Sulu in San Diego: Intimate Interview with George Takei – Part I

George TakeiIt’s been a while since the San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF, which I wrote about here and here) and it’s given me time to digest all that was wild, woolly, cool, creepy, sad, mad, angry and far out.  At the end of the day, George Takei’s appearance was the one event that encompassed all these emotions as he revealed more about his life and career from the aspect of being a Japanese-American actor living and working in Hollywood than with his run-of-the-mill appearances at STAR TREK conventions.  When was the last time he spoke about being gay and the angst that goes with that to Trekie fans?  Never.
Lee Ann Kim (LAK), an anchor for KGTV (San Diego’s ABC TV affiliate) and the executive director of the San Diego Film Foundation invited me to be the SDAFF’s official blogger and arranged for me to be present during Takie’s interview.  Armed with a tape recorder and camera, I had front row seat furor and witnessed this event first-hand, which was simulcast over the Internet to millions of Takei fans worldwide.  The buzz had the electrified fans whirring all over the world, watching Kim ask the actor about his newly named cosmic namesake, whichprompted him to blurt, “Oh, my – I am now a heavenly body.” I am of course referring to the asteroid formerly known as “1994 GT9” that has been renamed “7307 Takei” in honor of the actor.  All of us that were squeezed into Theater 6, sat around like little children with wide-eyed wonder hanging on every word that Takei was willing to share…and share he did.
Rather than write this as an article, which I normally and prefer to do, I felt that it would be more respectful to share Takei’s words in a Q&A format over a three-part feature.  In this fashion the fans would be privy to what he really said, and nothing would be taken out of context, especially when it comes to his discussion of socio-political issues, gay rights, and what it means to be an Asian American in the United States and Hollywood.
LAK: In 1965, you met Gene Roddenberry about a new TV show he was planning, STAR TREK.  What was the genesis of that?
GT: It’s exactly 50 years ago in 1957, when I dubbed a film called RODAN with the next dubbing project being a movie call GIGANTIS, which later became GODZILLA. [GIGANTIS, THE FIRE MONSTER was the U.S. title for the first GODZILLA sequel, GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN.]  Yet, my career changed when I met Gene in 1965.  He was an extraordinary and unusual man.  When you do interviews for a role, you usually sit in front of a lot of people but when I walked into his office, he was the only man behind the desk.  He greeted me, and escorted me to a sofa, and we sat on the same sofa and started a conversation.  I thought what an interesting way to begin an interview.  By that time, I had been around Hollywood, done interviews, and they would always ask you about what work you’re doing and what is your training as an actor.  But Gene didn’t ask that.  He talked about movies, the headlines of the times, the mid-60’s, Vietnam War, civil rights movement.  And that was it.
I though that was strange; he wasn’t interested in me as an actor but was just being polite.  So I when I talked to my agent and said that he didn’t ask about my acting, I told him I didn’t get the role.  I later found out that he interviews everyone that way.  He does his homework, and knows the people he wants and their acting abilities.  He just wanted to know our thoughts, who we were, our passions and interests.
As it turns out, we were all kindred souls.  Leonard [Nimoy] and I worked on the same political campaigns, Nichelle [Nichols] and I were into the civil rights movement.  I actually did a civil rights musical in LA and met Nichelle there when she came back-stage to meet and interview the cast.  We were all into the issues of the time.  And that was important to Gene because that is what he wanted to talk about on STAR TREK, as well as put together a crew of what he saw was the construction of America in the future.
The message he wanted to convey, which he reminded us of that constantly on STAR TREK, was that the Starship Enterprise was a metaphor for Starship Earth, and the strengths of the Starship lay in its diversity, and the coming together and working in conflict to address whatever changes we had in the galaxy.  The things we faced on the show were metaphors for the issues we were facing in America at that time in the 1960s.
Smart audiences could see beyond the action and adventure to see the message he wanted to convey and that diversity was the core value of STAR TREK.  We had the acronym IDIC – Infinite Diversity and Infinite Combinations –  I represented Asians, Michelle Africans, and to underscore diversity we had a pointed eared alien named Spock.  You also heard the diversity, Russian accent of Checkov, the Southern drawl of the doctor, and the Scots accent of the engineer.
The amazing things is that it’s 40 years plus since then, and today, up in space, we have an international space station with a crew made up of many races, countries and languages, with  Russians and American side by side.  Visionaries are the ones that set goals; inventors, innovators, diplomats and politicians see that goal and work toward it.  We have STAR TREK in reality today.
LAK:  Back then did you think it would get this big?
