You do encounter a lot of people who... I mean, Star Trek is 40 years old now.
That's the amazing thing. As I said with young people on GLBT issues, Star Trek's been around for 40 years and, when we were first on TV, it was high school and college kids that discovered Star Trek, you know? And those people have now gone on to various careers and professions and become very successful. And they're some of our biggest supporters.
For example, Microsoft's Paul Allen, who's now a billionaire, he was a Star Trek fan when he was in college. So he built, with his billions, a Sci-Fi museum in Seattle, and Star Trek plays a big part in it. The guy who directed Mission Impossible 3, JJ Abrams, he's a Star Trek fan. And after Mission Impossible 3 brought in hundreds of millions of dollars, he went up to Paramount and said... you know, Paramount had announced they were not going to do any more Star Trek movies because the tenth movie was a box office disaster. But then, JJ Abrams walked up to the powers that be at Paramount and said for my next picture, I'd like to direct Star Trek. And when they heard JJ Abrams said that, they clicked their heels and they said, 'Yes, sir.' So, there you are.
Star Trek fans, who were young, have now become influential people in the economy, in society, in politics, in academia, and Star Trek is enjoying this kind of continued popularity and life because of the fans that have now become prominent. And it's the same thing with gay and lesbian issues here. The young people are going to become the voters and then become the powers-that-be, and I know the history of America.
When I think about my own life as a child.. you know, I looked out at the world when I was a boy from behind the barbed wire fence of American interment camps. American interment camps. You know, we were Americans. My mother was born in Sacramento. My father was a San Franciscan. I was born here in Los Angeles. But we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor and America was in war hysteria. President Roosevelt signed the bill that ordered all Japanese Americans on the west coast of the United States be summarily rounded up with no charges, no trials, no due process, and put into ten barbed wire interment camps in some of the most hellish places in this country. We were sent to the hot, steamy swamps of Arkansas. There were also camps on the blistering hot desert of Arizona. I mean, can you imagine living in those black tarpaper barracks in the desert or in the swamps of southern Arkansas?
I still remember that scary day when US soldiers with bayoneted guns came to the front door of our home and ordered us out. They put us on a train and transported us two-thirds of the way across the country to Arkansas. I mean, this happened in the United States and here I am today now, a popular actor. The world changes. I came from a barbed wire interment camp to enjoying this kind of national and international popularity as an actor, a calling that is very dependent on public popularity. So, I know that the world changes and America is a change agent.
Think about the great men who founded the United States, who articulated the great ideals: equality, freedom, we the people. Yet, as great as they were, they kept other human beings as slaves. But over the years, because they struggled for equality through the Jim Crow years, through the years of the civil rights struggle, the descendants of slaves are now legislators in the halls of Congress. Two African Americans have become U.S. Secretaries of State. And one has emerged as a very, real potential president of the United States, Barack Obama. America changes. So when you look at the history of this country in the larger context, I'm optimistic about equality for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender Americans.
One thing I'm curious about is that, a lot of actors when they're primarily known for one role, they come to resent that role. But you seem to embrace the entire experience.
Absolutely! Sulu was a breakthrough role for me personally, but also for Asian Americans. Until then, we were characterized on TV and in movies and on stage in terms of stereotypes. Either as buffoons, or servants, or as the enemy. And it's the same thing with gays and lesbians, we've been cartooned. We've been made into one-dimensional stereotypes. That's why I always point out that gays and lesbians are the whole spectrum of society. My doctor is gay. I've had teachers that were gay, school teachers. There are soldiers that are gay. There are truck drivers, baseball players, professional football players that are gay. So, you know, to stereotype a group of people in these one-dimensional images is very damaging. I know that as a Japanese American who spent time in the years of World War II in prison for no good reason other than the fact that we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. And the same thing is true with gays and lesbians, and that's why we have to humanize ourselves. And that's why I feel the more people who feel confident enough to share their lives wholly and transparently with people will contribute to shattering those stereotypes that people have of us.
(At this point, we started wrapping up and doing some Oasis behind the scenes housekeeping with him, when I inadvertently pronounced his last name as Ta-kai, instead of Ta-kay, despite making sure I had it right before doing the call and saying it properly earlier in the interview. But, his response is worth showcasing my gaffe. So, here goes...)
It's pronounced Ta-Kay. People always want to give the "ei" that Germanic Einstein pronunciation. But it's pronounced the same way as Spanish. Do you speak Spanish?
Well, it's E as in escuela. And I as in iglesia. Takei. And Bill, Bill Shatner, could never get it right. We'd been working together for 40 years, and not just the series but Star Trek conventions and he always... I corrected him time after time. But he would keep calling me George Ta-kai. And I told him, 'Ta-kai means expensive in Japanese. Do you still want to call me that?' And he'd forget that. He's very forgetful. So, at the roast we had of him, I thought 'If I can't get it into his noggin, I'm going to get it on his noggin.' I said, 'Bill,' and I said this in front of the camera and it was telecast, 'Bill, my name is pronounced Takei, like toupee.' (laughs) Because he's been wearing a toupee all his career, even in the TV series. And since then, he's always got the right pronunciation... on the top of his head. (laughs) I can be evil, can't I?
And I said you were all dignified...
Yes! See, I can show you I'm not as dignified as you thought. (laughs)