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‘To Be Takei’ Traces George Takei’s Journey From Japanese Internment Camps to Cultural Icon

The documentary To Be Takei, which made its premiere at Sundance, tells the epic tale of George Takei, from his childhood in Japanese internment camps to shattering racial stereotypes on Star Trek, and emergence as an influential LGBT activist. 

01.22.14 10:45 AM ET

George Takei is obsessed with fitness. Every morning, he powerwalks around his Los Angeles neighborhood like a man on fire. After that come sets of push-ups and sit-ups. He used to run marathons, which is how he met his husband, Brad. Trekkies are well aware of his physique.

“It’s about being your best self,” he says.

It’s this philosophy—and drive—that has propelled Takei to cultural icon status. Sure, he could have rested on his laurels and retired a decade ago. After all, as Hikaru Sulu, helmsman of the USS Enterprise on the TV series Star Trek, and its multiple blockbuster film adaptations, the actor had achieved a devoted fan base, and shattered not only stereotypes of Asian actors on film and television, but also the notion that Asians can’t drive.

“I was the best helmsman in the galaxy!” jokes Takei.

But, around 2005, something strange happened. Although he’d been openly gay among his friends and family, and had been with Brad for 18 years, he publicly came out. That’s not the strange part. Following his personal reveal, Takei’s popularity soared. He’s since become a prominent LGBT activist and a highly influential presence on social media, where he engages daily with his 6 million Facebook followers, sharing humorous memes as well as messages of tolerance. And later this year, his musical Allegiance is expected to open on Broadway.

STAR TREK, 1966-69, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, in Ep#7: "The Naked Time," 9/29/66. Paramount/Courtesy: Everett Collection.

Everett Collection

Jennifer M. Kroot’s captivating documentary To Be Takei, which premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, traces Takei’s journey from his childhood in Japanese-American internment camps all the way to Star Trek and the present, giving viewers background into how, at 76, the actor-cum-activist is at the height of his stardom.

The Daily Beast sat down with Takei to discuss his wild, crazy ride.

It’s so fitting that To Be Takei is premiering in Utah, of all places, which has really become a battleground state in the fight for marriage equality. 

GEORGE TAKEI: When we first heard that Sundance accepted the film, we thought, “How wonderful! It’s the perfect place because they now have marriage equality.” Utah’s gay marriage ban was ruled unconstitutional, and 1,300 couples seized that opportunity and, in a brief period of time, got married. But then things started happening in a very familiar way to us Californians. They appealed it, and the Supreme Court put a stay on any further weddings to happen. But then, where it differed from California is that Gov. Gary Herbert here went one step beyond that and said that marriages that have already happened—marriages that had lawfully happened, and whose fees were paid—we will not recognize them. That is wrong. I’ve used the metaphor of him trying to put the toothpaste that’s been squeezed out back into the tube. It’s happened already, it’s fact, and it’s only mean-spirited on his part to try to do that. I compare him to another governor half a century ago, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, who stood in a schoolhouse doorway denying little black children equality in education. That’s exactly what Gov. Gary Herbert is trying to do.

He’s really gone rogue. It’s crazy because the Utah state tax board is recognizing same-sex marriages, allowing for same-sex couples to apply for joint tax returns, and Obama stepped in and had those 1,300 marriages recognized federally.

Ultimately, marriage equality is going to prevail, and he’s just put himself in the position of George Wallace—one of the rejects of history.

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Now, I’m part Asian myself—Korean, like the other Sulu, John Cho…

…You know, J.J. Abrams was very concerned about that—the fact that [John Cho] was Korean, because J.J. didn’t fully know [Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry’s philosophy. He asked me to have breakfast with him during the casting process and we had a nice conversation. What he was concerned about was that he had interviewed many, many actors, and he particularly wanted to find a Japanese-American actor because I’m Japanese-American, and he was concerned that I might have thoughts about that, so he wanted to get my thinking. So I asked him, “Is the person you’re thinking of Asian-American?” And he said, “Yes.” And I said, “That’s all that matters.” Because Gene Roddenberry’s idea was “infinite diversity and infinite combinations”—the Starship Enterprise is a metaphor for Earth, and he wanted to have that represented in the make-up of the cast.

