George Takei is best known for his portrayal of Mr. Sulu in the acclaimed television and film series Star Trek. He’s an actor, social justice activist, social media mega-power, New York Times bestselling author, originated the role of Sam Kimura and Ojii-Chan in the Broadway musical Allegiance, and subject of To Be Takei, a documentary on his life and career.
Takei’s acting career has spanned five decades, with more than 40 feature films and hundreds of television guest-starring roles to his credit. He is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Actors’ Equity Association and Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
As an author, Takei’s first book, his autobiography, To the Stars, was published in 1994; and in 2012 and 2013 he published his second and third books, Oh Myyy! There Goes The Internet, and its sequel, Lions And Tigers And Bears: The Internet Strikes Back. The latter two books explored his forays on social media and the Internet, earning placement on the Amazon e-book and paperback best-seller lists in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
Takei received APAICS’ Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020 at APAICS CELEBRATION for his achievements in entertainment as well as for his tireless work in advocating for the AAPI community and identity. For his full biography, please click HERE.
1. You have a storied career spanning five decades of work in film, music, writing, and even online! Can you tell us a bit about how being an AAPI has affected your career?
I am Asian American… specifically Japanese American, and my life has been shaped and defined by this fact. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, I was categorized by the federal government as an “enemy alien” because of my Japanese ancestry. But I was not an “enemy.” I was a five-year-old kid. And I was not an “alien.” I was born in Los Angeles, California. Being of Japanese ancestry has shaped my life.
I chose a career in acting… an arena where our image had been shaped by stereotypes. My career struggle has been not only to challenge that legacy, but to bring reality and true representation to our depiction. As a writer, I faced the same challenge… and particularly to raise the awareness of the unjust WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans. When social media became the currency of communication, my platforms gave me access to more people with greater flexibility. My career has been shaped and defined by being a Japanese American.
2. (Follow-up to Q1) Can you tell us a bit about any current projects you’re working on?
We have the film rights to Jamie Ford’s best-selling novel, “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” a poignant love story between a young Chinese American boy and a young Japanese American girl just before Pearl Harbor. We now have a gifted young writer, Chloe Hung, developing a screenplay and plan to pitch the project to a production company.
I also have a bestselling graphic memoir, “They Called Us Enemy,” which we also plan to make into a film.
In pandemic quarantine, I have created a recording studio in my home and have been doing voiceover work as well as virtual speeches including the thrill of giving this year’s commencement speech at UCLA, my alma mater, virtually.
3. Who has been your main inspiration for the work you do?
My greatest inspiration has been my father, who not only endured the unjust internment, but, after the war, worked night and day to give his three children fine educations at stellar universities leading to professional careers.
During incarceration, he served as the block manager at both camps, Rohwer in the swamps of Arkansas and Tule Lake in northern California. Even behind barb wire, my father was service minded.
With the war’s end, faced with impoverishment by the government, my father still served other JAs by opening an employment office in Little Tokyo and he helped find survival employment for others. Then, I watched him go from owning a dry-cleaning shop in the Mexican American barrio of East Los Angeles to later running a grocery store in the African American area of southcentral LA, then finally switching to real estate and gaining economic stability. All the while guiding three children through junior and senior high school and then providing them top-flight university educations. Most importantly, he guided his children to face the challenges of life with a sense of public service and an understanding of our people’s democracy.
4. How did you get involved in the advocacy space?
My father gave us an understanding of our democracy as a participatory democracy. We as citizens have a responsibility to actively engage in the process of democracy… not only to vote, as vital as that is, but to serve as volunteers in campaigns, on public commissions and boards, and, ultimately, should the opportunity present itself, to run for public office. JAs were incarcerated by a nation swept up by war hysteria and racism overwhelming the core ideals of our democracy. Wherever injustice exists, we as citizens have a responsibility to engage.
5. What are some of the misconceptions that folks have about your experience with internment?
What is the misconception? Our imprisonment was against the rule of law, against due process and against equal justice. It was against American democracy. I repeat, what is the misconception?
6. Go to Asian food?
I love sushi, and, even more, sashimi…the more exotic, the more delicious.
7. How do you think the AAPI community can be better allies?
We become better allies by becoming better allies. We need to be active allies for justice wherever and whomever is affected by injustice. We should not confine ourselves to injustice just to the AAPI community. As humanists we need to engage against injustice anywhere. When we become better allies, we will have others become our allies.
8. What are some of the parallels between your work as an advocate and an actor?
Acting in film, television and theater projects that tell stories of injustices and inhumanities becomes, not a parallel, but organic to the art. An actor who gains fame or a following can create that parallel by using his or her fame to advance advocacy for causes that serve others.
9. What do you like to do in your down time?
I’m an actor. I enjoy going to movies or the theater or watching television dramas or a good series.
I used to enjoy long-distance running in my youth. I’ve run six marathons. But that was decades ago. Now, following doctor’s orders, I take a daily long walk, but I no longer run.
10. Most memorable moment working on set?
More than half a century ago, when I was doing Star Trek, we had a morning when Bill Shatner and Leonard Nimoy had differences. Production was brought to a halt. The rest of the cast and crew were ready and waiting while the “suits” went from one dressing room to the other to resolve the “difference.” First, we were asked to go to the commissary for a break. We had a luxuriously long coffee break and we returned to the set. The “difference” still was not resolved. We were excused to take a lunch break. We enjoyed a leisurely lunch…with time for dessert. When we returned to the sound stage, the set finally was being lit up. The “difference” was resolved and we could begin filming. I will never forget that very relaxing half day at the studio.
11. How do you keep yourself grounded?
It’s simple. I’m a realist. I know how to make compromises. I look at life rationally.
12. How would you define the term “public service”?
Precisely as the words are defined… serve the public… or serve the people. We are all members of a group with common interests, a community and, on a larger scale, citizens of a nation. “Public service” is service on all the levels of one’s group membership.
13. (Follow up to Q12) Why is public service work so important, especially for marginalized communities?
Public service is important on all levels, but, particularly for a marginalized community, it becomes of existential importance. A marginalized community has less power, security and access… less of everything. It is living on the precarious margin. More often than not, it is dependent on public service for survival.