GT: Oh yes, back in 1965, I knew I would be in San Diego in the seventh year of the 21st century, speaking about this at an Asian Film Festival, showing only Asian films [a hearty laugh].
I knew it was something special.  The scripts were amazing.  When I read the first script, it had substance, interesting characters, filled with the idea of diversity, working together and addressing the issues of the time.  I remember saying, “Oh no, we are in trouble,” because TV at the time was full of nonsense shows that had no substance, and had no ideas or vision behind them.
We’d discuss the ideas between shots on set.  Leonard is a very intelligent man and I really enjoyed our conversations.  Walter was also engaged in political things.  We all enjoyed working on the show and it was something we were proud of.  But then ratings came in…we were in the cellar.  At the end of each season, it was pins and needles time.  Were we going to be cancelled and what would happen to us?  It was miracle with such low ratings that we lasted three seasons, despite the fact that at the beginning of each episode we stated we were boldly going on a five-year mission (laughs).  We battled aliens and everything, yet in the end the real Klingons were the NBC executives [laughs].
LAK:  When they cast you as Sulu, did they discuss on whether or not you would speak with an Asian accent, like in the film ICE PALACE (starring Richard Burton, 1960)?
We live today in the early part of the 21stcentury, and I don’t hear you [LAK is Korean-American] with an accent.  We’re Asian Americans, and as Americans in STAR TREK, the future, there were some concessions made about the accents without the ethnicity being the prime reasons.  With Asians, the accent has a connotation, the stereotype, and the progressive vision of that was to eliminate it.  However, the reason why we incorporated the Scottish and Russian accents was Gene wanted to project the diversity within the white sector.  White people from northern Europe are different from white people in southern Europe, and the cultural diversity and heritages of that, makes life interesting.  As Asians in the show, we spoke without accents because we are Americans, but we are still proud of our unique heritage.  Yet to project that amongst whites we needed accents, so Scotty had had the brogue accent and Checkov that Russian accent.  Back then we were locked in the coldest of cold wars with Russia and literally faced annihilation from each other.  The fact that we inhabit the same planet, how stupid was it for us to have such overkill, where both sides had the bomb power to wipe out the whole planet several times over.  Gene wanted to show that with rationality and diplomacy we could overcome the massive craziness of that and show that Americans and Russians could work together.  This of course is now a reality.
LAK:  What are some of your favorite episodes and why?
Doing a sci-fi series is different from other shows where you get locked into a part doing the same thing week after week.  With STAR TREK, although you are one character, a lot of things happen to you.  You go through an electron field one week, grow old the next, then turn in a crazy person the following week.  So one of my favorites was MIRROR, MIRROR, where some of the crew are trapped in a mirror universe.  With this episode, I got to explore the dark side of Sulu and of course finally pursue that loving side of Sulu with Uhura.  For an actor to explore the dark side of a character, that is what makes acting fun.  But I have to say that my most favorite episode was NAKED TIME.
George Takei's favorite STAR TREK episode 'Naked Time.'Up until that episode, Sulu was chained to that damn consol, I was never free, and the most exciting thing I ever said was, “Aye aye sir.  Warp seven”  [grandiose laugh].  For weeks I was lobbying to get Sulu to do more and so they came up with that script.  In fact, about a month before it was shot, John Lucas (one of the show’s producers) came down to the set and said he was working on a script where the members of the Enterprise go off track, something happens to their minds and all their inhibitions warp away, and we get to do what we really want to do.  So I thought [he was] about to have Sulu terrorize the ship with a samurai sword, because of my Japanese ancestry.
But then I thought, “Hey, although I’m Japanese-American, as a kid I loved Errol Flynn in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD.”  I mean I was swept away by that; I had a Robin Hood outfit, and played Robin Hood in my backyard.  He said that sounded quite interesting and then asked me if I fenced.  I of course said that was my favorite sport and I’m great at it.
Oh my!  That was a lie.  [major laughter]
So he developed the piece into me being a western fencing character, since after all the show was not about ethnicity.  That night I was on the yellow pages desperately looking for a fencing instructor.  There was one on Sunset Boulevard called Falcon Studios and that Saturday afternoon I was taking my first formal fencing lessons.  As it turns out, Mr. Falcon did the fencing choreography in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD.  He also doubled for Basil Rathbone, because apparently Basil was not a good fencer and he would terrorize Errol with his bad fencing.  So as a kid I was watching Mr. Falcon’s back fighting Errol.  It was just an amazing feeling to be reliving, sort of, a childhood fantasy, fencing with Mr. Falcon as Basil and me…as Robin Hood.

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