Flavorwire Interview: George Takei on Japanese Internment, Hollywood’s Race Problem, and His Broadway Show ‘Allegiance’

Based on true events, the Broadway musical Allegiance tells the story of the Kimura family, who, along with 120,000 other Japanese-Americans, are forced to leave their homes and become imprisoned in internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The show’s star, George Takei, was an internee as a child, and he based his performance on his own family’s stories, the stories of other Japanese-Americans, and the research he has conducted throughout his lifetime.

Takei is best known as Star Trek’s Sulu, the helmsman of the USS Enterprise. The role was one of television’s earliest positive portrayals of an Asian American. Takei has been a social justice activist since he was a teenager, and he continues his efforts to this day, using his iconic social media presence to fight for equality in the LGBT community and beyond.

Flavorwire spoke to Takei just before his appearance at New York City’s Japan Society, this evening at 6:30, where he will discuss Allegiance and the real-life stories behind the musical.

'Allegiance'
‘Allegiance’

Flavorwire: Your Broadway show Allegiance was inspired by your experience being in an internment camp…

George Takei: Actually, it’s my parents’ experience. I was a child then — from five years old to eight and a half when we were released. It’s based on my many after-dinner conversations with my father when I was a teenager, and my own research and conversations with other older Japanese-Americans.

What kind of memories did the musical evoke for you?

I have my own memories, but they’re of that child. The most vivid memory I have is of that morning when the soldiers came to pick us up. My parents got my brother, who was a year younger, and my sister wasn’t even a year old, up very early one morning, and hurriedly dressed us. My brother and I were told to wait in the living room. We were gazing out the window, and we saw two soldiers marching up our driveway with bayonets on their rifles. That was a scary sight. They stopped at the porch and banged on the door. Not knocked on the door, but with fists… banged on the door, which was a loud, scary sound. My father answered, and we were ordered out of our home. My parents had been packing back in the bedroom, and my father gave my brother and me little packages to carry. We went out onto the driveway and waited for mother to come out. When she came out, she had the baby in one arm and a huge duffel bag in the other. Tears were streaming down her face. That memory is burned into my brain.

I also remember the horse stalls that we were taken to. The camps weren’t built yet, so that was what they called a temporary assembly center. And we were there for a few months. For my parents, it was a degrading, humiliating, terrible experience. But for me as a kid, I thought it was fun to sleep with the horsies. There are two different perspectives — the same experience, but parallel and differing remembrances.

I remember the long train ride from Los Angeles to southeastern Arkansas. The train rolled right beside the barbed wire fences. The internment camp was built by the railroad track. When we arrived, I remember the people who arrived earlier, who had gathered by the barbed wire fence to greet us. They were waving at us as the train rolled in.

I remember the fun experiences I had, catching pollywogs and playing games with other kids. I remember the tricks that were played on me, as well as the tricks that were played on others. Children are amazingly adaptable, so the routine of imprisonment became normality to me — lining up three times a day to eat lousy food in a noisy mess hall.

It snowed the first winter in Arkansas, and for this California kid, it was magical to wake up one morning and see everything covered in white. It was a landscape in black and white — the black part being the barracks, and the white snow. We went out and made snowballs and had snow fights with my father. Then he taught us to roll the snowballs and make them into great big snowballs that we piled on top and made snow forts.

I had those fond memories. But I also remember the irony, when I started school in one of those tar-paper barracks. We began the school day every morning with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. I could see the barbed wire fence and the tower with the machine guns pointed at us right outside the schoolhouse window as I recited the words, “With liberty and justice for all” — both of which we did not have. Those were the words spoken by a child who memorized words that were taught to us.

As an actor, how do you emotionally prepare for revisiting such a personal and difficult time in your life?

It’s a story that… it’s odd to say I’ve lived, because I’ve lived it through the conversations with my father and others, and my research. Although I was there, my real experience was quite different than those of the adults. In preparing for it, I used all of the experiences I’ve had throughout my life, talking with my father, doing the readings that I did, talking with older Japanese Americans, talking with non-Japanese-American scholars who have done the research. Using all that, including my own personal emotional memory of that experience.

Did you have to separate yourself a little bit from the emotions in order to get through it?

