William Shatner on ‘Star Trek’ Feuds, Jeff Bezos’ Space Agenda, and Why He Won’t Cameo in New Movies

SXSW: Ahead of his new documentary's premiere, the 91-year-old Shatner makes amends for a Twitter feud and explains his newfound activist cause.
LOS ANGELES - AUGUST 9:  Actor William Shatner promotes the "Star Trek" 40th Anniversary on the TV Land network at the Four Seasons hotel August 9, 2006 in Los Angeles, California. Episodes of the show air September 8.  (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
William Shatner
Getty Images

In October 2021, a few days after he became the oldest person in history to travel to space, William Shatner blocked me on Twitter. To be fair, it may have been an inauspicious moment to publicly ask the 90-year-old, who had spent around three minutes floating around Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket before returning to Earth, whether he had actually traveled high enough to reach the official definition of space. Needless to say, Shatner had a lot on his mind at the moment, as the ensuing year and a half made clear.

While the “Star Trek” O.G. had spent many years contemplating his sci-fi legacy from that show, the cosmic experience of witnessing the planet from above made him far more concerned about the fragility of the Earth. In tandem with various other multimedia projects, the now 91-year-old Shatner has become a bonafide climate change activist, and that cause has led to him to speak about his own mortality within a much larger context.

Much of that impact is on display in “You Can Call Me Bill,” the meditative documentary by Alexandre O. Phillipe set to premiere next week at the SXSW Film and TV Festival.

As he did with his film history documentaries “Lynch/Oz” and “78/52,” Phillipe blends substantial clips from movies with trenchant analysis. This time, however, he doubles down on a single voice. Shatner is the sole interview subject as he muses on his upbringing, his evolving relationship to performance, and his broader ideas about the world in general.

In anticipation of the movie’s premiere, he spoke to IndieWire via Zoom from his home in California, putting one Twitter feud to rest as he took stock of his “Star Trek” relationships and overall mindset.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

IndieWire: You have a lot to say about the world, but are often seen as a caricature in popular culture. How much does that bother you?

William Shatner: I don’t know that anybody completely grasps who I am. Even friends of various degrees don’t really see who I am. In fact, I don’t think that people themselves totally grasp who they are until time goes by. I have become a inveterate reader. I read books all the time. My phone is never out of my hands. People think I’m making phone calls, but I’m reading books. One day, I went down the list of books on my phone, some of which I’ve half-read or I’m going to read. I don’t remember reading as voraciously as I do now.

If you have time, you grow and change. I’d like to think I’m quite different than I was 10 years ago, with different ideas and interests. Of course, my body and cells change every seven years. I’m halfway through my next skin. What you knew of me before is not what I am today and nor will it be what I am tomorrow.

Speaking of which, traveling to space last year clearly had an impression on you that changed the direction of your life. I have a confession to make: I’m a space junkie and very aware of debates about how we define boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and space.

You mean beyond the Kármán line?

That’s where the international space community would place it, but NASA defines it at a lower altitude. After you went to space, I asked you on Twitter to share the altitude of your flight, since I thought this aspect of the scientific debate was worthy of discussion. And you blocked me.


I’m sorry if I offended you, but it was a sincere question.

Oh, yeah, I remember that. I think it smacked of something. It might’ve been pugnacious. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. It had nothing to do with you, everything to do with various others factors. I’m glad we’re able to resolve this. Have we resolved this?

Hey, you’re the one who blocked me.

I will unblock you.

So let’s actually discuss where the Earth ends and space begins.

