Of all the minutiae gathered over the years about William Shatner — that he starred in a horror film shot entirely in Esperanto; that he once recorded a song with punk icon Henry Rollins called "I Can't Get Behind That"; that he developed tinnitus after an explosion in a Star Trek episode where he beat up some kind of weird lizard alien — it's his age that takes most people by surprise. William Shatner, believe it or not, is 81 years old.
This is stunning to generations of geeks raised on Star Trek reruns, to whom William Shatner and Captain Kirk are inseparable figures. When we picture Shatner, he's not a man who could pass for your grandfather but an ageless apparition composed of TV clips, movie stills and Priceline.com commercials. Even though he's remade himself in a variety of venues — from TV's Boston Legal, where he made the rascally Denny Crane his third TV cult hero, to a cover of Pulp's "Common People" that snarls at being anybody's punch line — he always toys with our awareness that we're watching "William Shatner" the pop-culture construct. We could argue that our composite Shatner is just as real as the man himself.
But with Shatner's World, a living memoir that he's performing across the nation — including a stop 8 p.m. Saturday at TPAC's Jackson Hall — Shatner begs to differ.
In his one-man show (subtitled, of course, "we just live in it"), Shatner unspools his life over the course of about two hours, covering his childhood in Canada, his time as a struggling and then successful actor, his bizarre music career, all wrapped in a lingering darkness combined with knowing jabs of self-awareness and self-deprecating good humor. But when the Scene spoke to Shatner by phone in December, he wanted to make sure one point came across.
"Let me say a couple of words about the show: It's an entertaining show," Shatner said, with none of the declamatory bravado that Kirk impersonators seize upon. "It's full of laughs. I riff on music and comedy and love and death and motorcycles and horses. A lot of subjects that you wouldn't think I would be talking about that I do."
Talking to William Shatner is kinda like talking to your grandfather, if your grandfather spent three years in the late '60s bedding green women on television. He's warm and charming, but all business. As badly as you might want him to, Shatner doesn't speak in the trademark staccato that peppered the Enterprise's bridge with clipped syllables, or warned the Twilight Zone stewardess that hell yes a gremlin was tearing up the airplane wing. But he'd love to tell you about how happy he is to be visiting Nashville and, of course, how pleased he is to be talking to you.
Whether you believe him or not is entirely up to you. But it's hard not to — even if he doesn't play into his "type" as you might expect.
Is this the first time you've been onstage since your time as a Shakespearean actor in Canada?
Oh, no. I'm onstage quite a bit doing one thing or another, but the fact that I have been performing in front of a lot of people in a sort of spontaneous way, in an improvisational way, has allowed me the confidence that I can amuse and entertain a large number of people by myself. It can be harrowing.
How did this show come about? What made you decide to put together an autobiographical one-man show?
Well, I was asked to come to Australia to do something like this and I thought if I fail miserably, I'll be far enough away that [nobody at home] will know. And then it was successful, so Canada wanted me to do it, so I toured Canada. And then Broadway beckoned. So, I thought I better rewrite this and see how I could improve it — which I did — and I was able to do New York and got lovely notices. It just sort of evolved, and it's a joy to do and I love doing it, and I will particularly love performing it in Nashville.
You've been through Nashville a handful of times before, haven't you? I know you recorded Has Been here with Ben Folds.
Yes, exactly. Recorded Has Been with Ben Folds there. Won a documentary award at Nashville Film Festival, and I have friends who live there. Since we compete in saddlebreds a lot and we have a home in Kentucky — Louisville is another city we go to a lot — it's a short jump to Nashville.
So this is a show based on your life and your career, but for all that you've done, it seems like the one thing that people always want to talk about and always consider you as part of is your time on Star Trek. Is that something you've had to embrace over the years?
Star Trek was a wonderful part of what I've done and I guess launched everything all of those years ago, so I'm nothing but grateful to it and, yes, embrace it. Absolutely embrace it. And try and amplify it and make it work. I refer to Star Trek in the one-man show in an oblique way. You won't be ... it's not something you'd be accustomed to, the way I present Star Trek; I present it in an unusual way.
[Note: That way, if you're curious, is through projected images on stage and sly references. Shatner's World is a story that happens to include Star Trek but couldn't be mistaken for being a story about Star Trek.]
What's it like to be at a stage of your career where people are writing scripts and characters specifically for you to play yourself?
How do you mean? What is it like to play a role that's written for me?
Yes, in a way.
What is your thinking of what role is being written for me?
Well, there are a lot of people who grew up watching Star Trek and other shows and movies you've starred in and many of those people have an idea of who you are based on the characters that you've played. Now those people are writing their own television shows and movies and want to put this version of you in them.
Ah, yes, in a few limited number of cases, somebody will write something like that and I generally don't do it. My job is to make you forget who I am and sell you the idea that this fictional character is who I am. That's my job. But, in this case, in this one-man show, I'm working on several levels — one of which is, it's me, but it's not me.
How do you make that designation onstage?
Well, it happens by osmosis, mostly. I'm not being cunning in trying to do something you haven't thought of. It's just a matter of you losing, slowly, your perception of me and become involved in a story I'm telling you.
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