At 76 years old, George Takei has managed an impressive transition from being known best for playing Sulu in the original “Star Trek” television series and movies to becoming a poster boy for LGBT rights and a considerable internet sensation (he has nearly 6 million Facebook followers) thanks to his very popular memes. And now, Takei has his very own documentary to highlight that journey (among other things) and continue to confirm how endearing a figure he really is.
Jennifer Kroot’s “To Be Takei” follows Takei and his husband Brad as they navigate their lives together in Los Angeles, intermittently stepping back to discuss Takei being forced into Japanese-American internment camps as a child, his time on “Star Trek,” and how he challenged the status quo for Asian actors. It’s a lovely little movie that George and Brad Takei were clearly quite proud of when they sat down with Indiewire at Sundance earlier this week.
So what was the genesis of this project? Why did you decide that this was something that you wanted to do?
George Takei: Well, the genesis was Jennifer (Kroot, the film’s director), coming to us and telling us that she would like to do a documentary about it. We had to think long and hard and do a little vetting of Jennifer, but we also thought it was a wonderful and timely opportunity. We’d been in the struggle for the equality for the LGBT community, and here was the opportunity to tell that story in the context of our lives. And, when she approached us it was 2010; it seemed like the kind of progress we were making for equality was accelerating. And to chronicle this three-year period would be so important and maybe historic. And indeed it was. Last year, in June, history happened. But at the same time we were also developing a musical on the internment of Japanese Americans, which I experienced as a child, and so here we had a musical, bound for Broadway, and to have that recorded, from its genesis, all the way to, well, we’re opening on Broadway this year. So that’s why we embraced this opportunity.
Brad Takei: And by seeing a same-sex couple in ordinary situations, that it might make people think twice about if they have, you know, questions about acceptance of LGBT equality, it’s one way to just say that, you know, ‘We’re members of your family and gay people are like anybody else.’ And that was one of the kinda underlying themes that Jennifer captured in the film.
You both appeared exceptionally natural throughout the whole film with a camera there, how did the two of you function that way?
BT: Well Jennifer created that comfort zone for us because she just allowed us to be ourselves, and I just sort of ignored the camera and went on with my life. What we did importantly is give Jennifer 100% editorial control of the documentary. Meaning, when the final cut was world-premiered at Sundance, George and I had never seen it. And so, it’s an example of the trust that we put in the filmmaker, that we felt that, whatever, if she’s going for the truth, then let the chips fall where they may, and that’s what happened.
Jennifer Kroot: George, you can tell with his activism, his Facebook page, his work on Howard Stern, he’s very comfortable laughing at himself, doesn’t take himself too seriously, and I think that just shows when they’re sharing their personal dynamics that we can all relate to.
GT: And I’m an actor. I’m used to being natural in front of the camera. Except in this case, unlike my professional naturalness, I wasn’t paid.
I assume it’s one thing when you’re filming it, but then another to see it on the big screen with a whole bunch of people who are laughing and cheering and getting involved in your lives. What was that experience like?
GT: Exhilarating. Fantastic. We were on pins and needles because there were some laugh lines that would be there, and wouldn’t happen, because there’s nothing more deadly, more frightening, terrorizing, than to be caught on stage, and you say something funny that you’re expecting to get a laugh from, and nothing happens, dead silence… But you know, it was explosive laughter. That’s the wonderful communal thing about seeing a film in a theater.
BT: We’ve seen two screenings in Utah, the world premiere Saturday night, and then they had the second screening Sunday afternoon in Salt Lake City, that was more of a local audience. And it was very powerful to see it with the local audience, 500 people in the theater, because the reaction they gave us afterward was, you know – Utah is a state where same-sex couples are having a horrible fight right now. And you can tell that they really appreciated this film. George has a voice that they don’t have, and we just feel like we did the right thing by opening up our lives on the documentary.
One thing I was curious about is the film talks a lot about your resistance to come out publicly for quite some time. What would your advice be to people now — actors or public figures that are gay that maybe feel the same as you did?
GT: The climate has changed dramatically, from black to white. I mean it’s that dramatic. And I think our coming out contributes to the acceleration of that transition. But you know it’s a personal decision, so I don’t tell anyone to do what they are reticent about doing. But, it is a contribution to making this a better society.
BT: And in your case, when you came out, what happened?
GT: Oh yeah, in my case, there was a stimulus. It was angry, rage, blood-boiling.
BT: Oh I didn’t mean that, I meant … about your career. I was throwing it to George so that he would say, when he publicly came out as a gay American in 2005, ultimately it was the best career move he ever made. But your question was about closeted celebrities or whatever.
GT: Wait what did you say his question was?
BT :Well he was trying to find out what your advice would be to people in the closet, in your case, your the example that your career can still flourish.
GT: Well, this society is totally different. Yes, absolutely. In fact, one of my regrets is that we didn’t adopt a child when we got together 26 years ago. But we were 26 years younger. Now the climate has changed, and it’s doable, but our bodies are no longer doable. We have friends that are raising beautiful children. Gay couples.
BT: The LGBT audience, in my hyperbole opinion, is gonna love the film, but that’s almost a given. But we think the documentary is gonna be expanded to a larger audience because of George’s “Star Trek” fame and social media popularity. It has things for everybody, it’s a very densely packed, as you know the thread of the film is so dense, you know, we’ve seen it now twice, and every time you see it you pick up more wonderful editorial qualities that you didn’t see the first time, so you know, it’s really designed, we want this to hit America, this isn’t just a pigeon-holed film that should hit our wonderful, our beloved brothers and sisters in the LGBT community, we think it has the potential to reach other fair-minded people.
GT: And here’s a small example, we founded the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, and we have a lot of volunteers. And one volunteer was apparently having difficulty discussing the issue of homosexuality with his parents. And he said, “Well, George Takei is gay, he’s got a partner.” And his mother said “Oh, then it’s okay.” So a film like this will get to more parents, for when they get into that kind of discussion.
It’s definitely a really universal film.
BT: And we have a relative, she’s bringing her eleven-year-old boy to see the film.
GT: My niece.
BT: And that does bring tears to my eyes, just thinking about it, it’s like, woah.