I wasn't even on the phone with George Takei for two seconds before he began lavishing florid praise upon me. "You have a good Southern-sounding last name," he said with his distinctive delivery. "I’ve associated that with magnolia blossoms."
If Takei had said anything remotely like this on "The Howard Stern Show" or a commercial for Sharp TVs, I would have died laughing. In the last couple of years, Takei has managed to propel himself from the "Star Trek" convention circuit into the pop cultural conversation. He's appeared in viral videos, frankly discussed gayness on Stern's show, become a highly visible activist for gay rights, publicly feuded with William Shatner and turned into a rare figure who's willing to take himself and his politics seriously while poking fun at his status as a camp icon. (He is currently working on a musical about Japanese internment during WWII, and will be appearing at the "World's Largest Star Trek Convention" at the Las Vegas Hilton on Thursday Aug. 5. )
When you're on the phone with the man, it's impossible not be taken by his charm and intelligence. After confessing that I was born in San Francisco (just like Mr. Sulu), we went into a long conversation about urban renewal and mass transit before I could even get to my prepared questions. (Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley appointed Takei to the Southern California Rapid Transit District in 1973.)
Salon spoke to Takei over the phone about the declining importance of "Star Trek," his friendship with Howard Stern, and the importance of the most recent Proposition 8 ruling.
A federal judge has just overturned California's gay marriage ban. How does that make you feel?
Well, we're obviously overjoyed and relieved. My sense always told me that the ruling would be this way. Two years ago the California Supreme Court ruled that marriage equality was a fundamental right. Now at the district court level, Judge Walker has ruled in our favor. I didn’t think he would overturn the state Supreme Court. Like I said, we are definitely overjoyed.
I've read that Leonard Nimoy is going to stop doing conventions soon, and the actors from the recent film from last year aren't hitting the convention circuit quite so hard. Do you think there could be an end to "Trek" fandom?
Well, Paramount is talking about having a sequel to that recent film. I have to refer to it as the recent film, because there is no number or subtitle to it. It's just simply "Star Trek." J.J. (Abrams) really reenergized the "Star Trek" franchise with it -- and with the next film, I think the fan following will continue to be active. In previous years I had predicted "Star Trek" eventually fading away and that proved not to be true. I've given up making that prediction and I'm just going to go with the flow.
But you're still going to the conventions.
I'm always identified as the actor who played Hikaru Sulu even if I'm doing something totally different, or when I'm on the media talking about marriage equality. That's my calling card, it seems. So I'm resigned to the fact that my tombstone probably is going to read "Here lies Hikaru Sulu" in great big bold letters, and in smaller letters, "AKA George Takei."
We're in the 21st century and you've fashioned yourself into a camp icon. It seems like you're everywhere, from Howard Stern to Sharp TV ads to satire videos about Tim Hardaway.
Well, you know, I'm proud of my association with "Star Trek," particularly because of what "Star Trek" stands for. But I'm a professional actor and you want to keep a career viable. At the same time it's difficult to keep that career viable when you're so associated with one character and one genre, science fiction. Some of my colleagues have complained that they've been stereotyped.
About four or five years ago I did "Equus" here in Los Angeles onstage, and that was a soul-satisfying experience. I just finished a comedy on unemployment, would you believe, with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. It's called "Larry Crowne." Tom Hanks plays Larry Crowne.
How do you think Gene Roddenberry would have dealt with the struggle for marriage equality?
I had a very private conversation with Gene on that issue. I was still not out, so we spoke theoretically. This was at one of his parties -- it wasn't a huge party. We were at the pool and he and I swam out to the far end and we were chatting there. Most of the people were not in the pool. They were chatting poolside at the other end, so I broached that subject.
You know, we'd dealt with the Vietnam War. We'd dealt with the civil rights movement. We'd dealt with a lot of issues of our times. And I asked him, "How do you feel about that [gay rights]?" He said, "This is an important issue and we want to deal with it." However, this was while we were on TV. He said, "Our ratings are low and I need to keep the show on the air. All I need is another firestorm and this show will be canceled, and I won't be able to make those statements that I've been making with the show." He said, "The times will change as we move along, but at this point, I can't do that." So again, it was the politic compromise, like what poor Bill Clinton had to make.
"The Howard Stern Show" is often both very crass and very misogynist. How did you end up being such a staple on his program?
You know, at the core, Howard is someone who is very firm and passionate about freedom of speech, the First Amendment. He certainly uses it in a juvenile way, but he also uses it meaningfully. He takes stands on political issues. You know, when you're engaged in a war, you don't cut taxes, particularly on the rich. He was very vocal on issues like that. He's someone who cherishes the freedom of speech and I support him on that. But at the same time, you've got to be wary because they catch you off guard on that show, and I have been bitten by his trap on many occasions. Like the Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator who called me – not only once, but twice on the show.
Who had the bigger ego of those you worked with, William Shatner or John Wayne, whom you worked with in "The Green Berets"?
I have a great admiration for John Wayne. We're certainly different politically, but he's a decent guy. As an actor, I think he's John Wayne; he's always playing himself. I remember seeing him in "The Conqueror" where he played Genghis Khan. His accent was the same. His walk was the same. He was John Wayne with a Fu Manchu mustache. He's big in every way, and there's the bigness in the confidence in himself.
So have I said enough about Bill?
You're planning a new musical, "Allegiance," about Japanese internment during WWII. How did that come about?
I was in New York, and I was seeing "In the Heights," a Tony Award-winning musical about the Puerto Rican community in Washington Heights, with Brad [George's partner]. Near the end of the first act, the father character, who wanted to do so much for his family but couldn't, has a song, "Inutil," or "I Feel Worthless." That transported me to my father in the internment camp. The uncanny thing was, in the same row, about four or five seats away from us, were these two guys we had met the night before, Jay and Lorenzo. Jay, as it turned out, is a composer/lyricist who had done a paper on the Korematsu case (Korematsu v. United States, 1944). [Korematsu was] a Japanese American who challenged the internment all the way to the Supreme Court. Jay asked, "Why did that number get to you so profoundly?" I said, "It reminded me of my father in the internment camps."
So the next day we had dinner together, and I talked about the internment very personally. I said, "I've always wanted to write a play about that experience." Jay thought it would make a wonderful musical. Music is a wonderful way of getting to people's emotions. We wanted people not only in their brains, but in their hearts. Our game plan is first to do a production on the West Coast and then to take that production to New York in 2012.
How does the internment of Japanese Americans compare to the current struggle for marriage equality?
I have a lot of speaking engagements and I use my internment experience, or the internment experience of Japanese Americans being confined behind barbed wire, to the struggle for equality for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals. I talk about the legalistic barbed-wire fence that now confines another group of Americans, and they are as equally irrational as the confinement of loyal Americans simply because we happen to look like people who bombed Pearl Harbor. There's that parallel there. Then I go into the specifics of "don't ask, don't tell," the Defense of Marriage Act, and equality in employment and so forth. So I use the parallels between the internment and the discriminatory laws we have today against people simply because of their sexual orientation.