George Takei—Star Trek—11/10/06

/content/interviews/192/12.jpgGeorge Takei's wide-ranging career includes film appearances (Ice Palace, with Richard Burton; The Green Berets for John Wayne; Return from the River Kwai; Prisoners of the Sun), TV appearances (the telefilm Year of the Dragon, Perry Mason, The Twilight Zone, I Spy, Mission: Impossible, Miami Vice, Malcolm in the Middle, Will and Grace, Scrubs, Psych), stage roles (Equus), and voice-over work (Mulan, The Simpsons, Batman Beyond). He is best known for the television series Star Trek—Takei has returned to his of Hikaru Sulu in the Star Trek animated series, six feature films, six video games, a guest spot on Star Trek: Voyager, and a brand-new episode of the internet series Star Trek: New Voyages. I spoke with Mr. Takei at San Francisco's W Hotel, the day after his keynote address at a banquet for the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance.

George Takei: (Noting his autobiography To the Stars:) You've done your homework. I feel a little bit more exposed. (Laughs.)

Groucho: I thought I would start with your most prominent feature, I think, which is your voice.

GT: (Laughs.)

G: Do you have a sense of how your voice developed, as an actor? What were the geographic and cultural influences that have given you this amazing set of pipes here?

/content/interviews/192/1.jpgGT: Well, I've had a great variety of environments that I went through. As you know, I grew up in an all Japanese-American environment during the war. And then, when we came back to Los Angeles after the war, housing was very difficult; the anti-Japanese-American attitudes were still very strong. And where my parents were able to find housing was in East L.A., in the Mexican-American barrio. All Mexican-American. We were the only Asian family, much less Japanese-American, you know. So I heard Spanish all around me, every day. And a lot of my friends' parents didn't speak English. They would take me to their homes after school, and I'd walk into the kitchen and smell the wonderful, warm aroma of masa and mamaos, making tortillas and things like that. And I developed a real curiosity about the Mexican-American culture, and so in junior high school I started the study of Spanish, which I kept throughout my college years. My minor was Latin American studies. But by the time I was in my teens, we'd moved back to what was called at that time the mid-Wilshire district; today, it's called Koreatown. But at that time it was a very mixed neighborhood, but with no Koreans, at that time, back in the fifties and sixties. And so I had a pretty broad exposure: Jewish, Protestant Caucasians, as well as a sprinkling of African-Americans, not too many—I don't think there were any Latinos: they were all on the East side. And a sprinkling of Japanese-Americans. And then I went to school—I began school here, in Berkeley, as an architecture student, and then I transferred to UCLA. But I made a few friends, African-American friends. They became very good friends, and when I finished school, I did a musical that my friend Jack Jackson wrote [Ed. Fly Blackbird]. And I became good friends with the cast, which was ninety-five percent African-American. And there were some whites there, but it was dominantly African-American, so I had this African-American environment there. Many became very, very good friends. Some are still friends today; many have passed. And I went to New York with this African-American community now. I went to school, summer school, in England. And I'm an Anglophile: I love the English culture and civilization. And I studied Shakespeare, and I would go to Shakespeare productions, so that had an influence on my speech too, I think, as well as the African-American environment I was in. So all those factors, I think, played a part in shaping who I am and, via that, how I talk.

G: You mentioned the Shakespeare study you did—at Stratford, right?

GT: That's right.

G: Was that the most prominent, formative acting training you did, that summer experience?

GT: Well, no, UCLA. That was a theatre arts course I took. That was my major, and Latin American studies was my minor. My father used to say, you know, "Hopeless major and a useless minor. I'm going to be supporting you through the rest of your life!" (Laughs.) But UCLA was also a very strong theatrical shaping force.

G: You were very young when you were placed in the internment camps. When did you first recognize the true meaning of that experience? Because at the time it wasn't entirely clear to you.

