Being George Takei
The wildy disparate life and times of Star Trek alumnus George Takei has been celebrated in a compelling new documentary, To Be Takei. Ahead of its screening at the Queer Screen Film Festival, he speaks to Garrett Bithell.
When the Imperial Japanese Navy bombed Pearl Harbour in 1941, Star Trek luminary George Takei was just four years old. In the throes of wartime hysteria, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order to summarily round up all Japanese Americans and intern them in various barbed-wire prison camps in some of the most hellish locations in the United States. There were no charges, no trials – in fact any notion of due process evaporated.
Takei, who is now 77 years old, still vividly remembers the fateful morning his family was forced from their home on Garnet Street in Los Angeles.
“My brother and I were in the living room looking out the front window, and we saw two soldiers with bayonets flashing on their rifles, marching up our driveway,” Takei tells SX. “They stomped up the front porch and banged on the front door. My father answered it, and literally at gun point we were ordered out of our home. My father gave me and my brother tiny pieces of luggage to carry out, and I remember standing in our driveway waiting for my mother to come out. When she finally emerged, she had my baby sister in one arm, a huge duffle bag in the other arm, and tears were streaming down her cheeks.
“That scene is burnt into my memory. It was the most terrorising morning a five-year-old child could have – to be ordered out of your home at gun point, and see your mother with tears streaming down her cheeks.”
The Takei family was forced to live in the horse stables of Santa Anita Park before being sent to the Rohwer War Relocation Center for internment in the swamps of Arkansas. They were later transferred to the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in California, and only allowed to return to Los Angeles at the end of World War II.
“We had done nothing wrong,” Takei says. “We were imprisoned simply because ofour race, our ancestry. It’s one of the darkest chapters of American history when the constitution was egregiously violated. That experience shaped me.”
Indeed, Takei has been a political figure, in various incarnations, ever since. From the African American civil rights movement and the Vietnam War peace movement in the 1960s, to the successful 1970s campaign for an apology from the US government for the unlawful imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II, Takei has been an active proponent of participatory democracy. But there was always a cruel irony to his activism.
“From the time I was 10 or 11, I knew I wasn’t like the other boys who were huffing and puffing about ‘Monica’s hot!’, or ‘Sally is cute!’” Takei says. “I thought they were alright – but it was Bobby who really got me excited! He was the cute one. But that wasn’t the way boys were supposed to be, so I hid it and acted like Monica was hot. So when everyone started dating, I started dating, and went out on double dates with my buddies. But I was more interested in my buddy than my date.
“So throughout all of my activism, I was silent on the one issue that was closest to me.”
In 1965, producer Gene Roddenberry cast Takei as Lieutenant Sulu in the second Star Trek pilot, and eventually the Star Trek television series, which was a watershed moment in an era when Asian actors were always relegated to playing the villain, the servant or the ninja. But it was this budding career as a young actor that prevented Takei from ever being open about his sexuality – evidently there was one stereotype he couldn’t break down.
Above: Takei in Star Trek
“I wanted to be an actor, and no producer or director would cast me if I was openly gay,” Takei tells.
“Gays were box office and ratings poison. So I lived most of my life closeted – I lived a double life. If I had to go to apremiere or a Hollywood party, I would go with a female friend. But later I’d be in a gay bar.”
Indeed Star Trek was famous for the way it used metaphor to comment on issues of the day, including the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. But extending this to the gay rights movement was always seen by Roddenberry as being beyond the pale – such was the tenor of American culture around homosexuality at the time.
“Star Trek was always very low rating,” Takei says. “But in the second season we had an episode where Captain Kirk kissed Uhura, an African American woman. So it was a white man kissing a black woman. That episode was literally blacked out in the south – the Southern stations wouldn’t run it. And so as low rated as we were every week, our ratings hit rock bottom with that episode and we were barely surviving.
“Roddenberry always felt that even touching the issue of the LGBT community would get us cancelled.”
It wasn’t until former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed legislation for marriage equality in California in 2005 that Takei decided to break his silence, along with his long-term partner Brad.
“My blood was boiling!” Takei says. “That night, Brad and I were watching the late night news, and I saw all these young people pouring out onto Santa Monica Boulevard venting about Schwarzenegger’s veto, and that was inspiring. So Brad and I discussed it, and I talked to the press for the first time as a gay man, blasting the veto.”
As Takei says, from that point on he “came out roaring”. As though wanting to make up for lost time, he has become of the most vocal LGBT activists in the United States. In 2006, popular shock jock Howard Stern invited Takei to be the new announcer for his show when it moved to Sirius XM Radio, giving him valuable access to millions of Middle Americans. In 2008, he married Brad at the Japanese American National Museum.
Above: Takei with husband Brad on their wedding day in 2008
Suddenly, Takei wasn’t just famous for playing Sulu on Star Trek – he was famous for being George Takei. With almost 8 million fans on Facebook and 1.5 million followers on Twitter, he is riding the crest of a new wave of fame – and influence.
“That was where my transition to being George Takei began,” he says. “Before then my identity was as Sulu. I was prepared for my tombstone to read, ‘Here lies Sulu’ – and in smaller letters – ‘aka George Takei’! I needed to get my own identity.”
This newfound profile led to Takei being approached by documentarian Jennifer Kroot, who wanted to tell his story. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year to rave reviews, the resulting film – To Be Takei – not only presents Takei’s unique insights into a number of key chapters in American political and cultural history, but is a portrait of his unique personality and wildly disparate achievements. It also charts the development of the musical Allegiance, which is set during the Japanese American internment in World War II, and was inspired by Takei’s experiences.
WATCH: To Be Takei trailer
“So many actors have documentaries done that are essentially vanity projects to make them look more glamorous, more intelligent, more charming and more charismatic than they really are,” Takei says.
“But Brad and I gave Jennifer carte blanche and we trusted her completely.
“I must say there are some parts we perhaps would have preferred she didn’t include,” Takei laughs. “Brad was quite candid about my singing for instance – he hears my singing every morning in the shower, and I wish he was more complimentary in terms of what he thought of my singing!”
The documentary also captures Takei’s indomitable spirit, and utter lack of patience for doom and gloom. “I do get my fair share of hate mail, although the overwhelming majority of responses are positive,” he says. “You can’t pay attention to the haters – I just ignore them and move on. People like that are always going to be there, and they have troubles of their own. They are very unhappy people, frustrated people. And anonymous people, usually.
“I’d actually like to help them and make them happier human beings.”
While ever looking to move forward, Takei does take stock of how far society has come. “If I had come out in the 60s when I was doing Star Trek, my acting career would have over in an instant,” he muses.
“But I look at Zachary Quinto, who played Spock in the Star Trek reboot a few years ago – so many people are coming out now and still having a viable career as an actor. But we need more people with that kind of boldness.”
To Be Takei will screen as part of the 2014 Queer Screen Film Festival on September 20. For bookings, head to www.queerscreen.org.au
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