‘To Be Takei’ Filmmaker Explores the Life and Many Acts of the ‘Star Trek’ Icon
George Takei has lived so many incarnations, one has to wonder whether, at some point, he wasn’t split into multiple beings by a transporter accident.
At 77, the Star Trek veteran has had quite a journey, from his days as a boy imprisoned with his family in a Japanese-American internment camp to his experience as a young actor breaking the glass ceiling on his way to becoming a sci-fi icon, from his life as a prominent political activist in Southern California to his eventual coming out as a gay man in his mid-60s, from his unlikely role as a regular on The Howard Stern Show to becoming a wickedly witty social-media superstar, and from finding the love of his life in husband Brad Altman to bringing his family’s story to stage in the acclaimed musical Allegiance.
Director Jennifer Kroot’s new documentary To Be Takei sheds a little light on that life and increasingly varied career, following the actor, cinéma vérité-style, during a crucial moment when an assortment of new opportunities began to open to him.
The filmmaker, who earned praise for her 2009 documentary It Came From Kuchar about twin underground filmmakers George and Mike Kuchar, spoke with Spinoff Online about her own journey in Takei’s orbit.
Spinoff Online: Tell me about your relationship with George Takei prior to getting this project off the ground, and what prompted you to take this film on.
Jennifer Kroot: Yeah, my prior relationship with him was a fan. I grew up watching reruns of Star Trek, the original series, and always loved it – still love it – and then the original movies as well, [but] didn’t exactly follow those actors or anything. And I had been to a couple of Star Trek conventions, in my life – you know, not obsessed, but just a pretty serious fan. Then, in 2005, when George decided to come out publicly I just became really intrigued by his voice in LGBT activism. I just really thought he was so charming and he had the ability to laugh at himself, and every time he was on the radio or on a news show giving that perspective or talking about issues, I just wanted to stop what I was doing and listen. I became a fan of George Takei the person. And then was inspired to read his autobiography, which was from the early ‘90s, so it was out before he was, but it focused more on his experience being imprisoned in internment camps. While that made sense, historically, logically, I really had a hard time imagining beloved Mr. Sulu imprisoned by the United States government at age 5. And just couldn’t believe the obstacles that this man had faced, and then the choice to come out at age 68 and then a few years later marry his husband, and so I was a fan for a while of just him.
It was when I read his autobiography that I found a way to reach out to his agent. I wrote a compelling letter, just saying, “Would George be interested in a documentary, at all?” And fortunately for me, his agent was a fan of my previous film, It Came From Kuchar, and set up a meeting, between me and George and his husband Brad, who’s also his business manager. We kind of clicked, I think, personality-wise, and then just had a long series of talks, so I really didn’t know George at all, except for, I was a fan. And I honestly always tried to pretend that I was less of a Star Trek fan than I was, and occasionally it came out: If we were filming and I was really tired at the end of the day, and I’d say, you know, “What was it like in ‘The Enemy Within’ when you were doing this or this,” and he’d be like, ‘Oh, you really are a fan.’ He’s like, ‘I don’t remember that one.’ Because I think he gets inundated by that a lot. You know, it wasn’t negative, but I think I just didn’t want to seem like too much of a fan and be annoying – although he doesn’t ever seem to be annoyed by that.
Tell me who you sort of thought the George you were going to get was, and then the George you got in the process of discovery while making the film.
In a lot of ways with George, what you see is what you get. I mean, he really is that positive, and he’s just always out there trying to make our democracy better, if he’s not acting or something. He’s a busy guy and he got consistently busier while I was doing this project, because I approached him before he was on Facebook, and I thought, “Oh, his career is so reignited!” But I had no idea that it would just accelerate into this Facebook insanity, that’s really reignited even further, and then with his musical [Allegiance] and everything. So what you see is kind of what you get: he’s a really positive, busy guy; but on the other hand, what I didn’t know and what was an interesting and fun surprise was really his relationship with Brad and the dynamics there and their closeness and compatibility and comfort level of being able to bicker and work together and be such a funny, quirky long-term couple, that I think anyone in a long-term relationship, or who’s had one, can really recognize and relate to. I think he’s just a really honest person. I mean, maybe there’s nothing left to hide. He was closeted for so long, and he came out. He had this horrible experience being in prison. He just doesn’t have anything left to hide. And he’s on Howard Stern talking about whatever things he may or may not have done [sexually]. And it’s just like, everybody still loves him! So he’s just quite honest, which is pretty unusual – and especially for a celebrity, probably.
Tell me about capturing the relationship with George and Brad on camera. It’s such a fascinating thing to watch and it does seem like George is willing to put everything out there, whereas Brad’s a little bit more tentative about having every little bickering session and personal detail surfacing in the midst of this.
Yeah, and honestly, probably most people would feel more like Brad. It’s normal, after all, to not want to share your private moments. It was initially maybe a little uncomfortable, because I’m like, “What’s going on here? Brad’s telling me to cut.” I’m like, “Can I work with this?” And then I realized, “Well, wait – this is kind of who Brad is.” And when I started seeing the footage, there was something really compelling about it and something really human about Brad and his discomfort. And it just adds to how Brad is in this public life with George, and, yeah, the film is really more about George, but Brad is such a big part of George’s life that he’s got a big supporting role in this, so it just made sense to really capture them together. And Brad was agreeable to filming it, but he would just voice his discomfort about it, and over time he really opened up a lot, but still would occasionally try to control things, and I just got used to it. So it started out more uncomfortable, but then just sort of felt like, “Well, I’m not going to tell him how to be,” like, “Don’t acknowledge the camera,” or something. And the way he was doing it was interesting. He has an interesting sense of how he’s relating to the camera, and that makes sense for him. And you know, there is a camera following him around. It is cinéma vérité, you could never have cinéma vérité without a camera – that’s the thing. So, I think it’s almost more real that he’s acknowledging, from time to time, his discomfort with being followed, and then it reminds you “Oh yeah, here’s someone who’s married to this guy who just obviously wishes the camera was on all the time, and he has to put up with it.” So I think that became interesting to me.
