George Takei - Carrying the Torch through Activism and Acting
An entire generation tuned in to watch George Takei explore space aboard the Starship Enterprise. Most famously known for his role as Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek, George Takei's resume runs the gamut. The Japanese American National Museum (JANM) curated an exhibit highlighting the many facets of his life. With a personal mission of educating others about Japanese American internment, George Takei blends his celebrity status with social media activism. His popular posts delve into political current events in a humorous and approachable manner. From dragging Trump to advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, George Takei regularly shares accessible content.
Outside of the digital realm, his most recent project Allegiance uses a musical platform to educate about internment. While sitting in a replica of Captain Sulu's chair from the USS Excelsior, George Takei reflected on his Star Trek legacy and what lies beyond the galaxy.
By Eric Nakamura and Natalie Mark
Photos and Video by George Ko
GR: We’re sitting in the Star Trek part of your exhibit, and you’re sitting in Sulu’s chair. Can you talk about what lessons you learned as an Asian American on the show?
George Takei: Gene Roddenberry took the social climate of the time and turned it into a show. Gene was a philosopher filmmaker. He thought television in the 1960s was being totally wasted. The 1960s were a turbulent time in this country. Sheriffs set dogs loose on peacefully demonstrating people in the South. The Vietnam War divided this country at home while the war raged on in Southeast Asia. The Cold War was coming to a head. None of that was reflected on television. But it was game shows, sitcoms, Cowboys and Indians on TV. Gene felt that television should not be entertainment but some medium of communication, education, and enlightenment. He came up with the idea of using science fiction as a metaphor by placing this fractured American society in the future and painting a utopian world looking back at the present. We metaphorically dealt with issues like the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. It was also a time when there was cultural turmoil and the hippie movement was taking place.
I was really inspired by this man. When I was interviewed for Star Trek, Gene said, “The Starship Enterprise is a metaphor for Starship Earth.” The diversity of the starship is apparent in the people with different histories, cultures, and faiths all working together in concert. He wanted to show that diversity, and the viewers saw it visibly on the show with casting. You also heard that diversity, although it was not authentic to the time, in Scottish and Russian accents. At that time the Cold War seemed insurmountable. Nuclear-armed powers mutually threatened each other with annihilation. But that, too, in the 23rd century would be overcome. The show looked to the future with optimism in a utopian society.
I grew up behind American barbed wire fences when those of Japanese ancestry were stereotyped as potential spies, the fifth columnists, and saboteurs. I was particularly sensitive to what Gene was trying to do. Here’s this cast made up of people from all over. We had two Canadians, Captain Kirk and Scotty. Although Jimmy Doohan played a Scotsman, he was not only Canadian but also Irish. He was a very down-to-earth guy. We became good friends and he was my favorite drinking buddy. During one of those sessions he said, “I’m becoming famous playing a Scotsman but I’m actually an Irishman. But I’ve sampled enough of the libation of Scotland to qualify playing a Scotsman.” He was a fun guy with a great sense of humor. I got to know the members of the cast and many of them became my lifelong friends.
Star Trek played an important shaping role in my life. When marriage equality came to California in 2008, my partner Brad and I were barely conscious that we had an interracial and a same-sex union. The Japanese American National Museum is my pride and joy. It is a place that symbolizes so much of not just the Japanese American experience but also the American experience. The museum has an auditorium called the Democracy Forum, and since it was democracy that made our union possible we decided to get married there. We asked friends from Star Trek to stand with us in the wedding party. Walter Koenig was our best man and we asked Nichelle Nichols to be our matron of honor. She said, “I am not a matron. If Walter can be the best man why can’t I be the best lady?” We agreed, indeed, she is the best lady.
GR: How does it feel to sit in the chair? Will it go to your house afterwards?
GT: This is a replica but it’s very comfortable. Actually, this is more comfortable than the real one we had on set. I suppose it’d be nice to have this in our garage.
GR: Do you have a favorite item in the exhibition?
GT: I haven't had the chance to really see the exhibit. I don't know what part of this exhibit is my favorite yet. We didn’t want this to be a vanity project so we told the curator Jeff Yang to do it. Besides, I was doing a revival of Pacific Overtures in New York. I wasn't able to participate too much in the exhibit. We were in rehearsals when this exhibit opened and they said, "We absolutely need you for the opening." I got two days off from rehearsals, a Friday and a Saturday. Friday to fly over here, Saturday to participate in the opening festivities, and Sunday when we were off to fly back. When I was here, I had a jam-packed schedule with interviews so I ran through the exhibit. I see my early acting career here and I'm fond of that. Then there's the internment camp part. Actually, the interment story is the most important part. It shaped and formed me. My mission in life has been to raise awareness of that chapter of American history.
This is a Japanese American story but on an even larger basis it's an American story. The United States' Constitution was egregiously violated. All Americans should know about this and learn the lesson from this chapter. But the problem is they don't know. People, particularly east of the Rockies, always shock me. I consider them well-read and well-informed but when I tell them about my childhood imprisonment they're aghast. They can't believe such a thing happened. It can happen and it did happen in this country. In part because our education system has been very derelict in incorporating this chapter. Yes, it is an embarrassing chapter; it's a shameful chapter. The adults who experienced the internment often don't want to talk about it. Younger people have told me their parents or grandparents were in camp, but when I ask them where, they don't know. I give them some hints: Wyoming, Arkansas, Colorado, Arizona. They don't know. I ask them the name of the camps and they don't know. They don't know because their families didn't talk about it for painful reasons. It brought back awful memories.
The cypress root in the exhibit is from the swamps of Arkansas where my family was first interned. The cypress trees send their roots undulating through the muck. My father went out and judged the various undulations. He sawed one off, boiled it in an oil tank, peeled off the bark, and revealed that beautiful piece of sculpture. We had it in our home post-internment. After my father passed, I went to visit my mother and it wasn't there. I said, "Mama, where is Daddy's kobu?" She called it a kobu. She said, "It reminds me too much of camp. I put it in the garage." I said, "That's Daddy's kobu. You put it in the garage? Can I have it?" So it's been in my study all this time. But for those reasons, many parents or grandparents didn't tell their progenies about their camp experience. We played a part in the silence on this chapter of American history. JANM is very important to us. We can't be solely dependent on the children who have talked about internment with their parents. We will be gone. We want the story to remain. This institutionalizes that story. We developed a musical to reach another audience on Broadway, the biggest stage in America, to tell that story to a larger audience.
GR: What were the hardships with Allegiance?
GT: Every part of it was a struggle. We came up with a basic plot that included a whole family, a mother, and a brother too. The first reading was held here at the museum. The audience reaction helped us a little bit but hearing and seeing it helped us edit the script. Eventually the mother was killed off but that made the family tighter. It was an interesting family dynamic to include the older sister who raised her younger brother because their mother was killed in his childbirth. There was an older brother who also got killed off. Coming up with the story was a long and constant process. We even made changes during rehearsals.
We wanted to keep the character of Masaoka and use his words. But the question came up: if all the other characters are fictional, why have one historical character? You can't tell the story of the Civil War without Abraham Lincoln. Masaoka was that kind of central figure in the internment story. We wanted to use his words. He used some harsh words, and did some very harsh things. For example, Minoru Yasui challenged internment all the way to the Supreme Court and the people of Minidoka started a fundraising campaign to help Minoru's campaign. Masaoka came and broke it up. He called Minoru a traitor. Dissent is an important part of American democracy and I am very proud of people like Minoru or Korematsu or Hirabayashi or Endo. They had the courage, guts, and the principle to stand for the people and for American values. Yet, Masaoka broke them up because of his agenda. But because of his agenda we have our well-vaunted heroes of the 442nd. There's a double-edged sword to everything. At the San Diego performance at the Old Globe Theater, we received a strong reaction when Masaoka called Sam a traitor and a coward. He is far from a coward but nevertheless we decided to soften those words for the Broadway audience. We decided to put those words into Sam's mouth, a fictional character. He uses those word in the heat of an argument with his father who answered "no" to the loyalty questionnaire.
The story itself was a long, arduous process. Getting the funding for it was a long, arduous process. We had readings in places where there are a community of affluent Japanese Americans who might consider investing in it. We were very upfront. The prospect of making your money back is very remote but it's an important story to tell. We said that to ourselves too. We have a saying in show business, "An actor doesn't invest in his own project." A smart actor doesn't invest in his own projects; I'm a dumb actor. But I didn't want to get the credit for it. We were very grateful for the financial support from the many generous people who took the chance.
GR: What made you decide to join social media?
GT: When people started blogging, fans were producing my Star Trek newsletter. I thought, "Well, here's a wonderful medium of communication that's also international." I started writing monthly blogs, essentially about Star Trek activities, conventions, and cruises. Back in 2011 and 2012, when we started working on Allegiance, the story of internment was still little known. One of the producers was Lorenzo Thione who is an IT wonder. He said, "Why don't we use social media to till the soil and get the information out on the internment. Then once we reach a certain point of an informed public, let's tell them we're developing a musical about it." Once we developed the songs, we gave them a taste of the songs. It was essentially Allegiance that got me started on social media. I was talking about internment and there were people who would challenge me online and say, "The Japanese were killing us." I had to educate them, and tell them we were Americans and Japanese Americans were fighting for this country while incarcerated. Social media was a great medium for doing that. It became a global town square where those conversations could be held with people that really are levelheaded and open to new information. Soon enough, we discovered the double-edged sword of social media: the trolls. They are organized as well.
GR: You took it to new levels, right? You advocate for LGBTQ+ people and Muslims online.
GT: Well, Muslims were not problematized then. When I started, we were working for marriage equality. While raising awareness of internment, we were also working on a marriage equality campaign. We needed to build an audience. If it is all sober, serious, teeth-gritting issue-oriented, then we wouldn’t have grown the audience quickly. It does grow, but at a much slower pace. I would occasionally do some funny memes and that got a lot of likes and shares, particularly Grumpy Cat. There were a lot of Grumpy Cat memes and it grew from there. It's about catching more flies with honey than with vinegar.
GR: Are you briefing a team with you to build your social media? You tweeted less than an hour and a half ago. I'm realizing it's going throughout the day on all platforms.
GT: It began with Brad and me on the blogs, and then Lorenzo came in. It was growing and getting out of hand. I mean, we've got to live a life too so Lorenzo said, "Let's build Team Takei." Now we have a team working on it and that's how I'm here tonight.
GR: That's amazing. Ten years ago you told Brad, "I'm not going to be hot forever."
GT: He meant hot in another sense!
GR: It's 10 years later and I think you're hotter than ever.
GT: But grayer!
GR: You're also an activist. How does it feel to go beyond your acting career?
GT: It's very gratifying to be successful at what you're doing and reaching your intent. You're reaching many people. Particularly in New York, we're walking down the street and it's crowded. Because Brad is taller, people recognize him first. They'll ask him, "Hey Brad! Where's George?" He'll say, "He's here." Brad loves the recognition. I do too, but I try to play it down.
GR: I know you had a seat for Donald Trump at Allegiance. Does he even know about it?
GT: He knows about it. I sent him a letter. I also talked about the invitation to Donald Trump on the morning talk shows, afternoon talk shows, and the evening talk shows, and the late night talk shows, both television and radio. He knows.
GR: Is that seat going to stay empty? Do you think he'll show up one day?
GT: We had an aisle seat with a great big poster board that read, "This seat saved for Mr. Donald Trump." He was a candidate then. We had a countdown on the number of performances he missed. It was a good marketing device for us because during intermission there'd be a line right beside that chair and they would hunker down and take a picture of themselves with that Donald Trump reserved seat poster. They would post it online, and people would know that Allegiance exists.
GR: Do you really want him to show up?
GT: Of course I do! I want him to really sense and feel what interment was like. We personalize and humanize the story. We heard sobs in the theater in those particular tear-jerking scenes. We were reaching people. I'd like to think that Donald is reachable that way too. He's a human being. He acts crazy and he lies a blue streak, but he is a human being. I want him to understand what he's talking about and the kind of things that will happen with those Executive Orders or the health care repeal bill he is supporting. He lies. He said, "I won't cut Medicare." But that's precisely what is happening. Let me be a little more circumspect. He is a mendacious president.
GR: I have a few people's names. I was thinking you could tell me what you would say if you talked to them today. The first person on my list is Arnold Schwarzenegger. What would you say to him?
GT: I would say he is a hypocrite. He believes in traditional marriage and that is why he vetoed the marriage equality bill here in California in 2005. At the same time, he was carrying on with his housekeeper. How can he do that? I would say to him, "A traditional marriage is two people who love each other, who commit to each other, and as the vow goes, 'In sickness or in health, through thick and thin.’ When the situation gets thin they still stick together and support each other all the way to the end. That is what a traditional marriage is. Not necessarily man and woman." I said the same thing to Donald Trump when I had lunch with him. I tried to do a little proselytizing with him. He said he believed in traditional marriage, that was his argument. I had to rein myself in because he was going through his third marriage and his infidelities were highly publicized. He has the cheek to talk about traditional marriage to me? By that time I had been with Brad for a couple of decades.
