When you have 10 minutes on the phone with a showbiz legend whose career dates back to the 1950s, it is hard to know where to begin.
I interviewed William Shatner to preview his appearances at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank on Feb. 10 and BergenPAC in Englewood on Feb. 11. He will take the stage to share stories and answer audience questions after a screening of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” The 1982 film follows the Enterprise crew as they square off against a muscular despot named Khan (Ricardo Montalbán), who obtains a powerful weapon known as the Genesis Device.
I found it daunting to speak with Shatner knowing the clock was ticking, even though I have a long history of interviewing celebrities.
We had so much to discuss. Last year alone, the 91-year-old Montreal native released a memoir titled “Boldly Go: Reflections on a Life of Awe and Wonder” and an album called Bill, featuring guest appearances by Brad Paisley, Joe Walsh, Joe Jonas and others.
In 2022, he also performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., with Ben Folds, the producer of Shatner’s 2004 album Has Been, and competed on television’s “The Masked Singer,” offering a beat poetry interpretation of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” while dressed as a knight perched on a duck. (watch video below)
I was eager to ask Shatner about his 2021 ride that left him haunted by the cold void that surrounds our planet. With that suborbital trip, he became the oldest person to travel into space.
I spent hours poring over press clippings to compose a long list of questions about Shatner’s projects, the Trekkie subculture and the sci-fi franchise’s enduring appeal. After all, the third season of “Star Trek: Picard” debuts on Paramount+ next month.
In retrospect, that was not the correct approach, given my brief time slot. And it definitely was wrong to begin with an icebreaker about an earthquake that had rocked Malibu the morning of the interview. Shatner jokingly tweeted about the tremors so I figured it would be a nice, lighthearted way to begin our conversation.
Just as Shatner’s trip to space spurred existential thoughts and a sense of grief, this interview made me ponder the futility of life.
Q: I saw you had an earthquake this morning,
A: I woke up with a little shake and I went, “Hmm, that’s an earthquake.”
Q: Have you experienced any aftershocks?
A: No, the aftershock is talking to you. There’s a little trembling going on here and a little excitement and I’m sure it’s you. It’s a Lisa shock.
Q: I did want to ask you a few questions about your appearances in Jersey. I’ve seen you describe “Wrath of Khan” as a transformational film. What do you think it is about this movie that really speaks to audiences?
A: Transformational experiences, they are either few and far between or they happen all the time, depending on your awareness. So come to this film, you will have a transformational experience, because the film has been refurbished and it’s great color and great sound. And then I come out afterwards and answer questions about the film or about anything else that you might be curious about. And it is possible that the film, because it’s an emotional film, gives you an insight into your own life. And it’s possible that my answer (to one of the questions) might appeal to you in a transformational way. And you leave the theater somewhat differently than when you arrived.
Q: Have you had someone tell you that this film really was a transformational experience and struck them on a personal level?
A: You’re hung up on transformational experience. You’re asking me to give you one now, and we haven’t even seen each other. It’s hard to do secondhand, but I am sure, were you to be at the theater on the 10th or the 11th, you’ll have a transformational experience.
Q: What if I go to both shows, then I’m gonna have two transformational experiences.
A: What would be tragic is if you had the first transformational experience and then your second transforms you back. If you’re looking for a third transformational experience, you’d have to follow me wherever I’m going to after the 10th and 11th.
Q: I just wanted to talk to you a little bit about the film itself. Did you have a sense when you saw Ricardo Montalbán in costume and in character as Khan, that he was creating this iconic villain?
A: Did I have a transformational experience when he came onstage in his wardrobe? I did, actually, because I had known him vaguely. He was a dancer and a singer and I’d seen him in a musical on Broadway and then in the films as a Latin lover. And then I met him and he was having trouble moving. He had an accident on a horse and he wasn’t walking too well when he did his first appearance in a segment of “Star Trek.” When he came onstage for the movie, he was further gone. He couldn’t get out of his wheelchair. He had worked on his upper body. He was an athlete, so he had these enormous pectoral muscles that the wardrobe showed off beautifully.
Q: It was a pretty radical decision to kill Spock in the film. Did you have any reservations about the idea of Spock’s death?
A: Well, I made reservations. Several people wanted to kill Spock, so I made reservations. I got in line.
Q: Was it a long line?
A: It depends how you define long. If somebody wants to kill you and there are two people, that’s a long line. But if they want to give you alms, 50 people, that’s short. Killing Spock was transformational. But bringing him back to life was equally transformational. It was shocking. And I think I know the reason for writing it that way was to shock the audience and say, “Here’s what we’ll do with this character.” I’ll go further into this very insightful question when I see you at the theater on the 10th and the 11th.
Q: I know we have basically no time left, but I just wanted to see if you could share a really insightful question or comment you’ve received from the audience at these shows.
A: What is the most profound experience? And we have, what, 10 seconds?
Q: One second.
A: One of my most profound experiences is having talked with you, Lisa. I am anticipating another transformational experience on the 10th and 11th of February in Red Bank and Englewood.
William Shatner will appear at screenings of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, Feb. 10 at 7:30 p.m.; and at BergenPAC in Englewood, Feb. 11 at 8 p.m. Tickets are available here for Red Bank, and here for BergenPAC.
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