Legendary Star Trek actor George Takei has been entertaining sci-fi audiences for decades as the Starship Enterprise’s Lt. Hikaru Sulu. But the actor has recently found new fame as Kaito Nakamura, father of the time-traveling Hiro Nakamura on NBC’s hit show, “Heroes.” Now Takei can add another popular franchise to his resume with his performance as General Lok Durd on this weeks episode of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” entitled “Defenders Of Peace.”
Now in his ’70s, the actor is indeed seeing a resurgence of popularity thanks in part to his job as Official Announcer of “The Howard Stern Radio Show” on Sirius Radio, and from his role on “Heroes.” Takei’s also well known as a political activist, fighting for equality and gay rights, recently marrying his longtime partner of twenty years.
With his appearance in “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” which airs this Friday on Cartoon Network, George Takei marks a high point of visibility and popularity in his illustrious career and life.
CBR News caught up with the busy Takei to talk about his role on “Star Wars: The Clone Wars, “Heroes,” the new “Star Trek” film, and the recent passing of “Khan” himself, the great Ricardo Montalban.
CBR: You are the first major actor from either the Star Wars or Star Trek franchises to crossover to the other. What made you decide to make the switch at this point in your career?
George Takei: Well, I guess I’m the only actor associated with Star Trek to have done anything with Star Wars, but I don’t consider it jumping ship. You know, the Star Trek philosophy is to embrace the diversity of life and Star Wars is a part of that diversity. I think that Star Trek and Star Wars are related beyond just the word “star.” I think Star Trek is Science Fiction and Star Wars is more Science Fantasy. But with the episodes of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” that I worked on, I think there is a merging there. It does deal philosophically with certain issues of the time, which is what “Star Trek” was known for. War and Peace, technology and humanity, sacrifice and courage, these issues I found engaging.
The other thing that was engaging for me as an actor in doing the “Star Wars” animation as apposed to the “Star Trek” animation is that it really is working as an actor with other actors. When we did the recording, they had the entire cast there so we could bounce off of each other. So you get an idea of the characterization and vocal rhythms of the other characters. When we did the animation for “Star Trek,” they accommodated each one of us in our various schedules, so we came in individually. As I was coming in, Leonard [Nimoy] was leaving and I’d go into the recording booth and they would have the script with my lines underscored with a colored pen. I’d just read my lines according to how the scene was supposed to play but not really playing with Leonard. Then when I was finished and I’d be leaving, Jimmy Doohan might be coming in and he’d step into the booth and do his lines.
I think this way, the “Star Wars” way of doing the recording, is much more fun as an actor when you can bounce off of each other. The “Star Trek” animation was in the mid-’70s and I found that to be very unsatisfying because I didn’t know how Leonard read his lines. The director would say, “Do it a little louder” or softer or more intense. So you’re trying to hear the way Leonard read his lines in your mind’s ear. Where as with “Star Wars,” you are there bouncing off the other actors because they’re all there together in the studio. To bounce off of other actors is wonderful having had that “Star Trek” experience of solitary acting with the director talking to you over your ear phones and trying to guide you into making that scene work. That wasn’t fun at all, but to work with actors is a much more satisfying way of working.
Were you a Star Wars fan before you were cast in this project?
I would be considered a casual fan. Because Star Wars, as I said before, is in a genre I consider as Space Fantasy. Star Trek is Science Fiction and deals with Science Fiction concepts and is issues orientated. But with “Clone Wars,” again I think there is a merging starting to happen using Science Fantasy as a metaphor for issues that are relevant to our times, such as war and peace, using technology as a weapon of war and dealing with issues of morality and ethics. So I do think that there is a separation that is coming together. It was fantasy as opposed to Science Fiction, but now with “The Clone Wars” I see the merging of the two.
What do you think of the look of your character, Lok Durd? He is physically a much bigger character than you usually play and looks very different from yourself.
Well, people seem to think that my voice is fat; that it’s obese — in fact, grotesquely obese. They showed me a drawing of the character I was supposed to voice and I said, “Oh no, not again” because I did the voice of the First Ancestor in “Mulan,” the Disney animated film. That was a huge enormously obese character and Lok Durd is also immensely obese. I suppose that’s how they think of my voice?
When I saw the animation and the finished product, I thought it was amazingly well done. You can see how fat, flabby and loose he is. So I wonder why I bother to do my push-ups, sit-ups and all my other fitness exercises when they think my voice is that fat. When Lok Durd moves, you can see his stomach, his leg flesh and his entire flesh just jiggle. The animation is amazing and I hope that my vocal quality was obese enough to fit the animation.
They gave me an outline of the character and told me how the character was conceived. And from the stuff that I got off of the Internet, it did say that he was fat but I didn’t see him until I got there, then I saw the sketch and saw that he indeed was obese.