GT: No, at that time it became normality—at the speech yesterday—one of the points I made was that children are amazingly adaptable. I remember the barbed-wire fence. That was a part of the landscape I grew up in. I remember the sentry towers and machine guns pointed at us. But, you know, they became part of the landscape. When I made the night runs to the latrine, searchlights followed me. And I thought it was cool, because I could see where I'm going. It didn't have the significance that it had for my parents. We adapted and it became normality. It became normal for me to line up three times a day to eat in a noisy mess hall. It became normal for me to go with my father to a communal shower. It became normal for me to go to school in a black-tarpaper barrack and begin the school day with the irony of the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. You know, I can see the barbed-wire fence and the sentry towers as I said, 'With liberty and justice for all.' You know, I didn't relate the two. It wasn't until we came out of camp, and our very first home—as I said, housing was very difficult—our very first home was on skid row. And that was terrifying. I mean, first of all the stench of urine all over the place. And then these scary people staggering around. My baby sister said, "Mama, let's go back home." And so that's when—I was eight years old at that time and starting to put two and two together. And I knew that bad people go to jail. "And camp," I'm now realizing, "was something like jail. And so there must be something bad about being a Japanese-American." And you start feeling ashamed for who you are. Obviously I couldn't do anything about it, my appearance. But there's this intangible sense of not being right. So it was then, after camp, that I started realizing what that experience was. And then in your teenage years, you start reading about American history, and my father was really an extraordinary man. He started explaining how democracy is not perfect because it is a true people's democracy. And people can be great, but people are fallible. And, you know, a horrible thing happened during the war. Simply because we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor during the war, we were suspect. And so my father's guidance and my reading about American history and American—through the Constitution and so forth, I started realizing that was wrong. And my father guided us, his children, to be actively involved in the neighborhood, the community and so forth. And I realized, after the fact now, it was his suggestions and little hints and guidance that had us active in student government. He said, "Why don't you—Bobby Thompson's your friend. Why don't you help him get elected Athletic Commissioner?" And he bought us cardboards to make posters on. And then we got him elected. And then he would say, "Why don't you get Bobby to help you become Health Commissioner?" And so at that time, yeah, it was fun to make posters and "Okay, we'll help Bobby." But in retrospect I realize that he was guiding us. And I remember even before I could vote, he took me to the "Adlai Stevenson for President" headquarters. And he volunteered me! I mean, I didn't volunteer. He took me there and volunteered—"Here's my son." But it was also a lot of fun. And so in his subtle way, he was directing us to be actively engaged in the democratic process.

G: And as those pieces were coming together, your sense of social justice was forming with that activism as well.

GT: Right.

G: In reading your book, it struck me that being outside and inside—this idea is one of the themes of your life: being inside the fences of the camp and being outside the gates of the movie studio and finding your way out in this case and in in that case. Of course, in recent years, you have come out.

/content/interviews/192/9.jpgGT: Well, you know, the word 'come out' suggests you open a door and the world changes. That's not the way it works. You know, we've been—Brad [Altman] and I—have been out for a long, long time. I mean, you know, we've been together for twenty years now. And so we've been out with family and friends and, you know, we go to social events together. I'm active in the political arena and social and cultural arenas, and we have fundraisers and we go together, or we have annual dinners or, you know, we go together, so people are sophisticated. And they get it. And we contribute money to support the nonprofits. And our names are carved in granite together, you know. So without really announcing, you know. I mean our names together in granite could be an announcement. But it was very natural and subtle. You know, on the set of Star Trek, you're there together regularly, and Brad comes to some of the functions. And the first one to sort of suggest that he knew was Walter Koenig. He and I were standing around talking like this, and there was a stunningly good-looking young extra, wearing the tight Star Trek top. And he was kind of hanging around by the watercooler—or coffee urn—behind me. And he made a gesture for me to turn around and look. You know. And I saw, and he was heartstopping. And then I realized Walter knew. (Laughs.) And, you know, we'd visit each other's homes and have dinner with each other, so it was a subtle and gradual thing. I used the metaphor, when I did my first interview, of a long corridor, which initially is very narrow and dark, but it starts widening and there are occasional windows ajar and you see something and gain some more information and perhaps confidence. And it gets wider and wider, and before you know it, it's there. But the word 'out,' I think, is misleading. The only thing I had not done is talk to the press—you guys. Because you're a whole different ballgame. But when Arnold vetoed the same-sex marriage bill, I felt I needed to speak out, and for my voice to have credibility, it needed to be authentic. And so I spoke to the press about my own personal life and my partner. And that's when people say I came out, but you know, it's not really—the word 'out' is really misleading, I think.

