As part of the "Harmonic Convergence" program this week at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, actor and activist George Takei will serve as the narrator in Arnold Schoenberg's A Survivor From Warsaw. The Scene spoke with Takei on Martin Luther King Jr. Day — shortly after he'd watched the president's inauguration address — about his connections with A Survivor From Warsaw, his time in a Japanese-American internment camp as a small child, his iconic role as Star Trek's Hikaru Sulu, his newfound Internet notoriety, and his role as Howard Stern's "official" announcer.
As I understand it, you've done the narration for this piece in the past, but will you tell me a little bit about how you came to be a part of this and other performances of the piece?
Well, the only other performance I've done with the Schoenberg piece A Survivor From Warsaw is with the Little Rock Symphony. Arkansas is a state that has played an important role in my life. As you probably know, during the Second World War, American citizens of Japanese ancestry were summarily rounded up to the West Coast and put into internment camps in some of the most desolate places in the country. And our family was sent from Los Angeles to the swamps of southeastern Arkansas. I was a child then, 5 years old. But the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War has truly defined my life. I've been a political activist ever since I came of age, which was in my late teens. I had long, intense and sometimes very heated discussions about the internment with my father when I was a teenager — a very idealistic teenager inspired by the civil rights movement. And idealistic teenagers just tend to be very arrogant, and so I gave my father a very difficult time.
But the wisdom that I got from him was that our democracy is a people's democracy, and it's as great as a people can be, but it's as fallible as people are. And that's the reason why it's so important for good people to be actively engaged holding democracy's feet to the fire. So I've gone back to Arkansas a couple of times since. Once I was the chairman of the Japanese American National Museum, and we sent five exhibits there to Little Rock. And I spoke as the keynote at the opening there of the five exhibits, and I subsequently have gone there in a couple of capacities as a Star Trek actor at a Star Trek convention and other times on pilgrimages to the site of the internment camp where we were incarcerated. So, because of that history of the incarceration there in Arkansas, the Little Rock Symphony asked me to participate in that Schoenberg piece, which is about the Jews of Warsaw. Because of that common incarceration experience, they asked me to do that. And it's a piece that I've fallen in love with, so I'm really looking forward to doing it again with the Nashville Symphony.
Your play, Allegiance, is based a bit on your family's internment. Didn't you guys just finish your world-premiere run of that this fall?
This past fall, yes. We had what we call our "world premiere," but New Yorkers call it the "out-of-town tryout." But other than the opening, we had practically full houses. And as the run continued, it did indeed become genuine full houses where we had to turn people away. As we neared the scheduled end of the run, The Old Globe Theatre — one of the most distinguished regional theaters in America, in San Diego — decided to extend it another week to accommodate people we'd had to turn away. And when we finally closed, we discovered that we had broken every box office and attendance record in the 77-year history at the Old Globe Theatre. So it was an enormous success, and our reviews were unanimously fair in San Diego. It was very gratifying, and we feel very good about our transfer to the biggest and most important stage in America, Broadway.
Japanese internment during World War II is something of a lesser-known chapter in American history. Do you find a lot of people that didn't know a lot about it, or is it people who already did and are interested in seeing your take on it?
Well, indeed. In 1994, I wrote my autobiography, and the first third is about not only our incarceration period, but our resettlement, which was very, very difficult for Japanese-Americans. In fact, many Japanese-Americans didn't want to go back to the West Coast because of the bad taste in their mouths. But my parents decided to go back to Los Angeles, and housing was impossible. Finding a job was enormously difficult. So I wrote about that period of my life in the autobiography. But when I did the national book tour, I was always stunned, surprised, by people who looked otherwise well-informed and educated who told me they had no idea something like the internment happened right here in the United States. So, that's what drove me to finding extraordinarily gifted theater artists to develop this musical, Allegiance.
That is remarkable. Any big plans for the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, in 2016?
Not that I know of. But there is another major feature film on Star Trek coming out this May.
That's right. So what are your thoughts on the reboot?
Well, this is the second of the J.J. Abrams versions. I thought the first version was terrific, written as sort of a space opera. I know why J.J. cast younger actors — because we certainly couldn't be doing all that running around the corridors of the Enterprise that they did in that. Or, in the case of my character Sulu, he not only runs around the corridor, he does a spectacular skydive. Which I have done. I have done skydiving, but not that galactic skydiving. I was green with envy. I really envied John Cho having had that opportunity to skydive in space.
As an icon and a positive role model within the Japanese-American community, the gay community and, yes, the sci-fi community, do you feel like your connection to each of those communities informs the decisions you make as an actor and as a performer?
