Actor and activist George Takei hosts a screening and discussion of the film “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” on Saturday.
Takei, whose career spans more than 60 years, became widely known for his role as helmsman Hikaru Sulu on the original “Star Trek” TV series and six subsequent films. In recent years, Takei has also become known for his social media presence and his activism on behalf of the LGBT community.
He was also an outspoken opponent of Donald Trump during his candidacy, and has kept up his criticism of the president during his first days in office.
Chicago Tonight spoke with Takei ahead of his Chicago appearance.
Chicago Tonight: It would feel like missing the point not to begin with the president’s executive order banning travelers from certain Muslim-majority countries. What’s your reaction to that decision?
George Takei: It seems we have a president that is very fearful, and that fear is based on ignorance. Donald Trump during the campaign made the statement, “We’ve got to ban all Muslims from the United States.” When he became president-elect one of his surrogates, Carl Higbie, made the statement that we have a precedent set by the internment of Japanese-Americans. What does Donald Trump know about the internment of Japanese-Americans? Very little. I invited him to come see “Allegiance”, a musical based on the experience of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War, when we were put in internment camps. He never showed.
He’s working on fear based on ignorance, and trying to foment that very same fear in this United States. For example, look at the nations that he’s selected. The terrorists that have really done damage to the United States have not come from the states that have been selected – Iraq, Iran, Libya, and so forth. And now he’s trying to terrorize this country by making this uninformed executive order and causing all the pain and grief to the people that are coming here with visas, with green cards, or Americans that went to those countries on business or as students and are coming back are being caused all this inconvenience at the airport. He is an ignorant president who is fearful, and we can’t afford to have a president like that.
You think he’s trying to stoke fear similar to that which drove creation of Japanese-American internment camps?
Absolutely. There was a climate of fear in this country created by the media and the yellow peril campaign, and then Pearl Harbor happens. We’re American citizens, born and raised here, but this country just overlooked that. They got wrapped up in hysteria, and we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor.
The hysteria went all the way up to President Roosevelt, and he signed the executive order that ordered all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, in the name of national security, to be rounded up and put in barbed wire prison camps. And they were prison camps – barbed wire fences that confined us, tall sentry towers with machine guns pointed down at us.
I remember when I made night runs from our barrack to the latrine, search lights followed me. I was five years old at the time. I thought it was nice that they lit the way for me to pee! For my parents, it was an invasive, degrading, humiliating light. We lost everything. My father’s business, our home, our freedom. Why? For what reason? We were innocent people that had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor. And Donald Trump is fomenting the same kind of fear and ignorance – but the times are changed now. Americans are much more informed and sophisticated. And that’s why we see all this resistance and demonstrating going on at airports, and the day before, there was all that demonstrating and counter-demonstrating on the abortion issue all over the United States. And right after the inauguration there was the great women’s march.
You’ve become a prominent LGBT activist. Are you concerned that same-sex marriage could be walked back?
I have a history on that issue with Donald Trump. I did the “Celebrity Apprentice” show. Before the show started we did a press conference with the cast and Donald Trump. Near the end of the press conference, I thought I would publicly get him to take a stand on the marriage equality issue – this was before New York had marriage equality. I said, “Mr. Trump, I’d like to invite you to have lunch with me. I’ll host it at one of your restaurants and discuss marriage equality with you.” I suspected that he was going to demur, and I wanted the press to see him do that, but he surprised me. He said, “Well you know George, that’s an interesting topic. Maybe we could get into it. Have your people talk to my people and we’ll set a date.” I was taken aback by that, but I took him very seriously. We tried over a three-month period to arrange that luncheon and we finally found a date.
He came in and said, “George, you know what, I went to a beautiful gay wedding.” And I said, “Well, there you are! You have gay friends obviously, and you go to their weddings. Why are you so opposed to marriage equality for LGBT people? Because for you as a businessman, it’s also a good business decision to support marriage equality. Gay people, lesbian people love New York and they would love the idea of getting married in New York. They would come to New York, stay in your hotels, eat in your restaurants, get married in your banquet rooms. It would be very beneficial to you.”