G: Yeah, I see that. And it's, I suppose, a matter of trust, too, amongst friends, in your career, that was probably a non-issue.

GT: Right. You know, we'd have parties. Nichelle [Nichols] would have a party, and Brad would come with me. Then we'd have a dinner, and we'd invite Nichelle and her boyfriend or—she was married many times—her husband of the time over. Or Jimmy Doohan, same thing. So it was a normal, natural—

G: Progression,

GT: Yes.

G: Going back again to your childhood for a moment, do you remember when you first became aware of your orientation?

GT: It was grammar school. In East L.A. And there were a couple of good-looking kids: Bobby Corral and Richard Montana. And sometimes when they'd hunker down, the T-shirt would go up and I'd see a little bit of, you know, flesh. Or the pants would go up and I'd see a bit of ankle. It's like that Victorian Age when men saw—you know, when women got on the streetcar and the skirt went up. It was that sort of thing. And then you get a litte bit older, pre-teens, and your hormones are telling you something that isn't shared with the other guys, you know. And so you start thinking, 'Well, there's'—you know, I was ashamed about being Japanese-American, and then there's another layer of something that you want to hide. And so my sense of hiding—you couldn't hide the Japanese-American part, but the kind of denying your past, like in East L.A., friends would ask, 'Were were you, before you came to Murchison Street School?', and I'd say, 'Oh, far away.' I wouldn't go into detail. 'Where?' 'Oh, a place called Arkansas.' Y'know. And I'd try to kind of shrug it off rather than getting into it. Other kids would say, 'Oh, I'm from New York. And it snowed there in the wintertime.' I didn't offer that; I was trying to keep it all to myself. So the two-layer of hiding. And then, you know, in your teens, you start acting out. (Laughs.).

G: And when that process started happening, how did you navigate that conflicted sense? How did you sort of come out of your shell, so to speak?

GT: Well, you don't, because—I mean, you're younger than me. You don't know what it was like in the late fifties, sixties. In the seventies, it started to change. But it was all surreptitious, and there was a common bond of unspoken secrecy. I mean, I don't know even the names of the people that—you had. (Laughs.)

G: Inititated you.

GT: Oh, well, the first one I remember was a camp counselor, summer camp. And I remember his name, and where we lived, and what he looked like and all the details. He was blond, and blond forearms. But he was the initiator.

G: A lot of icons crossed your path when you were on your way up in your career. Who made the greatest impression on you, directors or actors? You worked with Howard Hawks of course—

GT: Unquestionably Richard Burton. He was charismatic, he was glamorous, and he was engaging.

G: He had the voice too!

GT: Oh, yes, stentorian voice. And he was accessible. I mean, we were on location together in Alaska. And when you're off on location, you become a little family. And here I was: a stage-struck, movie-struck young kid, still in UCLA as a student. I mean, I was plucked out of a play and plunked into this student film. And here's this legendary Shakespearean actor from England. And the other star was Robert Ryan, but he was not accessible. He was one of these Gary Cooper: "Yep. Nope." Minimal communication kind of guy. And Richard was the polar opposite. I would pepper him with questions. And Richard loved talking about himself—And so we would sit set-side, and he would be carrying on, and I would be rapt listening to him. And then the assistant would come and say, "Mr. Burton, we're ready for you." And so he would say, "Hang on, George, hang on." And he would go on the set, and "Action."And he would tear your heart out with a powerfully played scene, and then, "Cut!" And he would come back and say, "Now, George, as I was saying—sit down, sit down!" I mean, I was just bedazzled by that. (Snaps fingers.) You know, I mean, how he's able to immediately be the character and then come back and be Richard again. In fact, I initially started calling him Mr. Burton, and he insisted that I call him Richard. And it would still come out Mr. Burton. And so—I was playing a character named Wang—so he would get back at me by calling me Mr. Wang. (Laughs.) But he was that kind of engaging, witty—

G: Gregarious.

