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To be Mr. Sulu

Star Trek’s George Takei and husband Brad share their lives on the big screen for all to see

 At 76 years old, George Takei has managed an impressive transition from being known best for playing Sulu in the original Star Trek television series and movies to becoming a poster boy for LGBT rights and a considerable internet sensation (he has nearly six million Facebook followers) thanks to his very popular memes.

And now, Takei has his very own documentary (screening at Hot Docs this month) to highlight that journey (among other things) and continue to confirm how endearing a figure he really is.

Jennifer Kroot’s To Be Takei follows Takei and his husband, Brad, as they navigate their lives together in Los Angeles, intermittently stepping back to discuss Takei being forced into Japanese-American internment camps as a child, his time on Star Trek and how he challenged the status quo for Asian actors. It’s a lovely little movie that George and Brad Takei were clearly quite proud of when they sat down to discuss it.

So what was the genesis of this project? Why did you decide that this was something that you wanted to do?
George Takei: Well, the genesis was Jennifer [Kroot, the film’s director], coming to us and telling us that she would like to do a documentary about it. We had to think long and hard and do a little vetting of Jennifer, but we also thought it was a wonderful and timely opportunity. We’d been in the struggle for equality for the LGBT community, and here was the opportunity to tell that story in the context of our lives. When she approached us it was 2010; it seemed like the kind of progress we were making for equality was accelerating. And to chronicle this three-year period would be so important and maybe historic. And indeed it was. Last year, in June, history happened. But at the same time we were also developing a musical on the internment of Japanese- Americans, which I experienced as a child, and so here we had a musical, bound for Broadway, and to have that recorded, from its genesis, all the way to, well, we’re opening on Broadway this year. So that’s why we embraced this opportunity.

Brad Takei: And by seeing a same-sex couple in ordinary situations, it might make people think twice about if they have, you know, questions about acceptance of LGBT equality; it’s one way to just say that, ‘We’re members of your family and gay people are like anybody else.’ That was one of the underlying themes that Jennifer captured in the film.

You both appeared excep-tionally natural throughout the whole film with a camera there. How did the two of you function that way?
BT:
Well, Jennifer created that comfort zone for us because she just allowed us to be ourselves, and I just sort of ignored the camera and went on with my life. What we did importantly is give Jennifer 100 per cent editorial control of the documentary. Meaning, when the final cut was world-premiered at Sundance, George and I had never seen it. And so, it’s an example of the trust that we put in the filmmaker; we felt that if she’s going for the truth, then let the chips fall where they may, and that’s what happened.

GT: And I’m an actor. I’m used to being natural in front of the camera. Except in this case, unlike my professional naturalness, I wasn’t paid.

I assume it’s one thing when you’re filming it, but then another to see it on the big screen with a whole bunch of people who are laughing and cheering and getting involved in your lives. What was that experience like?
GT: Exhilarating. Fantastic. We were on pins and needles…. There’s nothing more deadly, more frightening, terrorizing, than to be caught on stage, and you say something funny that you’re expecting to get a laugh from, and nothing happens, dead silence… But it was explosive laughter. That’s the wonderful communal thing about seeing a film.

One thing I was curious about is the film talks a lot about your resistance to coming out publicly for quite some time. What would your advice be to people now— actors or public figures who are gay that maybe feel the same as you did?
GT: The climate has changed dramatically, from black to white. I mean it’s that dramatic. And I think our coming out contributes to the acceleration of that transition. But, you know, it’s a personal decision, so I don’t tell anyone to do what they are reticent about doing. But it is a contribution to making this a better society.

BT: And in your case, when you came out, what happened?

GT: Oh yeah, in my case, there was a stimulus. It was angry, rage, blood-boiling.

BT: Oh, I didn’t mean that. I meant… about your career. I was throwing it to George so that he would say, when he publicly came out as a gay American in 2005, ultimately it was the best career move he ever made. But your question was about closeted celebrities or whatever.

GT: Wait, what did you say his question was?

BT: Well, he was trying to find out what your advice would be to people in the closet; in your case, that your career can still flourish.

GT: Well, this society is totally different. Yes, absolutely. In fact, one of my regrets is that we didn’t adopt a child when we got together 26 years ago. But we were 26 years younger. Now the climate has changed, and it’s doable, but our bodies are no longer doable. We have friends that are raising beautiful children. Gay couples.

BT: The LGBT audience, in my hyperbolic opinion, is gonna love the film, but that’s almost a given. But we think the documentary is gonna be expanded to a larger audience because of George’s Star Trek fame and social media popularity. It has things for everybody and every time you see it you pick up more wonderful qualities that you didn’t see the first time. We want this to hit America. This isn’t just a pigeon-holed film that should hit our wonderful, our beloved brothers and sisters in the LGBT community. We think it has the potential to reach other fair-minded people.

GT: And here’s a small example: we founded the Japanese-American National Museum in Los Angeles, and we have a lot of volunteers. And one volunteer was apparently having difficulty discussing the issue of homosexuality with his parents. And he said, “Well, George Takei is gay, he’s got a partner.” And his mother said

“Oh, then it’s okay.” So a film like this will get to more parents for when they get into that kind of discussion.

It’s definitely a really universal film.

BT: And we have a relative who’s bringing her 11-year-old to see the film.

GT: My niece.

BT: And that does bring tears to my eyes, just thinking about it, it’s like, woah.

 

OTHER FLICKS TO FLOCK TO AT HOT DOCS

The Case Against 8
Shot over five years, The Case Against 8 offers an incredible inside look at the legal battle behind overturning Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California back in 2008. Directed by Ben Cotner and Ryan White (who won the directing prize at Sundance for the film), it makes for an inspiring and emotional cinematic journey about a moment in history that will and has dramatically changed the legal rights situation for gay and lesbian couples in the US.  

Children 404
The timely topic of LGBT rights in Russia is depicted in Children 404, Askold Kurov and Pavel Loparev’s firsthand account of the impact of Putin’s anti-gay propaganda law on the LGBT youth of the country. The law–which forbids “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors”–has left an estimated 2.5 million LGBT children and teenagers in Russia without support. This film, having its world premiere at Hot Docs, is just a part of their story.

Gardenia: Before The Last Curtain Falls
In 2010, seven aging drag queens and transsexuals (between the ages of 58 and 67) were asked by famed Belgian choreographer Alain Platel to return to the spotlight for a new show titled Gardenia. Their stories are depicted in Thomas Wallner’s wonderfully moving film about finding the courage to try something new in your golden years.

Lady Valor
The Kristin Beck Story
Former US Navy Seal Kristin Beck’s transformative journey to living truthfully as a transgender woman is depicted in Sandrine Orabona and Mark Herzog’s must-see documentary. It’s not always an easy watch–people turn their backs on Beck left and right in heartbreaking fashion. But the manner in which Beck soldiers on in the face of each obstacle makes for a rousing study of an inspiration woman.

Songs For Alexis
Songs For Alexis follows two teenagers, Ryan and Alexis, as they struggle with being different in suburban American. Alexis’ parents severely disapprove of her relationship with Ryan, a transgendered musician, which forces her to choose between her family and the man she loves. A coming of age story unlike anything you’ll see in mainstream narrative cinema, this documentary is as lovely as it gets.

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