When Xena Met Captain Kirk–Lucy Interviews William Shatner
NZ Herald 13 June 2014
I catch up with William Shatner as he enjoys a rare moment of respite in a deluxe massage chair overlooking the Niagara Falls. He's been glad-handing admirers at fan conventions across America because, he says, his horses keep him poor. Hard to believe. Tomorrow he goes to shoot a movie in Georgia. At 83, the man never stops.
Lucy Lawless: Hi, I'm sorry to interrupt your session with your massage chair. Is it in your room?
William Shatner: It's the best massage chair I've ever seen. The ones I've always used just push you around a little. This is a great massage chair.
LL: And it squeezes your legs, right? Is it one of those ones?
WS: And your feet!
LL: Oh nice!
WS: And then your hips and then your shoulders, and then you put your arms under something and it presses down on your arms!
LL: Wow, cool. And you cannot watch television while sitting on one of those, have you noticed?
WS: You know, you have to give yourself to the chair. Queen Elizabeth does, why can't we?
LL: I've got a few questions that were submitted by journalists who were very excited. You covered Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds on your Transformed Manalbum. It's the 50th anniversary of the Beatles invading the US.
What are your memories of the period and was your reading of the song influenced by Peter Sellers who had done A Hard Day's Night and She Loves You some years before?
WS: Well, I know nothing. Fifty years ago I was dimly aware of the Beatles. I thought they were strange, I thought their music was simplistic, I thought their haircut was ridiculous and I found them somewhat offensive.
It took me till about 10 years ago. I had an iPod that was empty and a friend of mine said, "Oh, I'll give you all my songs," and I think it is against the law but I did it, and they downloaded all their songs. So I realised as I walked away that I had somebody else's musical soul in my iPod. I was shooting a movie at the time and I was shooting late at night so I had to stay up, and I couldn't make much noise, so I used earphones which I'd never really done before, and I plugged in this iPod, the music of which I didn't know what the contents were. And I found the Beatles'White Album, and I played it, listening now because the earphones were intently beaming that music into the centre of my brain. And I suddenly hear the Beatles' music for the first time, and fell in love with the Beatles and Beatle music. I ended up last year, we were doing a Shakespeare reading in front of a thousand people, a group of Hollywood people, and myself, and George ...
WS: No, give me the next Beatle ... [Lucy names the Beatles] Paul McCartney! Paul McCartney was part of the Shakespeare reading in that he supplied mood music, and I got to sing Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds with Paul McCartney. ... And that's my Beatles story.
WS: Isn't that a wow?
LL: That is really a wow. Do you have a favourite Beatles song apart from that one?
WS: Well, I did Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds on an album and it was scoffed at at first, and then second glance, it was merely laughed at. And I was stuck with the interpretation of a drug addict searching for LSD, which I thought the song was about - well, that's general knowledge. When I asked Paul about it he said no, it was taken off crayon drawings that his child had pinned up on the refrigerator. Is this getting complex?
LL: No, no, I love it. You know, I watched you on YouTube, I think it was in 1972 where Bernie Taupin introduced you doing a spoken word rendition of Rocketman, and from the polite applause at the end I felt like your absurdist humour was too far ahead of the curve of Hollywood. It really took them till the 90s to really catch up to you.
WS: [Laughs] I was trying to do Frank Sinatra doing Bernie doing Rocketman.
LL: Didn't you get the sense that people didn't get you? Did it ever bother you?
WS: Well what bothers me is, sometimes I'm playing with the fun of it and other times, the lyric is so good that I'm able to use it as poetry, backed by a melody line and they don't know whether to take it seriously or not. So I have a new album out there, the lyrics of which I wrote, and a really well-known musician by the name of Billy Sherwood, who's played with the group Yes for many years, wrote the music. And ...
LL: What's it called?
WS: ... the lyrics I take seriously. And the music. And it's sort of a concept album. It's a progressive rock album.
LL: Where can we buy that?
WS: Turn left when you leave the house.
LL: So you can get it at a record store? 'Cause it's not on iTunes, is it?
WS: I believe it is, it's called Ponder the Mystery.
LL: So you mentioned Shakespeare, and you were trained as a Shakespearean actor. Was it a great surprise to you to find yourself out in space?
