Shatner Breaks Out: An Interview with William Shatner

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.

shatnerZ: What were your earliest acting days like?

WS: 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.

Z: 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.

Z: 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.

Z: 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.

Z: You were working simultaneously as an actor and a businessman?

WS: Yes, in those small theatres you get to do everything.

Z: Did you ever have any kind of formal acting training?

WS: Not really. I just did it until everybody stopped objecting.

Z: 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.”

Z: 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.

Z: 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.

Z: What was your favorite role before Captain Kirk?

WS: I don’t think in those terms. I don’t know how to answer that.

Z: 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.

Z: 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.

Z: 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.

Z: 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.

Z: 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.

Z: 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.

Z: 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.

Z: 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’?”

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