William Shatner Wants Elon Musk to Save the Earth
The “Star Trek” legend opens up to Marlow Stern about his new film “Senior Moment,” using CBD, selling thousands of NFTs, and why he’s never been to a Hollywood party.
At the ripe age of 90, William Shatner has boldly gone where few nonagenarians have gone before: playing the lead in a romantic comedy film.
Yes, the Canadian acting icon, best known as Captain James Tiberius Kirk in the Star Trek television series and films, has traded in the Starship Enterprise for a vintage Porsche in Senior Moment, a sweet little movie that sees Shatner’s lifelong cad fall for a coffee shop owner (Jean Smart, lovely as always) in Palm Springs. It’s the type of old school rom-com that has fast gone out of style—a harmless jaunt that allows the “Rocket Man” crooner with the inimitable delivery to exhibit his softer side.
And Shatner has kept incredibly busy during the pandemic. He’s been raising money for charity, manning his podcast, filming his History Channel series The UnXplained, recording a new spoken-word album, and trolling Star Wars fans on Twitter (as is his wont). He’s also sold tens of thousands of NFTs (non-fungible tokens, or digital collectible items on a blockchain) and dabbled in artificial intelligence.
“The fact that you can say you’re alive is very good,” Shatner tells me over Zoom. Over the course of our nearly hour-long chat, we discussed everything from Star Trek and his thoughts on Elon Musk to his personal battle with anti-Semitism.
How have you been passing the time during all this craziness?
Oh, very actively. I’ve got all kinds of things happening. I hate to say it because it’s so antithetical to what a lot of people are doing, but for me, I’ve got a big house, I’ve been able to move around, and I’m seeing movies and all that. In addition to that, I’m working on a lot of projects, including the new album. We’re calling it Love, Death, and Horses.
Is that a spoken-word album?
Well, that’s an interesting question and I’m soliciting opinions, because what I’m trying to do is find a middle road. It’s not quite spoken and not quite sung—it’s somewhere in between. But the label wants to release the album before the Grammys of next year in order to make it eligible for spoken-word album. My argument is: There’s so much music in what I’m doing that it’s somewhere between a song and a spoken word, and I’d rather get a Grammy for a song! [Laughs]
You created a new genre.
In a way it is! The tragedy is I can’t sing, but I do have a sense of the rhythm, the meter, and the poetry of lyrics. So, that’s where I stand. This is going to be an extraordinary album, Love, Death, and Horses. And then I’ve got a wonderful show, The UnXplained, on The History Channel that was just picked up for a third season. I also just did something that’s so unusual, and I’m going to explain it to you. A technical group—I’m now part of the company—we went to the studio, following SAG regulations, and they surrounded me with maybe a hundred cameras for 3D, then had an artificial-intelligence mechanism recording me, and I spent five days answering questions. The artificial-intelligence mechanism then processed it, and you can ask me questions, press a button, and the AI will have me speak the answer.
Is this for you to get out of doing future interviews?
It could be! But it’s also a legacy for children, a way of doing your will, or delivering a lecture.
You’re surprisingly tech-savvy. Most people probably don’t know this, but you were onto NFTs before a lot of folks.
Coming up in April, there’s a 6,000-person meeting about NFTs where I’ll be occupying maybe an hour of the discussion. So yes, NFTs. We’re about to release some more NFTs.
I read that you sold 125,000 NFTs in July.
The [Beeple] artwork sold for $69 million! It’s incredible.
Given your involvement in NFTs, are you also heavily invested in crypto?
No, I’m not. Although you got my telepathic message, apparently. Yesterday, I was talking it over with ethereum and they’ve got their own coinage, and it’s dependent on bitcoin. If bitcoin goes up, the ether goes up or down, and as you know, the sway is just too much for people who don’t want to gamble their money. It is a big gamble.
I should ask you about Senior Moment. It’s a lovely little film.
A lovely film! That’s such a lovely word to say. The word “lovely” encompasses so much. A “lovely” film is like a flower. It’s wonderful.
The film opens with your character talking dirty to his vintage Porsche while cleaning it. Now, I’m curious what William Shatner’s policy is on talking dirty. You’ve never done that to a vehicle yourself, have you?
Well, first of all, I don’t call it “talking dirty.” The passion of sex, it’s losing your mind over the feeling you have, but “talking dirty,” I’ve never understood it. Everyone says you’re “talking dirty,” but what do they mean? But yes, to a number of people—including me—a mechanical thing, like a motorcycle or a car, can give you a sensual thrill, so you can talk dirty. Oh, you little... I’m going to shine you up... And it’s more acknowledging the sensuality of a curve of metal.
Do you have a prized chariot of your own?
