The motivation for George Takei's diverse and thrilling career has been fuelled by one horrific event. With his acting, including his star-making role on Star Trek; his later-in-life passion project, the musical Allegiance; and even his jokey social-media presence, Takei has been fired up, in one way or another, by the internment he and his family were forced into in 1942, a few weeks after his fifth birthday.
"My parents got my siblings and me up very early, dressed us hurriedly. My brother and I were in the living room looking out the front window and we saw two soldiers marching up our driveway, bayonets at the end of their rifles. [They] stomped up the front porch, banged on the door, and my father answered it, literally at gunpoint. We were ordered out of our home," Takei, in his unmistakeable mellifluous voice, explains during a lengthy interview this week in his hotel room. He was performing his one-man show in Vancouver – a city where many Japanese Canadians were also forced out of their homes during the Second World War and into internment camps.
"My father gave us small pieces of luggage, my brother and me, and we went out and stood in the driveway and waited for our mother to come out," he continues, sitting straight-backed on the suite's couch. "And when she finally came out, she had our baby sister, not even one yet, in one arm, a great big duffle bag in the other, and tears were rolling down her cheeks. A child never forgets a scene like that. I may have been five years old, but that's burned into my memory.
"What had we done? We were innocent, other than looking like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor."
Takei's parents told the kids that they were going for a long vacation to a place called Arkansas. Later, they were transferred to a dusty camp in Northern California.
"We started school every morning with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag," he recalls. "I could see the barbed-wire fence and the sentry tower right outside the schoolhouse window as I recited the words 'with liberty and justice for all.' Irony which I didn't understand."
Takei – named for King George VI – was nine when they were finally released. "The most traumatic part of the whole experience was coming home," he explains. "Because hatred was still intense. People wouldn't hire us. They wouldn't give us a place to sleep. We were penniless." Forced to live in L.A.'s Skid Row, the family was walking on the sidewalk when a drunk man came staggering toward them, fell down and threw up. "And my baby sister, who was now five years old, shrieked and said 'mama, let's go back home.'" The internment camps were the only home she had known. The years in the camps, the humiliation of the release, and the terrible pain his family suffered – his father in particular – became a motivating factor in Takei's life.
His father, who went into real estate, dreamed of starting a business with his son, so George enrolled at University of California, Berkeley, to study architecture. But after two years, he could no longer ignore his true passion: He told his dad he wanted to be an actor.
But there was something else behind this career choice.
"It was the stereotypes that had been sold to the general public by the media – movies, television, stage – that made it possible for that kind of [anti-Japanese] hysteria to grow," says Takei, now 77. "We were either cruel villains or bumbling buffoons … or the silent, inscrutable servant, sometimes a spy. And these were the images that many Asian Americans rented their faces out to … to make the stereotypes credible. And it was that that made it possible for us to be imprisoned so easily. So I told my father, 'It's these stereotypes, and daddy, I'm going to go in and change it.' The arrogance of youth," he says, laughing. "But I was serious at that time."
His father agreed to subsidize his acting education, as long as he went to UCLA rather than The Actors Studio in New York. And it was at UCLA where Takei was first discovered by a casting director, which led to his first film role. And he ultimately did help challenge media stereotypes, with his role as Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek – a series that demonstrated ahead-of-its-time thinking on diversity.
In 2009, chance meetings two nights in a row at two different theatres in New York led to the project that is truly the culmination of Takei's life and family experiences. On both nights, he and his husband, Brad, were seated close to composer Jay Kuo and producer Lorenzo Thione, whom they previously did not know. That second show was the musical In the Heights and Takei was "bawling" at the end of the first act. The song Inutil (Useless), sung by a father who is unable to pay for his daughter's education, reminded Takei of his own dad. When Kuo inquired about Takei's tears, out came the internment story. The next night they had dinner and discussed the possibility of Takei's experiences inspiring a musical. Two weeks later, Kuo sent Takei a song he called Allegiance.
"And there I was at my computer, bawling away again," says Takei.
Wanting to promote the musical as it was being developed, and raise awareness about the internment of Japanese Americans (and Japanese Canadians) during the Second World War, Takei took to social media. He grew his base of "sci-fi geeks and nerds" by sharing funny stuff. "Once it got to a certain size, I started talking about the internment," he says. He also addresses other social justice issues, including LGBT rights. (Takei came out in 2005 and married the former Brad Altman, now Brad Takei, whom he met at an L.A. running club, in September, 2008.) Last week, Takei's Facebook page topped 8-million "likes."
In 2012, Allegiance, written by Kuo (composer/lyricist) and Thione (who wrote the book and also produces), had its world premiere at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. Next year, it's headed to Broadway. (The opening date is undetermined; they're waiting on a theatre.)
With this project, Takei takes on the role of a lifetime – not just the two parts he plays in the show, but as a voice for the people like his father (who died in 1979) who suffered such injustice. He says he's shocked how many Americans are unaware of the event – especially in the east. "On the west coast they saw us being taken away." So he has this job to do. "I've been blessed – the success I've enjoyed with Star Trek. But together with that comes a responsibility. My voice now has a megaphone," he says. "And I have a responsibility to use it."