The film reveals that, at the age of 8, you and your family were shipped to a Japanese-American internment camp in Rohwer, Arkansas. The Japanese internment is a shameful part of American history that’s been largely glossed over. What was your experience there like?

Well, because I was a child, I was saved a lot of the trauma, anger, and anguish that my parent’s generation went through. I do remember that morning that the soldiers ordered us out of our home—that’s burned into my memory. My brother, father, and I left the house first and we were waiting on the front lawn for my mother, and she came out carrying my baby sister and a duffel bag, and tears were running down her face. A child never forgets a scene like that. When we got to the Arkansas camp, I saw the barbed wire fence and saw my parent’s reaction to it. But we saw it every day. We saw the sentry towers with machine guns pointed at us every day, and a child is amazingly adaptable, so that became part of the landscape. And life in prison became routine. We lined up three times a day to eat lousy food, I went with my father to a mass shower, and then I started school. The irony that I still remember is that they taught us the Pledge of Allegiance, and I could see the barbed wire fence and the sentry tower right outside my schoolhouse window as I recited, “…with liberty and justice for all.”

How did you manage to regain your trust in America after having something so traumatic happen to you at such a young age?

It wasn’t until I became a teenager that I began reading civics books and history books, and read about the ideals of our democracy. Knowing my childhood, I engaged my father in conversation after dinner, and my father was unique. Most Japanese parents didn’t want to talk about that experience and their children knew very little about it, but when I sat down and asked him questions, my father did tell me about that. His belief in the better part of our democracy is what shaped me. He said, “Ours is a people’s democracy, and it can be as great as a people can be, but it’s also as fallible as people are. So, this democracy is vitally dependent on good people to be actively engaged in the process.” Shortly after that discussion, he took me to the headquarters of a person he admired very much, Adlai Stevenson, who was running for president. We volunteered together, my father says, but he actually volunteered me, and I enjoyed the experience. It was a lot of fun. And when George Brown was running for the senate, I became active in that campaign, and got exposed to the electoral process. After being exposed to the ideals of the campaign, I started thinking about our conditions when I was a child, and that’s how I became an activist.

Yesterday was, of course, Martin Luther King Day, and I saw on your Facebook wall that you said you had marched with the late Dr. King.

Yes. And I sang at those rallies. I was in a civil rights musical at that time, Fly Blackbird, and I met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and shook his hand. It was a great thrill. I was involved in activism from my teenage days, then the peace movement during the Vietnam War, then the redress movement for Japanese-Americans. But throughout all that, from 9 or 10, I knew I was different from other boys. Bobby was more exciting than Janey. But I hid it. And while I was talking about the ideals of our democracy throughout all these campaigns, I was silent on the real me, until another movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, got me really angry. In 2005, the California legislature voted for marriage equality, and it went to the governor’s office, and all it required was his signature. And he vetoed it.

Well, karma’s a bitch.

He comes off as a doddering villain here, doesn’t he? And, while he was vetoing marriage equality, it turns out that he was carrying on with his housekeeper!

I’m fascinated by your amazing second wave. It’s pretty wild that you’re at your most popular at this point in your career, and a lot of it has to do with not only your likability, but with the social media following you’ve managed to foster.

Allegiance was the reason why we started on social media. Here, we were developing a musical on a rather downbeat subject [Japanese-American internment] that very few people know about in this country. So, my goal was first to raise awareness about that chapter in American history, and once they were aware of it, to let them know that we have a musical on it. Once we got them well-informed on that, we needed to find a way to whet their appetite and convince them to buy a theater ticket to see it. But my base was sci-fi geeks and nerds, so how do I grow that and then start this agenda that I have? By trial and error, I discovered that humor is the glue that ties all of us together. So, I tried humor by means of sci-fi comments and memes, which started to grow, and then I became adventuresome enough to include my advocacy, talking about equality for the LGBT community, and it exploded because there’s a large overlap between sci-fi geeks and nerds and the LGBT community.

And then in comes Allegiance, which is on its way to Broadway this year.

Yes. And once we had that base, I introduced the fact that we have a musical about this part of American history. A musical can’t be all downbeat because internment wasn’t all downbeat all the time. People got married, had babies. So, we have moments of uplift and cheer, and heartbreak and grief, and ultimately, a coming together from a fractured community—and fractured family—to happiness.