Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

In Conversation with... George Takei

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Anybody who grew up after 1960 will recognize George Takei as the face of Hikaru Sulu from Star Trek. But the 71-year-old actor has much more to boast about than his role on that show. Takei has been an active voice in several social justice movements, including advocating for LGBT rights and speaking about the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. Takei also has a large following on social media, where he posts funny pictures to 4.5 million fans on Facebook and even writes amusing Amazon product reviews.

Takei will be in Winnipeg Sept. 27, 28 and 29 to narrate Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's journey to the edge of the universe and beyond. He recently talked to reporter Oliver Sachgau.

FP: What are you most proud of?

TAKEI: I've always considered it my mission in life to fight for social justice and equality. I am a professional actor, but I grew up as a child in U.S. prison camps. Barbed wires, sentry towers, machine-guns pointed at us. At that time, I was too young to understand what it really was about, but as a teenager, I had long, after-dinner conversations with my father, and he told us that the ideals of the United States are shining ideals, but it's a people's democracy and it can be as great as the people can be, but it's also as fallible as people are. And so we have to be actively engaged in the democratic process, holding its feet to the fire to keep it true to its ideals. So the work I've done in that arena, and that I'm still doing in various ways, is what I consider my achievements. And I won't say any one of them is my proudest.

But we have developed a musical on the internment of Japanese-Americans, which opened last fall in San Diego. It's headed to Broadway, but that was our so-called out-of-town tryout, and we were greeted with unanimous critical raves, which resulted in sold-out houses, and as we neared the close of our run, the theatre extended our run another week because of the sold-out houses and the audiences that we had to turn away, and we wound up breaking the 77-year historic record for box office and attendance at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego and we won the San Diego Critic's Circle's Best Musical of 2012 Award. So it bodes well for our opening on Broadway next spring, and so that's what I'm proud of now, but I'm proud of many, many other achievements along those lines.

FP: Throughout all the things you've done, has anything surprised you?

TAKEI: I'm always surprised by the number of people who seem otherwise well-informed who tell me 'I never knew such a thing happened here in the United States,' and it happened in Canada as well. Canadians on the West Coast were summarily rounded up with no due process. When you're arrested, you have a right to know what the charges are, and then you have the right to challenge those charges in a court of law. And there was none of that, and we were put into barbed-wire prison camps in some of the most desolate places in our countries. We were sent to the swamps of Arkansas, and then later transferred to another one in a dry lake bed in northern California near the Oregon border. It's always surprised me that these people who seem to be educated people don't know about that.

FP: Why did you want to tell a story like that through theatre?

TAKEI: I've been going on national speaking tours and also speaking to corporations and governmental agencies as well as universities and high schools. So I've been doing that round. But I discovered that the people who show up at these talks are essentially people -- either knowledgeable or want to know -- are essentially social-justice-orientated people. In order to really get change, you need to reach a broader audience. And the media, movies, television and the stage, as well as the printed word, novels and biographies are various ways of reaching those people. In theatre, certainly a musical commands the largest audience, so we decided to go with a musical.

The critical thing about that is to have a composer-lyricist who is extraordinary, and I met that person in 2008. So that's how we decided to go the route of a Broadway musical, and of course, enormously successful Broadway musicals eventually get made as movies as Les Mis©rables did, and win awards. Who knows where else Les Mis©rables is going to go, or Phantom of the Opera, or Oklahoma.

FP: You were part of a petition to the International Olympic Committee to move the Sochi Olympics out of Russia. What do you hope comes of that?

TAKEI: What is going on in Russia is really horrific. I'm sure you've seen news coverage of, or read about, the assaults on the LGBT Russians, committed by hooligans. That's because they passed a law, very vaguely and broadly worded, saying any kind of propaganda of gays and lesbians that might affect children is criminal. You could be jailed for a maximum of two weeks, and if you're a foreigner, you would be deported. But this law has essentially sent the silent message out to the thugs that they have free reign to assault the gays and lesbians. That is (Russia President Vladimir) Putin's insidious agenda. The economy of Russia has been in the doldrums, and there are a huge number of people who are unemployed, and rather than wallowing in misery and being a potential people of revolt, he wanted to find a scapegoat for them. So he passed this law so they could focus their attention on LGBT people rather than on their own misery. So for the IOC to hold the Winter Olympics in Sochi, sending the athletes and reporters, who might be gay or lesbian, is putting them in danger.

However, the Olympic committee is going to be meeting in Buenos Aires on Sept. 8, 9 and 10, and that is the ideal point to make an issue. We've got a petition saying we've got to take the Olympics out of Sochi and move it to the most logical place where it was last held, eminently successfully, in Vancouver, where they even had a Pride house for LGBT (athletes) to come, relax and celebrate their victories. That's such a direct contrast to what's going on in Russia right now.

FP: What would you like to be known for?

TAKEI: Well, I'm an actor, and I find enormous fulfilment in my work. Most of the people I worked with at the height of my career have retired. I'm still there, plugging away, and I feel very blessed by that. But I'm also a human-rights activist. Again, it's hard to respond to the single most that journalists want. It's difficult to respond because there's so many things I'm proud of and many things I'm ashamed of, which we won't discuss here.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 7, 2013 D3

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