You’ve appeared at many Star Trek conventions over the years, but now with this crossover do you plan on attending Star Wars conventions as well?
Any work that one does that catches on with the public has a way of expanding your access to the audience. As you probably know, I’m a recurring character on “Heroes.” And so when I do conventions, I notice that there are a lot of “Heroes” fans that come with pictures of me as Kaito Nakamuro, my character on “Heroes,” to have autographed. So perhaps now at Star Trek conventions, I’ll have Lok Durd pictures presented to me to autograph. Or I may get invitations to Star Wars conventions. So we’ll see what happens.
Every work you do that becomes enormously popular just expands and adds to your audience base and whatever image they may have of you. Although I don’t know whether I’ll be visually recognizable as Lok Durd. But I’m sure every time I talk “Star Wars: Clone Wars” fans will turn around and say, “You’re Lok Durd” when they hear my voice. So yes, I think it has expanded my sphere of identification.
How do you feel about John Cho of “Harold and Kumar” fame playing Sulu in J.J. Abram’s new movie, “Star Trek?”
You know, it was interesting. J.J. Abram was very concerned about how he was going to cast. He asked me to have breakfast with him and he told me that he had been interviewing many Asian actors for the part. He said that he tried as hard as he could to find an actor of Japanese ancestry, since that’s what I am, for the part. But he found another actor who was not of Japanese ancestry that he thought would be wonderful and he wanted to get my reaction to that.
I told him that when I was first interviewed for the part myself with Gene Roddenberry, I asked him how he came up with the name Sulu. He said that he wanted the Starship Enterprise to be a metaphor for Starship Earth. He wanted the people to represent regions of this planet. So Uhura was African and her name was based on a Swahili word. He was looking for an Asian name for the Asian character. But the Asian names are nationally specific, Tanaka is Japanese, Wong is Chinese and Kim is Korean. Asia has a turbulent history of warfare and colonization. You know Japan colonized Korea and there is a lot of strife, nationally. And he didn’t want to bring that into this character. So he was looking at the map of Asia trying to solve that dilemma and he saw that there is a sea called the Sulu Sea in the southern Chinese Sea area. And he thought, “Ah, the waters of a sea touch all shores.” That’s how Gene came up with the name Sulu.
I told the story to J.J. and I said that it would be entirely in keeping with Gene Rodenberry’s vision that you not confine yourself to any cultural group; that you should not cast according to that. If you’ve found someone with Chinese ancestry, Korean ancestry or Vietnamese ancestry that you think fits the part and you think that actor brings that type of talent then you should go with them.
So assured by that, he told me that he was thinking of John Cho and I said, “John would be wonderful.” I’m on the board of Governors of the East West Players, an Asian-American theatre company, and John had done many plays for us before I had that breakfast. I told J.J. that John was a versatile actor, that I had seen him do comedy and very serious drama and I thought that he would be wonderful. So assured by that he went on to cast him.
John then seemed to have been somewhat awed by his new challenge. So he asked me to have lunch with him and I told him, “Do your thing. I’ve seen your work and you’re a talented actor.” I assured him that it wouldn’t be long before I’d be known as the old guy who played John Cho’s part. And assured by that he went on to do his thing. All the scuttlebutt I’m hearing is that John’s done a great job. Sulu’s got a new lease on life. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the new film. It won’t be long now before it will be premiering in May.
Is there any truth to the rumors that you make an appearance as an older version of Sulu in the film?
You know, that started in the press when I had breakfast with J.J. and I mentioned the fact that I had had breakfast with him. I think some people in the press tend to read into things and it got started on the Internet that I have a cameo. The only one from our cast, the original cast, that is in that film is Leonard. The justification for that is because Vulcans are much more long lived than humans, which Sulu is, and Spock is, of course, a Vulcan. So a two-hundred-year-old Vulcan is what Leonard Nimoy is playing.
And the guy that’s been cast to play Spock in this film, Zach Quinto, I work with on “Heroes.” I told Zach that all he needs to do to know what he’s going to look like in forty years is to look at Leonard Nimoy, because they are a spitting image of each other. I knew Leonard forty years ago and I told Zach that I could have mistaken him for Leonard from back then. The likeness is uncanny and they’re both talented actors. Their personalities are somewhat alike too. They’re both very serious and sober. Leonard and I used to talk about current events. I’m a political activist myself and we used to talk about the headlines. And Zach is a very serious and sober guy too. So they share common personalities as well as facial physiology.
Your character on “Heroes” was killed off at the beginning of the second season, yet you’ve appeared in several episodes since then. Are there any plans for you to appear in the upcoming “Volume Four: Fugitives?”
