In Part I of an intimate interview with George Takei at the 2007 San Diego Asian Film Festival, SDAFF founder and executive director Lee Ann Kim asked George Takei about his experience on the original STAR TREK television show and his relationship with Gene Roddenberry. In Part II, the actor discusses his ascension to captaincy in the movie series, his reasons for telling the media he is gay, and his political views on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and President George W. Bush.
As previously mentioned, because of the touchy nature of the topics he chose to discuss, rather than write his quotes into an article, I felt that it would be more respectful to share Takei’s comments in Q&A format, so that his words are not taken out of context.
LEE ANN KIM: Did you have to do any lobbying in order to try go up the ranks on the Enterprise over the years?
GEORGE TAKEI: We had seven regular actors and two battling for supremacy. Bill Shatner was the ostensible star of the series, but once the series was on the air, Leonard Nimoy had more fan letters than any of us, including Bill Shatner. And Bill got very insecure. So there was a battle royale going on and they were lobbying for their characters and when you have the two leads in a series trying to get as much time as possible, it was difficult for the rest of us to get to say more than just, “Aye aye, sir,” and, “Warp 3.”
I was always lobbying that Sulu was supposed to have graduated from Starfleet academy at number one and he was getting the reputation as being the best helmsman at Starfleet. I figured if that is so, shouldn’t that be reflected in his participation in the stories? So I kept lobbying and lobbying, but with the two battle royales going on it was only occasionally that we got opportunities to do shows like “Naked Time” and “Mirror, Mirror.” But I kept it up all through the series and when we became a series of movies, I kept up the same arguments, and when the movies started I began lobbying for a captaincy for Sulu and it was just becoming too difficult.
In the WRATH OF KHAN, there was actually a scene written for me where I got my captaincy, but as you know, it wasn’t in the film and I guessed it was not meant to be. I had given up because it wasn’t going to happen. But, the seed was planted, and it not only germinated but it also flowered when the sixth STAR TREK script came. I opened it up, and on the front page, the very first page, they had a brand new captain of a great, huge, brand new ship, and it was bigger than the Enterprise…the starship Excelsior and there was this confident, dynamic, new captain of the Excelsior, Captain Hikaru Sulu…and I was there in the first shot. [Ecstatic clapping from the audience during Takei’s giant and patented ear-to-ear grin].
KIM: So how much of your life is completely encompassed by STAR TREK?
GT: Now I’m doing HEROES [loud roars from the crowd]. If you saw the episode I first appeared in, it was in a great, huge limousine. They told me that it cost $300,000 for that fantastic car. But when the camera panned across the rear of the car you saw very briefly the license plate and it was NCC-17701, which is the registry number of the star ship Enterprise. So even on the HEROES show, STAR TREK is there.
KIM: With your life experiences, what you share with people goes well beyond your accomplishments Hollywood. What are your experiences in the Internment Camps during World War 2, and how did that affect your life?
It is the most profound and life-changing experience that I have ever had. [He clears his throat as his face reflects a sad moment from his past.] We all in California and west of the Rockies knew about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War 2, but what was astounding to me was that after I wrote my autobiography and went on the book tour east of the Rockies, so many people came up to me and said that they had no idea that something like this happened in the United States. There are still large chunks of America that don’t know about this unconstitutional incarceration of a whole group of Americans. *
These things must not be forgotten. Pearl harbor was bombed, and overnight Americans of Japanese ancestry were looked upon with fear and suspicion simply because we looked like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor.
So when FDR [Franklin D. Roosevelt; America’s 32ndPresident, 1933-1945] signed the order, all Japanese Americans on the west coast were summarily rounded up with no charges, no trials, and no due process, and were imprisoned in some of the intense barbed wire internment camps in some of the most hellish places in the country: the blistering hot deserts of Arizona; the steamy swamps of Arkansas; the cold wind swept high plains of Wyoming, Idaho, Utah and Colorado; and two of the most desolate place in California. I will never forget the day when American soldiers with bayoneted rifles came to our front door of our Los Angeles home and ordered us out.
We were taken to the swamps of Arkansas, and I still remember the barbed wire fences that imprisoned us, the tall sentry towers with machine guns pointed at us. My sister back then was 4 or 5 years old. The stench of urine all over the place was atrocious, something we had never experienced that before. And all those scary and ugly people falling down in front of my sister would just make her scream. It was a horrific experience. Then coming out of the camp, we first moved to East Los Angeles, where we lived on Skid Row for a while. When I began school again, I had a 3rdgrade teacher who continually called me, “That Jap boy.”
