When the Straight gets Star Trek star and internet phenomenon George Takei on the phone, he’s in a hotel room in Pittsburgh, preparing for a show with the local symphony. It’s par for the course for the tireless 77-year-old. One day it’s a comic con in Providence, the day after, a speech in Salem. Next Tuesday, it’ll be a one-man show here in Vancouver.
Clearly, F. Scott Fitzgerald had it wrong—Takei’s American life is one with a second act.
A renaissance man who is currently enjoying his own renaissance, Takei has seen the Internet take his fame to dizzying new heights (8 million Facebook likes, 1.42 million Twitter followers) since playing Star Trek’s Hikaru Sulu. And with a timely blend of humor and social commentary, it lately seems there are few places the actor/director/LGBT activist/author’s distinctive basso profondo doesn’t reach.
While he’s happy to talk about Star Trek, it’s obvious that his real passion is social justice—something that is never more evident than when he speaks of his 4-year childhood incarceration in a Japanese internment camp during World War Two.
“It happened simply because we looked like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor,” Takei recalls, telling how his family was rounded up from its Los Angeles home and taken by train halfway across the country. “We were sent to the sultry swamps of southeastern Arkansas and put in a barbed-wire prison camp”.
It’s clearly a painful personal memory, but for Takei it’s also a teachable moment. His experiences in the camps provided the genesis for the musical play Allegiance, making its Broadway debut in 2015. Starring Takei himself, the play—clearly a labor of love—spans 60 years and tells the story of the interment, and its ramifications, through the experiences of one family.
But the subject, Takei stresses, also serves as a cautionary political tale.
“I think there’s an important lesson that can be drawn from internment, because when 9/11 occurred, the same kind of hysteria started again and we, as Japanese-Americans, immediately sensed what could happen.”
When asked if something like internment could happen again, Takei implies the only difference is in scale.
“The word isn’t ‘internment’ anymore, it’s ‘detainment’—without charges, without trial, and without due process. Arab-Americans weren’t rounded up wholesale the way we were, but many were detained for a period of time and released with no apology and no explanation.”
Takei also sees similarities to the LGBT struggle. ”Until recently, gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people were similarly, irrationally, and legally criminalized. I think in Canada you were a little bit ahead of the U.S. in terms of marriage equality, but there were the same kind of parallels. We as Japanese-Americans were imprisoned behind very real barbed-wire fences, but LGBT people were imprisoned behind legalistic barbed-wire fences with sharp barbs of ignorance and prejudice.”
Although mainstream acceptance of LGBT rights has increased dramatically over the past few decades, it’s an issue that continues to be contentious, even in progressive Vancouver. When asked about the current cross-cultural homo- and transphobia leveled at the Vancouver School Board’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identities policy, Takei notes that acceptance comes down to education, and assimilation into the local culture.
“They can’t bring their values and try to impose them on the community that they immigrated to,” he says. “I think it should be pointed out that this is Canada, and that the Canadian people are embracing of diversity.”
In spite of being interned and living most of his adult life in the closet (he didn’t publicly came out until 2005, when California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a same-sex marriage bill), Takei has surprisingly little rancor for someone who has seen so many hardships
When asked how this could be so, his reply is refreshingly old-fashioned.
“I marvel at my father because he’s the one who suffered the most under the internment—there was degradation, humiliation, rage, and loss. He lost everything. And yet he was the one who explained to me how American democracy works. He said, ‘Our democracy is a people’s democracy and it can be as great as people can be, but it’s also as fallible as people are. In a democracy you don’t give up’, and so I’m carrying on with the lesson he taught me.”
It’s a trait that Takei also brought to his TV and film career. Well-known for his constant lobbying for his Sulu character, Takei finally got the Star Trek writers to promote him to captain of the U.S.S. Excelsior in Star Trek VI—The Undiscovered Country, and allow him some final-reel heroics, but he had hoped for more.
“I thought Sulu should have had a family, and that he should have been more pivotal to the workings of the drama,” Takei says in all seriousness—then he lets out a booming laugh: “I also thought Sulu should have had more lines!”
As it happened, Takei almost got his extra lines. In the late 1990s, a fan write-in campaign almost made a U.S.S. Excelsior TV show a reality.
“At one point it became so massive that I really thought it might happen. There was a tidal wave of emails and letters that went to Paramount, but instead they did that flop, Enterprise,” Takei says, with palpable disappointment.“It would have been an enormous, gigantic success if they’d gone with the U.S.S. Excelsior.”
Eventually, of course, Star Trek was re-booted by J.J. Abrams, with the role of a young Sulu going to John Cho. As much as Takei wanted to reprise his role, it was a casting choice he agreed with.
“I knew John from way back, and I told him, ‘You’re a good actor, you’re an experienced actor, and you’re going to do a fine job with it. As far as the fans are concerned, don’t worry—before too long, I will be known as the old guy who plays John Cho’s part.”
But that doesn’t mean that Takei isn’t holding out a little hope for a spot in the next adventure of the Starship Enterprise, set for release in 2016—coincidentally, Trek’s 50th anniversary.
“I’d do it in a heartbeat,” he says.
When asked if Abrams’ people have called, he replies with a long, low “they have noooooot…but I’m still waiting!
George Takei appears at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Tuesday (November 18).