PARK CITY, UTAH: No one, it seems, is happier with the new documentary To Be Takei (which premiered last night at the Sundance Film Festival) than the film’s subject, George Takei. “I can’t tell you all what a heady experience this is,” he said after the premiere, alongside his husband Brad, “to share our lives will all of you, and hear the laughter and the applause and the good feelings that you’re sending our way.” Takei’s unlikely ascension to beloved pop culture icon, via political activism, a series of self-aware television and film appearances, and a witty and well-curated Facebook presence, makes a good story, and To Be Takei tells it well.
Director Jennifer M. Kroot’s film mostly aims simply to entertain (and it does so), hopscotching through Takei’s unusual life, complimenting it with his own commentary (often accompanied by his distinctive, throaty laugh), and documenting his relationship with Brad. His life has always been a bit of an open book—at least since he came out in 2005—but To Be Takei reveals a few lesser-known facts and biographical tidbits:
He was named after King George VI. His father was an Anglophile, Takei explains in the film, and it’s something they have in common; back in 2003, he wrote on his blog, “Those who know me know that I am an inconvertible Anglophile – or more broadly, a Britanophile, which includes my affection for Scotland and Wales as well.”
In the immediate aftermath of the Pearl Harbor bombing, Takei and his family were sent to a Japanese-American internment camp. It was one of the more shameful chapters in recent American history, when Japanese immigrants and their families were simply rounded up and shipped off to internment camps across the country. Takei’s family was sent to Rohwer, Arkansas, and later transferred to Modoc County, California; they weren’t released until WWII ended. Decades later, he testified before the Congressional commission on wartime relocation and internment.
His experiences there inspired a musical drama. Takei’s time in the internment camp—and his later attempts to understand his father’s helplessness in that time—inspired the original dramatic musical Allegiance, which opened in 2012 at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. Takei co-starred in the production, and its producers are hoping for a Broadway run this year.
His first time was with a camp counselor. “It was both frightening and exciting,” Takei recalls in the film, “and delicious and terrifying.”
His first paying gig was in an Asian film—sort of. Rodan was one of many Asian films edited and dubbed for American audiences. As a young actor, Takei earned his first paycheck for providing an English dub voice for Toho Studio’s 1956 monster classic, released in America as Rodan! The Flying Monster!
He suggested the fencing foil. Takei’s favorite episode of Star Trek was the first season installment “The Naked Time,” in which Sulu was unleashed from the controls on a crazed, shirtless rampage with a sword. In the initial script, he was to wield a samurai sword. But Takei thought that was too on the nose—and ever since marveling over Errol Flynn’s 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood, he’d been dying to do some fencing. The writers went for it, and a classic episode (or, at the very least, a classic Internet image) was born:
He and William Shatner really don’t get along. Takei and Shatner’s strained relationship gets its fair share of screen time in To Be Takei, starting with an early moment where Takei sees a billboard for his former captain’s failed Shit My Dad Says sitcom, in which Shatner’s mouth is taped up, and muses, “as well [it] should be.”
He ran for Los Angeles City Council. After helping out on Tom Bradley’s campaign for Mayor of Los Angeles in the early 1970s, Takei ran for the City Council seat Bradley vacated. He lost, but just barely (the victory margin was less than three thousand votes). However, Bradley appointed Takei to the board of directors for the Southern California Rapid Transit Disctrict.
He was appointed by Bill Clinton to the Japan-United States Friendship Commission. He served for two terms; he’s also a member of the board of director of the U.S.-Japan Bridging Foundation.
His husband Brad runs the show when he does public appearances. George and Brad Takei have been together for over 25 years, and Brad works as kind of an in-house manager for him—arranging his schedule, coordinating transportation, and keeping things moving (while taking care of the pictures and the cash) when Takei goes to sign autographs at sci-fi and comic book conventions. And To Be Tokei’s greatest virtue may be the specific way that Kroot and co-director/editor Bill Webber observe Brand and George’s entertaining two-act. They’ve got a rhythm down by now in their interactions, playing the roles of the old married couple to the tee, and this sweetly enjoyable documentary captures that, and much more.
To Be Takei is playing this week at the Sundance Film Festival.