George Takei Keeps On Trekking with "Heroes"

In last night's episode of "Heroes," Hiro's mysterious father became a little less so. By way of the "Company Man" episode we knew that Mr. Nakamura was involved with "The Company," a group with thus far unclear motivations that has been tracking our various super powered heroes, but we didn't know to what extent he was involved. With "Landslide," we learned that Mr. Nakamura is more closely watching events unfold than anyone knew, especially the journey his son Hiro has taken.

Mr. Nakamura is imbued with grace, class and strength by legendary actor George Takei, famous for his role on the original "Star Trek" television series. His distinctive deep voice, an appearance that seemingly gets better with age and dynamic presence as an actor brings a lot to the hit NBC drama and he's enjoying every second of it.

In a previous interview with CBR, Takei spoke about how coming out as a gay man late in his life has given his career a major boost. Like many of the cast of the original "Star Trek" series, for years he was type-cast as Sulu, the navigator of the Starship Enterprise. But in recent years, Takei has seen his output increase, especially with his high profile positions as a member of the Howard Stern Radio Show on Sirius Sattelite Radio and, naturally, his role on "Heroes."

This past March, CBR News got a chance to sit down with Takei while he was filming the episode "Landslide" to discuss his role on "Heroes" and what it means to him, touched on his history with "Star Trek" and what's happening with the franchise today and conclude with a look at an entirely different career he explored as a resident of Los Angeles.

Can you explain to us a bit about how your character develops in these last few episodes?

Yes, it's been very interesting as with each script I'm making new discoveries about my character. I thought when I was first cast that I was going to play this very important, rich, powerful Japanese businessman who was very concerned about his son. Period. Then, the next script came and I discovered that I was the guy who gave Baby Claire to HRG.  Really, I know as much about this show and my character as the fans watching the show do, so it's just as much fun for me as it is for the fans watching.

When they brought you in the first time, they really didn't give you a clue as to how involved your character is in the backstory?

No. First of all, all I had was a side, not the whole script, then the whole script came and it seemed to be consistent with my first impression of reading the sides. This is a fascinating show and I'm just as eager as you are to get the next script to see what happens next.

Can you tell us a little about this scene you're filming today? You are teaching Hiro how to sword fight?

Exactly. And I've discovered that I have had powers and that some of my colleagues I fought with for good. I have this line where I say, "The Nakamura family has always fought for good and tried to be the wind behind the course of history to direct it toward good, but some of my colleagues went off the good road and I wasn't expecting him [Hiro] to be the one that's going to be chosen or anointed." Somehow I found out and I've got to prepare him for his big challenge.  That's why I teach him sword fighting.

How important is it for you to play a "good" guy versus say a "bad" guy? Is that a consideration for you as an actor?

No, it comes down to the quality of the role. Villians can be just as interesting and in fact can be more challenging for an actor. I fancy myself a very good guy, despite the fact I share my birthday with Hitler! [laughs] So, I've gone through life trying to do as much good as possible. Because of that I find evil absolutely fascinating. A villain is just as interesting as a person who has integrity, concern for others and fights for good.

Is Mr. Nakamura's concept of what's good and what's not what we'd all define as good and bad, or is it in a bit of a gray area?

That's a good question. [silence] [laughter] I'm asking that, too. I talk about the Nakamura's family wind guiding history toward good, but what is good in my definition?   The next script may tell me.

You mentioned on your Web site that this last year has been a pretty big one for you, a new wave for you. You've experienced a lot, you mentioned your work on the Howard Stern show, you found out a lot about your personal life and now "Heroes."

Yes, and when "Heroes" goes on hiatus, I'll be working on "Thank God You're Here," an improvisational show that'll fill this time slot on NBC. We show up and we get put into a costume and get shoved through a door and there's an improvisation in progress and you're greeted with "Thank God you're here!" And you just have to dive in. No rehearsal, no script, no nothing.

If we can veer off into "Star Trek" land for a short bit, what do you think of this new reboot they're doing with the films?

I think it's fantastic. I think it's extraordinary that 40 years after we got started - we got started in 1966 - actually, this is the 41 st year, that there's still this excitement and enthusiasm about Start Trek. I've been thinking on it and what I've deduced is that the people who discovered Star Trek during our first run are the studious ones, the organized and disciplined ones who took to that kind of world that they saw on the Starship Enterprise, and they each pursued their individual careers and many of them have been very successful. Bill Gates is a Star Trek fan and he now has the resources to build his own Science Fiction museum and more than a third of it is Star Trek related. Then you have this other very successful director, J.J. Abrahms ("Lost," "Mission Impossible III"), who is a Start Trek fan. Now, Paramount has announced that because the last film was a flop and the last spin off series, "Enterprise," was a cellar dwellar, they said no more Star Trek. But when you have a J.J. Abrahms walking into your office and say, "For my next project I want to do Star Trek," you click your heels together and say yes sir. That's the new interesting wrinkle - the "Star Trek" fans are becoming very prominent each in their chosen careers, some indeed powerful, and they're the ones reviving Star Trek 41 years later. It's amazing.

