George Takei talks Pittsburgh, new novel, Hollywood and John Wayne
George Takei has led a most unique, extraordinary life.
He spent part of his childhood years imprisoned with his family and then grew up to become a science fiction icon, activist, author and internet superstar.
Best known as “Star Trek” Enterprise helmsman Hikaru Sulu, Takei just published a graphic novel, “They Called Us Enemy.” This autobiography tells the story of how his world was turned upside down, because of war, racism, fear and lack of due process. The book alternates between the humor found in the minutiae of daily life and the poignant moments of a harsh reality. It mainly focuses on his childhood story, as one of 120,000 Japanese-Americans imprisoned by the U.S. government during World War II. In many ways, it’s the immigrant story of America: fighting to overcome adversity and eventually prospering.
The graphic novel reads as a homage to his parents, for the incredibly difficult choices they had to make, while trying keep their dignity and keep their family safe. His success in life has eventually proved that they made the right choices. Sadly, both of Takei’s parents are not alive to read this moving tribute, but the book is dedicated to their memory.
Takei – who will be appearing next month at the at Monroeville’s pop-culture memorabilia show, Steel City Con, recently spoke to the Tribune-Review via telephone, from his Los Angeles home.
Question: “They Called Us Enemy” seems like a mind meld of “To the Stars: The Autobiography of George Takei, Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu” (1994) and the “To Be Takei” movie (2014). How did you come up with the idea of a graphic novel?
Answer: “My mission in life has been to raise awareness of this chapter of American history to fellow Americans, because this is an American story” he said. “It happened to the U.S. Constitution and I’m always taken aback when I say to people that I consider well-informed – well-read people – something about my childhood imprisonment and they can’t believe that this happened in the United States.
“Well, we certainly know that it’s happening again,” Takei said. “There’s this relentless cycle of minorities being subjected to cruelty and inhumanity and basic injustice. I’ve written about it, as you say, in the autobiography and we’ve done a musical about it (“Allegiance”). And, I have a miniseries coming out next month (“The Terror: Infamy”).
“But, I chose to do it as a graphic memoir,” he said. “Because, as a kid, I read comic books and this is the way to reach the young reader, the teenager and young adult readership to inform them of this chapter of American history, while they’re still young, so that they grow up knowing as much about this history as much as they know about slavery or what happened to the native Americans. So that we know how fragile our democracy is and to galvanize people into active participation in a participatory democracy; to do everything we can to keep this sort of thing from happening again.
“And, I’m very optimistic because, when we were incarcerated, all of the political leadership was against us, from the president to the governor of California to the mayor of Los Angeles. This nation was swept up by war hysteria, racism and the political leadership, be so uniformed about our justice system. Due process, the central pillar of our justice system, simply disappeared, simply because we looked like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor – because of our Japanese ancestry.”
And, he sees echoes of that in recent events.
“When Trump signed the first executive order, declaring a complete and total banning of Muslims coming into this country – the Muslim travel ban – I recognized it immediately as the same kind of sweeping generalization characterizing all Muslims as potential terrorists – as we were characterized, as potential spies, saboteurs and fifth columnists,” he said.
However, history didn’t play out the same way.
“But, what happened after the signing of the first executive order, was something to me that was very heartening: Thousands of Americans, throughout the country, rushed to their airports, to protest that. Lawyers went to airports to offer pro bono service to foreigners coming into the country, ” he said.
“This was heartening to me, that people have learned from the internment of Japanese Americans and here it’s happening again,” Takei said. “And, so I thought presenting my childhood imprisonment, through the eyes of a young, 5-year-old me, and leading them gently into the story from a child’s vantage point. And then introducing them to a larger reality – the horror — that my parents were confronted with, so that’s why the graphic novel medium for the telling of this story.”
Q: You brought up an interesting point in the book. Why weren’t German-Americans and Italian-Americans rounded up en masse?