No, I used all I have. That’s what truthful acting is. As a teenager, I was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King and involved in the Civil Rights movement. I was an idealist, but there’s no one more arrogant than an idealistic teenager. Some of the conversations with my father became very heated, and at one point I said, “Daddy, you led us like sheeps to slaughter into the camps.” Immediately, I sensed that I had touched a nerve with my father. He suddenly fell silent. And that silence seemed to go on for eternity. And then he said to me, “Well, maybe you’re right.” And he got up, walked into his bedroom, and closed the door. I felt terribly. I wanted to go and knock on the door and apologize, but he had closed the door. I thought, “Well, I’ll apologize tomorrow.” Things would surely cool down a little bit. But when tomorrow morning came, it was awkward. I thought, “Well, I’ll do it tomorrow.” And tomorrow never came, and my father’s gone now. The last scene in the play, I’m reliving that apology that I never made to my father. That’s what I mean about using everything I have as an actor. I’m not acting, I’m experiencing something that I did not do and have great regrets about. It’s haunted me all my life.

After experiencing such injustices, do you feel you have a responsibility as a social media icon to use your platform to discuss and raise awareness about different social justice movements like #BlackLivesMatter?

Absolutely. #BlackLivesMatter and the LGBT equality movement, included. I was active in the peace movement during the Vietnam War. I was active in the movement to get an apology and redress for the incarceration. Congress created a commission to examine the reasons for the internment, and I testified at one of their hearings. I’ve been an activist throughout my life, primarily because — well, it comes from those discussions I had with my father — it’s an extraordinary source for learning about American democracy. He was the one in our family who suffered the most, lost the most, and felt the pain most profoundly. But he was able to explain to me that our democracy is a people’s democracy, and the people have the capacity to do great things. We are also fallible human beings. A government like that is dependent on people who cherish the shining ideals of our democracy and actively engage in that process.

Once, in the afternoon, he took me to downtown Los Angeles to the Adlai Stevenson-for-President headquarters and introduced me to how our democracy has to work. I was working together with other passionate idealists, who were also practical people. I met people like Eleanor Roosevelt, who came through the headquarters, and Governor Stevenson himself. He was truly inspiring. He was the personification of these democratic ideals, making it work, going against tough challenges. I got a real understanding of how dependent our democracy is on people who are actively engaged. Those were my teenage days, but I’ve been active in political elections — elections for US senators from California, the California governor, the mayor of Los Angeles. I’m still actively engaged. This is what I believe is necessary in our democracy. But it takes people who are informed on American democracy and our history.

Here, we have another presidential election season, and we have reckless people who really are ignorant of our American history — particularly this chapter. People like Donald Trump, who make those sweeping and uninformed statements saying all Muslims should be banned from coming into the United States, unaware of the fact that if he had gone to Arlington National Cemetery, he would know that there are markers for the people who have fought and died for this country. Each marker has the religious faith of the person buried there. And there are a number of markers that have the Muslim faith on them. Muslims have fought and died for this country. Donald Trump is thinking of that small sliver of the minority or Muslim people who are terrorists. He’s broad-brushed all Muslims as the same. That’s what happened to us as Japanese Americans. We’re Americans, but we happen to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor — and hysteria, racism, and lack of political leadership took over and put us into those prison camps with no due process. It was the most egregious violation of the United States Constitution. And here we are, 75 years after the internment camps, and it’s one of the flaming issues in our presidential election. The leading Republican candidate is one who exhibits that same ignorance, and that playing on the fear and ignorance of the electorate.

Let’s talk about your comments to Donald Trump regarding the parallels between his views on Muslims and the racist ideology that led to the creation of the internment camps in the 1940s. What do you think that says about the American people?

It’s based on ignorance. We don’t teach our history. If you don’t know history, you don’t know the lessons that history teaches us. Here we are, repeating it all over again with another group of people. It’s the same thing as what the Jewish people say [paraphrasing Martin Niemöller]: “First they took the political dissidents, then they took another group of people, and I said nothing. And then another group of people were taken, and I said nothing. And finally they came for me, and no one was there to speak for me.” We must know our history, know the lessons of our history, and take responsibility for the precious democracy that we have. But these people are reckless, because they are so ignorant.

We’ve extended an invitation to Donald Trump to come see Allegiance. Hopefully he’s open-minded enough to become an informed and rational candidate for the presidency of the United States. We have that seat with a sign indicating all the numbers of performances that he’s missed since the invitation was extended. The same goes for the mayor of Roanoke [David A. Bowers]. He made a similar statement. As a matter of fact, I talked to the mayor of Roanoke by telephone. He’s a very nice man, he’s a good politician — a very friendly, back-slapping kind of man. And now I’ve gotten an invitation from the city of Roanoke to come there and speak, and they will host me to a wonderful visit to Roanoke — and I’m going to take them up on it. The mayor has not taken up my offer on a pair of seats to Allegiance, but I’m going to say to him, “I’m going to your city to speak. We’re going to be closing on the 14th of February. We look forward to you joining us before it closes.” Our mission is to raise the awareness of the internment of Japanese Americans so that we can be better Americans. What Donald Trump is saying and using as his motto, “Make America great again,” is not true. He’s making America disgraced again with his wild and reckless statements.