WS: No ... though the words that Shakespeare wrote have a certain ring and cadence to them, speaking the English language can be rhythmic and beautiful no matter who wrote it, even in its simplicity. So there were many scripts that Star Trek had that had a beauty about them and an intention about them and I was just coming off the stage so I was rather stagey in my delivery, was rather theatrical in my delivery, so it wasn't that far from ... don't mean to make it sound like Shakespeare ... but it wasn't that far from the rhythmic delivery that one assumes is required by Shakespeare, although I don't necessarily subscribe to that school either.
LL: Did you see yourself very much as a jobbing actor at the time?
WS: Yeah, what people don't understand about what we do, you and I, is that you also do it to make a living, and you might take jobs that you wouldn't ordinarily take for a variety of reasons, not the least of which it pays very well.
LL: Did it pay well? Because I don't think people realise that the original series ofStar Trek only went for three years, from 1996-1969.
WS: No, it didn't. It didn't pay well when we did it, and it was before the time when you got residuals. So we've never gotten residuals as a result of Star Trek.
LL: I think it had modest success in its first run, did it not? Did you feel you had made it?
WS: No, it was ... in the 30s and 40s of popular shows, so it wasn't disastrous but it wasn't in the Top 10.
LL: Did you ever have the feeling 'I've made it'?
WS: No. I wrote a song, that's on an album called Has Been, in which I bemoan the fact I've never known when I made it. I've never made it in my opinion.
LL: Is that what drives you? Because sincerely, you're the most vital and the most creative fella I think I've ever met. Is it curiosity, is it a compulsion, is it something from your childhood that makes those decisions for you ... what drives you?
WS: Well, I think really what drives me, is I have the opportunity to do these things. Most actors are trying to do one thing, I'm being offered to do a variety of things, whether it's designing a watch, designing a motorcycle, doing man-in-the-street interviews, playing in Shakespeare, appearing in front of a crowd and ad-libbing for an hour, and entertaining them, doing a one-man show in front of thousands of people, and entertaining for two hours, and keeping them entertained, keeping their attention, and the variety of things that I do is because I've been given the opportunity and I keep thinking ... I've just got to do this one thing, before I start thinking about time and the usage of time. It's that but it's also the curiosity. Doing a one-man show on Broadway is berserk, you'd have to be insane. It's a death wish in a way because you leave yourself open to such criticism.
I mean, I was rehearsing when Charlie Sheen went out on a one-man show and got laughed off the stage. And that's not dissimilar to a time when I went into a large tank that had a couple of orcas in it and swam with the orcas and on the way up to San Francisco to do it, I was reading in the newspaper how a trainer got pulled down and killed by an orca and that was the subject of a documentary called Black Fish, and at the very time it was happening, I was in a pool in San Francisco (that happened in San Diego) and the trainer was saying to me, "Now listen, I'm going to tell you this just once but you've got to be very, very careful. When you put your arms around the orca, he's going to dance with you, and when I blow this whistle, you must drop off, and I'll attract his attention with a fish. You must swim as quickly as you can to the dock."
LL: Well, you were bonkers to get in the water.
WS: Bonkers is right, my dear.
LL: Yes, well, you are a very adventurous performer as well. Did you ever find yourself on stage and realise that you were way out on a limb?
WS: I'm with a leading actress and we're rehearsing a play, the author of Boys in the Band which was a hit Broadway show, written about gay boys, had this major success, the thing had run for two years, Jose Quintero was directing. Does that name sound familiar to you?
WS: Jose Quintero was a great American director, one of the top few, and he was directing the play, and I can't think of the guy's name, the author, but he had written Boys in the Band, and I was with this leading lady and we rehearsed with Jose Quintero and we were opening in Los Angeles prior to going to Broadway, and the opening was the two of us to stand in front of the curtain on the apron and do something, deliver some words. And the house lights go out, the stage darkens, we were waiting for the lights to come up on us and we were in front of the critics and the Hollywood audience, I mean who could be more bitingly critical, and she says to me, are we in a disaster?
And then the lights come up.
LL: And you didn't think you were until that moment. And then you knew.
WS: You can't allow yourself to think this is disastrous otherwise how can you go out on stage?