VAN HORN, TEXAS - OCTOBER 13: Blue Origin vice president of mission and flight operations Audrey Powers (L) walks with Star Trek actor William Shatner to a media availability on the landing pad of Blue Origin’s New Shepard after they flew into space on October 13, 2021 near Van Horn, Texas. Shatner became the oldest person to fly into space on the ten minute flight. They flew aboard mission NS-18, the second human spaceflight for the company which is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Blue Origin vice president of mission and flight operations Audrey Powers (L) walks with “Star Trek” actor William Shatner to a media availability on the landing pad of Blue Origin’s New ShepardGetty Images

Space as the public knows it is when you’re out beyond the gravitational force of Earth, but in fact they designated the Karmán line. I think that’s 50 miles up. [Editor’s note: The Kármán line is 62 miles.] We were like 60 miles. I don’t remember the figures now. We were at what is acknowledged as space by the scientists — but in the romance of space, probably not.

That’s usually the disconnect for most people. It’s hard enough just to get to the very beginning of space.

Yuri Gagarin went just above the Kármán line. He didn’t get any further than we did. He was the first man in space. Look it up. It was the same thing. He didn’t go that far. He did an arc and came down, as we did we, but we acknowledge that he was in space.

You flew with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, but Elon Musk is the one who has been really pushing the idea with SpaceX that humanity should become an interplanetary species. How do you feel about that?

Bezos’ idea of space is not necessarily about going to Mars, which is such an impossible task, but to lift polluting industries into space and living quarters for people in that industry. He wants to have them up in geocentric orbit so that Earth returns to its park-like exterior and people working out there can come down, living two weeks here, two weeks there. That’s his ultimate objective.

That will take a long time.

I told him that it has to be 100 years away, and he said, “We have to have hope. Without hope, what do we have?” He’s right, because this self-destruction is coming upon us. I was asked to perform at Kennedy Center with a 70-piece orchestra. A couple of guys and I have written an album called “Bill,” which is out there now on Spotify. I had a number of songs left over. Some of them were about Earth and its connection to us, so I did a concert at Kennedy Center involving songs I had been writing. One of them is called “So Fragile, So Blue.” Entwined in that is the phrase “What can we do about global warming?” When it’s ready to go, my fantasy is to get various big names to also say that: “What can we do?” That’s what I’m working on today.

Your trip to space inspired you to be a climate change activist. That’s not a political subject, but it’s often politicized, and you’ve spent most of your celebrity career avoiding politics. What made you start now?

What feels different about this time is existence and the possibility of extinction. Global warming isn’t a political subject; it’s an existential subject. We’ve gone from looking at this happening in 100 years to 50 years and now we’re talking about 30 or 40 years from now when there’s no question that the ice in the Antarctic is going to melt and sea levels will rise.

Almost every major country except Switzerland has their major cities on the shoreline, so cities like New York, or a county like Bangladesh, and islands in the Indian Ocean — they’re going to be underwater. When I lived in New York, during a heavy storm, the lower battery would get flooded. Well, what’s going to happen when the waters rise? We know now already. Miami is building 20-foot walls in front of people’s apartments where they paid millions of dollars for a view of the sea. Now they’re gonna be looking at a brick wall.

Do you wish you had been invested in this subject earlier in your life?

Well, yes, but what good would it have done? Our vice president [Al Gore] tried to warn us. I have young people in my family and I’m thinking about what their lives going to be like when we have who knows how many billion people on Earth without the farmland to support them. We’re shitting our way into nonexistence.

These are very divisive times. How much hope do you see for humanity to improve things?

Actor William Shatner takes questions from reporters, after delivering the commencement address at New England Institute of Technology graduation ceremonies, in Providence, R.I. Shatner was presented with an honorary doctor of humane letters degree during the eventPeople Shatner Commencement, Providence, USA - 06 May 2018
William ShatnerSteven Senne/AP/REX/Shutterstock

You know, there’s yin and yang of our brains, this reptilian thing at the top of our spine is a brain and it’s from whence we came; then there’s all these convolutions in the front of our forehead which make us thoughtful and that battle goes on all the time between our ability to do what we think of as good and bad. I don’t even know whether good and bad are terms that we could use. We have empathy apparently because it was indigenous to the tribes that if you helped each other, you would survive. So that intuition and instinct to help others is part of our DNA because it helped mankind survive.

