Some actors are like blank slates. I think of Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady. You can dress that woman up any way you like, and she will embody a totally different character. In your work, though—from the early Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20000 Feet through Shatner’s World— there's a substrate; like the base layer artists use to prepare a canvas.
What an interesting simile.
Can you define the single quality that unites all of your work?
That's me. Because my opinion is that even Meryl Streep, as wonderful as she is, can only bring herself to the role. For example, let’s look at you: a curly-haired guy who's athletic and intellectual, now being the observing reporter. I can play that. But I bring to it me, because all I’m doing now is imitating you. So even in The Iron Lady: Meryl puts on the wig, learns the smile and assumes—assumes—the persona. But she cannot bring anything else but her.
In your roles there's often a commanding tone; you’re cast as the man in charge. Is that who you really are?
It never used to be. But what has happened is, though I still realize I don't know what I’m doing, I've come to the conclusion that nobody else does, either—[nobody] knows what they're doing or knows what I’m doing. So in that mass confusion, there has to be a voice saying, "Well, here's where I am.”
I recently saw your documentary The Captains, in which you interview the four other actors who have commanded the Enterprise and its spin-offs. In the film, you make the surprising claim that for much of your life you suffered from a sense of inferiority. Do you think you've gotten over that?
Essentially not. It's just I don't put myself in those situations anymore. I once said to a girl—a society girl with whom I was having a fling— "Am I anywhere near the people you go out with? Have I got anything?" That's how badly I felt about myself. I look back on that question, and wonder what kind of a guy I must have been.
You seem to have a good relationship with the other “Star Trek” actors in The Captains, as well.
I love each one of those people. I didn't know them before making the film, except for Patrick Stewart—vaguely. Now they’re all friends of mine. I saw them recently, at the ComicCon in Philadelphia. All five captains were there—and all five are my buddies, based on a day or two in their presence.