Interview: George Takei

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The Trek legend talks Supah Ninjas – the new Nikelodeon show he’s starring in – JJ Abrams’ vision of Trek , and using the internet for political change

“I’m ensuring my career longevity and fan base,” says George Takei, followed by that familiar booming laugh. “And you know, it’s a funny thing. When I’m doing Star Trek conventions now the original fans are grandparents or parents, and they bring their kids with them. And the parents line up to get Sulu’s autograph, but the kids want Hologramps’s autograph. I hear all these high pitched voices shouting, ‘Hologramps! Hologramps!’”

“Holo-what?” you might be thinking. Welcome to the latest stage in Takei’s colourful career. He’s the Yoda figure in a new children’s show called Supah Ninjas – which starts airing in the UK on Monday 12 September every weekday at 6pm on Nickelodeon. And when we say Yoda, we’re taking second half of Return Of The Jedi Yoda.

“My character actually died,” explains Takei, “and I come back from the dead as a hologram. I mean, on Star Trek , the Vulcans greeted each other with, ‘Live long and prosper,’ but now my character not only prospers but he lives long beyond his life. I continue as a hologram. Completely invulnerable.”

Supah Ninjas is a US show that feels (accents aside) like it could sit comfortably alongside such CBBC fare as MI High and The Sarah Jane Adventures . It’s the story of three teens Mike, Owen and Amanda, who become a somewhat bungling ninja crime fighting team. Takei plays Hologramps, Owen’s deceased granddad and their holographic mentor, confined to a hi-tech dojo beneath Owen’s bedroom. The series also boats some deliciously outlandish villains, in a ’60s Batman vein, including a real “gangster” rapper, and a blubbery man mountain who eats his way out of prison. Takei would love to see some of his old Trek cast mates guesting as the bad guys.

“Oh, I certainly can. I think Leonard [Nimoy] would make a wonderful villain. Although Leonard has announced that he is moving onto a different phase of his life. His current passion is photography. And he is very good. He does everything well. He is meticulous. He is detail oriented. And his photographs are works of art. So he’s announced that he won’t be doing any more Star Trek conventions, or considering any acting again. I’m hoping we may be able to entice him away from that with a juicy villain role.

“I know Bill [Shatner] will be available. Bill will do anything and everything.”

Takei is enjoying the opportunity to work with such a young cast. “It’s so much fun to work with people who are discovering the joys of acting for the first time. And so energised. They really do help revivify you.” But, he points out, playing a hologram does have its drawbacks in the technical sense. On screen in the show, Takei always appears glowing and translucent, but that doesn’t mean he’s stuck in front of a green screen. Instead, the show uses technology Takei has been used to for over four decades.

“I record the scenes with all the other actors, and they have to be careful not to cross between me and the camera. They can’t overlap my image. And then, after we’ve finished the scene they’ve got to run the camera again with no-one on the set for the same length of time. Then they overlay one on the other, and add the gossamer effect. It’s almost the same technique we were doing on Star Trek when we were being beamed anywhere. We ran the camera on the actorless set, and then we stepped in and they superimposed our image on it. So I’ve been doing that for 45 years.”

The mere thought makes him all nostalgic.

“Would you believe that Star Trek is 45 years old? Five more years and we’ll be celebrating our Golden Anniversary.” He rolls the word Golden round his mouth like a fine wine. “I’m looking forward to it. Eagerly.

“Oh, and the interesting thing is,” he continues, “that we’re shooting on the same part of the Paramount lot where I grew up with Star Trek . When I go to work, I park my car, and I walk by the Gene Roddenberry building. You know, Gene never had his office in that building that they named after him. But I see his name right there. But then I walk past stage 31 where the Enterprise set was, and stage 32 where the alien planet sets were built. And then I go to stage 24 where the hi-tech dojo is. It’s my past and my present. And my past was when I was young, and now I’m working with people who are young, and they give me a rebirth.”

He’s also grateful for the boost given to Star Trek by the JJ Abrams film version, noting that the latest Star Trek annual convention in Las Vegas had the biggest attendance yet. He loved the film immensely, even if he wasn’t sure it was the same Star Trek at heart.

