“It’s a pleasure to look at you. I’m sure many people have said you’re nice to look at,” says William Shatner.
“I think you should maybe get up on stage and say… look at me.”
Captain Kirk famously explored a strange new female of a different species in most episodes of Star Trek. No wonder then that William Shatner’s opening line – simply to confirm the Zoom call is working – is a barrage of disarming charm.
I explain that I couldn’t be like him, somebody who everyone turns to look at when walking into a room. That seems like a nightmare.
“It is a nightmare!” he exclaims. “Especially if you have a pimple on your nose. They would say, ‘Oh, look at him, he’s got a pimple on his nose, he must be human.’”
But is William Shatner human? At 90 he looks astounding. His voice. Still distinctive. Recently he has spoken about collaborating with StoryFile, a company that turns people into life-sized holograms that can hold conversations. How do I know this is the real William Shatner?
“You-don’t-know-that-I’m-not-a-hologram,” he responds robotically.
He explains the StoryFile process, spending five days in front of cameras answering close to 1,000 questions about his life, the universe, everything.
“Then you can press a button and ask your image a question. And based on what you fed the computer, the artificial intelligence selects the answer,” he says.
“That ends up being one of your pieces of legacy. You could put it on your grave. And somebody could come along and say: ‘Bill, who did you love?’ And I would have an answer. Not surface questions: ‘How did you like Star Trek?’ but questions that somebody really yearned to know.”
The planet can’t sustain seven billion, let alone 10 billion. It’s such a complex problem. And nobody’s dealing with it. Nobody!
Neither hologram nor merely human, William Shatner is already immortal. A three-year stint on Star Trek in the 1960s guaranteed that.
Shatner trained as a Shakespearean actor in his native Canada, stopped off on Broadway and took countless bit parts in films and TV through the 1950s before beaming aboard the Enterprise in 1966 as Captain James T Kirk.
Though it seems highly illogical now, Star Trek stuttered in the ratings and was quietly cancelled in 1969. At the same time however, real-life spacemen were boldly going where no one had gone before.
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Inspired by the Apollo missions, a new audience of fans was primed for a series that tapped into an optimistic, hopeful vision of the future. Today, the future seems bleaker. Does Shatner think the human race will even make it to the 23rd century when Star Trek was set?
“No,” he answers. “Fifty years ago, I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. I remember vividly. What she said was going to happen has happened.
“And I remember coming to England and giving an interview saying, ‘Hey, this is what’s going to happen.’ And the interview that was published was, this stupid actor thinks there’s going to be these terrible things. I remember resenting it. Because I’m an actor, can’t I have an opinion?
“What we’ve done, all of us, is bury our head in the sand. It’s so awful to contemplate what’s going to happen. And it’s going to happen.
“Recently I’ve been reading about the city of Miami thinking of erecting sea walls. All those port cities – England is filled with port cities – are going to have to erect walls, the way the Dutch have, to keep out the ocean. No question about it.
“I’ve seen maps of what the ocean is going to do to Bangladesh. There’s 60 million people in Bangladesh? It’s going to be underwater! Where are those people going to go? India already has too many people. Pakistan, are you kidding me?
“That’s going to be the way it’s going to affect the world. And it’s going to be awful.”
No stranger to saving planets, Shatner has a solution: “If somebody invents, Manhattan Project-like, the ability to withdraw the carbon out of the air so that you can make solid carbon out of the carbon dioxide and then bury it maybe we could mitigate the damage.
“The real reason everything is happening is there’s too many people,” he continues. “The planet can’t sustain seven billion, let alone 10 billion. It’s such a complex problem. And nobody’s dealing with it. Nobody!
“’Let’s spend some money on global warming’, says Biden. And the rest of the people say, Oh, we can’t afford it. I mean, it’s absolutely ridiculous. Ridiculous!
“It is going to be, not the end of mankind, but it’s going to be the decline of mankind.
“We’re going to live on mountaintops and – the trees – trees are already moving uphill. Are you aware of that? Some trees are moving. The trees are dying over here [he points one way] and the seeds are living up there [he points the other way]. The forests are moving uphill into higher and drier climates.”
Fans of Shatner’s unique vocal stylings will be delighted to know another is on the way, Love, Death and Horses. On it he talks about his plans for voyaging to that undiscovered country.
