When asked if he’ll reprise the role of Spock for an upcoming Star Trek sequel, set for release in 2012, Leonard Nimoy exclaims: “Isabel! You’re talking to a photographer! That’s all over for me.”
Nimoy was sitting on a bench in Lenox, Massachusetts, days before the opening of his first solo show at a major museum. His wife, Susan, was busy shopping across the street. Soon they’ll travel to North Adams, where Nimoy’s exhibition of photographs, Secret Selves, will open on Sunday at Mass MoCA.
Click Below to View Our Gallery of Secret Selves
Selves is part art, part social experiment. The project began when Nimoy and his gallerist, Rich Michelson, recruited volunteers around North Adams to pose as their “secret selves”—little-known alter egos—for Nimoy to photograph. There were, naturally, hundreds of applicants, but they invited 100 people to come to the studio and sit for Nimoy. Each came prepared to pose as his or her secret identity—and had the props on hand to illustrate it.
What followed was a slice of humanity as diverse as Nimoy’s film roles: the toy company employee posing as “secret whore”; the Episcopal priest as tough guy; the children’s book illustrator as concert guitarist; the ex-Marine in drag, who explains simply: “I live life as Clark Kent, but I’d rather be Rita Hayworth.” As such, Nimoy engaged each of his subjects, and directed them around the studio—which is captured in a 40-minute video that accompanies the works in the show.
For Nimoy, the social experiment provoked a question: “Is this a snapshot of a particular community, or can you get this anywhere in the world? Would you get the same thing if you did it in Great Falls?”
And while it may seem odd to pose nude in front of Spock, Nimoy explains that each sitter interacted with him as an artist—effectively splitting Nimoy’s identity as an actor from the person behind the camera. “They weren’t dealing with an actor anymore,” he says.
So if everyone has a secret self, then surely Nimoy, whose name is practically synonymous with his most famous film role—has one too, right? “To tell you the truth, I feel like I’ve acted out every possible secret self for the last 60 years,” he says, laughing. “I’ve done vicious people, honest people, porks—I’ve done all kinds of self.”
And after six decades of becoming different people, acting is now officially behind him. Nimoy may finally have a singular identity: that of an artist.
But that doesn’t mean he’s not waiting for clues from above to figure out what he’s going to do next. “After Sunday, I’m hoping I’m getting a message,” he says as if he’s a young Spock receiving a calling. “’This is what you have to do next, Nimoy. Get off your butt.’” But, he laughs it off: “It would have to be something pretty special, because I don’t want to waste my time. My life is pretty good.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated MASS MoCA is in Northampton. It is in North Adams.
Isabel Wilkinson is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast.