When I head to the Starz offices to interview George Takei, it’s already 4 p.m. and I’m the final writer to speak with the Star Trek star, human rights activist, and social media personality. Takei is promoting filmmaker Jennifer M. Kroot's documentary To be Takei (on VOD, iTunes, and in theaters tomorrow), which covers the ups and downs of his truly amazing public and private life. But Takei's press marathon, which started in the wee hours of the morning with the Today Show, isn't over yet. He's scheduled for a Q&A at Buzzfeed following a screening of the film, and there's talk of doing another Reddit AMA in the future (Takei is already a well-loved fixture on the social news website). It's the sort of PR onslaught that would leave a guy in his mid-20s completely exhausted.
But not George Takei.
After all, the former Lieutenant Sulu has already survived internement during World War II, a successful political career in the '70s, and coming out of the closet at 68—a few (hundred) more interviews is just a walk in the park. Still, classy guy that he is, Takei shakes my hand and apologizes for being off his game—a mea culpa that's entirely undermined by his signature booming baritone. Over the course of our chat we discuss Takei's relationship with his husband, Brad, his honest feelings about Star Trek, and his acclaimed Japanese internet musical Allegiance (yes, you read that right). The man may be 78, but he's just getting started.
Before filming the documentary, did you have any reservations about showing your personal life to so many people? How did Brad react to the cameras?
I’m used to being before the camera and we agreed to do a documentary, so obviously that’s going to be probing. I was alright with it, but for Brad it was a little awkward. He thought there would be a beginning to each scene and an end to each scene. But documentarians like to catch you off guard, so they won’t tell you when they’re recording. [Laughs.] Like in the barbershop scene, when Brad is going out the door, he says, “He was supposed to say cut, I don’t know what to do now!” I said, “Just keep moving, just keep moving,” and they kept that.
unless people participate, there will be those that manipulate or use the system for personal gain.
The film is only an hour and a half, but it encompasses so much. I was particularly struck by your activism regarding internment—many fans of yours may not know about that side of your life.
I believe that our democracy truly comes to life as a dynamic democracy. When people are actively engaged in bringing about change, expanding equality for more and more people, I think that’s the overall sense you get. I was involved in the civil rights movement during the Vietnam War, the peace movement. During the '70s, I campaigned to get an apology from the US government for the unconstitutional incarceration [of Japanese immigrants] as a token redress. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act and apologized on behalf of the government.
The film demonstrates the fact that you have to participate in our democracy. Because, as my father used to say, “It’s a people’s democracy and it can be as great as the people can be, but also as fallible as the people are." It’s a participatory democracy and unless people participate, there will be those that manipulate or use the system for personal gain or to manipulate the government, which is what happened to us in my childhood. So I hope that’s the message that comes across. LGBT equality happened because people engaged in the gay liberation movement that started with the Stonewall. Until then, there was very little activism participation in expanding equality for the LGBT people.
There’s an unbridled optimism that you seem to have which helps you embrace everything in your life. How do you stay so positive, considering all the hardships you’ve had to overcome?
Early in my life I had a real test of our democracy when we were incarcerated. In my family it was my parents that suffered the most and felt the pain the most, the degradation the most. But I was five years old to almost nine years old, so I have my memories of it and I have some terrorizing memories. As a child you adjust to horrific circumstances and my real fun memories were catching pollywogs in the creek and watching them sprout legs and turn into frogs. They had to start from skid row all over again, and I watched how they worked so hard to get back on their feet and give their three children fine college educations and the life we have today. I think watching my parents determination to get back on their feet and to give their three children a future was the object lesson for me. It also made me stronger, gave me the toughness to deal with outrageous situations.
Star Trek's various cast members have dealt with the series in different ways. Some people have tried to distance themselves more than others. Why have you continued to embrace that community throughout your life?
Well, it's something to be proud to be associated with. Star Trek and Gene Roddenberry had a very positive, shining view of our future. If we have confidence in our problem-solving capabilities and innovative and inventive genius and an entrepreneurial spirit, we can create that type of future. When so much science fiction has us groveling around in the ruins of a dystopian society ruled by robots or apes, and the fact that we were a low-rated TV series and somehow able to survive that and come back as a series of feature films and was able to transfer that popularity into spin-off series: Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise.
It’s a remarkable achievement of both Gene Roddenberry and the studio’s and to be associated with that. And particularly for me, personally, to get that non-stereotype role—in fact, a heroic role—and to be part of the leadership team, is something to be very proud of. So many Asian-Americans have come up to me and said, “I feel so proud that you were there playing that kind of role.” So why would I want to distance myself from that? In two more years, 2016, we’ll be celebrating the 50th birthday of Star Trek, the golden anniversary. That’s an amazing achievement. To be skittish or distant, or ashamed of that is kind of crazy. I’m proud of that association. That’s your answer.
Some of my favorite scenes in the film are when you and your husband are just interacting naturally.
Well, I know you’ve also seen us bickering.
But that’s what I'm talking about—normal relationship stuff! How have you kept your marriage healthy and maintained it over the years?
From the time that we got together we said we love each other, but we’re going to have differences and we need to put that all in context. When we go to bed at night, no matter what happened during the course of the day, arguments or a wonderful shared experience, we’re going to give each other a kiss before we go to bed. Sometimes it's difficult if you had a screaming match with each other, but after you do that, whatever differences you have seem petty in a larger context. It’s silly. If we do that every night, it becomes habitual. We see a larger picture, and at the core we love each other. Whatever differences, whatever bickering we had becomes very small in a larger context. I think that’s what has got us going for 27 years now.
You’re obviously a huge presence on social media. What made you want to connect with fans in that way? Were you surprised to receive so much attention for you Facebook page?
Yes, I was. The reason I started out on social media was Allegiance. Here we are developing a musical, investing a lot of our time, our energy, our passion, and we have our money in it too, which is something an actor isn’t supposed to do, on a project that people know very little about and a rather depressing subject on a dark chapter of American history. We had to raise the awareness of the American public on that subject.
There’s a large area of overlap between sci-fi geeks and nerds and LGBT and social justice people.
Once that was accomplished we needed to develop them into eager, avid ticket buyers and so I thought social media would be the way to do it. But at the beginning my base was made up of sci-fi geeks and nerds. I had to grow that by trial and error. The comic, humorous posts were what got the most likes and shares. Particularly “Grumpy Cat” was very successful, and I thought, “OK, that’s what people share and like” and watched the audience grow.
I started focusing in on that and once it grew to a certain size, then I started introducing social justice issues, like internment and equality for LGBT people. There’s a large area of overlap between sci-fi geeks and nerds and LGBT and social justice people. I was astounded by how it rapidly grew so large, well over 7.3 million followers on Facebook and 1.2 million on Twitter, and that’s what contributed to the big box office and the success for Allegiance in San Diego at the old Globe Theater. It was Allegiance that got me actively involved in social media.
Is there a single moment that you can look back on over the course of your life that you're the most proud of?
That’s a good journalist question! [Laughs.] Not one thing though because all of those things that you have mentioned have been incredible highs. Being able to get married was a glorious high. When Ronald Reagan apologized to all of America, it was a wonderful, soul-satisfying event. With each event where you succeed it’s fantastic and it’s hard to say which one is weightier than the other, which one is more joyous than the other. They all have substance and they all have the quality of elation, so it’s hard to say which one single event is the most.
Nathan Reese is a News Editor at Complex. He's more of a Next Generation guy, but don't tell Takei that. He tweets here.