George Takei Interview

On the 14th April 2009, Sci-Fi Heaven.net spoke exclusively to George Takei about the then-forthcoming Star Trek Blu-Ray releases.  The chat is available to listen to, and a transcript follows below.

Please note: You may have to raise speaker volume to hear the interview very clearly.

Christopher McQuillan: There we go. It’s just for transcribing later.

George Takei: Ah yes.

CM: So ignore if it beeps on the line.

GK: Ignore it, yes.

CM: Um, if you’re wondering about the accent it’s Northern Irish, by the way, so I’ll try and speak as clearly I as I can.

GK: Oh, where are you right now?

CM: I’m in Northern Ireland.

GK: Ah, so you are phoning from Ireland.

CM: I am indeed.

GK: Ah, I’ve visited there. Dublin, and Waterford too, as a matter of fact. I’m sorry to hear that they’ve gone belly-up. I bought some Waterford crystal while I was there.

CM: They’re having some economic troubles at the moment.

GK: Well, it’s all over the world ““ we’re having it here in the States as well.

CM: Probably worse.

GK: I think it is. The real estate prices are plummeting as I suspect it is in Ireland. But I remember Dublin when it was vibrant. Is it still as vibrant as I remember it?

CM: Well, I haven’t been down in quite a while, truthfully. I’m closer to Belfast.

GK: Of course, you said you were Northern Ireland. What’s the place where you are now called?

CM: I’m outside of a town called Ballymoney.

GK: Ah, sounds wonderfully Irish. There’s a musical quality to Irish accents and names.

CM: Hopefully it’ll be clear enough.

GK: Oh, I understand you.

CM: Good! I suppose I wanted to chat about these new Star Trek Blu-Rays. I wondered how you felt about them going back ““ I know there was controversy with changing the effects ““ so I wondered how you felt about them going back and changing the shows you did?

GK: Oh you mean about going back and adding new technology and effects to the Original Series?

CM: Yep.

GK: Well the wonderful thing is ““ and I’m a preservationist, I believe in preserving history intact ““ but I also enjoy the technological advances which have been made, and with these DVDs you have the advantage of both. You can turn them off and see the trembly walls of the Enterprise and the very artificial looking set, and also the imaginatively done but still quite theatrical looking galaxies. But that has its own charm, and that’s the authentic extent to which we were able to do the effects in the sixties. But I’m just dazzled by some of these advances where we can see the Enterprise literally floating in space and the planets and stars twinkling have dimension to them, and the sound has dimensions to it. So it’s wonderful to have both ““ the authenticity of the original or the bells and whistles and peeps of today’s technology. It boggles the imagination to wonder what they can do in another 40 years with the things which we find amazing today. And that’s in keeping with Star Trek, we keep moving on. Yes, some of the wondrous things which were pure science fiction or medical fiction or political fiction becomes reality.

Gene Roddenberry used to remind us frequently that the Starship Enterprise was a metaphor for Starship Earth, and that the strength of the starship was in its diversity: coming together and working in concert as a team. So what Gene did was cast people who obviously are from different parts of this planet. I obviously was representative of Asia, Uhura was representative of Africa, Kirk was representative of White America. But also, you heard the diversity in Scotty’s Scottish brogue, or Chekov’s Russian accent. That was pure political fiction, because at that time we were frozen in the lock of the Cold War; two great nations, powerful nations, threatening each other with mutual nuclear annihilation. And seeing these people work side by side was political fiction. Forty years from then, we have the ISS up in space, and Russians and Americans working side by side just like on Star Trek with Asians, Africans and Israelis, people of different religions working in unison. And I think it’s that which grabbed audiences back in the sixties, the hopeful vision of the future and the confidence in human kind’s problem solving capacity, our inventive genius, our innovating capacity: at that time we were projecting centuries ahead. And it didn’t even take half a century. Here we are forty years later, with the Starship Enterprise, in fact, real. And at that time the United States was embroiled in fiery riots ““ race riots ““ and today we have, of all amazing things, an African American as the popularly elected President of the United States. The Sixties could have been a very gloomy, pessimistic time when we were just overwhelmed by the turmoil and the destruction and the damage that was happening all around us, but Gene Roddenberry was able to see that glimmer of hope. And today we have the economic collapse that the whole planet is suffering, but there is hope, and that’s what’s going to keep us moving ahead.

CM: I suppose then the DVDs are a rather timely release. It’s a pretty grim time at the minute, a pretty grim decade you could say, so I suppose in that way, do you think it’s a timeless message? Do you think it still applies around the world?

GK: I think absolutely it does. Just there in [Northern] Ireland, we had that outburst of violence there in Belfast, but the masses ““ Catholics and Protestants ““ who were fighting each other, rose up in saying “This is madness. Stop the killing. This is crazy.” And that’s hopeful. Certainly if you compare today’s Ireland with the Ireland of forty years ago there is a dramatic difference.

CM: Yes, indeed. So I suppose this leaves me wondering, and you’ve probably been asked this before, but what would you favourite episode of the show be and why?

GK: From the TV series or the movie?

CM: Well, both.

