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George Takei, the Best Driver in the Galaxy

The man who played Mr. Sulu on "Star Trek" talks about stereotypes, William Shatner's gaydar fail, and his new musical on the Japanese internment.

MJ: Sulu never had a romantic attachment on the show, right?

"At that time, there was the horrible stereotype about Asians being bad drivers. I was the best driver in the galaxy!"

GT: You're right. During the first season I lobbied Gene Roddenberry and the directors and the writing staff to beef up the role—well, everybody was doing that, and when you have seven regulars it gets to be very difficult. Gene said, "This is the first season and we really have to strengthen the two leads." But he promised me that in the second season he'd devote more attention to the other characters. He did keep his promise and develop wonderful roles for Sulu. But I got cast during the hiatus in The Green Berets, the John Wayne movie. We ran way over schedule and I couldn't be back in time for the beginning of the second season. Walter Koenig was brought in to essentially say the words that were written for me. I had already memorized them because I was so excited. When I came back I hated Walter sight unseen.

MJ: Did you work it out?

GT: We worked it out. As a matter of fact, we had a shortage of dressing rooms so they asked me to share my dressing room with Walter—a person who had stolen my part! But he turned out to be a really good friend.

MJ: Did you feel a sense of responsibility as the rare Asian face on television?

GT: Yes. Up until the time I was cast in Star Trek, the roles were pretty shallow—thin, stereotyped, one-dimensional roles. I knew this character was a breakthrough role, certainly for me as an individual actor but also for the image of an Asian character: no accent, a member of the elite leadership team. I was supposed to be the best helmsman in the Starfleet, No. 1 graduate in the Starfleet Academy. At that time there was the horrible stereotype about Asians being bad drivers. I was the best driver in the galaxy! So many young Asian Americans came up to me then—and still do today, although they're not that young anymore—to tell me that seeing me on their television screen made them feel so proud. I lobbied to develop the character. I tried to get mentions of my family, to humanize the character, and because of the circumstances—like getting cast in a feature film with John Wayne—that really didn't happen.

MJ: Did you ever feel tokenized?

"We were complicit…We went out there and rented our faces out and played cruel Japanese soldiers or bumbling Chinese waiters."

GT: No, no. My father told me, "Don't do anything that would bring shame to the family." I was always mindful of that. When I told him I wanted to pursue a career as an actor, my father said, "Look at what you see on television at the movies, is that what you want to be doing? Do you want to make a life out of that?" And I said, "Daddy, I'm going to change it."

MJ: I like how you connect your activism to your acting.

GT: It's that image that created the perception that made it easier for the government to incarcerate a whole group of people. At that time, in comic books and radio dramas, we were depicted as cutthroat and coldhearted and cruel—unfeeling—or we were wily or suspicious or the buffoon. That was the general perception of Japanese Americans. We weren't seen as Americans. If someone spoke without an accent, we were exotically Americanized foreigners. My father knew the importance of the image of Asians in the media and how that shapes perceptions. We were complicit in it at that time: We went out there and rented our faces out and played cruel Japanese soldiers or bumbling Chinese waiters.

MJ: Do your Trekkie fans show interest in your political issues?  

GT: I didn't think the internment story would connect with the geek community, but as it turns out it does. They feel like a minority community, so they understand.

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