” I mean, what did he say? And it’s a talk about death.
Rumpus: Similar to Steve Jobs’ last words isn’t it?
Shatner: “Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow.” That’s what we hear Steve Jobs said. But we’re not given any context! Did he say “Oh, oww, oh, oww, oh, oww?” or “Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow, 4G?”
That’s part of my one man show. And, I incorporate the death of Captain Kirk, and my fear of dying. That’s part of what I was working on, all those months: “How do I entertain with these thoughts?”
Rumpus: Do you want to go out in a blaze of glory, or peacefully in your sleep?
Shatner: I want to go out without knowing. My lingering would be a nightmare. Lingering, lingering… I mean these guys on Death Row… What. Are. They. Thinking?
Rumpus: Can I ask you a question about Boston Legal? I’m embarrassed to say that I just started watching that show two months ago.
Shatner: I don’t watch television.
Rumpus: You and James Spader had tremendous chemistry on that show. Can you tell me one story about you and Spader off set?
Shatner: I love him, he’s a great guy, and we became – I don’t know how you define friends really, but by many definitions we’re great friends. I laughed for days. He got… What are those Hawaiian plants, that smell very beautiful? They make leis w/ them?
Shatner: They’re not gardenias [ed. note: they’re plumerias]. But he got those plants. and he said “I’ve bought this house, and I got these plants at the nursery down there, they’re fantastic! The smell penetrates everything!” And he said, “You know, I got stoned the other day. And I got into the plant.” And then he looked around to see if anybody was looking, and he inhaled the fragrance – this is acting – well, he did it like he must’ve done after he had taken a couple of hits. I started laughing. It was so perfect, so beautifully done, it was the best acting I’ve ever seen: a stoned guy getting totally involved in the smell of a plant that he just forgot everything else—but was still a little bit aware of the fact that there was a little something odd about him standing with his head buried in a plant!
Rumpus: Have you ever experimented w/ hallucinogens?
Shatner: No, I never did… The occasional beer. I like single malt.
Rumpus: We got to include something in this interview about horses.
Shatner: Alright. Maybe this’ll work and maybe it won’t.
So. People have an affinity towards things, and you don’t know where it comes from. Mozart wrote a symphony when he was four, so it’s said; the theory is maybe because his father was a conductor, it happened in vitro. and he heard the music before he was born. and by the age of four he knew how to write music. Why are you a writer? Why do we choose to eat certain foods, and go certain places? What conditions the journey of your life? I got on a horse when I was about 12 years of age, and started galloping around. my mother came up said “where did you learn to ride a horse?” I said “this is the first time I’ve ever been on a horse” I just knew, I just felt the horse.
You know that book, Zen in the Art of Archery? I’ve read it many times. Your pulling point, your anchor point, is usually right at your lip. So you know exactly where it is. Your arm is just crooked a little, and the bow rests very loosely in your hand. Like this, okay? So there’s the bow, and there’s the arrow, and there’s the target. And Zen in the Art of Archery explains what an archer really knows: The bow unites Heaven – the air the sky – and the Earth. And the arrow unites you and the target. And if you’re really into the zone, you will loose that arrow at the most appropriate time. Like a marksman, or a sniper, will take a deep breath. Why? Not only for steadiness, but because he is pouring his spirit, he is breathing out into the shot, through the sight into the target. He can see the bullet go.
Now in free archery, the arrow starts to drop about 15 feet after it leaves the bow. In fact it rises a little, maybe 6 inches, and then begins to descend. So if I’m going to try to hit that light up there, I’ve got to be 8 inches above that light, ok? but I’ve got to feel it, I’ve got to know the arc.
Riding a horse is like that. You’re so into the horse. The horse is talking to you. And you’re talking to the horse, with your legs, your body. And the horse is saying “I don’t want to go there.” And you’re saying, “Oh yes you are.” “No, I really don’t want to go.” “Come on, stop being like that!” That’s the conversation.
Rumpus: I was watching The Captains; it’s a really good film.
Shatner: Thank you. I’ve made now 4 or 5 documentaries. I did an album called Has Been, have you heard it?
Rumpus: I’ve heard of it.
Shatner: You should listen to it. It’s amongst the best stuff I’ve ever done. I wrote the lyrics, and Ben Folds did the songs. I mean, he’s a genius. So a choreographer, Margo Sappington, said she wanted to do a ballet based on six of our songs. So she did a ballet, and I put eight cameras on it and made a documentary called Gonzo Ballet. It’s a film about the making of a ballet to these songs I wrote. It’s really interesting.
Rumpus: What can you tell me about “Get A Life!, ” your new documentary on the mythological nature of Star Trek?