A: “German-Americans and Italian-Americans – and we were at war with Germany and Italy – looked like the rest of America and there were too many of them,” he said. “And, the same rationale applied in Hawaii. The Japanese-American population in Hawaii was more than a third of the populous there. Hawaii (Pearl Harbor) was the place that was bombed, but they did not have this mass roundup of Japanese-Americans in Hawaii. The West coast, was not bombed – Hawaii was – and yet West coast Japanese-Americans were identifiable, visually, and a small minority, spread up and down the West coast, from Washington State, to Southern California. So, there was a little element of greed. The competition the Japanese-Americans presented, whether it’s in business in the cities or in farming in the rural areas, so Japanese-Americans on the West coast, 120,000 of us approximately, were rounded up and imprisoned, with no charges, no trial, no due process.”
Q: You describe your mother’s choice to smuggle the contraband sewing machine as a “crushing disappointment.” But, it truly was a game-changer for the family’s difficult life. What comes to mind today, whenever you see a sewing machine?
A: “Well, my mother’s toughness and determination, (laughs)”, he said. “She marched past all those MPs – military police – carrying contraband that was very bulky and obvious. We weren’t supposed to bring anything that was sharp, had sharp edges, pointed edges or anything mechanical. But, she had it all wrapped up in baby blankets and every innocent looking things, and sweaters, and then topped off with goodies for us: animal crackers, Crackerjack boxes and lollipops. And, so, she disguised it well. Her marching past those MPs, was a vision of her toughness and her determination, despite the full might of the U.S. government. That was her demonstration, her protest. So, yea, it’s a symbol of my mother’s guts and determination”
Q: In 2013, you were in Pittsburgh, working on the Nickelodeon series, ‘Supah Ninjas.’ What do you remember?
A: “It’s a wonderful downtown, I think,” he said. “I’m an urban, city kid. You know, I had to change my opinion about Pittsburgh. When I first went to Pittsburgh for a ‘Star Trek’ convention, I visualized ‘Steel City’ as a soot-covered, black city and went through this winding highway and through this big, long tunnel (Fort Pitt). And, when you come out of the tunnel – bang – the city hits you. And, it wasn’t a soot-covered metropolis, it was a glistening, shiny, towering with, with the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers coming together, with a green, triangular pot there. I was just stunned by the urbanness of Downtown Pittsburgh. I call the soles of my shoes my ‘urban tongue’ and I walked all over Downtown Pittsburgh and fell in love with it. That square there with all the many different restaurants – Market Square – it’s a very urbane city, and walkable city.”
Q: Many Americans fell in love with Japanese culture from the Japanese film genre, Kaiju, featuring giant monsters like Godzilla (1954) and Rodan (1956). Your first paying job was for voice-over work in for “Rodan.” Since you have that connection, what do you think resonates so much with fans from those – with what we would call today “cheesy” – limited special effects?
A: “Yes, we would (laughs),” he said, “For me, ‘Rodan’ particularly, was the Japanese fear, terror of nuclear power. Rodan was in hibernation, deep down in the core of the planet Earth and it was radiation that brought him to life and he broke out and terrorized Japan. But, I think to American viewers, it’s just the imagination of seeing fantastical creatures – not as heroes, like you know, Superman or Captain Marvel — humanoid heroes. But, fantastical creatures as something fearsome, horrific and that’s what I saw in Rodan, Godzilla – creatures like that. But, then we started getting more superheroes. But, it’s the tiny superheroes that is the victorious one, not the big muscular ones, you know.”
Q: While working on “Rodan,” you worked with Keye Luke, who is best known to general movie audiences as Master Po in the television series “Kung Fu” and Mr. Wing in the Gremlins films.
A: “Before that, he was the ‘Number One Son,’ for Charlie Chan,” Takei said.
Q: In the Charlie Chan detective movies, Caucasian actors all played the lead Asian character, but wonderful character actors like Luke were relegated to great supporting roles. Did you like the Charlie Chan movies?