GT: Gregarious, and voluble guy.

G: And of course he was famous not only for his screen work, but his stage work.

GT: Exactly that.

G: He played Dysart in Equus, which is a role you played with the East West Players in L.A.

GT: It was initially played by Anthony Hopkins, and then I saw, in New York, Tony Perkins do it. And then he was followed by Richard Burton, and then he was followed by Leonard Nimoy! But, you know, at that time I couldn't afford all those trips to New York! (Laughs.) So all I saw was Tony Perkins, and then I saw [Burton's] film version of Dysart.

G: That's a favorite play of mine.

GT: Ahhh. You too.

G: Oh, it's brilliant. In playing that role, what did you hope to bring to it, or did you have a particular angle on how to approach the character?

GT: He is a very conflicted man. He has his own demons. And here he sees this raw, honest, unadulterated passion that's considered off, you know. And I was able to use my own life experience in approaching that character because I had a life of suppression, keeping things to myself, keeping things hidden from others, And that was a large part of Dysart. And still this both fascination and envy and some jealousy of that kind of pure but aberrant, as society would call it, passion.

G: Let's go back to Star Trek for a minute.

GT: Have we discussed Star Trek at all? (Laughs.)

G: Actually not really. I think Star Trek fanatics have such a—

GT: Bless their hearts.

G: Bless their hearts. They have a very—it's magical. The whole setting is so magical to them. You describe in the book when your brother visited the set, he said, "It's plywood." I wonder your perspective was like sitting behind that console. What was it really like—was there gum under the console?

GT: No, it was brand new. It was newly constructed. But it was a movie set. You know, and I'd been a working actor for quite some time, and I'd done theatre. And I know what a stage set looks like. So I know that it's our imagination and, as Laurence Olivier said, "lies like truth." We have to lie like this is the truth, you know. I mean, that's the job of an actor. And so, yeah, okay, so it looks like cardboard or maybe jelly beans—you know, the plastic lights. But we have to believe that it's what it's supposed to be. That's our job. And so that's the way I approached it. If you think, oh, yeah, this is a cardboard thing, and the bottom isn't painted, then you haven't done your job, and the audience won't believe it. If you don't believe it, you can't get the audience to believe it.

G: You recently—you just keep getting these opportunities to play Sulu, which is great. You did a fan film. Can you tell me a little bit about what that was like? Obviously, it's a very, I would assume, different experience from the full-fledged productions.