In some ways, “Heroes” and Star Trek have many tie-ins. For example, Hiro Nakamura, my son, is a Star Trek” fan, a wildly avid Star Trek fan. As a matter of fact, the reason I started watching “Heroes” when it first came on is not because I tuned in from the very beginning. I started getting a lot of e-mails from Star Trek fans whom alerted me to the fact that there was a Japanese kid who’s a Star Trek fan on “Heroes.” So I thought, “Well I’ll check this out.” And I became hooked on it.
Then I got a call from my agent saying that they were interested in me playing the father of Hiro Nakamura. So I went and talked with the Executive Producer, Tim Kring, and he cast me. Then on the set I chatted with some of the crew people and I found that a great number of them are really wildly dedicated Star Trek fans. The Prop Master was the most avid of them all. He prepared as the license plate of my limousine the number NCC1701, which is the registry of the Starship Enterprise.
Then one of the guys on the writing staff is a great “Star Trek” fan and he said, “George had a great sword fighting scene in ‘Star Trek’ and why don’t we work in a sword fighting scene for Kaito Nakmura?” That’s how that first samurai sword-fighting scene in the first season came about. Then you may have noticed I had another sword fighting scene with a young man that I took to be a thief, a robber in my own house, in the third season, who turned out to be the future version of my son Hiro. So there is a lot of tie-in and bouncing off of “Star Trek” with “Heroes.”
With “Heroes,” one never knows what’s going to be happening. Nothing on the surface is as it seems with “Heroes.” When I was pushed off that high-rise building at the very beginning of the second season, I thought, “Well, that was a fun run but I guess that’s it.” But then other scripts started to come and it turns out I’m the father of a son who has the ability to go back and forth through time. So I’ve been making many appearances, so who knows what’s going to happen with “Volume Four: Fugitives.” Only Tim Kring’s very imaginative mind and the writing staff will determine Kaito Nakamura’s fate.
Would you like to comment on the recent passing of screen legend Ricardo Montalban, your co-star in “Star Trek” and “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan?”
Ricardo was a bigger than life guy and he was a connection to old Hollywood. He was one of the contract actors at MGM Studios in the age of contract actors. We don’t have contract actors anymore. We have people who do series and that’s it, I mean that’s all the continuity one has to one’s career. In the old contract actor days, the studio nurtured your career, they guided your career and gave you the roles they thought were right for you. And Ricardo was a romantic lead as well as an action actor when he was with MGM. I remember “On and Island with You” with Esther Williams that he did.
So he represented the golden age of Hollywood and he certainly was that when we worked on both the TV series and in the second feature film, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” He was bigger than life and he was very gregarious. We’d walk into make-up early in the morning, sleepy, tired, not really awake and just plop into our make-up seats. But Ricardo would make an entrance into make-up. He would say, “Good morning, everybody” and “Nichelle darling, you look gorgeous” or “George, you’re wonderful, I love you.” You know, he was bigger than life. He was a fun person to sit around with.
Being something of a movie buff, I would ask him about the contract player days. He also was someone who helped revitalize Star Trek as a series of feature films. Because without the “Wrath of Khan,” I think the “Star Trek” movie series would have probably enjoyed its time in the sun and the sun would have set on it.
Was “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” your favorite of the “Star Trek” films?
My favorite, I think, is the sixth one, where Sulu got his Captain’s seat. “Star Trek VI” really is a Sulu film. When you’re the Captain, you move the drama along. When you’re a helmsmen, you’re going with the movement of the drama set by the Captain. With “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,” I think that really should have been titled “Star Trek VI: Captain Sulu to the Rescue,” because without that, Kirk would have been a goner. Kirk was about to be blown into smithereens by the Klingons when Sulu appears out of the darkened galactic skies and blows the Klingon Captain, played by Christopher Plummer, into smithereens and saves the day for Captain Kirk. That’s what I enjoyed the most, although I do think “The Wrath of Khan” was a rip-roaring good space-opera and Ricardo was the quintessential adversary.
Finally, are you interested in continuing to play Lok Durd in future episodes of “Star Wars: Clone Wars?”
With “The Clone Wars,” it’s something like with “Heroes” — you never really know what’s going to be happening in the future and then a script comes in and you make discoveries. With “Heroes” too, as I said, I thought when I was cast that I was cast as a powerful, influential businessman who was concerned about his weirdo son who was going off to New York to do weird things. I thought it was a father and son relationship thing. But then a script arrives and it has me carrying a baby that turns out to be baby Claire and I hand her over to H.R.G. That’s when I thought, “Oh my. There’s more to this character than I thought. It’s not just a father and son relationship.” Then other scripts came and I discovered even more, that I was involved with another generation of those with powers.
So with “Clone Wars,” it’s the same thing, what the next script brings is what the next script brings. Lok Durd is an absolutely fascinating character and certainly a unique adversary, with a unique approach to using technology. So I think anything can happen, I’m waiting for the next script.
The next “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” episode, “Defenders Of Peace” airs this Friday, January 23 on Cartoon Network.