Kirstie Alley. Need we say more? She’s been near the top of StarTrek.com’s list to snag as an interview for many years. Her turn as Saavik in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan came out of nowhere, stunning audiences, and her performance launched her into a stellar career that endures to this day. She’s excelled at drama and comedy, too, and even given reality TV a go, with her credits spanning from Runaway, Summer School, Cheers, the Look Who’s Talking movies, David’s Mother, Veronica’s Closet and Deconstructing Harry, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Fat Actress, Dancing with the Stars and Kirstie. StarTrek.com caught up with Alley just a couple of days before she made her first-ever convention appearance at Star Trek Las Vegas, and here’s what she had to say…
Many people, for many, many years, have wanted to see you at a convention. What convinced you to finally say YES?
ALLEY: That’s a good question. I was filming a movie in Canada. And one of the actors was going off to do one of these conventions. And I said, “Oh, what’s it like to do them?” He said, “They’re really, really fun.” And I said, “Well, is it weird? What’s it like?” He described what it was like. He said, “No, it’s really fun.” And he goes, “A lot of people do them now, you know, with Comic Con and the big Star Trek event in Las Vegas.” I just trusted him, and he sort of inspired me. That actor was Cas Avnar. I met Cas there when we were doing the movie, and he was just working this one day there. He was talking about it and said it’s super-fun.
Let’s talk about Star Trek II. What, if anything, did you know about Star Trek before that film came along?
ALLEY: I had watched Star Trek, the TV series, with my boyfriend, Bob. So I’d seen quite a few of those episodes. And people my whole life teased me, because when I’m talking and I don’t really pay attention to what I’m doing, my eyebrow goes up. Right? So even just my friends would go, “Oh, God, your eyebrow goes up like Spock.” When I came to Los Angeles and I was pursuing acting, and this role came up, they said, “You’re half-Vulcan and half-Romulan, and you’re a protégée of Spock.” I thought, “Well, I’ve got the eyebrow thing down.” If only I could do it on command. Which I really can’t.
So that’s an involuntary reflex?
ALLEY: Yes. I think it’s when I’m concerned or thinking. Maybe that’s how it works with Spock, too.
What do you remember of auditioning for the role of Saavik?
ALLEY: You know, it was a very bizarre period in my life. What had happened was I had not ever had an acting role. I didn’t walk around telling people I was an aspiring actress. Because who isn’t, in Hollywood? So I was doing some decorating jobs, and I was also a housekeeper. When I went for that audition, I could tell I did a good job. Nick Meyer liked me. Then he brought me back, and I did a good job again. I think I came in three times. And I was up against a lot of people who had worked a lot. So I had that against me. I wasn’t even in the Screen Actors Guild.
So then — this is where it really seemed like it couldn’t happen. And I’ve told this story before, but it was pretty significant in my life. I was supposed to have a meeting on a Monday for my final audition for Star Trek, in front of Paramount and the studio guys. That weekend, my parents were in a car wreck and my mother was killed. That was on a Friday night. I flew back to Kansas. It killed my mother, and my Dad was in bad condition. So I called my agent and I said, “I can’t make this meeting Monday.” He said, “Well, what do you want me to tell them?” I said, “Well, I want you to tell them what happened.” He said, “But you realize it’s already iffy to hire you, because you’ve never done anything. You’re not in the Screen Actors Guild, and this could be your first movie. And now you’re telling them that your mother died, and your father might be dying. And they start shooting in a month or something. And all that pressure on someone will probably mean you won’t get the role.” I said, “I understand, but I’m not leaving my Dad. So you’re gonna have to tell them that, and you’re gonna have to tell them that I can come back into town when my Dad is out of danger. Out of intensive care.”
So he told them that, and…?
ALLEY: By some kind of huge miracle they said, “Okay. We’ll wait.” Which I still, to this day, am more grateful for than anything that’s ever happened in my career. I just can’t believe that they would have been so thoughtful and amazing. Still, to this day, I can’t believe it. So there you go. And then what I did do with my Dad was, he was sort of in a semi-coma. I took a picture, an 8 by 10 of myself, and I said, “Dad, look, I really want to be in a movie.” I said, “This is my picture. I want to be an actress.” I don’t even think I’d told my parents I really wanted to be an actress. I go, “And when you get out of here and you’re doing well, I get to go audition for this.” That night — I’m not even making this up. This would seem so made-up, in a movie — but that night his doctor called me and said, “Your Dad has pulled out all of his tubes, and we’re going to see if he can make it on his own.” I was like, “Okay.” Then, the next day when I went in, he said, “So you’re gonna be an actress. You’re going to be in a movie.”
Saavik was half-Vulcan, half-Romulan. What interested you most about her as a character?
ALLEY: I liked Spock. I was a big Spock fan. I didn’t have a lot of thought in it. The only thought I really had was, I knew I wanted to be an actress. I knew I wanted to be in a movie. And I knew that my eyebrow could raise up. And I thought, “Oh, I can do this. And I can look like Spock. I can make this happen.” So that was about as much thought as there was.
So your naiveté and inexperience probably played right into the role.
ALLEY: It might have. I would like to sound like I was more intelligent and gave it more thought, but I didn’t. I just thought, you know, “They’re half Romulan and half Vulcan.”
How did you enjoy working with Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner?
