Be honest. With the first two words in the headline above, you read them in a very distinctive voice, didn’t you?
Yes, George Takei has a certain notable voice. It’s a voice that has served Takei well throughout his life, from his time as Sulu on Star Trek to his late-in-life coming out. It’s a voice that fights for LGBT equality and American awareness of internment camps on American soil during World War II, both topics with very personal connections for the actor.
Takei’s life is the subject of a new documentary, To Be Takei. The documentary, which had a special screening in Atlanta during Stonewall Month courtesy of Out on Film and Atlanta Pride, is available now through August 6 on DirecTV Cinema. We spoke with Takei about the film’s origins, the importance of coming out and how he maintains a healthy relationship with husband Brad.
David Atlanta: How did To Be Takei come about?
George Takei: We were approached by Jennifer Kroot, the documentarian, and we really didn’t know anything about her. So we did some research – we saw one of her documentaries, and we were quite impressed by how she was get substance as well as wit cinematically, visually, to tell her story. So we agreed, and we thought it was an incredible opportunity to help us with our mission of advocacy for LGBT equality. And then she organized her team, the indefatigable producers Gerry Kim and Mayuran Tiruchelvam. And that was the other thing we loved – she was organizing a diverse crew, and she brought in Bill Weber as a co-director. He’s an enormously gifted editor.
She and her team followed us for the three years following, and it really covered the landscape. Our primary home is in Los Angeles, but we have a condo in New York as well. She covered both places, and we made the pilgrimage to the interment camp I was imprisoned in during the second World War. She followed us there to Arkansas, and all across the country doing Star Trek conventions. And we developed a musical about the internment of Japanese-Americans called Allegiance, which we opened at the very respected regional theater, the Old Globe Theater in San Diego. So she covered the rehearsal process there, the development process in New York, and the readings and rehearsals we had in New York, and the opening of the play in San Diego. She went into a year of post-production, and we’re at this point where it’s about to be shared with the American and Canadian public. We’re looking forward to the first sharing with the audience on DirecTV, and then in August in theaters throughout the country and Canada.
DA: The documentary is a fascinating look at your life. One of the things that stood out to me was when you made a comment about how you don’t believe in negativity, and how you just have a positive outlook on life. With everything you’ve gone through in your life, from your internment to general homophobia, how do you manage to keep such a positive outlook on life?
GT: Well, I don’t believe in the victim mentality. If you have a negative attitude, you’ve already defeated yourself. I believe in the can-do approach to things, to being optimistic, because there’s every reason for optimism. I mean, look at what we have now. A year ago, the Supreme Court came down with two rulings: one that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, and the other that struck down Proposition 8, which reinstated marriage equality in California. It was something we dreamed about, but never really expected would happen quite so quickly like this, and it did. Things happen when you say it can happen, and if you say it can happen, that gives you the impetus to commit to it and work at making it happen. So I believe in optimism because it’s worked. Certainly, I’m the personification of optimism, and so I’m a firm believer in thinking positive.
DA: You didn’t come out until around a decade ago, during the marriage fight in California. What led to you come out at that point?
…we were always careful of that betrayal by somebody. So you go to a Hollywood premiere or a glitzy party where reporters will be with a female friend, and then later on that night, you might be at a gay bar. You live that double life, knowing how dangerous and how you always have to have your guard up.
GT: I have been closeted for most of my life, because I love my work. I love acting, and certainly when I started out back in the 50s, it would’ve been stupid to pursue an acting career as an out actor. Well, I had to play that role. I had to live that double life, which comes with its price. You’re always living with your guard up. You don’t know who or how you might be betrayed. When I was in my early 20s, the biggest young movie star was a handsome guy named Tab Hunter. He was a leading man at that time, until a scandal sheet exposed him, and then you heard nothing about him. It destroyed his career. And so, we were always careful of that betrayal by somebody. So you go to a Hollywood premiere or a glitzy party where reporters will be with a female friend, and then later on that night, you might be at a gay bar. You live that double life, knowing how dangerous and how you always have to have your guard up.
But in 2005, something extraordinary happened in California. Massachusetts already had marriage equality, but it came through the judicial route, through the courts. In California, both houses of the legislature, the Senate and the Assembly, passed the marriage equality bill. It was the first time in the United States that it came through the legislative route. It was precedent-setting. And the bill took its route to the governor’s desk. The governor happened to be a movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who campaigned for the governor’s office by saying, “I’m from Hollywood. I’ve worked with gays and lesbians. Some of my best friends are.” And I thought surely because of that – and some of my friends did vote for Schwarzenegger because of that campaign rhetoric – but he betrayed them all, because he’s a Republican, and he vetoed it. I was outraged. It was not just the veto, but the hypocrisy of it. And of course, we would find out later that at that time, he was carrying on with his housekeeper right under his wife’s nose, and had a baby out of that relationship. That kind of personal values, while saying LGBT people who want to legitimize their relationships with their partners, aren’t going to happen on his watch.
