Interview: George Takei

(Conducted in April 2009 to tie into the release of Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: Original Motion Picture Collection on Blu-ray, and Alternate Realities on DVD. )

Just as Star Trek has reinvented itself over the years, so has George Takei. The actor is obviously best known to Trekkers for his iconic portrayal of helmsman Hikaru Sulu in the original series of Star Trek (and subsequent movies), but he won new admirers with his role as Hiro’s father Kaito Nakamura in Heroes and even more fans with his unforgettable turn in I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! With the Original Series and the first six movies out now on Blu-ray and Alternate Realities out on DVD, Takei talks to Matt McAllister about the eternal appeal of the show.

What’s the secret to Star Trek’s longevity?

I’m still amazed by its enormous popularity and its ability to find new fans with each subsequent generation. I’ve given it some thought, and at its core is Gene Roddenberry’s philosophy about looking to the future with confidence and optimism: confidence in our problem solving capabilities and our inventive genius. And in many ways that vision – which was science fiction but also political and social fiction – has become reality. For example, he frequently reminded us that the Starship Enterprise was a metaphor for ‘Starship Earth’ and that the strength of this starship lay in its diversity, coming together and working as a team.

So you saw that multi-ethnic group of people working together. I represented Asia, Uhura represented Africa. And you also heard that diversity in Scotty’s Scottish accent and Chekov’s Russian accent and his frequent proud references to his Russian heritage. Now that was pure political fiction because the 1960s was the time of the Cold War and the US and the USSR were threatening each other with mutual annihilation. Forty years hence we have the International Space Station made up from people from all over this planet and there are Americans and Russians working together side by side. It’s political fiction and science fiction becoming reality.

It was a very optimistic show in many ways…

Oh yes. The 1960s was a dreadfully turbulent time for the United States racially, and racial conflicts were bursting out in the form of race riots in our major cities. I, as an Angeleno, I still remember the terror of the Watts Riots in 1965. And at that time Star Trek had not only a multi-racial cast but also an inter-racial kiss between a black woman, Uhura, and a white man, Kirk. Now, 40 years later, we have an enormously popular black president of the United States. What was hopeful back in the 1960s has become a powerful reality today! And thus Star Trek still remains very relevant.

I think it’s that human spirit of wanting to see a glimmer of hope – something President Obama is talking about in our current economic turmoil. That hope is essential. We need to have confidence in our ability to overcome challenges. I think it’s that core philosophy and those core values that has helped to maintain Star Trek’s popularity.

Did you know you were onto something special when you started working on Star Trek?

It was a job, and we were grateful to have it. But our jobs were in jeopardy and our ratings were low through all three seasons. We were all hanging on by our fingernails, just expecting to fall off into the abyss of cancellation. And after the third season that’s what happened. We were a very low rated show. But Star Trek was so unique, original and revolutionary for a television show. At that time television shows were mostly pap – these brainless situation comedies! So the programme people didn’t know what to do with a show like Star Trek, and when they are befuddled they make the worst possible decisions.

Our show was one that appealed to a young, intelligent, science-orientated, socially progressive audience. But they showed it on Friday at 10pm when that kind of audience is out being hip! So our ratings were so low that the network could justify cancellation.

The first six Star Trek movies have just been released on Blu-ray. Do you have a particular favourite?

You may think I’m biased, but it’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Of course: I got to be captain at long last. I’d been lobbying for that from the start! Captain Sulu of the Excelsior! But it makes sense. Star Trek is supposed to be a meritocracy, and while Sulu had made titular advances – from Lieutenant to Lieutenant Commander to Commander – he hadn’t made Captain until then. It also meant I could walk around instead of being stuck at the bridge of the Enterprise! That film should have been subtitled “Captain Sulu to the Rescue!”

And do you have a least favourite?

The one proceeding that – Star Trek V. Which, of course, was directed by Captain Ego himself! (Laughs) I think the audience agreed it was the weakest too – it was a disaster at the box office. The powers that be almost didn’t make another movie after that, but thankfully they changed their mind.

You were also directed by Leonard Nimoy for Star Trek III and Star Trek IV. What was his directing style like?

I have great admiration for Leonard Nimoy as an actor and a filmmaker and a friend. From the very beginning when were doing the TV series, Leonard was very inventive. And this is a time when we were literally boldly going where no man had gone before. We were setting the conventions of even the little things like how guns operated and how doors opened. Everything was brand new. And Leonard really personalised the character, even when we were working from the early scripts.

There was one episode in which the writers wrote that Spock punched out an adversary. Leonard went to them and said that Spock was both a supremely rational and physically powerful character who would try to incapacitate the man instead of wasting energy cracking bones – that Spock would minimise the damage to his adversary and would just pinch a critical nerve using his supreme strength. So that’s what he did.

Leonard brought that analytic mind to how he worked as a director. We actors often talk about how “exhausting” acting is. But we get to sit around and drink coffee or sit in our trailers in between takes. Leonard, on Star Trek III, was on set all day. I spoke to his wife about his work schedule while we were filming and she told me about Leonard’s routine during that time. In the evening he’d have a small dinner and then plot out what he’d be doing as a director the next day. In the morning he’d wake up, look at his lines on the way to work, learn his lines while he was having his make-up done, then on set he’d be with the crew going through scenes. Then we arrived and we shot the scenes. It was enormously draining physically.

How did making the TV episodes and movies differ?

Well, on the TV episodes we’d have to complete one hour in five days. We were under extreme pressure and we ran over schedule on more than a few times! It was rush, rush, rush. During the films we had larger budgets, a more luxurious schedule and it was great!

Did you enjoy playing a darker version of yourself in ‘Mirror, Mirror’?

Absolutely! As I said, I was anchored at the helm for most of my time on the show. So first of all it was a delight to be able to walk! And to be able to sink your teeth into a new take on the character like that… And you can do that with sci-fi. You’re not locked into a character like with a western or sitcom. You can explore alternate universes and mirror universes. And so I got to play a negative manifestation of the character, and it was so much fun!

Do you ever grow tired of talking about Star Trek?

The thing is, I’ve moved on. I have a new parallel career serving as narrator for symphony orchestra releases – I’ve recently been with Long Island Symphony Orchestra and next week I’m with Ottawa Symphony Orchestra. I also do video games and other projects. So I’ve been able to do lots of things despite the fact I’ve built a career on Star Trek. But I’m proud of my association with Star Trek. I’m aware that my tombstone will probably say “Here Lies Sulu” and then in much smaller print: “Also known as George Takei”!

Star Trek: Alternate Realities is out now on DVD. Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: Original Motion Picture Collection are out now on Blu-ray.

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