In the spirit of full disclosure, we have to admit that we had to pretty much violently subdue our inner geek so we would not totally screw up our interview with George Takei.
We know that his five-decades-long and impressive career has seen the openly gay actor perform on numerous stage and screen projects. We know that he’s a regular on Howard Stern’s satellite radio show. We know that he married his longtime partner, Brad Altman, in 2008 and has worked extensively as an activist with organizations like Human Rights Campaign, Japanese American National Museum, California Civil Liberties Public Education Program and the Frontrunners.
But our inner geek was about to gloss over all of those intriguing bits of information because he was just too stoked to be talking to the man who played Mr. Sulu on the holy grail of science-fiction TV series, the original “Star Trek,” back in the late 1960s.
Yeah, inner geek was going to mess things up royally with idiotic questions about Shatner, fanboy bitching about some of the motion pictures, the real-life feasibility of warp drive and other embarrassing tangents.
Besides, Takei is sure to get his fill of those kinds of questions when he makes a special appearance Aug. 20 at The Franklin Institute as part of its “Star Trek” exhibition. Luckily, we were able to maintain our composure long enough to ask Takei some substantive questions about his career and his efforts to secure equality for all.
PGN: When you do “Star Trek”-related events like the one at The Franklin, do you find that there are more new fans showing up or repeat visits from longtime fans? GT: It’s a pretty good mix. I see the original fans. I can tell immediately by the snowy white hair or the shiny pate. Fandom is generational. There are now the grandchildren of those original fans at the conventions as well. Certainly with the new movie out, that’s regenerated the interest of the public. So I would say it’s infinite diversity in infinite combinations.
PGN: What did you think of the new “Star Trek” movie? GT: I thought it was terrific. Some of the actors did an incredible job of capturing the character that they were portraying. Karl Urban playing Doc McCoy, he really captured Deforest Kelley’s speech pattern, his rhythm and his attitude. Between Zachary Quinto and Leonard Nimoy there’s an uncanny physical resemblance. I told Zach when I was doing an episode of “Heroes” that if you want to know what you’re going to look like in 43 years, just look at Leonard Nimoy.
PGN: Do these Trek events draw a significant number of LGBT fans? GT: There were LGBT fans way back then. Their comment was they don’t sense the inclusion of sexual orientation in that. Gene Roddenberry [“Star Trek” creator] was very mindful of that. I’ve had private conversations with him. At one particular party, we were at the far corner of the pool and I suggested, without my coming out, these are things I heard coming from the fans. He said, “Yes, that’s true.” He was very mindful of that as part of the diversity of humanity. But he’s dealing with controversial subjects. He addressed the Vietnam War and the civil-rights movement, which were controversial issues at that period. He said that the important thing is to keep the show on the air so he can make those commentaries using science fiction as a metaphor. He felt that if he pushed the envelope too much, then the envelope might not be there. It may be taken away from him. He wanted to bide his time. I know if he had lived a little bit longer, he would have brought that into one of the spin-off series.
PGN: Back when you were on the original “Star Trek,” did you think that by 2009 there would be as much diversity as there is on television? GT: From this vantage point, I’d like to say yes. But back then, I was closeted because I wanted to have a viable career. I couldn’t imagine what is happening in television today. We still have a long way to go. But the fact that we did have a series like “Will & Grace” and certain individual segments addressing the issue of homosexuality was something I would have liked to have seen back in the 1960s. But I don’t think honestly I could have imagined it being possible. I guess all our imaginations are pretty much defined by the temper of the times. It is a changed world today where gay characters are incorporated as part of the American scene. I look forward to the time where we can have heroes, the leading men or women characters, who are gay or lesbian but not a sensational character. It’s a makeup of the character, like being blonde or tall. It just makes that character who he is.
PGN: As a 72-year-old gay Asian male in Hollywood, how do you manage to stay so busy and visible on television and movies?
GT: The nature of this business is to continually reinvent yourself. I believe in being vital and healthy. I live by the law of nature. There are certain laws that you obey: Eat properly, exercise properly, rest and keep the mind engaged. It will keep you physically active as well. I’ve run many, many marathons and tried to keep myself fit throughout. But also, to quote “Star Trek,” to boldly go where no one has gone before. I went on the “Howard Stern Show” and accepted his invitation to be the official announcer on the show. Brad is the guy who listens to the show and he was the one who encouraged me. We often talk to ourselves, to the LGBT community. There’s some great comfort in the support that you get there. But in order to move society, you have to reach the large, decent, fair-minded majority. Howard gave me access to an audience that normally doesn’t think about LGBT issues or the challenges faced by LGBT people. By going on that show and going with the flow, but at the same time adding to the flow the dimension of the LGBT perspective and experience, I could bring up issues of the community in a larger context of normality.
PGN: How have the issues around Proposition 8 in California affected your marriage? GT: The Supreme Court made it clear that the marriages performed in that window stand. That’s the problem in California: The voters’ approval of Prop. 8 created three different classes of citizens: those that can get married, divorced and remarried again — straight people; those of us who got married and could get divorced but can’t get remarried again; and then another group of people who cannot get married at all. It has complicated the issue even more. Our marriage stands but what we’re concerned about is equality. We have friends who planned to get married but didn’t in time. It is very unjust. We’re actively supporting the effort to overthrow Prop. 8. I tend to be optimistic, but I think it’s important for our community to be unified. I don’t think we can afford to have divisions on our side. We’re going to have to fight this full force. Ultimately, I know that we will prevail. I want it to prevail in our time.
PGN: As someone who has supported the Democrats and Barack Obama, do you feel that they are living up to the promises they made to the LGBT community?
GT: There’s some impatience in our community. I take the larger view. We know where Obama is coming from. Yes, he has not acted on our issues in the first 200 days, but we have three-and-a-half years to go yet. He has massively important enormous issues on the table: healthcare, two wars going on. Yes it would be ideal if he would have taken a better stand with respect to LGBT concerns. I’m a patient guy. It’s very early in his term. When you have an issue like this, it’s very important to have unity. There’s strength in unity. There are issues we’d like to see acted on with much more alacrity, but I’d like us to take a larger view and work in concert to make sure to keep Obama’s focus on our issues. The very fact that Obama is there as the president of the United States is an amazing achievement of our democracy. When our democracy was founded, it was a landmark event in human history in itself. And yet the people who articulated those ideals kept other human beings as slaves. But because those slaves struggled for personal freedom, justice and equality, we have an African American as president today. He’s mindful of that and he’s mindful of the painful inequality in American society with respect to the LGBT community. I know that we are on his agenda. We’re going to have to keep his feet to the fire, yes. But for us to get divided over it I think would be hurting ourselves ultimately.
George Takei hosts a fan discussion at 7 p.m. Aug. 20 at The Franklin Institute, 222 N. 20th St. For more information, visit www.georgetakei.com or call (215) 448-1200.