GK: Well, from the TV series by favourite is Naked Time where I finally got unleashed from that damn console and whipped off my shirt and terrorised the ship. It was so much fun! A grown adult was able to relive his boyhood fantasy. I saw Errol Flynn in the Adventures of Robin Hood I came home and had my mom make me a Robin Hood outfit and my backyard became Sherwood Forest and I became a Let’s-Pretend Robin Hood and the neighbourhood kids became my men in my back yard. And there, twenty years later, there I was, realising my fantasy right in front of the cameras at Paramount Studios. So, you know, dream fantastically and sometimes they come true.

From the movies, my favourite is that same sort of thing. I lobbied throughout the TV series and at the beginning of the movies for an advancement [for Sulu], because Star Trek was supposed to be a meritocracy, yet in the movie series we just kept getting advances in title, from Lieutenant to Lt. Commander to Commander, but I was still at the console saying the same old things: “Aye aye, Sir. Warp Three.” This is illogical! If I’m getting all these advances there’s gotta be an advancement in the responsibilities. And they would deny me, or promise me XY and Z, and the Captaincy never happened. So I had given up by Star Trek V, and then when the script came from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, I was blown away. From the very first page, there’s this brand new Captain on this brand new ship ““ the most powerful ship in Starfleet, the USS Excelsior ““ confidently sipping a cup of tea. And then Praxis explodes and all Hell breaks loose, and the drama of that episode begins. And at that critical point, when the Captain of the Enterprise, our hero, Captain Kirk, is about to get blown to smithereens by the captain of the Klingons played by Christopher Plummer, out of that darkened galaxy sky comes Captain Sulu and the Excelsior, blasting the Klingons apart and saving the life of Captain Kirk. So I really subtitled that movie Captain Sulu to the Rescue.

CM: Very true! Speaking of the Excelsior, someone was chatting to me about this, and they wondered: When you look back and see your episode of Voyager, and the movies, did it become easier as an actor to get into the role, as the sets became more real and advanced than they had been in the Sixties when you had your wobbly walls. Was it, back then, more difficult as an actor to give your best performances?

GK: Yes it was, because we were boldly going, literally, into a brand new world. For instance, if you were doing a contemporary detective series, you know how a door works, you know what a telephone is ““ you know how to dial it. If you were doing a Western, you know how a Colt .45 works, you know how to get on a saddle ““ all the conventions are set, they’re taken for granted. When we started out with Star Trek, everything was brand new. We had to invent things out of thin air. For example, my helm console was already built for me by the set designers, but I had to decide where Warp 1 was gonna be, where Warp 2 was gonna be, where impulse power was. I had to make everything up myself. So by the time we started working on the films, yes there were adjustments to be made since the sets were redesigned, but we had the conventions set: we knew the doors would push open by themselves, so we timed it so that we approached a door in a certain way. Whereas, when we were starting the TV series, it was all brand new, and frequently we just crashed into this door because we couldn’t co-ordinate our movements with the grips who were hiding behind the sets to pull the door open. So yes, there were adjustments to be made when we started doing the movies, but it was a much more comfortable approach. It was the most challenging at the beginning.

CM: I suppose after forty years, some people would ask the question: Do you ever tire of talking about Star Trek and your part in its legacy? Would you rather move on with other things? I know you’ve done Heroes and appeared in I’m A Celebrity… recently. Do you think it’s time to move on?

GK: Well, yes it is. When each project is finished, you move on, and you approach each project with the same energy and enthusiasm that you approached Star Trek with. But to be very honest, my career has been defined by Star Trek. I’ve had more fulfilling, wholly satisfying roles elsewhere, primarily in the theatre. But I’m realistic to know that that’s the show I’m going to be remembered by. And I’m proud that it’s a show like Star Trek which had a philosophy, and a view of the human future which had values that were noble and one that I’m proud to be associated with, as opposed to some detective series with corrupt people, you know, something like that. So I’m proud to be associated with Star Trek. Yes, I’ve been fulfilled by theatre roles like a play that I did called Year of the Dragon, or a play that you might be familiar with, called Equus by Peter Schaffer. About the psychiatrist who works with this crazed boy who blinds half a dozen horses. Are you familiar with it?

CM: Yeah, I am.

GK: I did that play in Los Angeles playing the psychiatrist. Leonard Nimoy did the same role, Professor Dysart in New York. And you know, a role like that is much more dimensioned, and much more challenging for an actor. The theatre for me is much more satisfying as an actor because you are working in front of a living, breathing, throbbing, gasping, laughing and hopefully applauding audience. And the immediate connection you get with that audience is very satisfying, so I’ve had those more fully satisfying experiences in the theatre, but I’m also proud that I’ve had Star Trek as my most visible and shining identity.

CM: I suppose to round off then, if you could change anything about your character of Sulu, would there be anything, and if so, what would it be?

GK: Well, as I said, throughout the series, Starfleet was a meritocracy and I was lobbying for a Captaincy. So if I were to revise anything, I’d like to have seen him get that earlier.

CM: Thank you very much for you time!

GK: My pleasure, good talking to Ireland! Looking forward to visiting again.

CM: Are you coming back again?

GK: Oh, I’d love to.

CM: I hope you do. It is a nice place, isn’t it?

GK: Let’s hope it happens. Thank you very much, good chatting to you.

CM: Thanks very much George.

GK: Take care.

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