I have two Dobermans who are my best friends, and I don’t want to go anywhere without them, so I have an SUV all jazzed up. It’s a Mercedes… what are those letters? AMG. So, it’s all AMG’d up with a big five-liter motor and a particular suspension. The Dobermans, my wife, and I will go lots of places.
There’s a rather tender scene in the film—a big bonding moment—where your character and Jean Smart’s are smoking a joint together. I heard that you use CBD to cure your own aches and pains?
Oh, I’m part of a CBD company. Mike Tyson and I have been doing some fun commercials to publicize this CBD spray. Absolutely. The aches and pains, the miracle—and I don’t understand it, and need to have a doctor explain it to me—is that the aches and pains go away almost instantaneously. To have the inflammation go down almost before you’ve finished wiping it off, I don’t understand the mechanism!
Do you smoke weed as well or just dabble in the oils and ointments?
Just the oils and ointments. Well… there was a time that I smoked weed a fair amount when I’d go to a party. I wouldn’t smoke it during the day, but sometimes to enhance whatever we were doing. I haven’t done it in quite a while—and I don’t know why, because I’m all for it. But the CBD thing and the legalization of marijuana is great, and I’m a fan.
There’s another scene in Senior Moment where your character is dragged to a wild party out in the Palm Springs desert, and it begs the question: You’ve been a celebrity for a hot minute, so what’s the wildest Hollywood party you’ve ever been to?
Look at you, all grinning with expectation! “I was at the wildest fucking party, you won’t believe it…” No. It’s not true. I’ve never been to a wild party. I’ve never seen anybody take a sniff of coke. I’ve never seen anybody drunk on a soundstage. I’ve never been to one of those parties, and I don’t know why! I know they exist. But I’m outdoors with dogs, and horses, and children, and I’m asking, “Can you let me into the party?” I don’t know anybody, Marlow. I don’t know people in the business. To me, a party is like having a dinner and talking.
That’s probably why you’re in such good shape at 90.
I work out in the pool as often as I can—at least three times a week, sometimes more. I do all the resistant exercises. And I ride horses a lot. I try to make my business things in the afternoon, so four to five times a week I ride the horses in the morning—competitively. It’s not a walk in the part, literally or figuratively. It is a real, athletic exercise.
I’d also read that you’re a longtime karate practitioner.
I started judo and karate when I was younger, and I loved the sport—and I love MMA. I’ll watch anything MMA. But I don’t compete or go to a dojo anymore.
Have you ever had to use your karate moves on anyone?
You know, there was a girl that I knew… [Laughs] No, I’ve never had to use them. But I was driving on Ventura Boulevard and apparently, I cut somebody off while making a left turn, because now we’re side by side and racing down, and I look out at the guy and he’s shaking his fist, and then I see a truck in the road unloading. He gets in front of me and stops, and I’m thinking, Oh, you son of a bitch. I open the door—and this was last year—and I’m ready. I’m 89 years old, and I march up to him, and this guy is built like a stuntman. You know why he was built like a stuntman? He was a stuntman. And I’m coming toward him and he says, “Shatner? I stunted for you in such-and-such.” We were both going at each other, and I started to laugh. I don’t know what would have happened if I’d gotten into a fight. It’s just a question of whether my nose would be broken or not, so I try to control that impulse.
You know I’ve gotta admit, I enjoy when you lightly troll Star Wars fans on Twitter.
They’ve gotta have a sense of humor about it! If they object to it that’s their problem, and they do object. Get a life! I’m on Twitter a lot, for several reasons. One is, I’m keeping abreast of people in other shows. What that does is eventually I’ll ask them for some object from their show that I can auction off for charity. Another reason is staying in touch with people and fans, and finding out what they’re interested in.
Can you explain to me why you feel Star Trek is the superior franchise? It always struck me as more of a vision of what America aspires to be.
Therein lies the reason for its popularity, in my opinion. It’s what we aspire to. The fact that Star Trek exists four hundred years from now is why people watch, I think. It’s the hope that we’ll get ourselves out of this incredible situation of self-destruction—and we will destroy ourselves. In a hundred years, your grandchild will not be able to live, or live under such terrible circumstances that they won’t want to live. This pandemic is just the rehearsal. It’s going to get far worse before it gets better. We’re getting a sense of the emergency that’s going to emerge. Through Biden, we’re seeing how America should work.
I’m a Canadian, but I admire America through all the turgid goings-on, from McCarthy and the assassinations to 9/11, all the stuff that’s happened to America, and people will be dying in a foreign land, and all of a sudden—boom—America has brought the goods. The diversity of Star Trek and the diversity of this democratic government is the way America should work, and we’re seeing it. And we’re seeing competent people whose life is devoted to whatever their diverse thing is. The most brilliant thing that I think Gene Roddenberry did is to make this all-around grouping of people, of which billions exist, and which old white men in America don’t want to look at.
