A candid take with George Takei
As an actor, director, author, and activist, George Takei has led more lives than the coolest of cool cats. While he is perhaps most well-known for playing USS Enterprise helmsman Mr. Sulu from the legendary Star Trek series, Takei himself has become a pop cultural icon in his own right thanks to a multifaceted career tackling everything from Hollywood to Howard Stern, comedy to Comic Con, and more recently performing in the Broadway musical Allegiance inspired by his own childhood memories of living in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II.
I was privileged enough to speak with George Takei by phone to discuss the show’s upcoming New England premiere at SpeakEasy Stage, learn his thoughts on citizenship and celebrity, and hear his predictions for the future of our glorious (dis)union.
You just turned 81 a few days ago, so let me begin by wishing you a belated happy birthday. How did you observe such a milestone?
Thank you very much. It’s been an ongoing celebration for the past three days. Friday night was when we passed the 81 mark, and [my husband] Brad organized a family-and-friends gathering at a very posh restaurant. The next night was the Japanese American National Museum Gala. And last night I was honored by Asia Society Southern California for breaking barriers in Hollywood. I don’t know what today will hold, but I hope it will be fun.
Well, today you get to speak with me.
Fun, fun, fun!
It’s probably important to note that you will not be performing in the Boston production of Allegiance, but you will be attending?
Yes, and this is the first time I will actually get to see Allegiance as a member of the audience. I’ve already enjoyed a preview of sorts: The Boston cast sang “Gaman”—one of my favorite songs from the show—and a beautiful rendition of “Happy Birthday” to me by video.
How lovely! I’m curious about how the idea for creating Allegiance first came to fruition.
It’s been my life’s mission to raise awareness around such a dark chapter in American history. I’ve always wanted to somehow humanize that and my story within it by perhaps fashioning it into a play, but Jay Kuo [who wrote the music, lyrics, and book] convinced me that a musical could prove much more penetrating to the human heart than a straight drama might alone. Not to mention, it would allow us to employ a popular American medium that is much more likely to spread the kind of awareness that I wanted to the masses.
On paper I suppose it might seem somewhat unexpected to convey such history by such means. I mean, a musical about internment camps?
Perhaps. But including music also felt organic to my memories of living in those camps. As drab and ordered as they were, the camps did allow teenagers to hold dances. So I remember hearing those big-band songs of the ’40s wafting through the night air; I suppose that music has colored my memories enough for it to feel native to the narrative.
What are you looking forward to most in this production?
I’m curious to see how my character comes off.
To you as spectator or to Boston audiences?
To both. And while I expect most Bostonians to exhibit equal taste and intelligence, there is perhaps the off chance I will be proven wrong. Let’s hope they exhibit the former.
I was surprised to learn how politically active you’ve been throughout your career: serving on boards, making a bid for city council, and using your celebrity as a platform to discuss contentious issues like same-sex marriage and immigration policy. In that vein, what are your personal thoughts regarding what seems to be the current trend of entertainers seeking public office?
Entertainers don’t give up their citizenship because of their chosen profession. In a democracy, those who cherish its ideals must be active and engaged. One cannot just vote: One must cast an informed vote. After that, one should be a volunteer for a candidate one supports; then perhaps serve on a board; then perhaps also seek office. Above all, we need a wide range of diverse perspectives—whether actors or doctors or truck drivers, we need all kinds of persons behind all sorts of professions to participate in the electoral process. We cannot discriminate and we cannot presume that one cannot be one thing just because they are also something else.
In other words, we shouldn’t let our professions define who we are as citizens?
Just remember that you are an intelligent being who has their own thoughts on issues within currents of time that are informed by vast foundations of historical knowledge.
I’m not sure what that means exactly, but your voice is so stentorian that I can’t help but interpret anything you say as something other than profound. Relatedly, it’s pretty surreal to hear such a recognizable voice booming through my phone right now. Since you’re such a well-known public figure, do you ever think about yourself in the third person?
Never. I’m just me! Thinking about yourself in the third person is for someone like Donald Trump.
I’m guessing by your tone that you’re not a fan?
You are correct.
Of course he comes to mind as perhaps the most prominent example of entertainer turned politician.
There was also Ronald Reagan, whom I was not a fan of either, but will acknowledge his signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 that granted reparations to Japanese-Americans who had been interned by the US government.
An important event to note in regard to Allegiance.
And there was also a certain former governor by the name of Schwarzenegger who was not a friend of mine either.
Certainly not. He was another hypocrite who just played to his base. In fact, his veto of legislation for same-sex marriage was what prompted me to publicly come out of the closet. I was so angry. And to be fair, it had been long enough anyhow. So I took his hypocrisy as an opportunity to come out roaring and to come out loud.
Speaking of coming out, now is probably an appropriate time to confess that I’ve never actually seen an episode of Star Trek.
Exactly. So while I don’t know you as Sulu, I do know you as a superstar of social media who is also known for their rather suggestive catchphrase.
I have been fortunate to enjoy so many audiences who find me relatable. For instance, at the Asia Society event the other night, a teenage son of one of the supporters confided that he only knew me as a holographic grandpa from the Nickelodeon series Supah Ninjas. And suddenly there I was in the flesh before him—real as anything—and he looks me in the eye and says, “You were my hero.” Which was of course very sweet. So I have pleasantly managed to reach or relate to every generation in one way or another.
I will say that for a cultural icon you come off as remarkably down-to-earth.
Funnily enough, that’s the planned title for my next memoir. My last autobiography was To the Stars, and so the follow-up must naturally be called Down to Earth.
Well, it certainly seems like you’ve lived long and prospered.
I thought you hadn’t seen Star Trek?
That doesn’t mean the Vulcan salute isn’t one of my go-to emojis. Tell me, though, what sort of earthly delights does earthbound George Takei enjoy these days?
I’ve been working nonstop going on three years. Now that I’m 81, I think I can take some time to not necessarily slow down but to certainly smell the roses. I like to have some beer. A glass of wine. Get together with friends. Oh, and I’ll be traveling a lot with Brad. We’re planning to take a Norwegian cruise, go to Scotland for the Edinburgh Festival, and then see more theater in London.
And what might starry George Takei see coming for us in the cosmos?
First, I foresee a stirring new production of Allegiance at SpeakEasy Stage that every Bostonian should go and see. And second, I predict that we will have a new president by the end of this year.
Oh yes. You know, a force of nature is coming closer and closer. And that force of nature goes by the name of… Stormy Daniels.
Oh my, indeed. Yes, I predict a summer storm is coming. Probably best we buckle up.
ALLEGIANCE. 5.4–6.2. ROBERTS STUDIO THEATRE IN THE STANFORD CALDERWOOD PAVILION AT THE BOSTON CENTER FOR THE ARTS, 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. SPEAKEASYSTAGE.COM