“To Be Takei” (pronounced tah-kay) is a documentary about the fascinating life of George Takei. Now 77, Takei is a Facebook sensation, aka Mr. Sulu on “Star Trek,” and well-known LGBT activist who’s been with his partner for three decades. What you may not know is that he spent four years of his childhood in a Japanese-American internment camp.
Director and writer Jennifer M. Kroot is obviously tickled by and impressed with George Takei — as are millions of peeps, from Sulu fans to those who know him solely as an Internet star.
Kroot interviews George Takei, his husband Brad Takei, “Star Trek” co-stars William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy and Howard Stern. The movie is filled with entertaining clips from Takei’s early acting days and his love for husband Brad to painful trips through a dark childhood and his role as an activist for gay rights.
Through it all is Takei’s distinctive baritone, “Oh myyy.” Kroot describes him as “a cross between John Waters and Mr. Rogers.”
TheBlot Magazine’s Dorri Olds landed an exclusive interview with filmmaker Kroot:
Dorri Olds: What’s your take on William Shatner’s attitude toward Takei?
Jennifer Kroot: Many say Shatner is homophobic. I can’t say that that’s wrong, but I have no proof, so I’d rather not speculate. To me it’s more likely that Shatner feels threatened. He probably wants to feel like he is the most famous “Star Trek” actor. [Laughs] It could be for publicity; he knows their feud gets lots of attention in the media. I think Shatner is a really interesting character. I only had 10 minutes to talk to him, but it was possibly the most tense 10 minutes of my life. There was so much aggressive energy, but I think he’s a good sport.
Do you think there’s any way Shatner was joking?
[Laughs] No. I think he’s an aggressive guy, and he has a lot of force and conviction. I think he meant what he said. I think it was more like, “Oh, here comes somebody making a documentary about George Takei.” Shatner must’ve guessed that my heart belongs more to George. I was only there speaking to Shatner to investigate what he thinks of George. I think Shatner was on guard for that. He was willing to do it, but I don’t think he was super excited to say great things about George. And George has also said negative things about Shatner in the media. I would say Shatner started it, but certainly it has gone back and forth. I think Shatner was serious when he said he didn’t know George but he was implying that was because George’s role on “Star Trek” was so much smaller. I think Shatner was reaffirming that he was the captain. [Laughs] I think George was obsessed with being a captain, too.
What do you think of Takei’s second career as a Facebook phenomenon?
It’s amazing to see an older person succeed at reinventing himself as a technology comedian. He is considered by “Wired” magazine to be the most important person on Facebook. He does have a lot of fans. He has 7.4 million, but more than that, he has some of the most shared posts online. They’re very interactive with his fans. I meet young people in their 20s who say, “George Takei is that comedian on Facebook.” They don’t even know the incredible history that George has with “Star Trek.”
What’s your theory on why he’s so popular on social media?
He’s able to bring a unifying voice to Facebook via political issues. Because of his honest nature and ability to laugh at himself, his creativity and smart sense of humor, people aren’t as divisive around some of his political postings. He’s like the Dalai Lama of pop culture. [Laughs] He brings people hope.
What can you say about his LGBT activism?
He’s been a civil rights activist for his whole adult life. He was active in the civil rights movement, he was active with Asian-Americans’ civil rights with the Japanese-American Redress Movement and the internment of Japanese-Americans and getting reparations for them. He came out in 2005 at age 68. He’s become a pundit and an activist because he speaks out.
How did it feel to learn about the sad story of Takei’s childhood?
I think the internment camp still haunts him every day. It’s something you can’t forget. When I first realized he’d been in Japanese-American prison camps, I could not believe that Mr. Sulu had been imprisoned by our U.S. government. And that he survived. Even though I knew it had happened, it was just so shocking to hear about this little 5-year-old Japanese-American boy’s grueling experience. It’s amazing that not only did he survive, but he grew up to be a most beloved and the biggest pop-culture phenomenon and the first positive face of an Asian person on TV. What an amazing thing. How do you connect the dots from his childhood to all that he accomplished?
Was he resistant to talking about his childhood?
He’s not afraid to discuss things. It happened to so many families during World War II. His family was taken to Northern California, which was home to the highest security camps. To come out of those camps and then go back to Los Angeles and have your teacher call you the little Jap boy just because you happen to be of the same race as the people in Japan who bombed Pearl Harbor — how heartbreaking. There may have been German students there, too, but they weren’t discriminated against so freely because they were Caucasian.
Did he talk about the feminist movement in fighting for civil rights?
We never directly talked about it, but I’m certain he would call himself a feminist. He was comfortable with me directing his documentary, and I’m a woman. [Laughs] I think there’s a big connection between LGBT civil rights and civil rights for women. They are both part of the same issue of “traditional marriage.” I mean that’s not good for women. Women don’t want to feel like property or forced to breed. Nobody wants traditional gender roles.
Except for Republicans.
Yeah, but I don’t even count them. I’m talking about anyone who wants freedom — men and women are better off with less restraint around gender roles. Everybody should be who they want to be. Men can stay home and take care of kids. Women don’t have to have kids. George loves a lot of female politicians. He loves Hillary Clinton, and he was just on Bill Maher along with Democrat Jane Harman. I don’t think “Star Trek” did any favors for the feminist movement. [Laughs] The original episode was very misogynistic, but I still love “Star Trek” and can laugh at how different the times were. A crazy woman takes over Captain Kirk’s body, and she just becomes hysterical because women are too hysterical to become Starfleet captains. I’ve never asked George about that specifically, but I’m sure he would find it absurd. He’s always respectful of me and other professional women, so I think we can go ahead and call him a feminist. [Laughs]
Watch the trailer:
Dorri Olds is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.