On the other hand, this disease couldn’t have chosen a better target than America. It hit a country that’s so divided.
Hundreds of thousands of people died because it was such a bad response. There’s blood on some of those people’s hands, I think. But it also taught us a lesson that I hope we’ve learned, that will carry us through the next period of time: I think of America as that “sleeping giant” that was referred to in World War II. You awaken the sleeping giant, and America eventually comes through. I for one was waiting patiently for the country to organize itself to get this vaccine out, and of course they have—and will.
I know you’re not the most political guy but are you at least a little bit happy that there’s no longer a certain president tweeting nonsense all the time?
I have tried to stay out of politics. I’m Canadian—I have a green “alien card”—and I don’t want to alienate certain people, but I’m so glad to see how America is reacting now, with the foreign attachments as well as locally.
I’m curious why you’ve never gotten your citizenship? They’d probably just give you an honorary one at this point.
You know, Canada is—I hate to use the word “beacon,” and it’s fallen short in these last few years, but Canada is like a clean canvas in many ways. It just seems less dirtied by the politics of the world, for some reason. I felt glad that I was a Canadian and I didn’t want to sully it by going to another country, although as I said, I admire this country—with all its faults.
As the singer of the definitive version of “Rocket Man,” I’m curious what your thoughts are on Elon Musk, who I suppose is the modern-day “Rocket Man.”
He is, isn’t he? Well, he’s a brave soul and he’s obviously a genius, and he’s admirable in the way some of those old titans were who founded the railroads and all those things. I think that his idea of going to Mars in lieu of making the world green again is silly. Rather, he should, in my opinion, be devoting all those extraneous abilities to cleaning up the world.
Do you want to go to outer space? They might give you a free ticket.
My joke is, “I want a contract assuring me I’ll come back!”
You tweeted something about Star Trek that I disagree with. You tweeted of Gene Roddenberry, “His vision on Star Trek was socially progressive but he was no SJW.” What did you mean by that?
Gene Roddenberry was a flawed man, like all of us. He had this great imagination and brought forth a concept, called Star Trek, and he had the sense to turn it over at a certain point to others who continued his vision and made it even better. So, although he did things that I didn’t admire, his ability to put the diversity into the cast and hold fast on things like Spock’s ears, which the network wanted to take off, his vision was so vivid that he said, “No, we’re keeping the ears.” And the ears were, of course, the thing that made Spock so different. It was a perfect vision. And he wasn’t a saint, but he was no devil.
With the “SJW” thing, because that’s a term you’ve tweeted about a lot, what does that mean to you? Why are you fixated on it?
A Jesus figure—essentially, that’s what I mean. The people who love Star Trek think of Roddenberry as some God-like figure and give him talents and aspects that I don’t think he had, but like I say, the original vision was instrumental in putting all of this out there.
I’m part Jewish and I wanted to ask you, as a Jew, how important was it for you to be in Judgement at Nuremberg? That’s a very important and powerful film.
It was very important for me. I was brought up in an Orthodox home, and this album that I’ve written involves not listening to my father saying, “You’ll be a hanger-on,” and I told the producer as we’ve listened to the words and the music, to make it more Jewish—to have a rabbi chanting in the beginning and have klezmer music in it. It has affected me. I had fights almost every day about being Jewish in my grade school, and I think they punched me enough to hammer me into some kind of hardness that I wouldn’t have had if I wasn’t Jewish.
You were being bullied by anti-Semites?
What effect did that have on you?
It made me feel badly about myself. It took away my sense of worth, because many if not every Jew thinks, “Are they right? Am I a ‘dirty Jew?’” It’s the age-old question, isn’t it? I was in Lithuania a couple of years ago, and I did the horah with about seven or eight Hasidic Jews, apparently some of the last few Jews living in Lithuania, and the mayor of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, said on the stairs, “This is the first time Jews danced at this square.” Thirty feet away, there was a brick wall where the Jewish ghetto was bricked up, and where Jews were forced to go, and I was told that the word “dirty Jew” was literal—they didn’t have much water, they didn’t have much food, they were literally dirty—so when they said “dirty Jew” they meant a literal dirty Jew. It’s possible that’s where that phrase came from. So, all that as a youngster, being called a “dirty Jew” and getting beaten up and having to fight every day, all that made me ashamed of being a Jew for a long while.
I’m going to leave things on a more lighthearted note: Are we going to see you return to the Star Trek universe anytime soon? There’s a fourth film set to be released, and the CBS series. Will we ever see you in the chair again?
If they were to write a really significant role, I would do it. Otherwise, I don’t want to be just a gratuitous face in the crowd.