Am I right in saying you want to be a tree?
“That’s exactly right. I am going to be a redwood. I have a place I want to be buried, some land I own, which is just below the sequoia forest in California. Of course, you want to be a sequoia, the biggest tree. But it takes the longest, 1,000 years, so a redwood will be more viable.”
Tree burials – where cremated remains are placed in a pod and a tree planted on top – is a growing trend, especially in Asian countries.
“I want my body, my ashes, to nourish the roots of a young tree and grow. And actually, that’s one of the answers, isn’t it? Instead of taking up land for the dead body: Oh, there goes Uncle Sam, let’s go see Uncle Sam in his grave. Then you stop seeing Uncle Sam and Uncle Sam’s body lies there mouldering. And it’s of no value!
“This way you use the atoms of your body to nourish something living like a tree. I think it makes a great deal of sense. I love it. And I want to be a tree.”
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But Shatner is light years away from crossing that final frontier. He travels to conventions taking place across the US and up until Covid was touring the world hosting screenings of The Wrath of Khan.
His attitude comes from the horses he rides.
“Horses are prey animals,” he says. “They don’t worry about what the lion might have done yesterday, they’re not worried about the predator tomorrow. What horses give you is a sense of staying in the now. That’s what I try and do.”
Not to say he doesn’t feel some effects of ageing.
“Everything is changing. The stars are burning. Eventually they’ll burn out, and new stars will form. We age ourselves.
“You’re not aware that things are changing until change is thrust on you. Golly, I can hardly make it up those stairs – I used to run up those stairs. Maybe the oxygen exchange in your lungs and your blood is not as efficient as it was. The end of our DNA begins to wear out as we get older. Our muscles stiffen up and our bones get brittle. I see it, I feel it in my body.
“But what I’m not feeling is intellectual change. I feel as creative and as alive and as perceptive of, for example, you, as I’ve ever been. Or even more so.”
The only senior moment he’s having is the film Senior Moment, a lovely story where former test pilot Victor loses his driving licence but finds new love after being forced on to the bus.
When did you last take public transport?
“Alright, so how do we define… subway, trains, buses?” He pauses. “I can’t remember.”
When were you last pulled over by the police? “Prior to Covid I was on tour with a show. I had to get 400 miles from one venue to the other the next night. When the curtain came down, I jumped into the car. The faster I could go, the more time I would have to sleep.
“Three times on an empty highway on that 400-mile journey police pulled me over. The red light would go on, let me see your licence, come out, get into my car. I get into the passenger seat and as that light went on, each individual policeman said: ‘No shit – Shatner!’ And they let me go.”
He wrote in one of his many autobiographies that the primary source of passions in his life has been danger, fear, anxiety. When was the last time he felt those things?
“I have a sore shoulder,” he begins. “I fell off a horse running at full speed. Her left leg went into a depression, shoved me forward. The horse thought I meant her to stop so she pulled up, my forward momentum continued. I had my arm around the horse’s neck trying to hang on, she veered to the right because she didn’t know what I was doing. And I fell on my shoulder.”
My philosophy has always been this: actors don’t get hurt, the stuntmen get hurt
When was this?
“Two weeks ago. There’s a bone right on the tip there. It’s not broken completely, but it’s cracked.”
Then he decides we’re gonna need a bigger anecdote.
“I went down, scuba dove to about 60 feet. And 10-15 feet away from me there were four 16 or 18ft tiger sharks.
“There was a woman, they called her the shark whisperer. For the last 30 years she’s been working with sharks to the point where she could pet a shark and she carried a shark over and put it on my lap. Now I’m petting a bloody shark with my bare hands, I’m in the midst of danger. And I’m loving it.”
Shatner’s underwater exploits will feature in this month’s Shark Week. To paraphrase a myth on the theme, he says it’s important to “allow information to flow through your gills, otherwise you’ll die”.
“I drive fast cars. I go under with sharks. And my family say, don’t – for God’s sake! And I find myself doing it. My philosophy has always been this: actors don’t get hurt, the stuntmen get hurt.
“I swear, at the back of my mind, deep inside my subconscious, if somebody is going to get hurt it will be somebody else, not me.”