The #OscarsSoWhite movement points out that black, Asian, and Latino stars are continually excluded in Hollywood. It also brings up the troubling fact that Hollywood has a history of applauding Caucasian performers in ethnic roles. How do you feel about the #OscarsSoWhite movement, and how does it relate to your experiences as an Asian-American actor?

We have to have productions that have a genuine diverse perspective on American society. If you look at any big-city street and the pedestrian traffic, you will not see what’s depicted in the movies — a nomination of all white people. It’s a diverse group of people. That’s the strength of America — people from all different backgrounds, different cultures, different histories, different faiths, all coming together and contributing to making this nation the vibrant, dynamic nation that it is. And yet the movies that are made, are made by people with a singular perspective. They know white America. They know white American artists. They know white American writers. That’s what we’re nominating people from. It’s not the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ fault, because they can only deal with what’s made. So, we’ve got to get that diversity that we see in the American scene in the executive offices, the decision-making areas, where the productions are greenlit. When the perspective of those decision makers reflects American society, then you will have a menu that reflects that.

I am a member of the Academy. I cast my vote. We’re not supposed to say how we vote, but I have had African-American candidates that I thought were eminently worthy of consideration. But my list was very short when it comes to ethnic minorities. I must say, also, that my list was very short for female performers. I had a long list for Best Actor and a long list for Best Supporting Actor, but a short list for Best Actress and a short list for Best Supporting Actress. We don’t have women there in those decision-making areas, too. Women are the minority, too. But because they’re white, they have these great, rich acting opportunities — so you see them nominated. You can’t complain when you go to a restaurant that the dishes are all American dishes and complain I don’t have sushi on the menu, because you walked into an American restaurant. We’ve got to get that kind of choice available for us nominators to select from.

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You’ve worked consistently in television since the late 1950s and have had an insider’s view on the way the medium has evolved over time. How has the representation of marginalized characters — like LGBT characters and non-white characters — changed? What still needs to change?

Minorities, whether it be LGBT minorities or racial minorities, we were always stereotyped when I first went into the business. There were extraordinary exceptions to that rule. One of the arguments my father used to dissuade me from going into the acting arena were those very kinds of roles. And I said, “Daddy, I’m going to change it.” The arrogance of idealistic teenagers, again. I was lucky in the kind of roles I did get. I was cast in the Playhouse 90 role. I was also cast in a two-hander for Twilight Zone, with another minority, in fact — Neville Brand was Native American. The episode was called “The Encounter.” I’ve been lucky in the roles that I got, and certainly a breakthrough opportunity was from Star Trek.

When I started out, every minority group, whether it was gays, who were always depicted as mincing, fey characters, or Asians, as the buffoon or the silent servant or the enemy, and African Americans [were stereotyped]. A popular belief was that African Americans couldn’t act. Only one was a star, Sidney Poitier. He was [supposedly] the only one who could act, and he had a corner on the market. Every role that was a substantial African-American role was played by Sidney Poitier. Now, we have a whole galaxy of African-American stars.

But, again, the decision-making doesn’t happen until more African Americans become producers and we have shows like Empire being created — shows that examine African-American life, from an African-American perspective. We don’t have Asian Americans in that capacity yet. We don’t get Asian-Americans greenlighting major projects. They’re only independent films. It’s the same thing with other minority groups, Latino or Native American. We have to get into the areas where we set the menu, and then the Oscar nominations will reflect that diversity.

Early in Hollywood, Asian-American actors were banned from portraying romantic relationships with non-Asian actors due to anti-miscegenation laws. The Japanese silent cinema actor Sessue Hayakawa was one star faced with this prejudice. For me, this also reflects the way LGBT actors were forced to hide their sexuality and play “straight.” Did you ever feel pressured to be “straight” on film and hide your sexuality?