/content/interviews/192/10.jpgGT: The work process was very different. But the role was probably the most fulfilling in the Star Trek genre. There's an interesting backstory to this. After Star Trek was cancelled, and went in through the syndication and the ratings soared—and Paramount in the '70s toyed with the idea of bringing Star Trek back as a TV series again. And they commissioned those seven or eight scripts to be prepared. Of course, the series idea never materialized, and we became a series of feature films. And those scripts were just lying on a shelf some place gathering dust. And when this fan series took on some momentum, this director Marc Zicree, who was aware of those scripts because one of his friends had written it, said, "I wonder if I can get them to be interested in doing one of these scripts. And one of them was a story that focused on me. And so he went to them and they were enthusiastic, but they said, "I don't think you can get George Takei. Well, Marc came to me, came over to the house—and he's a bundle of energy and enthusiasm, and it's very infectious. And so he sat with both Brad and me, for about an hour, selling us on it. And I said, "Well, I'd be happy to read the script, and I'll let you know." And so I read the script—it was a fantastic role. It's—if it were done back in the '70s, I would have been Sulu—me—but something happens. Sulu and another crew person, a woman, go out to investigate this strange phenomenon, and we get caught in this galactic storm. And we get sucked into a time-warp situation. We find ourselves on an alien planet, just the two of us, humanoids. And there are no other people there. And over the years, things happen. We have a child. And then in protecting the child from the life forms on that planet, the mother dies, and so I bring up my daughter. And then we get caught up in another storm, and we rematerialize on the Enterprise. And it turns out that we've spent thirty years on that planet, but in terms of Enterprise time, it was only, like, about four or five minutes. And so everybody is as they were, and Sulu is now thirty years older, and with a child. So if we had done it back then, I would have been made up to look thirty years older. Well, with this one, I was able to provide my own aging makeup! And the series was being done with very good, incredibly talented young people, playing our characters. And so the young Sulu was played by a very gifted actor named John Lim. And, you know, when I come back, I come back as his father. And the father-daughter relationship is a very rich, but also tragic one. And it gave me a wonderful opportunity, not only to play Sulu, but Sulu dimensioned: full-rounded, and under enormous dramatic conflict. A great acting opportunity, so I really enjoyed playing that part. The process of filming it was very arduous and very primitive, These fans have built and amazing replica of the bridge set, up in the Adirondacks: Port Henry, New York. Way upstate. You have to fly from New York to Burlington, Vermont and then drive for about another hour. And you get to Port Henry right near Lake Champlain. And the crew is made up of very dedicated, enthusiastic, semi-professionals. But they're essentially non-professionals. (Laughs.) And they have their real jobs, their day jobs. (Chuckles.). So we begin filming—the day begins—a filming day begins, like, about four o'clock, five o'clock in the afternoon, and you film through the night. And so, you know, the night shooting was arduous, but also people who really—

G: Cared about what they were doing.

GT: They care about what they're doing, but they really don't know their—for example, my call was changed one day. It's the second assistant's job to inform the actors. He was a real nice guy, very enthusiastic, willing to pitch in whenever and wherever, and most grubby work, but he didn't know he was supposed to inform the cast! And so, you know, the time was changed from four o'clock to two o'clock, because of whatever, they needed us for special makeup or something. And so I'm back at the hotel, and this guy shows up at two o'clock and says, "We're ready to pick you up." I said, "What do you mean? My call is four o'clock." And he said, "No." I said, "Well, why weren't we called?" He says, "It was changed." So that sort of thing. And on the set, too, things—I won't be specific because they are good people, they're enthusiastic people, but it was not professional. (Laughs.)

G: The franchise is about to get a reboot with J.J. Abrams. What is your thought about revisiting those characters with new actors?

GT: Well, I mean there's James Bond. You know. And of course, to me, he's indelibly Sean Connery. I'm eager to see this latest one, [Daniel] Craig. The little snippets I've seen in the ads, he seems like another compelling, magnetic, hunky James Bond, a different one. But you know, it's been a very successful series. And so we'll see. I think it depends on who they cast, in what role, and how the entire project is handled. I think Star Trek fans are incredibly loyal and faithful and dedicated and supportive. And I'm sure—you know, I never expected us to be celebrating the 25th Anniversary. And here we are celebrating the 40th Anniversary. Which was a surprise. But now I'm actually looking forward to our Golden Anniversary. (Laughs.) Because what's happened is the people who discovered Star Trek in high school or college, the real enthusiastic ones back then, way back then in the '60s, are now movers and shakers in society. I mean, they're US senators, they're corporate heads, they're billionaires like Paul Allen, who built the Sci-Fi Museum in Seattle. And they're J.J. Abrams. You know, he's a Star Trek fan, a college kid way back then, and now he's in this very important position. So the people now who can make things happen—you know, Paul Allen paid over a half a million dollars for the original captain's seat from the TV series, and it's there now in his museum. People like that, you know—Star Trek fans who have grown up and become very powerful people—are the ones who are going to keep the franchise going, I think.

G: When the franchise continues, even within the context of the same characters, there's room for reinvention and growth. Do you think Star Trek is overdue for a gay, regular character?

