Interview: It’s more than OK to be George Takei

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For many, George Takei will always be Sulu, the helmsman he immortalised in the science-fiction series Star Trek. But the veteran actor has forged a long and diverse career incorporating stage, television, radio and film. He has been involved in civil rights movements for just as long. Laurence Watts met him at his Hollywood home.

“He called and asked me to come in for a table reading of the script.” That’s how George describes getting the part of Dr Matsutani in the film Larry Crowne. The caller in question was Tom Hanks. Julia Roberts would also star in the film. “I’ve reached the point where I get invited to play certain roles, rather than lining up and waiting to audition.”

George’s childhood was much less auspicious. Though he and his parents were American-born US citizens living in Los Angeles they were imprisoned along with other Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. George was five years old when, in April 1942, his family was sent to the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas for internment.

“It was one of the most egregious violations of our constitution,” he tells me. “There were no charges, no trials and no due process. We were imprisoned simply because we looked like the people who bombed Pearl Harbour.”

Internment didn’t just mean barbed wire, armed guards and sentry towers; it also meant loss of livelihood. Businesses and homes were lost as well as freedom.

“Before, my father had a cleaning shop,” George tells me. “Well, when you’re given 48 hours to leave you lose that. He sold his car for $5 because it was better than leaving it idle. We sold my mother’s brand new refrigerator for $1.”

Even when the war was over life remained difficult. When he was released, despite his college degree, Takei’s father worked as a dishwasher in a Chinatown restaurant. Other Asians were the only people who would hire him and that was the only job available.

By the time George went to college his family was back on its feet. He began studying architecture, but it wasn’t long before he wanted to follow his true passion: theatre. When he raised the matter his father pointed to the likely roles he believed his son would be offered: servants, buffoons, students and villains. That’s what he saw on television and what he thought his son could look forward to.

“And I said, ‘Daddy, I’m going to change the industry. I’m going to study acting. None of the people playing those roles have studied theatre. It’s because we’re portrayed as those stereotypes that it was so easy for the government to round us up and put us in camps’.”

In a partial victory his father dissuaded him from attending The Actors Studio in New York, in favour of a course at UCLA that would at least earn a degree. As luck would have it Daddy knew best: Takei was seen in a student production at UCLA by a casting director from Warner Bros studios and put into his very first feature film, 1960’s Ice Palace, starring Richard Burton. A slew of film and TV work followed, but it was his casting as Sulu in 1965 that Takei describes as his “breakthrough opportunity”.

“A lot of the roles I’d played up to then were accent roles. Gene Roddenberry explained to me how the Starship Enterprise was a metaphor for Earth and how the ship’s strength was the crew’s diversity. At that time we were at war in Vietnam and people ‘like me’ were once again characterised as the enemy. There was my image as Sulu, a member of this diverse multinational team, chipping away at that old stereotype at the same time.”

Though Takei has played many roles over the years, including recently in NBC’s ‘Heroes’, Nickelodeon’s ‘Super Ninjas’ and appearing in Britain’s ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!’ it’s his role of Sulu that has taken on a life of its own after 51 episodes, 22 animated episodes and six feature films.

“I do Star Trek conventions, but I try to be selective. I think it’s good manners to go out there and thank the people who have blessed you with such long-lasting popularity.”

When George publicly came out in 2005 he was already 18 years into a relationship. He and his partner Brad had met as members of a gay running group.

“In 2005 the Californian Senate and Assembly passed a bill legalising same-sex marriage. All that was required for it to become law was the signature of the governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. When he ran for governor he courted the gay vote saying, ‘I’m from Hollywood, I’ve worked with gays and lesbians, some of my best friends are gay.’ But when it came to it he played to the reactionary section of his Republican base. He vetoed the bill.

“I spoke to the press for the first time about being gay to highlight Schwarzenegger’s hypocrisy. Of course we didn’t know just how hypocritical he was until after he left office, but that’s why I did it. I felt my voice had to be authentic.”

A few years later the California Supreme Court took the issue out of politicians’ hands when it legalised gay marriage on 15 May 2008.

“We knew a ruling was coming and so Brad and I had the news on all the time. We were having lunch as a matter of fact, when there was breaking news. I’d been planning on asking him, but when the news came on CNN I had a mouthful of sandwich. Brad got down at that moment and said, ‘George would you marry me?’ I was like: ‘Darn it! You beat me to it!’”

They were married on September 14th 2008 at the Japanese-American National Museum in Los Angeles, a museum Takei co-founded to share the Japanese-American story. Less than two months later Proposition 8 was voted into law, banning same-sex marriage in California.

“Brad and I were at ABC’s television studios to be interviewed on the Obama victory, but at the same time we got the news about Prop 8. I said it was a bittersweet night for us. It was amazing that America had elected an African-American as president, but at the same time it was personally devastating.”

George and Brad’s marriage was one of the 18,000 same-sex marriages thrown into legal limbo by Prop 8. Though the validity of their marriage was later upheld by a further court ruling, Takei has since used his visibility as a prominent out gay man to become a strong advocate for LGBT rights. One recent example of this is the ‘It’s OK to be Takei’ campaign.

In May 2011, when Tennessee senators proposed and passed a bill that would make talking about homosexuality in schools illegal, Takei hit back with a tongue-in-cheek internet campaign showing how ridiculous the measure was: if teachers couldn’t say ‘gay’ he was happy for them to say ‘Takei’ instead.

“In this country we have the first amendment, which guarantees free speech. You can’t muzzle people, particularly teachers who give guidance to teenagers. Politicians trying to make a law punishing people with 30 days in jail for using a certain word is outrageous.”

A million YouTube hits later and with its backers looking like laughing stocks the bill now looks to be indefinitely stalled. It’s a solid victory and proof, if proof were needed, that it’s more than just OK to be George Takei.