I am gay — and was aware I was gay back then. When I was a teenager, there was a very popular, gorgeous, young, blond actor. He was in almost every other movie that came from Warner Brothers Studios: Tab Hunter. He was my heartthrob, as well as that of a million female teenagers. He was the boy next door that was so handsome, so friendly, so attractive. Mothers would swoon over him. But then one of the scandal sheets of the time, the Confidential, exposed him as gay. His career faded. That was an object lesson for me — if I wanted to be an actor, I could not be out. I never had the decision to make. No gay roles were offered to me, because there were no gay roles really being written at that time. America was heterosexual, and even heterosexual people who were married didn’t sleep in the same bed. They had twin beds for husband and wives. It was that era of American society. We had to live closeted lives as LGBT people, and if we wanted to be working actors.

In 1969, when Stonewall happened, it spread like wildfire through all the gay bars throughout the United States. But I had to remain silent, because 1969 was the year that Star Trek was canceled. After three years of regular, steady employment of work that I loved, and a show that I was proud of, I was unemployed. The LGBT gay rights movement had begun, and I had to grit my teeth and stay silent. During the AIDS period, I participated via financial donations, but I was not physical. I had to stay closeted.

It wasn’t until 2005 when the California legislature, both houses — the Senate and the Assembly — passed the Marriage Equality Bill, which was a landmark event. A groundbreaking event. Massachusetts was the only other state that had marriage equality, but that came through the Massachusetts Supreme Court. And for the first time, through the legislative route, the people’s representatives passed a Marriage Equality Bill. It was a momentous occasion. We were all thrilled, but the bill needed one more signature — that of the governor of the state of California, who happened to be a movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger. And he campaigned for the governor’s office by saying, “I’m from Hollywood. I’ve worked with gays and lesbians. Some of my best friends are.” Playing to a conservative, right-wing base, he vetoed that bill. I was raging. I was raging even more later on, when it was exposed that Arnold Schwarzenegger had been carrying on with his housekeeper, right under his wife’s nose at the same time that he was vetoing marriage equality for LGBT people, saying he believes in traditional marriage. He does not, clearly, and yet he had the hypocrisy to deny it to LGBT people. I was 68 then. I said, “Well, I’ve had a career I’m happy with. Maybe it’s time I prepare myself for the downhill glide.” I came out and spoke to the press for the first time as a gay man — and I blasted Arnold Schwarzenegger’s veto.

It must have been incredibly hard to hold that back for so long, to not be able to express your feelings and views on such personal and important issues. How do you deal even with something like that?

It’s enormously grating, because you always have your guard up. You can’t use pronouns that might give you away. You can’t talk about the intimate aspects of your life. If one’s straight, you don’t know what it’s like to live like that. It was excruciating. And it was so liberating once I came out. But the mean-spirited people came out of the closet, too. I was called horrible things. I came out knowing that, yes, it was not easy.

You also have a lot of support and love from friends.

I did, and I was with [my husband] Brad already by that time.

from BBS upload

One of the central themes in Star Trek is diplomacy — discovering and navigating new ways of looking at the world and communicating with other people and cultures. It became one of the springboards you built upon to discuss your views on related issues with audiences throughout your career. What lessons of diplomacy did you learn during your time working on Star Trek?

It’s not just diplomacy. Star Trek also looked at ourselves. Gene Roddenberry, who created Star Trek, yes, envisioned a utopian future society. But he also wanted to make science-fiction commentaries on our current society back in the ‘60s. The ‘60s were a very turbulent time. He told us that the Starship Enterprise was a metaphor for Starship Earth, and the strength of the starship lay in its diversity, coming together, and working in concert as a team. That’s how he saw the makeup of the crew, and certainly the bridge crew. An African-American woman was the chief communications officer. A Scotsman, a European as the engineer; a North American as the captain; a Russian as the navigator officer; and an Asian as the helmsman. He saw that diversity coming together as a team, and that’s what made that team strong. He used that idealized society to make a commentary on American society at that time.

The country was being torn apart by the Civil Rights movement. Attack dogs were being sicced on people who were demonstrating for equality for the African-American community. At the same time, we had the Vietnam War going on. I was part of the peace movement. We commented on the Vietnam War in Star Trek. We had the Cold War going. Two great powers glaring at each other, threatening nuclear annihilation, and we had a trusted member of the team who was proud of his Russian heritage, [the character] Pavel Chekov. We also had an Asian American when we were engaged in a war in far-off Southeast Asia.

We made commentaries on contemporary society at that time, as well as making commentaries about other alien societies and how to work with them. I think Gene Roddenberry was a very smart, clever, and visionary diplomat as well as a commentator on America.