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William Shatner Bites Back Against His Shark Phobia And Dishes On His Music Career - Exclusive Interview

Space may be the final frontier, but also unexplored by many are the depths of our own planet's many oceans. And if you want a reason for why we don't spend a lot of time in the deep blue other than the lack of oxygen, there's one we've all had since the debut of Steven Spielberg's summer blockbuster "Jaws" — sharks. Since its 1975 debut, "Jaws" has haunted viewers with its tagline "You'll never go in the water again." However, since 1988 there's been a counter-conversation, one that is largely pro-ocean predator — Shark Week.

Every year's Shark Week gathers together scientists and ocean lovers to discuss what makes sharks cool, exciting, and, yes, a little bit scary. And it turns out that there's at least one very famous spaceman out there who is (or was, at least) deathly afraid of sharks — star of "Star Trek" and beloved captain to all William Shatner. In order to overcome his shark phobia, Shatner joined up with TV producer and host Josh Gates for "Expedition Unknown: Shark Trek," featuring the two men diving in the briny deep and coming face to face with the creatures they fear. Spoiler alert: Shatner survived the experience and came out the other side a changed man who now loves sharks.

Looper sat down with Shatner to talk about sharks, music, and whether there's a proverbial Shatner Cut of any of the actor/director's previous work.

How William Shatner overcame his fear of sharks

Were you really afraid of sharks going into this?

Oh, geez. Are you kidding? Trying to think of the worst nightmare. I guess ghosts, unknown things floating around. I can't remember being afraid of a ghost because I want to speak to a ghost. But what could be more frightening than one of these giant sharks with their mouths open. The tiger shark, of which there were four, is next to the great white, the biggest, most vicious — vicious is a wrong word — most voracious, that would be a better word, of the sharks. When asked which is the hungrier shark, you ask a shark expert, it's a toss up between the great white and the tiger shark. No, when I saw those tiger sharks, I was afraid, very much so.

After the other divers went in with chain mail to set things up for you, you didn't go down with the chain mail yourself.

They didn't provide me. I don't know whether they didn't provide me with chain mail or they thought I won't need chain mail, but how could they surmise that?

There was a bit about there not being a cage with the tiger sharks, but I'm sure there must've been things that were —

It wasn't a bit because when we were planning it, I said, "Well, how do I go down?" They said, "Well, you get a cage." And then I don't think it was on in production time. I think it was probably before we started production. They said, "Well, no, there's no cage." And I thought, "Wow, no cage, what do we do?" And then that's what we did.

Was there anything else that surprised you in the moment when you were filming?

So when that lady, the tiger whisperer was down there with all those sharks and putting them to sleep, she made that five-foot shark so comfortable that she was able to place that shark in my lap and she had chain mail and everyone else had chain mail. And I didn't have any chain mail on my hand, so I was able to feel that shark. I felt its skin, which was like very tight carpet. There was something coming out of the skin. The skin was rough, but not terrible. To see her there and carrying over a shark to me, to put in my lap. That was totally unexpected. The whole experience of being however long I was underwater, that will remain in my memory for the rest of my life.

Why William Shatner loves sharks now

There was a moment when your reaction to the sharks was that you felt a tremendous love coming off of them. Why do you think that was the reaction? You've had some time since you shot it, obviously. Did you look into it more to say, "Why was this the feeling that they gave me?"

As I've gotten older, I've become more and more aware of the truism that we're all connected. That all of nature, all of the whole planet is connected. We are finding out every day the extent of that connection. More recently, for example, and I talk about this as I don't understand, about how trees communicate with each other. Trees are communicating with each other, are you aware of that?

I did know.

So you understand that the trees are connected. Then I read that plants have various jobs to do, and they're talking to each other. In groups, their groupings, the connection between all of us, but because I'm conscious, that I look at the shark and I think "My God, that's part of life. That's part of the connection I have." And I'm looking at this magnificent animal and I'm feeling a connection the same way I feel with a horse or a dog, except there's this element of danger. It's like looking at a great warrior and saying, "Oh yeah, I'm connected, but I hope he doesn't use his sword."

Do you think that the fear you had of sharks prior to was like most people's because of "Jaws"? Were you really just scared of Steven Spielberg?

Oh yeah. I'm sure even Steven Spielberg feels that the injustice he did, what they call a misnomer of a man eating shark. There's no such thing. Sharks are predators of opportunity. They mostly feed on fish and mammals like seals. And the idea is that they think that somebody in a wetsuit looks like a seal or something they've eaten before. So they give it a preparatory bite and they realize, "Well, no, that's not what I ate." So they spit it out, but his teeth have gone in and wrecked the human being. 

