George Takei, best known for his role as Sulu in the Star Trek franchise, has become a legend in the entertainment industry. He is the subject of the new documentary, To Be Takei, which chronicles his early life in a Japanese American WWII internment camp, his exceptional career, and his becoming an LGBT icon. George spoke with DIRECTV about To Be Takei, which will air exclusively on DIRECTV from July 3 through August 5, before it’s in theaters.
George, we love everything you have done, from Star Trek to Howard Stern. We are excited to be releasing your documentary To Be Takei on DIRECTV CINEMA before it’s in theaters.Tell us what made you want to tell your story to the world in film? You have of course written books, but why tell your story in this way?
Well yes, I have written my autobiography but that was during the time that I was closeted. So I am silent in my book about the other and very important part of my life, that I am gay. In that respect it was a true autobiography, I was closeted at the time and the book reflects that.
Initially when Jennifer [Kroot, the film’s director] approached [my husband Brad and I], we weren’t thinking of a documentary at all. We thought it was interesting but we didn’t know Jennifer. So we did a little research on her, and saw one of her documentaries, and we were quite impressed with her. So then we thought, This is another interesting way of telling our story. You know, I’ve been making speeches at universities, corporations, and government agencies. But to tell our story cinematically, and to share the reality of our lives, would be perhaps a more organic way of advocacy.
What specifically do you want people to get from seeing To Be Takei?
Well for one thing, the normality of our lives. We get up in the morning and we go about the day. But also to see the uniqueness, I dare say craziness, of our lives. We just got back from a three-week tour of Asia, South Korea, and Japan, organized by the State Department, talking about my life to draw a parallel to the tension between Korea and Japan. They are both allies of ours but it’s difficult having allies that have such strong tensions between them. I talked about my childhood internment and that my country, the United States, was able to deal with it, even though it took a lot of time until my country apologized. President Reagan, on behalf of the country, apologized for that unconstitutional incarceration. By talking about that, hopefully they understand the importance of their place in the world and with their ally, the United States.
So that’s a unique part of our lives, Brad’s and my life. The craziness of preparing for trips, the hectic-ness of going from one city to another—Okinawa for two days, then we go to Osaka where, incidentally, [Patrick Linehan] the American Consul General, a gay man with a Japanese Brazilian husband, is representing the United States. So doing that, and being introduced to and making discoveries of people like that in other parts of the world,is fascinating.
So we have this normality as well as extraordinary-ality, if there is such a word, in our lives. By sharing that we can make our lives engaging and entertaining and hopefully enlightening.
But also relatable. As much as you are traveling the world and speaking to big crowds, you are very down to earth. I’ve heard you bare your soul on Howard Stern many times and in your books.
Well that rascal gets all kinds of things out of me. And I pay the price for it later with Brad.
Who inspires you most? Besides Brad, of course.
I think of my father and my mother. Their resilience of surviving all that they did in their lifetime—to have everything that you worked for in your life taken away and still not be embittered. To give their three children fine educations so we can go on and build our lives, and for my father to then be successful in real estate—they were amazing. They really are my heroes and my inspiration.
Is there anyone current on the scene who is inspiring you right now?
We are Clinton lovers. President Clinton appointed me to a commission where I was able to serve in another capacity, as a bridge builder in the Japan-Unites States Friendship Commission. As a result of that I received an extraordinary honor from the Emperor of Japan, it was called the Order of the Rising Sun.
Bill Clinton has that amazing talent of taking complex ideas and explaining them simply and clearly to a large, mass audience. We are Hilary people as well and we are going to be involved in her campaign, once she makes a decision.
Do you have any inside information about Hilary Clinton running for president?
[Laughs] No, we don’t. We are noncommittal at this point. We don’t want to get caught up if she decides not to run. But I am impressed by both Bill and Hilary Clinton.
What about actors?
Amongst actors I think Matthew McConaughey, who is a fantastic actor, but also because of how he reorganized his career in a very shrewd way. To do all those romantic comedy movies and build a base, then once he had a solid base he worked for practically nothing in a role that was so challenging and seemingly non-commercial. He turned in a brilliant performance and won the Oscar. And then to follow that up with True Detective, where again he displays a depth of his acting prowess—he is an amazing guy. A talented actor but beyond that a great strategist for his career.
Same for you George, you are someone who has really changed his career dramatically in the last 10 years.
Well I believe in that Star Trek saying, to boldly go where you’ve never been before, to be a risk-taker, to venture forth. And sure, you may fall flat on your face. But then, chances are, you make new discoveries about yourself as well as build a new life for yourself. Matthew McConaughey boldly went where he hadn’t been before, for instance.
Let’s call it the Undiscovered Country. Right, George?
[Laughs] Yes, also known as, “Captain Sulu to the rescue.”
Well now we are going to talk about TV. Are there shows that you and Brad watch when you have time?
I like The Blacklist—we are addicted to that. That’s a great show. We also DVR. Because we travel, almost all the shows we watch are DVR’ed. 60 Minutes is another regular show we like. Modern Family is very funny and very contemporary. So those are the kind of shows we have stored on DVR. Bryan Cranston is another great actor and we saw him on Broadway. He turned in a brilliant performance and when we were walking out of the theater I said to Brad, We have just seen the Tony award-winning performance. And then he did get the Tony.
On that topic, of course you have had your theatrical play Allegiance, which you must be very proud of.
Thank you. We are eagerly looking forward to our Broadway opening. But we need to find a theater. We’ve been waiting in line for a theater that has between 1,000 to 1,300 seats—at most 1,400 seats.
One more question for you, George. What actor would you want to play you in a movie about your life?
What actor? You know there really aren’t that many name actors, Asian American actors, and it’s got to be an Asian American like me. The big actor that is cast nowadays is Ken Watanabe, who is Japanese, but it would have to be an American and I don’t think there are that many American actors that could play me.
Well maybe that’s the point, that we need more Asian American actors.
That is a point. An Asian American actor, if that person is going to do my life, I want to see the early part of my career. Jon Cho, of course, is playing Sulu now in the new Star Trek films. When you think of Asian American actors there are not that many. I sit on the board of the East-West Players of Los Angeles and there are a lot of young Asian American male actors coming up. But when you make a film you want to ensure the box office with someone who has box office currency. I don’t think there are any Asian American actors like that. We need to make more opportunities and, in the next generation, we may get bankable young actors.
Before we go I want to say your Facebook page is amazing and people who never watched Star Trek are following you.
Yes, a whole new generation knows me from my Facebook rather than anything else I’ve done!
You’ve got more fans than we do so you must be doing something right!
Well I’ll help you out. We are going to be pulling the same wagon, you and I both. So let’s hope that we have a smash-a-rooney success with To Be Takei.
To Be Takei is available exclusively on DIRECTV CINEMA until August 5.