Then there is the fan series, "Star Trek: New Voyages" you and Walter Koenig have worked on.

Yes, and that’s another manifestation of this. These people didn’t want to see Star Trek fade away. These are people who have pooled their money and there’s this one guy, James Cawley, who has given leadership to the whole thing and they decided to do their own Star Trek series. They negotiated with Paramount and promised they wouldn’t make any money off it, so there’s another spin-off series put on by fans with their own money. From what I understand the budget is something like $70-100k for each episode. They’ve put together their own money for their passion.

My last Star Trek question – so you're OK with them rebooting and reimagining the franchise from day one?

I would trust that anyone who really loves Star Trek to know the elements that made Star Trek what it is. You know, confidence in our ability to reach challenges, to be inventive, to be creative, to be problem solvers and to face the challenges of the future, as daunting as they may be, as something that is invigorating. Something that makes you work at your optimum, to see the future as a great adventure. If they keep those elements and that element of finding our strength and diversity [it'll be fine]. What's amazing to me is that what was purely science fiction back then in 1966 is today reality.

The other amazing thing is today we do have a space craft in outer space and the people who live on that craft are made up from people from all over this planet. Back then, we were locked in a cold war, Russians and Americans were mortal enemies, but today, up there on the International Space Station, Russians, Americans and others are working together side-by-side. So, I don't call it science fiction, I call it science prediction.

You do some work with the Howard Stern show and I know Howard's a big fan of "Heroes." So, on your days off does Howard call you up asking, "So, what's happening on 'Heroes?' Tell me everything!"

I will occasionally give him a call and share my experiences, but when you open up the script, the first page says we are a family here at Heroes and we observe family values. Part of that is to honor and respect what's in the script. So, I quoted that to Howard. And he says, "Well, aren't you a part of our family?" [laughs]

One of the things that made "Star Trek" so great was its social commentary. What would you say is the social commentary of "Heroes?"

Again, there's diversity in the community. We were very optimistic on "Star Trek" - we were all these wonderfully talented and bright people, but the other diversity that "Heroes" explores is the dark mixed with the light, the positive, and how we struggle with the unique gifts that we're given. In many ways there are echoes of "Star Trek," but this is much more complex and other elements of what we call diversity are mixed in with it.

Your character, Mr. Nakamura, when they flash back to when he gave Claire to HRG to raise, we learn that he, Mr. Petrelli, Linderman, Eric Roberts' character are all part of some cabal of people who knew about people who had these abilities. And you alluded earlier that there have been characters that have broken off and maybe started to take a different path. Will there be new members of this so called cabal revealed in the next couple of episodes?

Good question. I'm asking that, too! [laughs] I know as much as I read in the scripts that I'm given and I'm just as eager as you guys are to know what comes next.

When they originally contacted you to join the show, how far along were they in the season?

They were a good ways along. It was last October or November and that first episode with me was I believe in December.

Had you been aware of the show before that?

Oh yes. In this world of the Internet, fans would e-mail me to say the show had a Japanese character who was a "Star Trek" fan and I thought, "I'm going to have to check this out!" [laughs] So, again it was a "Star Trek" hook. And I'm sure you guys saw the Star Trek reference on the license plate of my car in my episode. [laughs] And once again, my computer exploded! I remember one of the e-mails because the guy said, "When I saw that license plate I let out a whoop and a bellow, terrorizing my three children!" [laughs] And then his kids asked, "Oh My God, what's wrong with Daddy? Is he having a heart attack?" [laughs]

In the episode you're working on right now where you're training Hiro to use a sword, did you have to do much of it yourself?

Well, I've done fencing before, but this is a different thing being a Samurai. I've been huffing and puffing away for the last four days and I'm discovering this body that was so agile on Star Trek with the fencing foil, has a lot of mileage on it. [laughs]

Light years, right?

No, just 40 years. [laughs]

What does Mr. Nakamura's future hold for the futu…

Another on of those good questions! [laughs]

I realized that as soon as I began asking the question. [laughs] That being said, would you return to the show if asked back for a second season?

