For 61 years, George Takei has been finding ways to use the arts to connect to people. As an actor, author, and LGBTQ and civil rights activist, Takei has intimately experienced the disparate spectrums of the American experience. As a child, he and his Japanese American family were placed by force in several domestic internment camps until the end of World War II. After, he and his family returned to Los Angeles, where he eventually got a Bachelor's in Theater and a Master of Arts in Theater. In 1965, he was cast as Helmsman (and eventually Captain) Sulu on Star Trek, a role that made the actor a bona fide sci-fi icon.
Now at the age of 83, Takei isn’t slowing down despite the state of our COVID-19 stricken world. To maintain his safety, he’s now leaning into his voice-acting skills for various animated projects. And he’s also returned to the world of book narration. Back in his Trek days, the actor would often narrate the audiobooks of the film novelizations. It’s been a while, but on Sept. 29, he returned to that world by voicing Hugo Award-winning author Ken Liu’s sci-fi stories, Saboteur and Summer Reading, for Serial Box.
Saboteur, originally published in 2014, is a futuristic trucker story, while Summer Reading, originally published in 2012, is a dystopian tale of a robot as the receptacle of our humanity. In reading them, Takei's voice takes on an unexpected Southern twang and then a soft wisdom, respectively. He says finding those characters truly tapped into his abiding love for voice acting.
“I think I was first inspired by actors acting with their voice in the U.S. Japanese concentration camps,” Takei told SYFY WIRE via a recent Zoom conversation. “We had no radios, as anything mechanical and technical was forbidden. The only entertainment we had were occasional movies they showed in the mess halls on a sheet. A movie projector was brought in by armed guards and they showed old Hollywood films that had soundtracks. But some of the old Japanese samurai films had no soundtrack. What came with them were people called ‘Benshi’ or the narrators from Japanese theater. This man had a little table and a young boy to help him with all these sound effect makers like coconut shells or triangles. This man played all of the parts.
“I was more taken by that man sitting with the dim light on his table than with the screen,” Takei continues, after pausing to enthusiastically perform the various voices of the Benshi player, from a deep-voiced Shogun to the feminine trill of a princess. “He embodied so many characters and voices.”
The actor says those magical moments remained with him always and inspired his life-long career as a thespian on stage, screen, and television. And in coming to Liu’s work to read, Takei says it felt like a full-circle moment.
“The most fun part is the preparation,” he says of the process of reading the script of the author’s stories. “You make these discoveries. And you hunt for the voice, and try to see if you have that voice in you. It’s like the Benshi. I’m an actor and I can do it, but the process of trying one voice over another is the fun part.”
Takei says he immediately appreciated the profound themes and characters that Liu’s two stories allowed him to explore. “The two are wonderful compliments to each other," he explains. "Saboteur is about man against technology. Summer Reading is where technology has absorbed all the things that make us human, the essential qualities of compassion, of treasuring the past, and the sharing of the past. These are human qualities that have been absorbed by this robot that is now the caretaker of this derelict, ancient planet. Now, it’s just visited by humans who have lost those essential qualities. They are just tourists. But the robot finds a spark of what makes him humane with a young human life.”
Despite his deep appreciation of Liu’s writing, Takei admits that the project never connected the two in any way. “Ken Liu is so gifted, but I’ve never met him. We’ve never emailed. But he has a fascinating mind," he says. But he hopes his interpretation of the prose brings some respite to listeners looking for an escape from the current global landscape.
And as Star Trek celebrates its 54th year of existence in 2020, Takei is also hopeful that old and new audiences can find some solace and inspiration in the enduring franchise too. “It is a phenomenon that is remarkable,” he says with genuine awe. “We were a failed television show with low ratings. But here we are 54 years later and we’ve given birth to so many spin-off shows and feature films. And it is genuinely optimistic because the 1960s is not unlike where we are right now. The Civil Rights Movement was going on where people demonstrating for equality were being attacked by law enforcement officers with fire hoses and attack dogs. And here we are now with Black Lives Matter, and instead of attack dogs, it’s tear gas. And it used to be soup lines but now it’s lines of cars for food banks. And we have a pandemic.”
Asked if it's been disheartening watching the U.S. repeat many of its terrible mistakes once more in his lifetime, Takei says adamantly, “I am still positive!” and told one more poignant story of his father’s enduring advice.
“When we were incarcerated, my father said resilience is important,” Takei shares. “But it’s not just strength. It’s the ability to find beauty in an ugly situation and to make our own joy and happiness. [The internment] was a horrific experience. My father’s business was destroyed. Their bank account was frozen. I was just a 5-year-old kid when two soldiers with rifles with shiny bayonets stomped up the porch and pounded on the door with their fists. My parents were packing and we were literally forced out by gunpoint.
“But one of my most treasured pieces is a cypress root from [the Rohwer War Relocation Center] in Arkansas,” he continues. “Part of the bayou came under the barbed wire of the camp. To this Southern California kid, it was fascinating that trees grew out of the water. My father waded out and found an interesting cypress root. He sawed it off and boiled it in an abandoned oil drum and peeled the bark off. It’s a beautiful piece of mother nature’s sculpture, this root. We carried it with us from camp to camp. Then we brought it back with us in Los Angeles. And it remained in the living room in the home I grew up."
Takei adds that, like the root, “We will survive and find our resilience.”
Saboteur and Summer Reading are available now exclusively on Serial Box.