ALLEY: Well, I loved it. Bill is a mixed bag of tricks, which is funny. I think he thought at one point, “Why the hell did they hire this girl, who’s never done anything?” I wasn’t so good at my lines, I will tell you. The repercussion for me never having acted before was that I wasn’t the world’s best at learning lines. And I was sort of irresponsible. I mean, if you want to know the honest truth, I would go out every night and celebrate that I got a job in a movie. So I would stay out too late, and then I would come in, let’s call it “unprepared.” That might be a polite way to say it. But they were all such pros. They know what the hell they’re doing. Bill… he’s Captain Kirk, for God’s sake. And Leonard was Spock. So they knew exactly what they were doing. Everyone was professional, probably except me.
Did you see the finished film at a premiere? In a theater? And what did you think of it?
ALLEY: I saw it at a premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I think it was in the top five of my most extraordinary nights of my life. I hadn’t seen any footage. I hadn’t seen any pre-cut. I’d seen nothing. I had no idea, really, what I looked like. But the one thing about when I came to Hollywood is, I went to a movie in Grauman’s Chinese, and I thought, “Oh my God. If only… someday.” I really was like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. “If only someday there would be a movie of mine in this theater.” And boom. Lo and behold, there it is in that theater, with that booming sound, and James Horner’s incredible score. I was so impressed that I was in something of that caliber and of that grandeur, you know? Before that, I’d just been on the set, going, “Oh, I’m being a half-Vulcan, half-Romulan.” I didn’t know what it would look like. I really didn’t. And it was so much bigger than the series. Wow, it was just really impressive to me. I have to say that I was sitting there, like, “Oh my God! I’m a star!” [LAUGHTER]
Everyone assumed that you’d be in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and it did not materialize. You were reportedly offered the same amount of money or less for what would have been a larger role. That math obviously didn’t work for you…
ALLEY: It doesn’t work. I’m not trying to sound ungrateful at all, because what they paid me when you did your first job is fine. But it wasn’t like it was a massive amount of money, trust me. It just wasn’t. And so that never made sense to me. Like, “You’re not paying as much as the first one, and it’s a bigger role? It just didn’t make sense to me. I don’t think I said, “Pass.” I know I wouldn’t have gone just, “Pass, forget it.” I feel like what I said was, “Okay, I don’t get this.” And when we queried it sort of gently, like, “Why would you offer someone less money for a bigger role?” How many years later did they do III?
Two years later. It came out in 1984.
ALLEY: Yeah. Why would you do that? It didn’t make sense. And I still don’t know the answer, why they would do that. It still doesn’t make sense to me. And I don’t know who it was. I’ve heard rumors, but I don’t know if the rumors were true.
You’ve said Nick Meyer and Star Trek II really gave you your career. At the end of the day, how grateful are you for Trek and what it did for you?
ALLEY: I can always say more about Nick Meyer, because I just feel like he took such a chance. He did. He took a big risk, I think. So did Gene Roddenberry. He was a fan. And so did Paramount, and so did all of the executives. I really thought they took a big chance, for all the reasons that I’ve said. You know, it’s like when I did Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Jose Quintero championed me to the point where he said, “If she isn’t Maggie, then I’m not doing the play.” How do you have enough gratitude for someone who takes that kind of stance with a girl that had never done a movie, in Nick’s case, and with a girl who’d never done a play, in Jose Quintero’s? How do you have enough gratitude for people who put you in a position — even like Jimmy Burroughs, to put me in Cheers when I’d never done comedy? They didn’t know if I could be funny. All I did was go in and read for it, you know? They didn’t know I could do comedy. I didn’t know I could do comedy. I thought I could do comedy, but no one had ever seen me do it. So, I call it a luxury, and maybe I’m the luckiest girl in the world, that people actually hired me for something that they’d never seen me do.
We know that you’re working on a new TV show that’s too early in the development stages to discuss, so let’s ask you about being a grandmother. How is that going for you?
ALLEY: Oh my God. I had no idea. You know, a lot of my friends have been grandmothers for a while. I had no idea how special it was, and how exciting it would be. But to have your kid have a kid, it’s just magical. He’s two months old now.
In terms of your career, Star Trek II aside, what of your work are you proudest of, and why?
ALLEY: I don’t think very much about that. I never talk about movies and I never talk about being an actress to anyone in my life, until I’m on the phone with someone doing an interview. So, most proud of? I guess that would be something that I would think I was the best at, or something, or my best work I ever did for some reason.
Let me put it to you this way. When your grandkid is old enough to watch Grandma in something, what are you going to have him watch?
ALLEY: Maybe Cheers. I think Cheers is one of those weird things that can be any time period. It’s just timeless, for some reason. The writing on Cheers was so good. Timeless is the way I would describe it. I mean, I know kids now that watch Cheers, and they’re 15 years old and they think it’s hysterical. It doesn’t feel dated to them. It’s probably the equivalent of my watching I Love Lucy, you know? The writing was so good. It’s current, in that those are some of the situations that go on right now. I would say I would start them off with Cheers. I was very proud of David’s Mother, which was a drama, just because I hadn’t ever done something like that. I guess any time — I’m one of those actors that likes to do things that I haven’t done before. So when someone asks me, “What about this?” If my first feeling is, “Ooh, why’d you choose me for this?” Then I kind of go — because then you have to be a little bit braver, I guess — “All right, I’ll give it a whirl.”
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