Earlier this week, a gaggle of journalists boarded a coach bus to slowly wade through New York City morning traffic, go through a rigorous security check and then board the Queen Mary 2 to spend an afternoon with George Takei. As Takei himself likes to say, “Oh myyyyyyy!”
The Cunard Line ship was to set sail that afternoon, crossing the Atlantic Ocean headed for Southampton, England. Takei and his husband Brad Takei (who took George’s last name after they were married) would host the Trans-Atlantic Premiere of Jennifer Kroot’s documentary “To Be Takei” as well as shmooze with fellow cruisers and bask in the lap of luxury aboard the swank ship. The Takeis are going to screen the film for the passengers, host Q&A sessions, give two talks, and hold book signing s for his two books “Oh My, There Goes The Internet” and “Lions, Tigers and Bears: The Internet Strikes Back.”
“It’s going to be a wonderful experience,” Takei said. “We’re going to be kept nice and busy, but we’re also going to be thoroughly devouring our rich experience here.”
Luckily for us journos, we got a slight taste of the wining and dining and entertainment that the Takeis would be experiencing throughout the week. I got a chance to chat with George and Brad as well as Kroot during a cocktail reception, which was followed by a screening of “To Be Takei” and a Q&A afterwards. First things first: what gave Kroot the idea for the film in the first place?
“I was always a ‘Star Trek’ fan when I was a kid, I loved the original series reruns, and just always enjoyed it my whole life,” Kroot said. “Then George worked pretty consistently as an actor but I didn’t follow his career until much later but when he came out in 2005. I was very impressed and charmed by the type of LGBT activism that he presented with his unique voice, that he was able to laugh at himself, that he was there with his partner of so long and go married very publicly. And I kind of fell in love with him in the media in that way.”
But Takei’s story doesn’t just focus on the humor and his romantic life. Segments of “To Be Takei,” as well as the musical “Allegiance” which he conceived of and stars in, addresses the U.S. imprisonment of Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Takei and his family were kept in an internment camp for years.
“I couldn’t believe the obstacles he had faced at five years old,” Kroot said. “I just thought, oh my God I can’t believe Mr. Sulu was imprisoned by the United States government!”
“When I was curious about my childhood incarceration,” Takei added, “I engaged my father in long discussions. He explained our democracy as a people’s democracy and he said, ‘It can be as great as the people can be, but it’s also as fallible as people are.’ Our democracy is vitally dependent on the citizens actively engaging in the process of democracy.”
“Knowing that he’s gay, being a famous actor and having to conceal that for so long, to go through all of that and to stay so positive in the media I found so inspiring,” Kroot explained. “That an older person continue to vibrantly, vigorously live their life and be so positive and want to educate other people. So, putting that all together was really interesting to me.”
When she approached the Takei’s about her idea, George was on board. Brad, on the other hand, needed a bit of convincing.
“I’m a very, very private person,” Brad said at the Q&A after the screening. “To be in this documentary was gut-wrenching for me to do. However, George and I felt that gay people should not be discriminated against and Jennifer gave us an opportunity to have our story told and we felt that if fair-minded Americans got access to our private lives and just saw that George and I are just a regular married couple that just happened to be the same gender, maybe some fair-minded people in America will say they shouldn’t be discriminated against.”
And George? He thinks Brad did great. In fact, he’s kind of pissed that he’s the highlight of the film.
“It was fun watching Brad blossom,” he said. “Because when we started he was very uncomfortable. I’m used to the attention. He is an obsessively detailed guy and he’s very tightly wound. So he would burst out angry when something’s not going well on camera. He steals the movie I think. He’s a shameless thief! And he’s totally unaware of the fact!”
Kroot’s three year shoot resulted in over 100 hours of footage, which she and her editor Bill Webber whittled down to a crisp, 90-minute film. It premiered at Sundance earlier this year and opens theatrically, iTunes and On Demand August 22.
When I finally got to sit down with Mr. Takei himself, I asked about what any nerd like myself would ask him about: “Star Trek” Have you ever wondered what George Takei’s favorite “Star Trek” series is? (Besides the original series of course.) It’s “The Next Generation.” But also “Voyager.” He can’t decide. But Takei is also extremely supportive of the rebooted films.
“J.J. Abrams is a fantastic action adventure guy and he’s great at casting, he said. “Karl Urban is amazing as Bones because he reminds me so much of DeForest Kelley. From the physicality to the speech rhythm, he is very impressive. Zack Quinto I think looks like Leonard [Nimoy]’s son, there’s a physical resemblance. But beyond that, Zack is a tremendously gifted actor, as is Leonard.”
And Takei would rather praise the work of Nimoy than dwell on his issues with “Star Trek” star William Shatner, which feature in “To Be Takei.”
“So much of Spock was created by Leonard’s inventiveness,” he said of Nimoy’s characterizations.”The Vulcan greeting was Leonard’s idea. It comes from, I’m told, a Jewish ritual. That Spock pinch? In the first season we got a script where Spock was punching an adversary and Leonard said, ‘No, that’s no in character.’ First of all, Spock is eminently rational and logical and he would not do anything in excess or anything with damage if there were another way about it. Spock has tremendous strength,[punching] is an expenditure of a lot of energy. When that same effect could be achieved by rationally thinking about it. Spock has great strength. All you need to do is incapacitate them.”
These stories are music to a “Star Trek” nerd’s ears. Also on my mind? Takei’s epic Facebook Page, which is an amalgamation of hilarious memes, social commentary and activist causes. I asked him how he decides what to post. They key, Takei said, is humor.
“Is it funny? It may be funny to me but will it be funny to my base? You know, sci-fi geeks and nerds, or social issues oriented people. What I have to keep in mind is: it’s about them. It’s not just about me. So many people talk about what I had for breakfast or what fancy restaurant I went to. It ain’t about me. Occasionally I’ll share something that I feel strongly about, but I keep in mind it’s gotta be funny and something that they have in common.”