GT: You know, I think it should be in the context of the 23rd or 24th Century—ours was in the 23rd Century. The future—I mean, already it's changing. From my teenage days to today, it's incredibly changed. Last year, Time magazine had a complete issue devoted to gay teens. And with teenagers today, it's no big thing. But when I was a teenager, it was night. Today it's day. And pretty soon it's going to be high noon, you know. And so in the 23rd or 24th Century, I think it would be no more different than 'Betsy has freckles,' you know? 'Johnny has pimples,' you know. I mean, it's part of—y'know. 'Johnny likes boys and Betsy likes girls,' that sort of thing. What 'Star Trek' did was use metaphors to make commentaries on current social issues. So if we can do that in the context of where sexual orientation can be no more aberrant than having freckles, I think that would be the way to go.

G: Given the opportunity for reinvention that J.J. Abrams has, if he were to have a Sulu character in the new movie, do you think that character could be reinvented as a gay man?

GT: No, because I think we need to be true to what Gene Roddenberry created. Sulu was straight. The actor who played him was gay. I mean we need to—people who want to believe that actor is—I mean, if someone plays a villain, he's got to be a very unpleasant and evil guy, someone scary—no, usually—guys who are very good at playing villains are very nice guys. So I think we need to be sophisticated enough to see that actors are not the characters that they play.

G: For the benefit of those who couldn't be there last night, what message did you want to share with the gay community?

/content/interviews/192/8.jpgGT: Well, I talked about my childhood behind those barbed-wire fences. And how, despite the fact that we were incarcerated, thousands of Japanese-American men and women went from behind those barbed-wire fences, put on the same uniform as the sentries who were guarding over us, and fought with extraordinary valor for the ideals of this country, which were being—it didn't apply to the Japanese-Americans, but they fought for that. And because of them, I was able to be in front of them as a gay American advocating for equality. But I said I still see an invisible barbed-wire fence incarcerating gays, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender from a normal life. You know, for me, as a child, life inside the barbed-wire fence became normal. And I said it's normal for two people who love each other, who care for each other, who take responsibility for each other through thick and thin, to be able to be married. It's normal for committed couples to be able to share in their property, pension, insurance benefits. It's normal for men and women to serve their country in the military without their private lives becoming an issue. What is abnormal is that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans cannot. And I said, I was unjustly incarcerated as a child, simply because of my ancestry, it is equally unjust to incarcerate people who love each other behind a legalistic barbed-wire fence simply because of the gender of the person they love. So that's the given. But I came from where I was behind those barbed wires to being here. And I said American history is a dynamic work in progress, and our history's defined by people who actively engage to expand equality and justice. And then I talk about the great men, the founding fathers, who articulated the American ideals, kept other human beings as slaves. But because those slaves struggled for freedom and justice—and their children and grandchildren and the generations that followed through the Jim Crow years and through the civil rights movement continued that struggle—that today we have the descendants of slaves, African-Americans, in the halls of Congress as legislators. And two have become US Secretaries of State. I said when the nation was founded, the institutions of American society didn't have a role for women in it. But because determined women and fair-minded men challenged, debated, and marched for equal rights for women, today we have women astronauts, two women have become Secretaries of State, and as a tribute to San Francisco, I said San Francisco has given us the first woman Speaker of the House. We've been making these incredible progresses because people actively engaged in making the ideals of this country truer. And so we all have to be actively engaged in the process. And Mark Leno was there. And he's an example of someone. And I tried to galvanize the people there to be actively engaged in the great civil-rights movement of our generation.

G: It's the final frontier of civil rights, isn't it?

GT: Well, there's no final frontier. Man will always find new frontiers. So I don't believe in the final frontier. But these are all, you know, boldly going on to territory that have not been made ours yet. And the great civil-rights movement of our generation is the struggle for equality.

G: You mentioned before how Star Trek fans of years ago are now in positions of power, including in the creative community. And that's given you a whole career, almost—in addition to all the other work that you do—of playing yourself in television shows and films.

GT: (Laughs.) It's been a career! Being me! Although, you know, the characters I play are named George Takei, but they're not really me! (Laughs.)

G: How do you feel about that? And you're about to do this in a film that's going to be very high profile, The Great Buck Howard [with Tom Hanks]. Have you filmed that role?

