It's been nearly 50 years since George Takei broke into the public consciousness as Lt. Hikaru Sulu in the original "Star Trek" series, yet at age 77, he's never been more famous. An outspoken gay rights advocate (he came out in 2005), Takei is a Howard Stern regular, has appeared as a guest on numerous TV shows ("The Big Bang Theory," "Hawaii Five-O"), has 7 million Facebook followers and has been vocal in educating the public about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, which affected his entire family. Now, in the charming documentary "To Be Takei," he has opened up his public and private life (with husband, Brad, whom he married in 2008) to scrutiny. Lewis Beale spoke with the always courtly and courteous actor-activist.
Where did the idea for the film come from, and what did you hope to accomplish with it?
The idea came from Jennifer Kroot. She approached us; it was flattering to be told she wanted to do a bio documentary on me. We didn't know Jennifer at all; we had long conversations and vetted her past works. Once we agreed on this, it was the same time we started developing "Allegiance," a musical on the internment of Japanese-Americans, and it was the opportunity to chronicle that. We were hoping it would end with the Broadway opening, but we're now waiting for a Broadway theater to open up.
The film is almost a commercial for same-sex marriage, in that you and Brad come off like any other long-married couple -- loving, laughing and bickering.
We wanted to show the normality of our lives. People have stereotyped impressions of what a gay couple's life is like, but it's like every other couple. We bicker, but at the end of the day, we give each other a kiss, and sometimes when it's been fighting, it might be a perfunctory peck on the cheek. We didn't want a vanity project; we gave Kroot] carte blanche.
You're obviously more famous and visible now than you ever were. What's that like?
It's both wonderful, and it can be a bit inconvenient. At the airport, they want selfies, and you're trying to catch a connecting flight. It sometimes has inconveniences, but we're in this business because the audience makes our career. I'm more visible, more recognizable and more active.
Like all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, your family was interned right after Pearl Harbor, the rationale being that you might be disloyal to the U.S. Do you think something like that could happen again? Say with Arab-Americans?
Right after 9/11, Japanese- Americans immediately sensed what might be happening to Arab- Americans. I am a board member of the Japanese-American National Museum, and we organized a candlelight ceremony with some Arab-Americans and Japanese-Americans. And we organized a symposium, and we invited a leader from the Arab-American community, and a Japanese-American who remembers the internment. We knew what might be happening; the word was "detention," individual Arab-Americans detained for months on end with no trial. It can happen, and that's why we need to know about that dark chapter in our history.
What do you think of the last two "Star Trek" films?
J.J. Abrams is a good adventure director, and there's a lot of slam bang, zip zapness, space battles. But what Gene Roddenberry did was to use science fiction as a metaphor for contemporary issues. Certainly our times are fine for contemporary issues, but "Star Trek" now is an action-adventure series, exciting, thrilling but without the content.
You came up at a time when there weren't a lot of Asian-American role models on TV and in film. Have things changed?
There's a night and day difference. Series have Asian-American regulars in the cast, whether it's a hospital or detective series. TV now reflects the American scene; whereas, back when I started, Asian-Americans were depicted in stereotypes. There are more opportunities, but we aren't at the place where African- Americans are today, where they have a host of African-American stars. We still have a long way to go. We don't have the Denzel Washingtons or Morgan Freemans who can get movies made.
So, what got you into acting in the first place?
You don't decide to be an actor. We're born with that passion. From the time I was young, I loved performing. My first role was playing an Indian chief in a grammar school pageant. I started my career as an architectural student at Berkeley, but I had to be honest, and I couldn't see myself working as an architect, so I transferred to UCLA as a theater arts student.