George Takei discusses 80 years of wisdom as he prepares to visit Edmonton in November

There’s a good chance that your first contact with George Takei was through his role as Mr. Sulu in the original Star Trek TV series. There’s also a chance you are one of his more than 10 million social media followers who are fond of his pun-filled posts and engaged with his social advocacy work. But one thing’s for sure: from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise to marching with Martin Luther King Jr., George Takei has seen a few things.

And on November 29, he will visit Edmonton and talk about some of those experiences as part of the Edmonton Public Library’s Forward Thinking Speaker Series presented by Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF). ECF spoke with Takei about his career and views on “Belonging and Inclusion,” which is the topic of ECF’s 2017 Vital Signs Report. The following is an abridged version of the conversation that has been edited for space and clarity. You can find the whole interview on the October episode of ECF’s The Well-Endowed Podcast.

Edmonton Community Foundation: What will you speak about in your talk, “80 Years of Wisdom”?

George Takei: I’ll be talking essentially about my life, which began with my imprisonment. When I was five years old, war (WWII) with Japan began. We’re Americans of Japanese ancestry. We had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor, and yet this country was swept up by war hysteria, racism, and the lack of political leadership. And we were imprisoned simply because we happened to look like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor. My life starts from there, and here I am now in Southern California, just having returned from five months in New York, working on a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures. So, everything that happened in between.

ECF: Edmonton Public Library is presenting your talk. What books influenced you in your youth?

GT: I read The Catcher in the Rye, and I was tremendously impressed by that. I would wish that I had read Faulkner as a teenager. He really opens up the world. As a teenager, I was exposed to Eugene O’Neill. And I discovered Shakespeare as a teenager. There’s the wonderful book by a writer named Jamie Ford who wrote Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I’ve also been impressed by Snow Falling on Cedars, a wonderful book. I’d read The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck.

ECF: When did you know that it was time to embrace your advocacy for social change?
(Question submitted by Regan Flavel)

GT: I was involved in social justice campaigns from the time I was a teenager. And concurrently, I was pursuing an acting career. And I guess my social justice activities became more known when I was cast in Star Trek. And my acting career amplified my voice.

ECF: What’s the greatest hurdle you’ve faced in your advocacy work?

GT: The biggest one was, despite the fact that I was an advocate for social justice all my life — for equality for African-Americans, for peace in Vietnam, and for redress and an apology for Japanese-Americans — I was silent about the most personal issue closest to me, the fact that I was gay. Back in the ’50s and ’60s you couldn’t be known as gay and build an acting career. It was impossible. If you were known to be gay, even if you were a big name star, your career was taken away from you … there’s that constant nagging needle-prick anxiety. When is my career going to end? When am I going to be exposed? When is someone going to betray me? In 2005 I finally decided, I have to come out. I have to be true to myself. So, I spoke to the press for the first time as a gay man and blasted Arnold Schwarzenegger, who happened to be the governor of California at that time, and he’d vetoed the marriage equality bill. Once I came out, I came out roaring.

ECF: As a leader of the LGBTQ community, are there any works that you recommend to help build understanding?

GT: Tom Hanks played an AIDS-afflicted lawyer [in Philadelphia]. That captured the anguish of a successful attorney who was living with another man, played by Antonio Banderas. But one epic theatre piece called Angels in America — I think really captured the anguish of gay people and particularly those afflicted by AIDS.

ECF: What are your thoughts on the whitewashing of Asian characters being played by white actors in mainstream Hollywood films? Is this similar to straight and cisgendered actors being cast as queer and trans characters?
(Question submitted by Farley FooFoo)

GT: Whitewashing and the LGBTQ issue are two different things. Whitewashing is a contemporary term for what used to be called yellow face — where significant Asian roles were always played by white actors in makeup. In the early part of my career, I did a movie titled A Majority of One, where a very distinguished and successful Japanese businessman in New York falls in love with
a Jewish housewife. It was a Broadway play that was made into a movie. And the Jewish housewife role was played by Rosalind Russell, and the Japanese businessman was played by Alec Guinness, an actor who I admired. He was a fantastic actor, until I met him and I saw him playing this Japanese businessman.

He had this makeup that looked reptilian, downright scary, and he played the Japanese businessman as a chilly, arrogant man. And I was so disappointed in Alec Guinness. But that was called yellow face. Now, this whitewashing business is a role that originated as an Asian role, is made white to justify a white actor playing it. That has been a real obstacle to developing Asian-American actors, writers, and directors.

In terms of straight actors playing gay characters, that’s a [different] situation. It’s like saying an Italian can’t play an Englishman. If that actor of Italian ancestry has that talent to convincingly play an Englishman, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t. That’s what acting means. You act another character, another person, another nationality. But with the Asian roles, it’s been constant, and historical, and unrelenting. If it isn’t yellow face, then it’s whitewashing, and that’s got to change. Because we have actors that can play those roles. But if we don’t get those opportunities when significant roles come by, then we’ll never be able to become actors truly, and perhaps become stars.

ECF: What is your view of masculinity when comparing your character of Mr. Sulu to William Shatner’s persona, Captain Kirk in Star Trek?
(Question submitted by German Villegas)

GT: One of the guiding philosophies of Star Trek was infinite diversity and infinite combinations. And masculinity comes in many, many different shapes and forms as well. There’s no stereotype. It’s not just the brawny, bearded lumberjack that’s the epitome of masculinity. Someone that’s slim, and elegant, and brilliant can be just as masculine, if not more so than a brawny, bearded lumberjack. We’ve got to stop thinking in terms of stereotype. Masculinity can be defined in many, many ways. And on Star Trek, we believed in infinite diversity and infinite combinations. And we saw that manifest in many, many different ways.

There’s the keen, sharp, purely rational Spock, who was very masculine from a humanoid vantage point, although he was part alien. And there’s Captain Kirk, the swaggering, womanizing masculinity. Or there is Scotty or Sulu with the swashbuckling, or there is Chekov with his very detail oriented prissiness, if you would like. It comes in many, many different forms.