Indeed. I told you about my discussions with my father as a teenager after dinner. We had long, intense and sometimes fiery discussions. The lesson I drew from that is it's very, very important in a democracy for us to be actively engaged in the political process. I've gone on nationwide speaking tours to universities or on other tours to various corporations or on other tours to governmental agencies. And as I said, we founded the Japanese American National Museum, which tours exhibits throughout the country. Being gay and very much active in the movement for equality for the LGBT community, that's another area where I'm very active. And wasn't the president's inaugural speech extraordinary? The very first inaugural speech, presidential inaugural speech where mention was made of the equality for gays and lesbians, and the mention of Stonewall where the movement for equality for the LGBT community began. And to have a poet who is an openly gay poet, and a Latino at that. So this was really and truly an extraordinary inauguration, I thought. And certainly the inaugural speech by President Obama was groundbreaking.
Obviously, it's a very different world now than it was when you entered the industry. Do you feel happy with the progress we've made toward accepting things like marriage equality, and like you were saying, in the inaugural speech, the first mention as far as I know of marriage equality in a speech like that? Do you feel like your industry and others have come a really long way with that?
Well, I got my Screen Actor's Guild card in 1957, so I've been at this business for more than 50 years and yes, indeed. I see change from when I first started out when there were very few roles for Asian or Asian-American characters, and the few roles that existed were pretty thin, shallow stereotypes. And certainly from that to what we have today is an undreamed-of change, where the diversity of American society — particularly in the major cities of America — is reflected in television series with series regulars who are Asian-American, together with African-Americans and Latinos. So there have been tremendous advances made, but I am still envious of the African-American progress where now we have many, many bankable African-American actors ... and in roles that put them up in the running for consideration for Oscars. We don't have that yet with Asian-Americans, so there is still a long road ahead for Asian-Americans, but we have come a long way as well.
It seems like you have this newfound reputation as the funniest guy on the Internet. Obviously that's not something terribly common with people of your generation. Have you always been a technophile, and how is it that you kind of fell into this "funniest guy on the Internet" thing?
Well, I am forever identified with the science-fiction TV series. And we began every episode of that series with the anthemic mission statement: "These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise, its continuing mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before." I took that to heart. And I've been boldly going where many actors fear to trek. For example, I am the "official" announcer for The Howard Stern Show.
And when we started developing Allegiance, we knew we had a real marketing challenge, because we didn't have an established brand like Rodgers and Hammerstein or Cole Porter, and we certainly didn't have any movie behind it. And to top it all off, it's a little-known and even less understood dark chapter, shameful chapter, of American history. So we knew that we had to develop our audience, and we couldn't do the developing once the show opens, which is an expensive way to do that. The problem is that on Broadway, so many musicals just open and it takes a long, long while before the general public becomes aware of a brand-new musical. If they're revivals, then those are known projects.
So we thought that I needed to start developing and using the communication medium of our time, the 21st century. And that's social media. So I began tweeting and Facebooking. Essentially playing to and starting with my core base of sci-fi geeks and nerds. And so I started off talking about Star Trek and making a few amusing commentaries about science, and I noticed that when you have funny commentaries, that gets a lot of likes and shares. And so I sensed a trend, so I started going in that direction. I noticed that when I put funny pictures on, that got a lot of likes and shares. I learned that funny pictures are called "memes" in the lingo of the Internet. So I started posting funny memes and talking about sci-fi, including Star Wars, and the audience grew.
As my audience grew larger, I started to expand the topics. I started talking about LGBT equality and the internment of Japanese-Americans and mixing that with a few photos of kitties. Our audience grew even larger. I'm really astounded by how rapidly an audience grows in social media and how varied and vast that audience can become. And so by the time we were ready to open in San Diego at The Old Globe Theatre, we already had a pre-sold audience. They were enthusiastic — and that's why we had practically sold-out houses there at the beginning. So we were using the 21st century communication medium, and making a lot of friends on social media. And unlike so many new musicals on Broadway, we already have an audience eagerly waiting for us to open. We feel very good about it.
First of all, how often do people ask you to say "Oh my" to them, and does that get annoying?
It happens all the time!
In that case, would you mind saying it to me?
Well, that makes my life.
You know who made that my signature?
Howard Stern. In fact, I decided to write a book about my notoriety in social media, and appropriately, it's an e-book. It just came out last month. It's titled Oh Myyy: There Goes the Internet [laughs], and you can get that on Amazon.
And this relationship you have with Howard Stern — is that something you would have ever pictured happening?
You mean, "Oh my" becoming my signature? Well, you know, so much of what Howard says is outlandish, and the only appropriate comment is "Oh my." He might have a voluptuous guest on, and he'll ask her to take her blouse off, and that's an "Oh my." And that's followed up by the woman who does! Definitely an "oh my"! And if she's got a bra on, he'll ask her to take her bra off. And she does that, and that's a double: "Oh my, oh my"! And he has my "oh my"s on tape, so even when I'm not on, he presses a button and my voice comes on, saying "Oh my!"
Read John Pitcher's preview of Nashville Symphony's "Harmonic Convergence" program here.