INTERVIEW: William Shatner Talks Star Trek, His Horse Obsession, and His Comic-Con Doc Debut

William Shatner interview - Comic-Con - Star Trek

After creating a public persona with at least as much swagger as the character with whom he’s most strongly identified — Star Trek’s Captain Kirk — it came as little surprise that the first thing William Shatner said at the beginning of Movieline's interview for his new documentary was an explicit statement of purpose. “My film Get a Life is debuting July 28th on EPIX,” he said without being asked. “We’re going to show it at Comic-Con on Saturday – and we’re all excited about it.”

Shatner is, deservedly, an icon: 45-plus years after first playing Kirk, he’s more beloved than ever, in great part because he has wholeheartedly embraced the adulation of hundreds of thousands of Trek fans. But in naming his documentary after the 1986 Saturday Night Live skit in which he jokingly challenged Trekkies to find something else to do with their time, he demonstrates that he’s not above a little self-satire, especially when it’s those fans who have continued to keep his career alive. That said, neither is he beyond some passing exasperation over hearing the same questions over and over again – evidenced most strongly when he’s finally asked something new.

Shatner spoke to Movieline Wednesday morning from Kentucky, where he’s tending to his own obsession – horse breeding. While trying to get at what has made Star Trek such an enduring property, the actor revealed how he came to terms with being James T. Kirk, reflected on how the questions brought up in his first directorial effort, Star Trek V, were oddly answered 23 years later in Get a Life, and explained why fans probably shouldn’t ask him too many questions about Trek mythology.

When you first started to examine why people continue to celebrate Star Trek, how in-depth did you intend to get? Was this meant to be sort of a reward for fans’ devotion or a video essay for you to try and understand it?
Well, that’s exactly right. You know, the process of making a documentary is one of discovery, and like writing a story, you follow a lead and that leads you to something else and then by the time you finish, the story is nothing like you expected. And that’s the discovery I made – what you see happening to me on film is happening to me on film. I had no idea what to expect, and what I saw, my face reflected the astonishment of these various truths that came out that made it a far deeper experience than I ever thought of.

How quickly did the examination become so existential? Was that something you saw in fans’ responses, or did that largely come from your conversation with the Joseph Campbell expert?
That’s exactly right – from the fans’ responses, which led me to other fans that had a deeper understanding of what we were looking at, and then it just became exploration. And then bewilderment, and then wonderment! And it was something that was totally unexpected, and I expect that will be the audience’s experience as well – a totally unexpected observation of why people go to conventions, and about what the enduring fascination has been. So that’s the fascination, and that’s the secret behind the endurance of Star Trek – it has become part of the mythology of this culture. And nobody that I knew had a valid answer when I asked, “What do you think is the reason for the endurance of Star Trek, and why do you think people devote their lives to it, so much money and time, and bring their children to it?” The various answers I gave – science-fiction, the story, the appeal of the fact that we exist 300 years from now, all of those are part of it, but the real answer is more mystical than that.

At what point did you decide to have that conversation with the Joseph Campbell expert?
When I met him, the more I talked to him, the more fascinated I became, and so I decided to get a real setting and sit down and do a real interview. I’ve had some fun doing interviews in the past on television, and brought that experience to bear on him – and there was this whole philosophy laid out in front of me that put the whole documentary to a cohesive whole that I never expected. And had I not had it, it would be that much less.

At what point did you really embrace or accept the fandom that your role as Kirk inspired?
Quite a while ago. Over the years and talking to 10,000 people on an ad-lib basis, it kind of hones your skills for entertaining an audience in an [improvisational] way. And I began to use those experiences as a way of being an actor in front of an audience, and evolve stories and anecdotes that appeal to them. I wrote some books about it and ended up doing a one-man show about it last year – and we’ll be going out again this year – that exists because I’ve stood in front of large audiences not knowing what the next word coming out of my mouth was going to be. So I embraced the audiences a long time ago and sought to entertain them in various ways – this being one of them, the observation of what they are actually doing.