And he said, “Yeah, yeah, I understand that. But I believe in traditional marriage.” That kind of took me aback, because I knew he’d been married three times, and he was famously unfaithful during those marriages. I said, “I believe in traditional marriage, too. Traditional marriage is between two people who love each other enough to commit to each other, as the vow goes, in sickness or in health, in thick or thin, whether you’re wealthy or poor.” And Donald said, “No, no, traditional marriage is between a man and a woman.” And I said, “But it’s not between a man and a woman going serially or having a series of affairs.”
We went back and forth and what we did ultimately was agreed to disagree.
Now, during the campaign he said that marriage equality is a settled issue, and I took some comfort in that. But with Vice President Mike Pence, when he appoints Jeff Sessions to be heading up the Department of Justice, when he has people that have been fighting marriage equality throughout their lives getting appointed to various cabinet positions, I am not confident that he’s going to stay with the idea that marriage equality is a settled issue.
You’re coming to Chicago for a live screening and Q&A of “Star Trek II”– what is about sharing one of the “Star Trek” films with a live audience that you enjoy?
September of 2016 was the 50th anniversary of “Star Trek.” Half a century is an amazing achievement in show business, and that is because of the fans.
The fans that saw us early on and became strong, passionate supporters of the TV series. And then when we were cancelled we went into syndication, and more fans discovered us then. It became so successful in reruns that Paramount decided to make a film of it, a decade after we were cancelled.
In 1979 “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” was released, and that was a very costly film. Back in those days, it was almost $50 million, and the studio was very skeptical whether it would make money or not. But, bless their hearts, the fans came out and supported the movie, and based on that success they decided to make a sequel. Now we’re into the 14th film, and this fall there’s going to be another new TV series called “Star Trek Discovery” on CBS.
We owe a great deal to the many generations of fans. It’s the third generation now, it’s the grandchildren of the original fans that come to “Star Trek” conventions and buy up all the books and buy the action figures and so forth. I love going to “Star Trek” conventions or this kind of screening and discussion, because it’s my opportunity to say “thank you” to them for their faithful undying support and love for “Star Trek.”
The post-capitalist, egalitarian message of “Star Trek” debuted during a tumultuous period in American history. Does it still feel relevant in today’s United States?
That approach, I think, is still relevant. Gene Roddenberry, the visionary who created “Star Trek” and produced the series, wanted to use science fiction as a metaphor for real issues of the time. In other words, disguise the civil rights movement, or the peace movement during the Vietnam War, or the Cold War. I think that’s what got us the real passionate fans, our three generations of fans who’ve supported us. But Gene Roddenberry’s passed now, and the franchise for the last three movies has been in the hands of J.J. Abrams. He really doesn’t understand that part of “Star Trek.” He’s a great action-adventure filmmaker. They’re terrific space operas. But it doesn’t have that Gene Roddenberry element, that substance, that dimension that talks about – well, what we’ve been talking about, a fearful president who’s really uninformed and ignorant and therefore causing all this chaos in the country. What a great issue for “Star Trek”!
The fun of the “Star Trek” movies is seeing how the plot relates to us today, although it’s supposed to be in the 23rd century. That part of the fun is not there in the last three movies.
You pushed for a greater role for Mr. Sulu – eventually he became a captain, but not until the end of the film series. Do you see actors of Asian descent in more prominent roles now, or is there still a deficit?
I’m looking at it from the large perspective. I began acting back in the 1950s. When I look at it from that context, where all the characters that we had to play were minor characters, and they were one-dimensional stereotypes – the quiet servant or the comic buffoon or the evil soldier or Fu Manchu. From those days, we’ve made great advances.
Now we have a TV series about an Asian-American family, “Fresh Off the Boat.” And almost every series that’s localed in a major American city, whether it’s Chicago or LA or San Francisco or New York, has an Asian-American character. But I look at the advances made by African-Americans with enormous envy, because I grew up when African-Americans were seen more or less in the same kind of stereotype roles that Asians were. Today we have a whole galaxy of African-American stars. They’re nominated for Oscars, and we have a few African-Americans that are bankable – if their name’s associated with a project, it gets a green light right away, like Denzel Washington.
African-Americans have made such great progress, and we have made progress too, but not to that extent. I’m very positive. We’re moving forward, and we’ve got a lot more to go, but the movement is upward.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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