But at the same time, when you killed that that prehistoric animal to eat, you defended your campfire with spears so that nobody but your family would have that meat. So mankind has always been torn between destruction and evolution since the beginning of time.

Do you think “Star Trek” had too idealistic a view of humanity’s future?

Well, the show had all these wonderful writers. Some of them were these great science fiction writers that I had read as a kid and met on the set. Isaac Asimov comes to mind. They were instrumental to feeding science fiction ideas to the television writers. Right now, I am going on my third tour of four cities. I’ll be in Atlanta tomorrow afternoon and perform at a big theater, which they play the “Wrath of Khan” and I’ll out for an hour and a half afterwards to amuse the audience and then go on to Milwaukee and then to Indianapolis and Detroit. That will be 12 cities in two months. I’m filling 3,000-seat auditoriums. People are fascinated still by the romance of science fiction or the lessons that science fiction brings.

Would you consider an offer to do a cameo in an upcoming movie?

That doesn’t sound juicy or worthwhile artistically to me. It’s more like showing off. I’m not interested in that. But, you know, if they brought me back all these years later, would I be interested? Depends on what they wrote.

Do you wish you had stayed closer with more of the show’s cast?

I loved Leonard [Nimoy]. He was my brother, for so many years. I wasn’t as close with DeForest [Kelley], but I had a great affection for him. The others even while they were alive, it was the weirdest thing — I never had any animosity for them. On the contrary.

When I wrote my first book, I couldn’t remember anything about “Star Trek.” So I went to some of them and said, “So what you do you remember?” While I was interviewing them, one of them said, “We never liked you.” I couldn’t figure that out and because I never had a bad word. They went in and out of liking me when it was worked for them and not liking me when that worked for them. It’s gone far beyond my consciousness, but I wonder what’s wrong with me. Why didn’t I didn’t notice it then? Why wasn’t I aware?

Did you come up with an answer?

Well, I was doing probably 10 pages of dialogue per day, doing publicity. I had three children and a divorce going on at that time. That probably occupied my attention more than anyone who I was around once or twice a week. But the set can become your home, and angry words at home can really become destructive. The last place you want to not like somebody is on the set. But I can’t remember having any bad relations with anyone.

What about George Takei? The two of you have been feuding in the press for ages now.

Star Trek: The Original Series
George Takei and William Shatner in “Star Trek: The Original Series”Everett

This man had a really bad upbringing. He spent his childhood in an internment camp. In my opinion, George is a very disturbed individual. Every so often I read something nasty he says about me. I thought to myself, “Why is he doing that?” And I think what he’s doing is getting publicity for the stuff that’s not working. I haven’t seen him in decades.

Now you’re an activist, and he’s an activist, so it would seem like the two of you could talk through your differences.

Why am I gonna dwell on George Takei, for crying out loud?I don’t want to enhance it or enlarge it because it’s despicable on his part. I don’t know the man. I know you now better than I know him.

You beamed into the Oscars for a sketch 10 years ago, but other than that, the Academy has never acknowledged you. Do you ever wish the movies were more widely embraced by the industry?

I would love to have gotten an Oscar. There were some terrific “Star Trek” movies that didn’t get acknowledged. The excuse was always that science fiction doesn’t get taken seriously. I don’t dwell on those things.

What keeps you going?

I’m talking to you from a lovely home overlooking the San Fernando Valley. It’s joyous to be alive. I’m healthy and I’ve provided for my family. I’ve got books. I just did a commercial for a watch I designed. I’m working on another documentary. I’ve got a music video. I’m working on a children’s album. I’m in a ferment of creativity right now.

And after I finished talking to you, I’m going to go get on my horse because I compete as a reiner, which is one of the more difficult equine sports. So what I’m saying to you is my life is so rich, so creative, and I’m so excited by what I’m doing.

“You Can Call Me Bill” premieres at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival.

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