How much are you able to apply the values and characteristics that fans see in Kirk into other creative ventures – to capitalize on the qualities that they seem to respond to?
Well, the series appeals on a high moral level, that [Gene] Roddenberry engendered, and they’re universals – people are good, eventually people will be good, the evolvement of man is towards the positive, life will exist and we’ll work our way out of these problems. All of the positive aspects of life are there, and for me that certainly is a personal philosophy.

How much at this point do you really know about Star Trek? Can you go toe to toe with these fans and trade minutiae?
No, no, no – I know nothing. My wife has to remind me of my name every so often. You know, it’s 40 years ago – why would I remember? It was a three-year job and then it was over, and then that was it. And then people began to remind me of what I had done.

Which episode or part of the Trek world do you get asked about the most, and which do you find they ask about least, or seldom mention?
There are many, many general questions, the likes of which you’re asking, and so, yeah, they’re just about what you think they are – your favorite episode, the philosophy, and why it has remained. Those questions still exist. But we sought in the documentary to bring this to another level to show these people – some in need, some in joy – but everybody being attracted to the Star Trek ideals, and yearning – that’s a word I haven’t used before – yearning for them to be true. And hoping, and living for that moment when the beauty that man can exude will be real and paramount. That’s what I think all of these people are looking for.

What thing in your life gives you the same kind of passion – the fandom – that people show to Trek?
Well, right now I’m talking to you from Kentucky, where I’m competing for horses, in the horse world that I exist in for a large part of my life other than as an actor. My wife and I are totally involved in horses, and that is one of our great passions. And it’s interesting that I’m talking to you about Star Trek from another area of my life that makes me feel equally good.

So in the way your fans know the mythology of the series, you would know the geneology of horses, maybe.
Yes, exactly – you’re exactly right. The details of the horses are comparable to the details people ask me about Star Trek, only I think I’m far more knowledgeable about the horses than I am about Star Trek.

Star Trek V, which you directed, confronted questions of faith and identity, and in retrospect it almost feels like you’re addressing the subtext of that film in this documentary.
What an interesting observation. My God, man – that’s pure intelligence. My respect for you has increased enormously. That’s a wild conclusion, and yes, I agree with you. Had I known what I know now – because I had so many troubles and problems with getting the story for the search for God that Paramount wouldn’t let me make and Roddenberry wouldn’t let me make – I would have had more ammunition to convince them that the story I wanted to tell, and the story they forced me to tell made one or two compromises too many. That’s the lesson I learned on Star Trek V: When do you stand your ground and when do you compromise? We’re looking at that in our government right now, and that’s the problem with our government – everybody is standing on principle.

Looking at that film and Get a Life as bookends, do you feel like you were asking questions then that you’re maybe finding answers for now?
That’s right, man – you are absolutely right. I wanted to ask the question, if you were able to take a spaceship and find God, what would you find? And if you found the opposite, a fallen angel, what would you find? That’s the question I wanted to ask. That was going through my mind. Eric Van Lustbader used to write novels about an American in Japan and didn’t fit in in Japan, I wanted him to write that movie because he would have been the perfect guy to understand the philosophical questions being asked and put them into action. And the studio and Van Lustbader fought over the book right, and Van Lustbader never got to write the movie – which I think was a blow to what I would have liked to have done. So I never did accomplish in Star Trek V what I wanted to, but in this documentary, exploring those questions – where do we go, what do we do, what is mythology, what were the Greeks thinking when they made up those mythological beings, and what were they looking for. All of those questions that belonged to the universalities of man, those were some of the questions I wanted to ask in Star Trek V. And science-fiction allows us to do that because science-fiction is, in effect, the search for God.

And that’s really all I have time to talk to you for. It’s a shame because your questions are now approaching unique – uniqueness. But I don’t have time for you.

Todd Gilchrist is a Los Angeles-based film critic and entertainment journalist for a variety of online and print publications. You can follow his work via Twitter at @mtgilchrist.

Read more from Comic-Con 2012 here.

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