Shatner: The basic answer as to what the documentary is about, is that we are hard wired to receive information in story form. If that information is about things that are unknown – death, the future, the universe – we devise stories that fill the gap. This is called mythology—and Star Trek has become mythological.
Rumpus: I may call this story, At 81, Bill Shatner Looks Ahead. What else are you looking forward to?
Shatner: Well you’re talking about a literal, “I’m looking forward to doing a show.” But that’s not what I’m looking forward to doing. I mean I am of course, but what I’m looking forward to most is staying alive long enough to see my grandchildren, who are so beautiful, see their lives. I had so little time with my own children, who are close around me now. Two of my daughters live within a mile of me, and I’m surrounded by grandchildren. The 3rd daughter is 50 miles away, in Orange County; so not that far. But there’s so much. I said to my 9-year-old grandchild—she was being a 9-year-old—and I said, Come here. I looked her in the eye, because I wanted her attention, and said, “Do you realize there’s so much I can teach you?” Because she loves horses. It’s a connection.
Rumpus: How many grandchildren do you have?
Rumpus: I think that’s a beautiful thing to look ahead to.
Shatner: That’s what I look ahead to. That, and performing. I discovered what acting is about, about last year. I kept thinking, “Oh that’s what it’s about.” Everything. Don’t you think that about writing? Like, “Oh shit, that’s what I should be doing! I wish I had known that in my last book!”
Rumpus: Well, what is it you discovered about acting?
Shatner: Well I mean whatever it is! Like truth, or variety… I don’t know, just truth. Truth.
Rumpus: You’ve used the word ‘love’ a lot lately, in interviews and to explain yourself—like when there’s been talk of the animosity between you and the other actors in Star Trek: The Original Series. They’d say awful things about you, and your response would be, “But I love them!”
Shatner: I don’t understand what the fuck’s the matter with them!
Rumpus: I saw it in The Captains, and I get it.
Shatner: See, I love each one of those people that I talked too. I made a connection with each one of those people. I made a connection. I didn’t know them—except for Patrick Stewart, vaguely. Each one of those guys are friends of mine, I saw them [in May], there was a ComicCon in Philadelphia, and all five captains [ed. note: Patrick Stewart of Star Trek: The Next Generation; Kate Mulgrew of Voyager; Avery Brooks of Deep Space Nine; Scott Bakula of Enterprise; and Chris Pine of Star Trek] were there. I mean they’re my buddies, based on a day or two in their presence, and talking to them like this.
Rumpus: You know, I was thinking earlier… and this may amuse you… I’ve been a travel journalist for many years. And sometimes, when you visit a place you’ve heard about for a long time, it has an abstract quality at first.. Like the Taj Mahal.
Shatner: I’ve never been there.
Rumpus: Well, driving out here from Oakland, it occurred to me that you’re the same sort of an icon. I mean, I started watching you on Star Trek when I was 12—long before I even heard of the Taj Mahal! You’ve been an abstraction to me for many years, and it’s been quite remarkable to have this chance to sit down and meet you, talk with you.
Shatner: To me, what I think of, is the extraordinary extent that Man’s mind went—and I say ‘man’s,’ because obviously there was more than one—but the intention of the one guy was to make a place of love for his bride. That was the reason to make the Taj Mahal. Now, I’ve never seen it—other than in pictures—but great pictures, in the setting sun, with the reflection of the pool, or from on the other side of the river. I want to see it. But going to India seems like such a chore….
Rumpus: It can be a hard trip.
Shatner: But. The desire for that perfection. To say, ‘Here’s a bauble, my love…’ No— “Here, my love, is how much I love you.” I don’t know whether he did this, or whether I read this, or I’m imagining it. “I want you to wear this blindfold until I can show you what I’ve done.” That’s the way it should’ve been done. He takes her across the river, and then he says, “Let me take the blindfold off of you.” And she sees the Taj Mahal. And he says, “This is how much I love you.”
Rumpus: If only that were true.
Shatner: What’s the truth? She died?
Rumpus: Mumtaz Mahal was Shah Jahan’s third wife; they’d had 14 children together. She was his favorite wife, and when she died he built the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for her—and as a shrine to their love.
Shatner: Right! That’s even better.
Rumpus: Okay… I need to take your picture now. I think it’d be better under the pool umbrella, because otherwise it’s all glary and horrible.
Shatner: You think? But you know, glary is good.
Rumpus: No, it’s not! It doesn’t work for me, and it doesn’t work for you. It makes us both look all patchy and weird. Sorry.
Shatner: Well, the truth can’t be hidden for long.
A shorter version of this interview first appeared on the Smithsonian website. Copyright © 2012 by Jeff Greenwald / All rights reserved.
Photographs © 2012 by Jeff Greenwald