My blood was boiling. But it’s this thing of having lived a lifetime in the closet, restrained. Brad and I were watching the news, and we saw all these young people pouring out onto Santa Monica Boulevard, venting their rage on the hypocrisy of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I shared that rage. We talked about it, and we decided that I had to speak out on it. For that to happen, my voice had to be authentic. So I spoke to the press for the first time as a gay man about Schwarzenegger’s veto. It’s been a long, long period of living a double life, and a secret life. I didn’t realize how liberating it would be. In fact, what I feared – that my acting career might come to an end – the reverse of that happened. I started working more, and usually playing a character named “George Takei” on shows like Will & Grace or The Big Bang Theory. So I was totally surprised by the reaction to my coming out in 2005.
DA: You’re certainly still popular. You have a healthy following on Facebook, for example. How do you maintain your social media presence?
It was the most egregious violation of our Constitution. No charges, and you can’t have a trial with no charges.
GT: Well, you know, the reason why I started my social media campaign was my other mission in life, which is to raise the awareness on the part of Americans on the internment of innocent citizens who happened to be of Japanese ancestry behind barbed-wire fences in prison camps, simply because we looked like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. It was the most egregious violation of our Constitution. No charges, and you can’t have a trial with no charges. We were rounded up at gunpoint. I was five years old at the time, but I remember that morning when my parents got my younger brother and my baby sister up very early and dressed us. My brother and I were in the living room, looking out the front window, and I saw two soldiers with bayonets on their rifles, marching up our driveway. They stopped at the front porch, banged on the door, and my father answered it, and we were ordered out of our home. My father had luggage that they had prepared for us, and my brother and I went out onto the driveway and waited. My father was with us. My mother finally came out of the house, and she was carrying baby sister in one arm, and a duffel bag in the other, and tears were rolling down her cheek. A five-year-old child doesn’t forget that. It was a terrorizing morning. And we were taken from our home to the swamps of Arkansas, to a barbed-wire prison camp with sentry towers and machine guns. We had to line up three times a day to eat lousy food in a noisy mess hall. My father took my brother and me to the mass shower. What had we done other than to be of Japanese ancestry? It was a horrible injustice. And that’s been my mission.
And we developed this musical. Musicals have a way of not only reaching people intellectually, which I’ve been doing with college speaking tours and corporate speaking tours, but a musical can hit people in the heart. So we developed the musical, Allegiance. But we had to develop an audience for it beforehand, before we opened it at the Old Globe. So I began my social media campaign. But my base was essentially made up of sci-fi geeks and nerds – Star Trek fans. And I had to develop that into a much larger base. By trial and error, I learned that humor was what got the most shares and likes. So I started concentrating on the funny, and the audience grew. As it grew, I started injecting social justice commentaries on the internment, as well as LGBT equality. And it grew and grew, until this day, where I have 7.1 million followers on Facebook and over a million followers on Twitter. So the initial motivation was to develop an audience for our musical, Allegiance.
DA: Speaking of Allegiance, I know you have some plans for it to come to Broadway later this year. How are those plans coming along?
GT: Well, something unusual is happening this season. Usually, there are one or two houses that are dark. But every theater on Broadway, and there are something like 35 of them, are all booked up. And we’ve had to stand in line, waiting for the appropriate-sized house to open up. Now, it seems that plays are starting to close. I’m very optimistic that we’ll be in a theater before the year is out.
DA: The film takes a lot of time to focus on the relationship between you and your husband, Brad. You’ve been together for 27 years now. How do you maintain your relationship with him?
GT: As you see on screen, we’re kind of different personalities. Brad is more organized and schedule-bound, and he does keep me on schedule. Thank God for that. I couldn’t do what I do without Brad to organize my life. I wake up in the morning, and he gives me my marching orders. I do get things done because he keeps me tightly scheduled. But at the core, despite our different personalities, we love each other. It’s as simple as that. And we have a standing policy. Even if we quarrel during the day, before we go to bed, we always kiss. And after a fight, we may still be festering, so it might be a kind of a haughty peck on the cheek. But when you do that, it puts everything in a larger context. And when you see things in a larger context, whatever had you guys so angry with each other just seems insignificant and really petty. It becomes laughable. That is the saving grace: a kiss at the end of the day, come hell or high water.
DA: In one scene in the film, you get onto Brad about using the word “lifestyle” instead of “orientation” to describe being gay. To you, why is that significant?
GT: “Lifestyle” is what the word says – a surfer, or someone who enjoys collecting, that’s a lifestyle. Being gay, or lesbian or bisexual or transgender is not a style. It is an orientation, and that orientation is shared by people who have many, very different lifestyles. A banker can be gay, and the lifestyle of a banker is very different from Michael Sam, who is a professional football player, and his lifestyle is very different from mine as an actor who’s also a civil activist. That’s my lifestyle. And I’m gay. So it’s an orientation, and styles come in many different shapes, but we all share an orientation with different lifestyles. We are born this way. It is an immutable part of us. It’s organic. It’s not a style, which is something you may use for a period of time before moving onto a different lifestyle. I’ve been gay all my life. I started noticing that I was different in ways other than my Japanese ancestry at the time I was 10 or 11. The other guys would think Monica was hot, and get all bothered and excited. I thought Monica was nice, but it was Bobby that really excited me. And I knew that I was different from the others. So even in your innocence, you are organically who you are. It is an immutable part of us. And that’s why it’s an orientation. Style is something that changes. It’s superficial.
To Be Takei is playing now exclusively through DirecTV Cinema, and will be in theaters later this fall.