/content/interviews/192/11.jpgGT: I've done it already, and I just learned yesterday that I'm going to be doing a two-part, two-episode role in Heroes, NBC's high-rated show, playing the father of—

G: Hiro?

GT: The boy, Hiro. Yeah.

G: Oh, wonderful.

GT: It's all in Japanese, so—I do speak Japanese fluently, but nevertheless, you know, it's not like speaking—doing something in English would be. It takes a little bit of homework.

G: That's a good challenge. I've also read that you are developing a film about Tokyo Rose.

GT: Right.

G: Explain to me what your role in that project is: will you direct that film?

GT: No. It's going to be directed by a very distinguished filmmaker [Ed. Terry Sanders]. He's won two Oscars, one back in the '60s for a short film and the other about seven, eight years ago: he produced a documentary, together with his wife, on Maya Lin, the woman who designed the Vietnam Memorial. And that film won the Oscar. He's a very fine filmmaker. I first learned about Iva Toguri d'Aquino back in the '70s. And I read a book on her. At that time I had a public-affairs talk show on KNBC, the NBC affiliate in Los Angeles. And I wanted to interview her for my show. And she was very difficult to reach; she was very elusive. So I went to—she lived in Chicago; she just recently passed, as you know. So I flew to Chicago and had lunch with her, and she was a very, very delightful, sweet, and very strong-willed, but deferential lady. And she wouldn't give me an answer. She asked me to talk to Dr. Clifford Uyeda, who lives here in San Francisco, who was at that time the national president of the Japanese-American Citizens League. It's the Japanese-American equivalent of the NAACP. And so I came back to Los Angeles, phoned Dr. Uyeda. He was spearheading the campaign to get a pardon for Iva. And he told me that Iva does not want to do anything with the media. Because first of all, it was the media that burned her. You know, it was the intense coverage: distorted, weighted coverage of her trial that—and the political climate of that time—that burned her. And they are now working on getting a pardon for her. And she didn't want to do any media—and she didn't want to say no to me, he said. And so she asked me to talk to Dr. Uyeda. And so I understood that, and I appreciated her situation. And so I passed on that, but I always wanted to—

G: Engage in that story.

GT: Not only that, but I think hers is an important story. Again, like what we've been talking about, a miscarriage of our justice system by the hysteria of the times, which was fanned by the press, essentially. And Walter Winchell, probably the most powerful media person of the time—he accused Truman of being soft on traitors. Because she was first exonerated: she was tried in Tokyo by the military tribunal there and found not guilty. Because she was not guilty. But the political climate here was what forced that trial here. And so I think it's a very relevant story to our times today, when we have the post-9/11 hysteria and what's happening with Arab-Americans. So I thought that was a very timely story. But also—and this was when he was still alive—I wanted her to see her name cleared, while she was alive. For her to be able to—because she was pardoned, back in 1977, and yet I've been going around asking people, "When I say Tokyo Rose, what comes to mind?" And it's very interesting. There's a very sharp demographic divide. People over fifty will say, "Propagandist," which is correct. I mean, that's what she was tried as. Or "traitor," which is what she was tried as. Or "spy," which she was not. In fact, she was opposite of all of that; she was a patriot. She smuggled food and medicine and blankets to American and Australian prisoners of war held in Tokyo. But when she was being tried, there were banner headlines across the front page. When she was pardoned, it was a one-inch article in the back of the paper. So what remains in people's minds are that. So people over fifty will guess those words.

G: And also the films that were made—

GT: That's right. The Tokyo Rose movies.

G: That were essentially propaganda against her.

