Who is George Takei? As filmmaker Jennifer Kroot explores in her most recent documentary, To Be Takei, there's no easy answer. Best known for playing Hikaru Sulu on the original Star Trek series, the Los Angeles-born Takei, now 77, is also a vocal activist for LGBTQ and human rights. He also, as his astronomically popular Facebook page proves, really loves a good cat meme.
Over the phone from San Francisco, Kroot talked about what it was like to paint a portrait of this far from average celebrity.
Do you consider yourself a Trekkie?
Yes, of course! I grew up watching the original series in reruns. Initially, I came to love the show for its theatricality and camp elements, and then began to love it more when I discovered it was also political.
You interview the likes of original Star Trek stars William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and Nichelle Nichols. Were you ever star-struck while making this documentary?
Some people have joked that I just made this film so that I could meet all these people – and maybe that's partly true. But I was star-struck every time I saw George for a while, as he has such a presence when he walks into a room. I'm more of a Spock fan than a Kirk fan, so I was really thrilled to meet Leonard Nimoy. With William Shatner, I had a very short amount of time with him, and he just really feels like a star.
Your last doc, It Came from Kuchar, also focused on queer issues. What draws you to this topic?
I'm a straight woman, and I generally don't like to mention that as it shouldn't really matter, but I find "traditional" gender roles are often limiting, misogynistic and really boring. LGBT politics can be very freeing for all people. In To Be Takei, the relationship between George and Brad [his husband and manager] is really important, and I think anyone who's been in a long-term relationship can relate to that kind of closeness – and bickering!
When did you decide to make a film about George?
In 2005, George came out publicly and he seemed so honest and sincere in all his appearances. Then I read his autobiography, which he wrote before he came out, and it focused on his experience being imprisoned in Japanese-American internment camps during World War II. I just couldn't get my head around how he went through that experience, went on to become a massive pop phenomenon, and then decided to come out later in life. I became compelled to connect the dots.
George is clearly very aware of the camera. Were there issues capturing authentic moments because of this?
It's not that he's guarded, but he's just so used to the camera. So I just kept filming until he was exhausted! We also took a more cinéma-vérité approach at times, so after a while he just forgot the camera was there. If you just start following people, they can't keep it together forever.
George's popularity reaches far beyond Star Trek. Why have so many people embraced him?
I think about this a lot, and it's hard to put a finger on, but I'm pretty sure it's a combination of his smart humour, honesty and activism. People really think of him as a friend. He's also probably the most accepted outsider ever, and people really warm up to that. I bet even really right-wing people enjoy his Facebook page, because it's so funny.
Who was the best Starfleet Captain and why?
Oh my God, that's hard! But it has to be Captain Sulu, because while commanding the Excelsior [in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country] he saves the Enterprise.
To Be Takei opens Friday at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox (tiff.net).
This interview has been condensed and edited.