So we think "maneater," but it isn't. It is apex predator and just like the magnificence of tigers, lions, those great predators, hawks, insects that are predators and dragonflies, they're so pointed. They're so fashioned for what they need, what they prey on, that evolution has taken care of this extraordinary entity that is a predator and it is a predator to the finest it could be up to that moment. Whether it evolves into something else, I don't know. But predators are the most beautiful of lives that we see. We don't see a mole that is perfectly suited to going underground, but sharks are like that. And that moves me to tears of how connected we are and how insolent we are about that connection.

William Shatner's next album

You're a musical person.

I've got a new album coming out. It's going to be sensational.

Tell us about that.

I think we're calling it "Bill." We were calling it something else. I believe the title now is "Bill" and it's an autobiographical album and I've been working on it during the pandemic with a friend of mine who's a poet and a friend of his who's become a friend of mine, a musician. So three of us have been working this year to put together what I think is going to be a sensational album. And I just heard one of the mixes, a spiritual, but they've added a great musician track on that, so the thing is an outstanding, outstanding album.

This is original material?

Original material. We've written all the songs. When I say we, I mean, literally we. So the poet, who's a friend of mine, and I talk about ... just recently, we're working on the second album because we think that Republic's going to ask for a second album. So I said, "I've been looking at the bayou and I'm wondering whether we could relate the stillness and the beauty of the bayou and the danger that lurks beneath the bayou waters with a woman." So we're writing a song called "Are You My Bayou, Are You Bayou?"

Why lyrics matter to William Shatner

As you've picked songs to cover over the course of multiple albums, why do you choose the songs you do? When you sit down, are you looking lyrically to say, "What speaks to me?"

The lyric. I've missed working with Ben Folds on this album by a few weeks. He had something to do and I had to get this done and offered him a song and he had to do something. But he's my buddy and when he comes to town, he'll look me up. Then hopefully he'll be on the next album.

Did you have any songs that you'd be comfortable saying, "This is a song that's been written by someone else that I'm thinking about doing"?

Yes, I don't have any compunction about doing the cover song. So I brought that up because he chose a cover song ["Common People"]. And it worked very well because the lyric was so good. The lyric was about a girl, you think you're poor. You're not poor, I know what poor is. And Joe Jackson, the rock and roller, did it with me. So Joe Jackson and I sang on the same number. He did it as a rock and roller, and I did it in my way and it was quite successful. Got a lot of attention. I was looking for the lyric. What does the lyric say? And that's what we've written on this [upcoming] album, "Bill." We've written great lyrics to things that have happened to me in my life.

Can you give us an example?

I'm leaving home. Graduated from university. I've been an actor in Montreal for years. I'm on my way to Toronto, the New York of Canada. I'm crossing a bridge with everything I have owned in the world in a little third-rate car. I'm crossing a bridge, probably over the St. Lawrence River, and coming at me is an 18-wheeler. And the air that's being pushed by the 18-wheeler almost shoves me over the side and I think, "My God, if I go over the side, everything I have, everything I am, is disappeared." And then I realized that we're all crossing a bridge, and there's always an 18-wheeler coming at us and we've made a song called "The Bridge."

Are there any Shatner Cuts in the vault?

We've had this recent influx of director's cuts of films. Is there anything that you can look back on that you say, "There was more that we shot of this"? That would be enough for you to say, "Let's go back and give it another edit"?

No, I'm moving on. I have various projects going on. I have a new talk show called "I Don't Understand" and I've got a show on History called "The Unexplained." I'm not working as an actor, but I'm working as an inquisitive human being and both shows are very good. They're going to be wonderful. They are wonderful. We're in our third season on "The Unexplained" and "I Don't Understand" starts July 12, I think.

What did you not understand that you came to understand while working on that project?

Why do we lie? How do you achieve happiness? I talked to Bob Ballard for an hour and a half about why a serious scientist would go after the Titanic, just to get a picture of the Titanic. Why would he go into Loch Ness to see if the dragon was there? Why would a serious scientist do that? And he talked at great length about it.

"Expedition Unknown: Shark Trek" featuring Josh Gates and William Shatner airs on July 12 at 9pm EST on the Discovery Channel and will be available to stream on Discovery Plus.