GT: Exactly, and so that's what—she still has to deal with that perception of her. Those under fifty are stumped. And some guess, "Is it some kind of rose that was developed in Japan? A flower in Japan?" or, you know, all those sort of things. "Or a flower arrangement, Tokyo-style," you know. And so there's a very interesting divide. But in order to clear her name—I mean, there've been more than a few documentaries made, and still this perception prevails. It's my feeling that a feature film that plays in the theaters, and I'm hopeful that we make a fine film that might be in contention for various award consideration—Oscar, you know—depending on who we cast. And then there are other wonderful roles that we can have name actors. In fact, the script's been read by Martin Sheen. The second lead is the attorney who defends her, an incredible, truly unsung American patriot. Wayne Collins. A San Francisco civil-liberties attorney who defended her. A foul-mouthed guy, chain-smoking guy, but an incredible believer in the American justice system. And I mean, no one would touch Japanese-Americans with a ten-foot pole, and certainly someone who got all that kind of negative publicity by the press. He came to defend her, because he believed in the American justice system. And you know, he lost the trial, but he continued to work for her pardon. And tragically he passed before he was able to get the pardon. But he has a son, Wayne Collins, Jr., who's also an attorney. And he took up his father's cause. And he was the one that was able to get the pardon for her. And Martin Sheen's interested in that part. He's willing to consider a back-end deal, because it's a limited-budget thing. There's the villain of the piece, Brundage, the journalist—he's one of the first journalists to fly into Tokyo after the war. And he's the one that is the most conniving, cynical guy. He feeds information to Walter Winchell. And he's the baddie. And that's a great role, as well. And by getting that kind of—making that kind of quality film that gets awards, it's gonna call attention to the case, get people to really understand that, and those that still have a distorted picture to reconsider that. That movie will later go into TV release and now DVDs and so forth, so you know—

G: And replace the legend.

GT: That's right. But a feature—just making something for TV won't do it, because it disappears. You do a feature film, and you get all the ads and the reviews and so forth, and then all the other ancillary exposures is how you clear her name. Alas, she passed. And what I envisioned for the premiere was to have Iva and the person who pardoned her, President Ford, but he's not traveling any more, either, alas. This was much earlier in the game. So all these things are slipping through my fingers. But I think it's a very important story. My job is essentially to get the money for it.

G: So producer or executive producer.

GT: Yeah, executive producer. And I've been able to get half the budget—our budget is 5.5—half the budget from people who connect with the story. And that's obviously Japanese-Americans. And a few Asian-Americans, Chinese-Americans who understand the story. But their investments are a hundred thousand, a hundred-fifty thousand, two thousand, at most five hundred thousand. You know. And it's taken a long, long time just to get that. What we need is that big chunk. And that's what I'm working on.

G: It's the elusive prize. Lastly—you've been so generous with your time—but since we are in San Francisco, and it's Sulu's hometown and it keeps coming up in conversation, what to you makes San Francisco special? What does it mean to you in your life?

GT: Well, my father—although he lived most of his life in Los Angeles—he was raised in San Francisco. And he always considered himself a San Franciscan. And I grew up hearing stories about his boyhood in San Francisco. And he loved San Francisco. He came up here often, to visit with his friends when I was young, and I went to Berkeley here, so I discovered San Francisco for myself during those days, coming into the City. And so San Francisco, to me, is a personally very special place. Yes, the character I played was born here. Fictional. But in my own family there's that kind of connection. My mother was born in Sacramento. So my parents were Northern Californians. I was born in Los Angeles. So there's no North-South divide in my family. And I liked—first of all, San Francisco is a gorgeous place; it's a jewel of a city. Blessed by Mother Nature, as well as what man has done to enhance—and, also, desecrate (laughs)—the gift you got from Mother Nature. It's a vibrant place of great diversity: all the cultures and people that come together here. It's a bubbling cauldron of ideas and certainly politics. And primarily liberal politics. I feel sorry for the conservative Republicans here. (Laughs.) They always have a rough time here. I love that kind of energy and bubble and a sense of making things happen. So the beauty, the energy, the diversity and the ideas that come out of San Francisco is what engages me about this city.

G: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for spending this time.

GT: My pleasure!

[For more information about George Takei, visit georgetakei.com. And don't miss Groucho's interview with Star Trek's Chekov: Walter Koenig]

Share/bookmark: del.icio.us Digg Facebook Fark Furl Google Bookmarks Newsvine Reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo! My Web Permalink Permalink
Sponsored Links