LL: So you came to NZ in 2011, you performed your one-man show, a collection of stories about your brilliant and textured life thus far. Your stories about your marriages brought the house down. You lost your third wife, Noreen, to alcoholism. What did you learn from your life with Noreen?
WS: I learned that love does not conquer all. I thought that with lavish applications of love which I deeply felt for her that I could change the course of her alcoholism. In fact, I'd been warned not to marry her because of alcoholism, but I loved her so much that I thought that and she thought as well, or at least gave lip service to it, because as you may or may not know, an alcoholic is very devious, and I thought I could cure her or at least dissuade the devils that drive somebody to alcohol. And I learned that it doesn't. It isn't fairy book like that. It generally doesn't work, I suppose it does with some people ...
LL: So instead of all the love in the world, what is it that you think they need?
WS: Well, they know intellectually that they are killing themselves. They know from going to AA even in a cursory way that they are going to die from cirrhosis of the liver, of an accident, like a car accident, or drown, those are the three major reasons for ... and drowning, I believe, is the chief cause of death in alcoholism and they all know that, intellectually. But the brain grows dendrites, new material, to accommodate the alcoholism, and then it craves the alcohol, the body grows something else, like a callus, which replaces the worn skin, that is what the body does to defend itself or assimilate the alcohol. And then now it becomes a physical thing and it isn't just mental. It starts off being a mental disease and turns into a physical requirement like food and air. And how do you get somebody off food and air? And these are only truths I learned subsequent to all of that.
LL: There's no easy answer, is there?
WS: No, so the recidivism rate or the rate at which alcoholics can be cured is so slim, you know, the truth of the matter is AA is about 10 per cent ... they can help maybe one person out of 10 ... the rate is very, very bad.
LL: Are you kidding?
WS: No, there are spas that say "we have a 90 per cent success rate" and Noreen went to all of them. And there's no 30 days. It takes years, and you've got to be in a place for years or at least a year. To begin to allow the thing that the brain grows which, as I understand it, is like a dendrite, like a vine, like a nerve ending, to accommodate the alcohol, for it to die off. Like if you starve a root.
LL: Who impresses you, Bill?
WS: Who impresses me? My darling, you walked into that room and I was bowled over ... your spirit, your beauty, your stature, everything about you is impressive.
LL: Well that's not getting in print, I can tell ya! Well, aside from me, then? Clearly ...
WS: What impresses me? I'm impressed, I befriended, I had a really interesting experience, and I haven't quite explained it to myself yet ... I've been doing some man-on-the-street interviews, I'm calling it Brown Bag Wine Tasting, and I get the strangest people and ask them to have a sip of wine with me, and use it as an insert into a conversation. So I've recently sold the show and they then wanted 10 more and they arranged for 10 or 15 people for me to interview. So they found one person that remains in my mind, actually more than one, but this one is a really good example, so there was this young African American kid, maybe in his middle 20s, so I'm sitting at the table and we're introduced and they start rolling the cameras and I say, "Let's taste this wine." I said, "What kind of wine do you like?" And he said, "I've never tasted wine," and I said, "Well this is a wine show." The people had been playing a joke on me. Not a joke, but to see how I would handle it. So I began, rather than cutting it short or talking down to him, I began to educate him on the complexities of wine, like you would a child. And this 24-year-old marijuana dealer, he deals in marijuana, that's how he's begun to make money legitimately, because it's medical marijuana in California, he's begun to work himself out of the ghetto, he has a wife or girlfriend and child, he now has a home, he's driving a car, and he's 24 years old and he's making money on dealing marijuana, but what impressed me was his openness, this absolute vulnerability to the world around him which he's never seen before.
LL: I guess I've only got one more question because I've taken up enough of your time. You do a lot of work for charity, and in fact you've sold a kidney stone for $75,000 to benefit Habitat for Humanity.
WS: The cast of Boston Legal kicked in $25,000 and the $100,000 we gave to Habitat for Humanity and they built a house for a family in the New Orleans area that was devastated by the hurricane.
LL: Hey, you got any more of those?
WS: Kidney stones? Well I'm drinking a lot of calcium stuff so I'm hoping to make one.
LL: You're a wonderful man, thank you so much.
WS: Ta, ta, dear ...