After observing George and putting the film together, what do you think is the key to George’s ability to continually reinvent himself and expand his horizons, along with his fan base?
I think if you start with the base of being involved as a Star Trek original cast member, you can go pretty far. But obviously he has a real different persona than the other cast members, although I think all of them – even Shatner – are pretty beloved in our society. So I think you start with that and then you just have someone that is honest and really has made a point to be involved with issues in a very honest way – initially about the internment, and he obviously took time to participate in the Redress Movement and maybe we didn’t hear as much about that, but he just kept being active, and then later opened up about being gay and the discomfort of being a closeted actor for so long. And I think it’s that honesty that people just really relate to, and they think, “Oh, wow, here’s someone who really is kind of an outsider who’s then found a way to really be accepted.” I think that resonates with people. And as far as “keeps reinventing himself,” I think it’s just that he continues to be honest in the different venues, and now the venue has expanded to social media and that’s been a new invention, and here he is, known as a Star Trek, science fiction icon – which kind of is perfect for technology – and then he’s honest and has developed this smart humor persona, which is kind of what he’s like, so it makes sense, too. And I think just sharing who he is has really resonated with people. He’s just refreshing. He’s not a divisive person. Sometimes he’ll get complaints on different postings or whatever, but I think it just really resonates, the honesty. He has, really, nothing else to hide. I think everybody feels like some type of outsider in one way or another, and it’s refreshing to see this positive, older guy using all mediums of media to talk.
Give me your take, your final analysis, of the George-William Shatner relationship.
Well, it’s ongoing. They could always make up. I’ve gotta say, I really appreciate that William Shatner was willing to be in the film. I had 10 minutes to interview him, and Brad helped me to schedule that in, and I really appreciate he was willing to do that, because the truth is they don’t particularly like each other. I don’t think either one of them loses a ton of sleep over it, and obviously, they both know it’s a funny media thing. But they don’t like each other. They don’t have lunch together, they don’t call each other, they don’t participate in each other’s projects – except for this one, which was great. I had a brief time with him and it was a very exciting interview, and I think he’s a great sport for just putting out there his perspective. And I think George invited him to the wedding and I think Shatner didn’t go, and he wanted some publicity, so he ended up posting videos about it, which about right at the same time as he was promoting Raw Nerve. So it seems like that was a fairly obvious promotional tactic and everything. So you’ve got to see the film: I think it’s exactly like it’s portrayed.
Howard Stern’s also been a key figure in George’s increasing popularity over the years, and you got to witness that relationship firsthand. Tell me a little bit about your thoughts on their connection.
Well, I think it’s an amazing connection, and I think it’s so funny. Howard Stern, obviously, is an incredibly popular figure. He’s got like 12 million listeners a day – but he’s kind of a divisive person: A lot of people do not like him; a lot of people don’t like politically incorrect, outrageous, super-sexed, frat-boy-sometimes humor content. But other people love it and then that seems very contrary to who George is. He seems very inclusive, like he would get along with everybody – everybody loves him – and so it’s a really funny friendship, and also a working relationship. Howard and his people invited George to be the official announcer and wanted him to do that full-time after he came out, and George agreed only to do it part-time, because he didn’t want to move to New York. I’ve found people, pretty liberal people who love George – I live in San Francisco – so people who are just like, “Well, you can’t have Howard Stern in the film! He’s completely a misogynist and homophobic!” And like, “Well, no, he actually isn’t. He’s doing this outrageous show, but you have to listen to what he says.” Like, he wants George on there as a gay voice, as an LGBT voice on the show, which is actually very progressive and gets George to such a broad audience and a whole new group of fans. I’m really proud to have made a film that ranges from The Howard Stern Show to the internment of Japanese-Americans. I just think that’s a real complex range of feelings and topics that’s hard to bridge. So to me I think it’s a really interesting: “Wow, Star Trek is this one thing, and then Howard Stern is this whole other sort of big cult of people that love this type of entertainment, and for George to have become prominent in that is, I think really amazing.” And yet he really does credit Howard Stern with the first step in really reigniting his career. It just gave him a much, much bigger audience. And he didn’t like Howard Stern when he first heard him either, but it just started making sense after a while. And now they’re good friends, and he’s on the show for about a month a year, so it’s interesting. And that was actually a very nerve-wracking interview, because I had to do the interview on Howard Stern’s show. And so for that three weeks before that – I knew a little about Howard Stern, but I didn’t want to be humiliated in front of 12 million people live, so I just learned everything I could and tried to come up with the best questions for him and it ended up working out really well, but it was nerve-wracking ahead of time. But he’s been very supportive of this film, and I very much appreciate that.
Just to wrap up, is this George’s third act? Or is this still his second act? Is there still a lot more to come with him?
Right. Do you only get three acts, or is it like a cat? He gets six more. I don’t know. You know, it’s like Joan Rivers, or something: He’s just going to keep going. I just don’t underestimate him. I mean, next, he’ll have a Broadway career, so I guess I would have to say that it would be the second act. Maybe there’s more than three acts, anyway – I don’t know. So I just wouldn’t underestimate that he’s going to retire at any time soon. Who knows what they’ll invent next that he can conquer?
To Be Takei is playing in select cities and will be available beginning Friday on VOD platforms and iTunes.