I’m meeting Star Trek legend George Takei in Charing Cross Theatre’s bar. The 85-year-old is bang on time, carrying a takeaway cup of green tea: “ Oh, I never thought- I should’ve got you one,” he tells me. We’ve a ton of ground to cover in a few minutes but we have to start with George as a 5-year-old in California.
In World War II, the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbour, and Pres Roosevelt orders all Japanese/American citizens to be rounded up and put behind barbed wire. George tells me: “ there was a loud knock on our front door and a soldier standing there with a rifle fitted with a bayonet – it’s seared into my memory”.
And that dreadful internment for the war’s duration is why George is in London – starring in George Takei’s Allegiance, a musical based on his experience of the camps. But what George also remembers is the togetherness of the Japanese families and “it was more of an adventure for my brother and me. I didn’t understand then the outrage and humiliation my parents were feeling”.
See the show to get the full horror story but we have to move on. I wondered how he got into acting. “My mother said I was a performer – even as a baby. Then I used to entertain my parents’ guests – it gave me a connection, a control over them (the audience)”.
His first paid acting job was dubbing English dialogue onto cheap Japanese monster films. But his father , who was in real estate, wanted him to be an architect. When George finally told them he wanted to go to the famous Actors’ Studio in New York, his father compromised : if he went to nearby Berkeley and studied theatre arts for a diploma, he would support him, but if George insisted on going to New York, he would go it alone. George chose Berkeley. Still a 17-year-old student there, he was spotted by a Warner Brothers casting executive and put in his first feature film – Ice Palace – ending up in Alaska on location opposite Richard Burton.
Further guest appearances followed in TV series like Hawaiian Eye and 77 Sunset Strip. Having got his degree and a Masters to follow, the call came to test for a tv pilot. If it came off, George thought, it would be steady employment. Little did he realise it would become the blockbuster Star Trek. He describes its creator Gene Roddenberry as “ a visionary. It was the 1960’s, a turbulent time in America over civil rights and the Vietnam war. Gene saw this frightening time for democracy and that none of it was reflected on tv. He found a way to deal with the controversy by putting it 300 years in the future – with a spaceship as a metaphor for Earth”.
George points out that the show’s diversity of races and genders in its cast was its importance. “ it was a strong visual metaphor hidden inside science fiction and it was at the core of what we all felt”. I was curious how Allegiance came to the stage. George recalls: “ the story of the camps had always been in my head and I had spoken about it, and still do”.
But a chance meeting on two consecutive nights in theatre audiences with the eventual creators led to their interest in making the show. They had seen George physically moved by the song “ Useless”, at a performance of the musical In The Heights, which had somehow triggered those dreadful childhood memories.
George, who had inherited political activism from his father, but was still in the closet over his sexuality, was catapulted into Queer activism by Gov Schwarzenegger’s 2005 attempts to block a Marriage Equality Bill in the Californian legislature. “ I had stayed in the closet to protect my career. I was an ethic minority actor, where opportunities were limited”. Not only did he speak out but he and husband Brad were the first same-sex couple to get married in the State in 2008.
And we move on again: a fact you probably don’t know is that George starred in panto at Brighton Dome in 1993/4 as the villainous Mirror Master in Snow White, and he still has a love for the city.
Our interview is winding down, I’m told. What advice would he give to a young George? “ Be true to yourself. I respect my decisions throughout my life. I dealt with the realities of them as they came along. I didn’t listen to old guys like me with wisdom”.
Finally, now it’s possible, would he like to go for real to the edge of space? “ Brad and I have done it, on a zero-gravity flight. it was a sensational feeling. The G force presses down on you, then suddenly your legs and your whole body are floating in the air”.
George, still boldly going where few have gone before.
George Takei’s Allegiance is at the Charing Cross Theatre until April 8. Tickets charingcrosstheatre.co.uk
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