EXCLUSIVE: George Takei on Trek fans, Internet fame and steering the Enterprise

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Feb 5, 2014, 11:50 AM EST

George Takei is known to most of us as Star Trek's Lt. Hikaru Sulu, the senior helmsman of the Enterprise, and later the captain of the Excelsior. But to his almost 6 million Facebook followers and his 1 million Twitter followers (not to mention the followers of his budding YouTube channel), he's an Internet touchstone and tastemaker.

How did he warp his way from there to here? We talked to George about his career as an actor and -- oh, my -- Internet wit. 

How important was your role in Star Trek?

Up until Star Trek, most depictions of Asian and Asian-Americans on film and television were one-dimensional stereotypes, and rather unattractive stereotypes at that. The comic buffoon. The servile, silent servant. The evil, cutthroat villain. For the first time they saw an Asian as part of a leadership team on a futuristic starship -- particularly because, back then, they had this stereotype of Asians being bad drivers.

Sulu was the best helmsmen in Starfleet. That put to rest that stereotype.

Particularly, Asian-American sci-fi fans came up to me and said they were very touched and excited to see me on Star Trek.

As an actor playing a helmsman, did you have specific controls for the ship mapped out in your head?

I had specific [actions] for warp one, warp two, warp three ... you have to personalize the set around you, as well as the character you're playing. I had to believe in my console. To save us, and to do my job to the best of my ability, I had to know where warp three was.

Our viewers are very observant, and they will let you know when you're a little off week after week. If they saw me pushing [a button] at warp ten, and I'm pushing that same button when I'm told to do warp five, I'm faking it.

Did you meet John Cho prior to the making of the Star Trek reboot? 

I am the chairman of the board of governers of the East West Players, the oldest minority theater company in the United States ... and John Cho had done many plays for the East West Players. I told Brad [Takei, née Altman] he's a good-looking guy, he's very talented, he's going to be making some noise in the industry, and he started working quite regularly.

But when he got cast as Sulu for the reboot, he was very anxious about the role itself and also about Star Trek fandom. He called me to have lunch with him, and I was more than happy to do that.

Did you impart any Sulu-based advice?

I reassured [Cho] and said, "The Star Trek fans are an amazing group. When you go to a convention, you will get an idea of how to deal with them. You are a good actor. Be confident of your talent." I said it wouldn't be long before I would be known as the old guy who played John Cho's part. And I think he's doing a great job.

There's a dearth of leading roles being offered to men of Asian descent in Hollywood. Why do you think this is, and what will it take to change it?

Someone as gifted and charismatic as Bruce Lee had to go to Hong Kong to play lead roles. Here in Hollywood, he was the chauffer or the martial arts teacher, but never the lead role. Leading roles are very important, because stories, whether told on the big screen or small screen, or the tiny screen -- iPhones -- are told from the vantage point of the lead character.

That comes about when [actors] become bankable, and they become bankable when you have the opportunity to prove you have an audience following. It's that opportunity that's missing right now. I think bankable Asian actors can be developed ... leading men who can tell the story from the Asian-American viewpoint.

Leading men? What about women?

It's starting to happen with women. Lucy Liu has the second lead in [Elementary]. [Asian] women are starting to get that opportunity, but men have not.

Do you think your role in Star Trek has influenced the roles you're getting, for example, your role in the (recently released on DVD) movie Free Birds?

Star Trek is a sci-fi series, and in Free Birds I played the voice of a time machine, so yes, most definitely, my popularity from Star Trek has impacted my opportunity to be in Free Birds.

Do you think you've been typecast as a sci-fi actor?

No. Well, right now I'm doing a three-episode role in The Neighbors. I did one last season, and they're bringing me back for three more episodes, playing the grandfather. That is sci-fi. Well, Heroes too. That definitely has sci-fi aspects. The Big Bang Theory, which I did, is a geeky, nerdy show.

I was going to say no, not at all. But when you stop to think about it, they all have sci-fi. But Allegiance, [a musical] that is going to be opening on Broadway in the fall season -- that's not sci-fi.

With a Klout score of 92, you're one of the most influential voices on the Internet. How did you become Internet famous?

A little background to my social media activity:

We developed a musical on the internment of Japanese Americans, Allegiance, raising the awareness of that dark chapter of American history where innocent American citizens, simply because they looked like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor, were put into barbed-wire prison camps. It's something Americans should know about, and yet so many people are totally uninformed on. But the important thing is, it's part of American history, and Americans should know how fragile our democracy can be. It's been my mission in life to raise that awareness.

The most effective way of reaching people is by emotion, and the most cost-effective way to [build an audience] was through social media. But my social media base is made up of sci-fi geeks and nerds. So how I could grow that? I discovered through trial and error that humor is a thing that gets a lot of people to like you by tweets and Facebook posts. So I started saying a lot of humorous things. Or people would send me memes that I thought were amusing, and I would share it and add my comments on it. 

Once the base had grown, I started introducing the issue of equality for the LGBT community, and as you know, there's an overlap of sci-fi geeks and nerds and the LGBT community. Then my base exploded. 

So I started introducing the subject of the internment, and once that was done and people were informed … when we opened in San Diego, we wound up with a series of sold-out houses. The Old Globe Theater ... extended our run. When we finally closed, we had broken every box-office and attendance record in the 77-year history of the Old Globe Theater. So that's how my social media [experience] began.

Didn't it begin earlier when you made the Tim Hardaway video?

The public service announcement. That was on YouTube. I've never met [Hardaway], but he's apologized [for saying], "I'm homophobic." He's even become an ally. Humor can win people over. The goal is not to divide but to embrace and get them to see the light. 

Final question: What's the best piece of Star Trek memorabilia that you own?

Gene Roddenberry gave me a wonderful gift: My uniform when I played Captain Sulu. Again, that was another benchmark, for me to be playing a leadership position, the captain of the starship Excelsior.

It was just in my closet sitting there, and I figured I needed to share it with more people, so I donated it to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. I happened to be chairman of the board at that time, and I'm still on the board of trustees.

Is this your way of saying it doesn't fit?

You had to ask that, that coup de grâce. No, I couldn't fit into it anymore.

But I work hard maintaining myself. I did my mile, and I did my two sets of 50 sit-ups and 100 pushups this morning.

Oh my!

 George Takei's latest film, Free Birds, was released on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital HD on Feb. 4, 2014.