(This interview is a little Takei.)
by Neil Ellis Orts
If you’re of a certain age, you may be following the adventures of three young ninjas on Nickelodeon’s show Supah Ninjas. They are advised by one character’s grandfather, a sensei who appears only as a hologram to his young charges. He’s known, endearingly, as Hologramps.
Hologramps is played by George Takei. If you’re of another certain age, you will, of course, think of him as Mr. Sulu, helmsman of the Starship Enterprise. Or maybe you’re his Facebook friend. He gets around.
George Takei will be in Houston next weekend for the annual Comicpalooza convention, running May 25–27 at the George R Brown Convention Center. He’ll be there to meet his fans. See www.comicpalooza.com for ticket information.
In this OutSmart web exclusive, I spoke to Takei about his fan interactions, in anticipation of the interactions at Comicpalooza.
Neil Ellis Orts: It seems right from the beginning, you engaged Star Trek fans. How has that relationship changed over the years, or have there been any turning points in that relationship?
George Takei: The turning point, I think, is technology, when I decided to seize that. But it’s always been consistent. I’ve always done as many Star Trek conventions as I can. I’m the only one that’s done Star Trek conventions in South America and certainly Japan. I’ve done two Star Trek conventions in Japan. I’ve done conventions on every continent except Africa.
I’ve got to say, Star Trek has been a real breakthrough, certainly as an actor, individually, but for the image of Asians, so I’ve done whatever I can to promote Gene Roddenberry’s vision. He was a real visionary, and what he wanted to do with Star Trek was make commentary on contemporary society in the 1960s, dealing with issues but disguised in science fiction. So he dealt with the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the hippie movement, the Cold War. The only issue he didn’t deal with as strongly as he did other issues was the issue of LGBT liberation.
I remember having a discussion with him at one of his parties. He used to love throwing parties, but this particular night not many people were going into the pool. Gene was at the bar at the pool so I went over to him, and we kind of sat there and chatted. I told him, you know there’s one issue we haven’t dealt with in Star Trek and that’s the issue of gays and lesbians. He said, “Yes, I’m well aware of that, but I’ve been causing enough ripples dealing with the issues I have.” He said the important thing for him is to keep the show on the air so that he can continue to make these statements. He felt that by dealing with LGBT issues at that point in the mid-1960s would surely have meant cancellation. So he wanted to solidly establish the show before he dealt with LGBT issues. I certainly understood that because I was still closeted then, too. Gene knew, but at that time, very few of my acting colleagues knew I was gay. It wasn’t until we started doing the movies and I started bringing some of my boyfriends to cast parties. They’re sophisticated people, so they knew, but they’re also cool people. They’re talking about my being gay would have been professionally beneath them. They acted very cool about it.
When I first sensed that Walker Koenig knew—traditionally after we got made up, we’d hang around the coffee urn, just standing around. One morning, we were chatting and Walter started jerking his head, signaling me to turn around. I turned around and looked and there was this gorgeous young extra with the tight Starfleet uniform on. He was breathtaking. But that’s when I knew Walter knew, and when I turned back around and smiled, he winked.
Since you’ve started talking about your life as a gay man to the press, has that changed your fan base or brought out a different crowd to the conventions?
I think a lot of a gay fan base was already there, so they just felt more comfortable discussing LGBT-related issues at conventions, but yes, I do think that has expanded my fan base. Certainly with my Facebook and my Tweets. I aim it at not just Star Trek fans but the geek community. They’re out now as proudly geek. And I deal with social issues, so issues-oriented people have connected, as well as humor-oriented people and animal-oriented people, so I’ve been increasing the support base, but the general core base is the sci-fi, geek community.
You’re currently involved in this Nickolodeon series Supah Ninjas. Is that still in production?
Yes, we’ve been picked up for a second season, but it’s a little inconvenient. The first season we shot at Paramount studios, which is just five minutes away from me, and it’s just two sound stages away from where we filmed Star Trek. But because of some tax breaks they get, they’ve shipped the venue to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. So the middle of next month, we’re all moving, kit-and-kaboodle, to Pittsburgh.
But I also have another project that we’ve been developing concurrently that we’re aiming for Broadway—a musical on the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War [Allegiance: A New American Musical]. We’re getting our first out-of-town production in San Diego, starting rehearsals in August. We had to negotiate with Supah Ninjas so that I can have three months off, which I’ll make up later on, but we start rehearsals in August, and then go into previews on the sixth of September, and open on the 19th of September, and we close on the 28th of October. Then I go back to Pittsburgh again to continue my work with Supah Ninjas. So it’s going to be a busy summer, fall, and early winter.
Have you started seeing young fans of Supah Ninjas at your convention appearances?
Yes! As a matter of fact, it’s a multi-generational fan base now. The original fans are now grandparents and they’re bringing their grandchildren with them. The grandparents refer to me as Sulu, but the kids refer to me as Hologramps. I’ve been ensuring the future longevity of my career!
Regarding your Facebook page, clearly you’re a serious actor and you’re known for your dramatic roles. But the delightful discovery, at least for me, was your sense of humor and your willingness to be, well, let’s say silly.[Laughs] Life is more fun that way. I had a grandmother who was very long-lived—she lived long and prospered! She lived to be 104 years old. One thing I remember about her is that she was always chortling. She thought everything we did was funny. Having that sense of humor is what contributed to her longevity, I think. So I’m trying hard to follow in her footsteps.
I have to wonder, does Facebook change fans’ perceptions now? Do they try to banter more with you?
Yeah, yeah, they do. But you know, humor can also be an effective weapon in dealing with bigotry and stupidity. You might know about the Tennessee legislature that passed a bill outlawing the use of the word “gay” or “homosexual” by schoolteachers, of all people. They’re the best people to give guidance and understanding and compassionate advice to young people who are trying to find their identity. To criminalize the use of the word “gay” and put them in jail for a week if they do that, I mean it’s outrageous, it’s stupid, and it’s dangerous.
I thought the best way to handle that would be humor. So I said, well, my surname, Takei, rhymes with gay, so if they can’t use the word gay, they can just substitute the word Takei and they won’t be put in jail. So they can march in a Takei Pride parade. Or at Christmas time, they can sing, [singing] don we know our Takei apparel, fa la la la la la la la la! [Laughs] But the Tennessee legislature is still pursuing that. The senate has passed it, now the lower house is considering it, then it goes to the governor’s desk, and I certainly hope he has better sense than that. But then you never know, if it passes the whole body of the legislature…
It’s a crazy time.
It’s crazy times.
After all these years, I imagine you get a lot of the same questions over and over from your fans. Are there ever any projects that you feel are overlooked or things you’d like to talk about but never get asked?
The fans are very curious people, and they’ve been following me on Facebook and whatever press I get. They know I’ve been developing this musical, so I get a lot questions about Allegiance. I get a lot of questions about LGBT issues and my political advocacy work, and a lot of questions on generally political issues. In fact, some are adversarial. When I advocated the firing of Donald Rumsfeld during the Bush years, there were some very lively debates that I conducted at Star Trek conventions, of all places. So, the discussion is broad ranging. It’s not just “If you’re going at warp three from Alpha Ceti One to Star Base Six, how come it took you so long?”
George Takei will be in Houston next weekend for the annual Comicpalooza convention, running May 25–27 at the George R Brown Convention Center. He’ll be there to meet his fans.
See www.comicpalooza.com for ticket information.
Come back for the June issue of OutSmart, as the conversation with George Takei continues and we talk about his upcoming musical, Allegiance.
Neil Ellis Orts is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.