A: “Well, I did enjoy the Charlie Chan movies, but I must say I wondered why real Asians couldn’t play Charlie Chan, because the older Chinese men that I know did not talk like him, act like him and his vocabulary wasn’t like Chan’s,” he said. But, he really didn’t think twice about it, as it was normal, back then, when he was a child.
Q: In Marvel’s “Dr. Strange” movie, they changed the stereotypical mystic The Ancient One – a role that might have gone to Luke, if he were still alive today — to a Caucasian woman. Seems like a double-edged sword: If they cast an Asian actor, they’re perpetuating one stereotype. If they cast an Asian actress, it’s the “Dragon Lady” stereotype. If they don’t, they’re accused of whitewashing the role. What would you have said, if the producers had asked for your thoughts?
A: “Well, it is whitewashing,” he said. “The situation and the character the movie is based on, was an Asian, older wise elder and to change it completely, to a white, older wise woman is another form of lack of integrity. That’s why we call it whitewashing, as opposed to yellowface, when Asian characters remained Asian but white actors with that plastic over their eyes played Asian. Now, the entire character is hijacked and made white and the opposite gender.”
Q: You worked with film legend John Wayne on the 1968 war film, “The Green Berets.” You wrote in your autobiography that you were initially leery of working with someone with whom you were so politically opposed to, but he charmed you into the part. If Wayne were alive today, how would you have handled the situation, in today’s political climate?
A: “Well, I’m an actor and the role was a very exciting role, of an Asian – albeit Vietnamese, not Japanese-American – so it would be an acting challenge for me,” he said. “But, I felt that I needed to be honest with John Wayne. When I went in for the interview, I did say, ‘I’m excited to be working with you.’ I did grow up seeing all of the John Wayne westerns, so there is this thing with meeting this ‘bigger than life man’ in real life – and he is bigger than life in real life as well – and he was just a few feet in front of me, sitting there, talking to me. And, so I told him – it took a lot of guts – but I told him that I’m campaigning for peace during the Vietnam War. I worked with people like Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland with the EIPJ (Entertainment Industry for Peace and Justice). He squinted at me – and I recognized that squint as well – and he said, ‘Well, I want the best actor for this role and, yes, I know about the opposition to the Vietnam War. I’m supporting the war, but I like your candor and so we’ll select the best actor for the role.’ And, you know, that was the end of the interview. But, I wound up with the role and when I came on the set, I said, ‘I’m really happy to be working with you. Why did you cast me when I’ve been campaigning politically against your interests?’ He said, ‘I said I was going to cast the best actor and I did.”
Q: On a lighter topic, you grew up wanting to be an architect…
A: “Not really,” he said. “That was my father’s idea. … I got the hint. My father was in real estate. I think he visualized putting out a sign, ‘Takei and Son, Real Estate Development.’ I would design the buildings and he would develop them. So, as a ‘good son,’ I began my studies as an architecture student at Berkley, but that lasted two years. My real passion – the fire burning in my stomach, as they say in politics – was acting.”
Q: Not that it’s a competition, but on Facebook, you’re crushing William Shatner (Captain Kirk, from “Star Trek”), with almost 10 times as many followers (9.5 million to 1.1 million) and have an edge on Twitter (2.9 million to 2.5 million). Last year, the Hollywood Reporter ranked you first in their actors social media ranking.
A: “(Laughs) I don’t mention it to Bill,” he said. “Have you talked to Bill Shatner about those figures?”
Q: Clearly, you bring something that resonates with so many people. What does that say about you?
A: “Well, I’d like to think that I have substance, with humor, on my social media agenda menu, because we do live in a very fraught time,” he said. “I think we go from one fraught time to another. Certainly the 1960s, when ‘Star Trek’ was first on, that was a very fraught time. … My father used to say, ‘Part of resilience is to be able to find beauty, joy and love in terrifying circumstances.’ So, I believe in that philosophy. … In fraught times, you always see the beauty, or the joy, or the ridiculousness of the situation and maybe have a giggle, or two (laughs).”
Steve Segal is a contributing writer.