I would love to. This is great fun.

What is it you get out of this show as an actor?

Really, it's all part of this second wind to my career. The difference with "Star Trek" when it was on in first run, we were cellar dwellers and it's such a pleasure to be on the highest rated new TV series this season. For that alone I'll come back and hope to continue coming back. Indications are that I'm a good guy!

Other than your own, which storylines on "Heroes" interest you the most?

Peter's is very interesting. I think Nathan is more dark gray than light gray. That family is just fascinating. In wardrobe, I met Christine, their mother, and she's a charming, delightful lady. Matt is also interesting and, of course, Claire.

What will you be doing this summer?

Well, it's done already, but I have a film called "Ninja Cheerleaders." [laughs]  It's like "Charlie's Angels," and I'm the great Ninja master and I have these three beautiful young girls who are cheerleaders by day, but at night they're my crime fighters. [laughs] As a matter of fact, I did some samurai sword fighting there, too. And this summer we're going down to New Orleans to do a movie called "American Summer." This will probably come out some time next year and it's one of those raunchy, teen age, coming of age films.

As we finish up here, I'd like to discuss another career you had years ago. At one point in your life you did some public service, serving for 11 years as part of an appointment to the Southern California Rapid Transit District. Have you considered running for public office? And weren't you instrumental in getting the Red Line (CHECK) subway system begun?

Well, that was Mayor Tom Bradley's mandate to us. So, we got the ½ cent sales tax, which was a local match. Then we went to the feds for their match and then to the State and County. Then we held all the public hearings to determine the route alignment and then the big controversy was where the stations would be located. People in downtown wanted stations, but there were other areas along the route that did not want subway stations because "those people" AKA public transit users would be in the neighborhood. So, we had to deal with all that. Then we got to the point where we were ready to start construction and I went up to the mayor and told him I'd enjoyed working on the board and one of the exciting things about being a Los Angelino was that you could still participate in giving shape and form to the city, that it had been a real honor and privilege, but I am also a professional actor and while I don't need to be loved, I can't afford to be hated and when we starting block traffic … [laughs]

Yes, I can see the headlines, "Sulu stops traffic!" [laughs]

Yes, I didn't want to see people marching up and down in front of my house. I'm so grateful I resigned because you all know Hollywood Blvd. caved in and the controversy over 16" concrete walls that turned out to be 6".

Was that your last foray into politics?

Well, when I ran for City Council, there were something like 14 or 15 other people running for the same office. Channel 13 was running "Star Trek" in reruns and they were foolish enough to run an episode in which I was on for 17 minutes. All 14 or 15 candidates claimed equal time based on the FCCs equal time ruling. Which was crazy. I didn't become an actor to run for public office, that was my established means of livelihood. But, they counted the minutes that Sulu was on and every one of them claimed equal time. Then they should have been given a script, put in costume and we should have seen who was the better actor! [laughs]

And act with Bill! [laughs]

That's the big challenge! [laughs] But that poor Channel 13 had to give away one boring evening for a parade of candidates saying stuff like, "I'm Jack Jones and here's how I feel about education." Where's the equality in that? After that they pulled every episode I was in and to really underscore the insanity of it, the "Star Trek" animated cartoons had to be taken off the air as well. I enjoy public service, but running for public office is just too much of a pain.

So, instead, I've served in appointed capacities. I was President Clinton's appointee to the Japan/US commission that works on getting the Japanese and American's to get better understanding of each other's countries. I'm active in the political arena, but not on an elected basis.

One final question, now that you're a part of "Heroes," do you ever call Bill Shatner and say, "You know, I could take your 'Boston Legal' ass any day with 'Heroes!'"

[laughs] It's a funny thing with Bill, that man can't say no. My Aunt married a Canadian. When we finished the three seasons of "Star Trek," I flew to Canada to visit with my Aunt and Uncle and my cousins. I was watching TV on a Saturday afternoon in Toronoto, Canada and the ads are all local businesses. All of a sudden, there's Bill Shatner hawking a local furniture store. "Ladies and Gentlemen, this weekend only, this beautiful couch… come on down." I was sitting there thinking, "Bill, you just finished three seasons as the lead in a TV series. What are you doing on a Saturday afternoon on a local TV station selling bargain sofas?"  That man …

Well, do you guys stay in touch?

I'm in touch with Leonard. I used to talk with Jimmy Doohan, I used to call him my favorite drinking buddy. He was a great friend. I talk with Walter. Nichelle is a dear friend. DeForest was a dear, dear friend. Does that answer your question? [laughs] I learned a few things from politics?

Yes you did!

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