George Takei is now just days away from realizing his latest dream. He will, on November 6, make his Broadway debut as the star of the new musical, Allegiance, which is partially inspired by the hardships he and his family – and thousands of other Japanese-Americans -- experienced during World War II. Though he’s never been out of the public eye, thanks to his nearly five-decade association with Star Trek and the character of Sulu, Takei has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance in recent years that’s encompassed The Howard Stern Show and Heroes, not to mention unexpected status as a social media maven and a high-profile role as an advocate for the LGBT community. Right now, though, the focus is on Allegiance. A few weeks back, and just before previews officially kicked off, Takei – who is joined in the show by Tony Award winner Lea Salonga and Telly Leung -- took a break from tech rehearsals at the Longacre Theatre to chat with StarTrek.com. Check out what he had to say in part two of our exclusive interview, and go here if you missed part one.
For many of the actors in this play, the story that serves as the historical backdrop was only something they learned about in history books at school. You lived it. What does it mean to you to be able to represent that real-life element, to be something of the gatekeeper of history?
It means everything, really. So much of this cast is much, much younger than I am. In some cases, even their parents didn’t experience what I did. You used the word gatekeeper. I’m working with enormously gifted theater artists. And sure, I give them some factual data. I give them some terms. For example, there were reference to “block managers,” and they were saying “block heads” – not “blockheads” (he laughs that famous laugh). So I tweaked that. But these are gifted artists and I respect them too much to try to be their gatekeeper. I’m here to try to contribute what I know of my experience, from being a child in an internment camp from when I was five years old to eight years old. I’ve also done a lot of research on the subject, so I do give them advice and guidance.
If we go back about 20 years, George, you were “that guy from Star Trek.” You were definitely typecast as Sulu. You were also gay, but still in the closet. Now look where you are. How much has the world changed? How much has your world changed?
The world has changed, and in so many ways. And, yes, my world has changed, too. On the LGBT side, it was the same year that Star Trek was canceled that that became a relevant issue in our society, because when we were canceled in 1969, that was also the summer of Stonewall, in Greenwich Village, here in New York. That was, for me, inspiring, but I knew that I wanted my career and that I needed to find another job because the steady three years of work I had on Star Trek were now gone. And, in order to pursue that career I had to remain closeted. But I was a political activist even back then, supporting political candidates. I was active in the Civil Rights movement and peace movement during the Vietnam War. At that point, I wasn’t involved in the redress movement (on behalf of Japanese-Americans who’d been imprisoned in internment camps), but a few years later I became involved in that. So I’d always been an activist, and the concerns and rights of the LGBT community had always been the closest thing to me personally, but I couldn’t, I didn’t specifically act on them at the time.
Take us what ultimately prompted you to act on them…
The Civil Rights movement, peace movement and redress movement were all very important to me, because they’re related issues of equality and justice. But I had to bite the bullet on the LGBT issues. I was inspired by what was happening, but I was pursuing an acting career, and so I remained silent. And then the AIDS catastrophe happened, and I participated in that, initially, by making monetary donations, while still remaining closeted. Then a few people that (Takei’s husband) Brad and I knew started dying of AIDS and I felt we needed to be much more supportive of that movement. So, we marched in AIDS Walks. But I was still in the closet and it was a very, very, very difficult period in my life, wanting to be vocal on that, but restrained because I wanted to protect my career.
Finally, when things started to happen in the legal arena, when Massachusetts, in 2003, got marriage equality, we started feeling like something important was happening. Then, in 2005, the California legislature – the assembly and the senate, the people’s representatives – passed the Marriage Equality Bill, and we were really heartened by that. The bill went to the governor’s desk and Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it.
That was the tipping point, right?
That really had me raging, and Brad, too, but we kept it to ourselves. Then, Brad and I were watching the late-night news and we saw young people pouring out onto Santa Monica Boulevard to vent their rage. And that was inspiring. We saw all these kids sacrificing everything and being visible and on-camera. That’s when I decided that I needed to speak out, and I spoke out, blasting Arnold Schwarzenegger’s veto.
How liberating was that for you?
That was liberating in so many ways, because when you’re living a closeted life you always have your guard up. There’s that danger of going to gay bars and being recognized or of recognizing somebody. I won’t mention names, but I recognized people from the larger Star Trek family in gay bars and we felt an obligation to each other to be silent. Living like that, having an important part of your life that you cannot feel free about, was torturous. When you come out, finally, and be public and open to the press… it was liberating. I think I’ve become a changed man.
And in terms of the career you were trying to protect?
It has become a much, much more vibrant career. I started to get more and more guest roles, often as characters named George Takei, and they happened to be gay. I did that on Will & Grace and other shows. I was cast as a gay guy. So my career flourished, and that was the very opposite of what I was fearful of, that I’d be losing my career. And since then I’ve had the opportunity to do many roles that have nothing to do with my sexuality, like Heroes and now Allegiance. So, Star Trek, the LGBT movement and my career, they’re all intertwined. They’ve always been intertwined, but now it’s in an entirely different, better way.
We talked earlier about how much you value the support of Star Trek fans. You and the Allegiance team, on Halloween night, about a week before the show officially opens, will host a Star Trek Night. That should be fascinating for you, to see your worlds mesh like that…
Funny you should say fascinating, but, yes, we are going to have a Star Trek Night designated specifically for Star Trek fans. We are urging the fans to come as who they really are. So I’m expecting to see not only Starfleet officers, but also Klingon warriors and Andorian princesses.
Well, congratulations. We at StarTrek.com and many, many of your fans have been waiting years for this and we are happy to share the moment with you.
Thank you, sincerely. I appreciate you giving us all this extra coverage. Broadway is a business and it’s very hard to mount a show and then sustain a run. So, the fans’ interest and the interest of StarTrek.com, it means a great deal to me.
Go to www.AllegianceMusical.com for additional details about the show and to purchase tickets.