I understood what that meant; it was painful; I just swallowed it and didn’t tell my parents because by this time I had realized how wounded my parents were by this internment experience…they lost everything, my father’s business, our home, our freedom. We were too young to understand what it was all about. But now I do.
Many Japanese American parents did not want to talk about it with others or their children because it was a too painful, wounding experience. Although they were wounded they didn’t want to affect their children…but in retrospect it would have been a healthier thing to have that dialogue.
Later on, when I was a teenager and learning about the ideals of American democracy – I regret it now, but I was argumentative with my father, saying that he led us like sheep into this camp, into imprisonment. I boasted I would have protested; I would have rallied, and with my friends we would have marched right in there. It was our teenage arrogance and muscle-flexing sort of thing. My father said that both the strengths and weaknesses of American democracy lies in the fact that it can be as great as the people can be, but it is also as fallible as the people. America was swept up by wartime hysteria, the prejudice of that time, and that is why it was possible for politicians to get whole groups of people locked up.
This country is also about participatory democracy, and if the good people are not participating, then those that will exploit the system or have undemocratic ideas will fill the void and use democracy for an evil cause, like the internment of innocent people. We must be involved in the political process and even before I could vote, my father was enamored with Adlai Stevenson, who was candidate for president against Eisenhower; he worked on the Stevenson campaign.
KIM: And today’s president?
GT: He is one of the worst ever. He started out with a surplus and plunged us into historic debt. Conservatism means respecting this environment and preserving it. Theodore Roosevelt created the National Park System. Conservatism also means to respect the ideal of democracy, and this presidency is the most secret, most opaque president ever…he is not a Republican. Although I am Democrat, I have learned a great deal from the Republicans, and it is the tension between the two parties that makes us better Democratic and Republicans, and more responsible Republicans, and that is what makes the system work. But a partisan Supreme Court appointed George Bush, and what really angers me was that in 2004 election, the American people voted him in. I could not watch the news for a week after I was so disappointed in the American voting public.
KIM: And that is part of why you came out of the closet to talk about these things. Was it also because of your father’s influence that you waited so long to come out of the closet?
GT: You are probably making reference to 2005. I am gay, but my partner Brad Altman and I have been together for 20 years [Takei introduces Brad Altman, who stands up to a warm round of applause]. We have been out for many years, and it is only that I have not spoken to the press about it.
KIM: And you just decided to issue a press release one day saying, “I’m gay?”
We are engaged in society and financially contribute to many non-profits, and our names are carved together on building walls, some even in granite. So we’ve been out for a long time. I mean, when you have your name together in the public eye…that is out. I just never spoke to the press about it. The reason I talked to the press in 2005 was because of a historic event that happened in California,
Both houses of our legislature, the assembly and senate, passed the “same sex marriage” bill. It was historic. There is a same sex marriage bill in Massachusetts but that came through the judicial route, through the courts, but this was the first time that the legislature, both houses, passed the same sex marriage. The only thing required to make it become a law of our state was a signature from our governor…and you know who he is. A former movies star. And when he ran for office, he made all these political statements, “I am from Hollywood, I have worked with gays and lesbians, I am comfortable with them.”
On the TONIGHT SHOW with Jay Leno, while he was campaigning, Leno gave him a hypothetical asking, “If our legislature passed the same sex marriage bill would you sign?” Our governor said, “Yes I would. Some of my best friends are gays and lesbians.” I thought surely that after it was passed and he campaigned the way he had that he would sign it. But no, he vetoed it; he was playing into the narrowest and most reactionary segment of the Republican Party. I felt I needed to speak out, and for me to speak out on this issue, my voice needed to be authentic and so I spoke to the press. So the press is the one who has decided that we came out in 2005.
NEXT SUNDAY: In the final part of this intriguing interview, Takei talks about his licentious roasting of William Shatner on the Comedy Network, how he became a semi-regular on the Howard Stern show (a man he initially despised), his involvement on the hit show HEROES and the somewhat shameful way he got on the show, which reflects that even today and with his pedigree as an actor, Asian American actors are still treated unfairly in Hollywood.
[*AUTHOR NOTE: Regarding America’s forgetfullness of the Japanese internment camps, it is worth noting that our country is not the only one blind to its historical misdeeds. Many people in Japan do not know that their army slaughtered 300,000 Chinese men, women and children, and raped 20,000 Chinese women and girls during the Rape of Nanking; Japan’s current ruling party recently claimed that these events never occurred.]