Throughout history, people like to find the Other. When we were incarcerated, we looked like the Other. Or in the Civil Rights Movement, it's not hard to see the difference. Black and White. But in the case of equality for LGBTQ+ people we are literally members of the family. We're sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. Some people hold a dogma higher than the most natural thing, which is a parent's love for their child, son or daughter. Some even kick them out of their family. Why did they deny their blood kin, members of their own family? We have the same dignity and the security and the joy that they enjoy, the same thing. That's what I would tell Donald — well Donald too, but also Arnold. Hey! That rhymes! Donald, Arnold. There's a good poem there.
GR: What would you say to William Shatner?
GT: Bill Shatner knows. Bill is someone who likes to have the attention of the media, particularly when he is coming out with a new accomplishment like his ghostwritten books, or his singing album. For example, the big hoo-ha: we invited the Star Trek cast members when we got married. We sent Bill an invitation. It's on record. When Brad and I were doing a television interview for AP he asked, "To whom did you send invitations?" We said everybody including Bill, despite the so-called tension between us because it's a hoaxed-up tension. They all RSVPed. Some people had to send their regrets but we never heard from Bill, which is not unusual. People invite him to parties or dinners and he never responds. We thought he's not coming. Two months after the wedding he goes on the media and complains about George not inviting him to the wedding. Two months after! He railed on one interview after another. If he really wanted to come that bad why didn't he call us? Something might have happened in the mail and the invitation may not have gotten there. Why didn't he call us before? Why complain two months later when nothing can be done about it? We happened to be driving down Sunset Boulevard and there was a huge billboard advertising William Shatner's new talk show, Raw Nerves, and I said to Brad, "That's why he made a fuss." You can put out a press release and it will get very little coverage. But if he has a controversy then it will get played. He discovered that our so-called feud gets him a lot of press. He's always hyped that up.
GR: The last one in this series: What would you say to FDR in 1941? You have an opportunity to talk to him, what would you say to prevent him from creating the Executive Order?
GT: This year on February 19, Day of Remembrance, I was invited to speak at Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, Roosevelt's residence. We also screened Allegiance there that same day. It was an eerie feeling. I thought about that question. If he were alive what would I say? I would tell him that I respect him as both the President and as a human being. Overcoming his physical challenge was an amazing thing. I think his strong will and determination is superhuman. He pulled us out of the Great Depression by creating all those social programs at the risk of being called a Communist or Socialist. It took a lot of strength and political savvy to do that. However, I will forever hold against him what he did to the Constitution of the United States with his sweeping characterization of Japanese Americans as the enemy. I would tell him that. But my father told me that our democracy is a people's democracy, made by great men who did great things and who had large visions. My father used George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as examples. They were the ones to help establish this nation. They were the ones who articulated the shining ideals of this nation. But they are also fallible human beings. They kept other human beings as slaves, and I am very mindful of that. You are one of those people, you have both greatness and fallibility in you, and we were the victims of your fallibility.
GR: Wow, that's really nice of you.
GT: That is the truth. We need to be actively engaged in the political process. My father told me during our dinner discussions, "Let me show you how it works." He took me downtown to the Adlai Stevenson for President campaign headquarters. He liked to say we volunteered, but actually, I just tagged along with my father. But that showed me what it takes. All those passionate people, volunteers, taking off early from work, are there in the headquarters until the wee hours on weekends. It's these people and these idealists who believe in someone that make our democracy function. Our democracy is existentially dependent on people like that. I met Eleanor Roosevelt because she was a strong supporter of Adlai's. The volunteers were lined up and she came in smiling that Buick fender guard smile. She went down the row shaking our hands saying, "Thank you for what you're doing to help Adlai." It was a heady experience. But that's what it takes. In a two-party system, the human fallibility in a lot of people Democrat and Republican politicians shows at a time like this when there is such keen tension. Right now, because the Republicans have the power, they feel they can do what they can and they're coming down with awful things. We've got to resist. Dissent is not the enemy of democracy. In fact, real patriots fight for the right to dissent.
George Takei's exhibit at JANM is available until August 20, 2017
Allegiance will be coming to Los Angeles from February, 21 through April 1, 2018
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