“I thought it was a terrific. It wasn’t quite Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek because with the original Star Trek there was always that dimension of commentary, or some kind of relevance to contemporary social or political or environmental issues. But this was a rip roaring good space opera, and it really re-energised audiences’ interest in Star Trek

But what did he think of the new crew?

“I know that they had to cast a younger cast. Because the cast did more running down corridors than we ever did in three seasons. Can you imagine Bill running down corridors today? I can’t.”

There are already two seasons of Supah Ninjas in the can (“because the youngsters are at their prime growth age, we did the first season and the second season consecutively,” he explains) and Takei is waiting to hear about a pick up for a third. But does Hologramps ever escape the dojo, we wonder? Takei is clearly aware of the concept of spoilerphobes: “The writers have found a very clever way to… I’m trying to sound circumspect here – to get my visage outside of the high tech dojo. So you will see my visage outside that one set where you always see me. But I’ll leave it as a big surprise.”

Takei certainly isn’t showing any signs of old age when it comes to leaping into the information age with gusto. The actor is becoming an increasingly hard to avoid presence on YouTube , having embraced its possibilities for communicating a message to a massive audience.

“I’m a political activist,” he says, “ and the big civil rights issue of today is equality for gays, lesbians and bisexual transgender people. But the opposition, the homophobia, is as strong as racism was 50 years ago. You know it’s really ridiculous the position some of these homophobic politicians hold. I found that ridicule and mockery was a much more powerful weapon than teeth gritting anger or intense argumentativeness. So I’ve been using the internet for that purpose.”

One of his most high profile and successful on-line campaign so far was his “It’s Okay To Be Takei” video.

“One of the outrageous acts by one of our State senates, the State of Tennessee – which has a whole spectrum of political beliefs, and the homophobic politicians are a significant force there – was passing a bill criminalising teachers who use the word gay or homosexual. We have the First Amendment, the freedom of speech, and to gag anyone is unconstitutional. But teachers especially, because teachers are in contact with middle and high school students who are beginning to question their sexual orientation, or effeminate boys who are getting bullied. It becomes a very important issue for educators to address.

“Criminalising them and punishing them with 30 days in jail is outrageous and ridiculous. And I pointed out how ridiculous that was by offering my name as a replacement – because Takei rhymes with gay, so if people want to use my name as a substitute to address the issue, they’re more than welcome. So they can talk about going on a Takei Pride march. And that has gone viral and really caught on.

“And certainly the politicians in the Tennessee State senate have heard it and they’ve been very silent since then. We want to nip that issue in the bud because the Senate may have passed it, but it has yet to be passed by the Assembly. We want to make sure it doesn’t get anywhere beyond the Senate. And I think we’ve succeeded.”

He’s also been using humour in another series of YouTube videos for another end.

“The other ulterior motive I have with some of my jokey ‘Public Service Annoncements’ is that I have been working for the past three years with an enormously gifted composer lyricist on a Broadway musical based on the internment of Japanese Americans. Many people aren’t aware of this, but during the Second World War, Americans of Japanese ancestry were summarily rounded up, with no charges, no trials, with no due process, simply because we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbour. It was one of the most unconstitutional acts of our Government, and a very dark and embarrassing chapter of American history.

“And because it is an embarrassing chapter, our history books are rather mute on it so we founded a museum to tell the story. We feel that it’s very important in a healthy democracy to learn from our mistakes and if we cover up our mistakes then the prospect of repeating the mistake becomes great.

“So we’ve been developing this musical for Broadway. We open regionally first, next summer in San Diego, and then from there we take it to Broadway. But we want to get the word out on that musical, which we have entitled Allegiance . And so by my – in quotes – auditioning for Spider-Man or Sister Act , we slip in a little bit about how we’re coming at you with Allegiance . So that was the ulterior motive with some of those more comic clips on YouTube .

“I’m having fun and achieving an objective,” he sums up. And that’s as damned good a way to lead a life as we can think of.

Watch George Takei in brand new Supah Ninjas from Monday 12th September every weekday at 6pm on Nickelodeon.

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Go to the next page to see a clip of the show (sadly Georgeless, but it gives you a flavour…)

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