Japanese American Splendor: Takei talks "Heroes"

Wed, February 7th, 2007 at 12:00am PST

TV/Film
Emmett Furey, Staff Writer

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George Takei as Kaito Nakamura

Two weeks ago, NBC's "Heroes" welcomed Star Trek vet George Takei to its cast, playing Kaito Nakamura, Hiro's imperious father. Last week, Takei spoke to the press about his recurring role on NBC's hit drama, and CBR was on the scene.

Takei was hesitant to go into too many details about his character, in part because be didn't want to drop any spoilers, but one also gets the sense that the actor is, in many ways, as in the dark as we are. "I thought he was just a very concerned father who's a powerful industrialist, but I'm discovering various other dimensions to him which makes the character even more ambiguous," Takei teased.

Takei last made a splash in the Hollywood community two years ago when he publicly announced he was gay. Takei, who has been in a committed relationship with his partner Brad Altman for almost 20 years, felt obliged to make his sexuality public when he spoke out against California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's veto of the same-sex marriage bill in 2005. "When [Schwarzenegger] vetoed the bill, I felt I needed to speak out, and my voice needed to be authentic," Takei said. "So when I spoke out, and spoke to the press for the first time, I knew that there would be a lot of noise, opening a Pandora's box with you guys. And so I did expect to get a lot of coverage." And as an unexpected benefit of his increased visibility, Hollywood interest in the veteran actor was decidedly renewed.

Takei admitted that he'd been a fan of "Heroes" ever since he learned Hiro Nakamura was a Japanese Trekkie, but he never expected to have the opportunity to join the cast. "But one day my agent called and said, 'There's interest from 'Heroes,' but they want you to audition.' And he said, 'they want you to translate [the sides] into Japanese, and audition in Japanese,'" Takei told reporters. "So I translated that, and went and auditioned, and they were very happy with it, and it turns out they wanted to make sure that my command of Japanese was credible.

"I am absolutely astounded and fascinated and proud in fact that here's an enormously popular, highly-rated, network, prime-time TV show, that plays entire sequences in Japanese, a foreign language, with English subtitles," Takei said. "I think is a real advance, and a compliment to the audience, its sophistication, and the global nature of the audience."

Takei and Oka may have been conversing in Japanese on camera, but when the director yelled cut, the rest of the cast a crew were shocked to find the two Japanese American actors conversing with each other in fluent Spanish. "When I first met [Oka], I discovered that he speaks Spanish," Takei explained. "And so do I. I was born in East L.A., a Mexican American barrio, and I grew up hearing the language all around me. So we started conversing in Spanish. And it blew the minds of all the people who were sitting around us."

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Takei with his onscreen son, Hiro Nakamura (played by Masi Oka)

And the relationship the two actors enjoy off-screen couldn't be farther from the one that's depicted on-screen. Kaito Nakamura believes that his son Hiro's quest to save the world is childish and deluded, and the elder Nakamura has his heart set on his only male heir following in his father's footsteps in the family business back in Japan. "Well, you know, everything in life has consequences, and one of the most consequential acts is creating another human life," Takei said. "Kaito Nakamura is a father, and with it comes consequences, and I'm discovering that there's a whole different kind of consequence with my particular son. We discover I'm more involved in the intrigue than I initially thought." We've also seen that the extraordinary abilities in "Heroes" tend to be passed down from one generation to the next, and Takei himself is curious to learn if his character has any hidden powers of his own.

Takei was taken aback when a reporter told him that Masi Oka was not a Trekkie in real life. "Well, he's a good actor, then," Takei joked. Takei, in fact, is slated to reprise his role as Sulu on an upcoming episode of the fan-created, live-action internet series "Star Trek: New Voyages." The show picks up where the original "Star Trek" left off, with year four of the Enterprise's five year mission, and the episode that Takei was in has an interesting history. The original series was cancelled in 1969 due to low ratings, but in syndication the sci-fi series found a vast new audience. "And Paramount and NBC very seriously considered reviving 'Star Trek' as a series television again," Takei said. "And they commissioned a little bit more than a half a dozen scripts, and one of them happened to be the script that I did last summer." When director Marc Zicree got permission from the original writer to film the unproduced teleplay, Takei jumped at the chance to participate. "It was a fantastic role for Sulu, and it just so happens that, if we'd done it back in the '70s, I would have had to age 60 years. Well, this time, I was able to provide my own aging. And Sulu has a daughter in this script, and so it was this wonderful script, a very dimensioned and very dramatic script that enticed me back.

"It was employment that drew me into sci-fi," Takei admitted. "When you're an actor, you go where the work is." Even before "Star Trek," Takei cut his teeth on science fiction in an episode of the "Twilight Zone." In fact, Takei's first paid acting job was a voice-acting gig, dubbing English dialogue over the Toho classic, "Rodan," and he continues the science fiction tradition with his new role on the sci-fi hit "Heroes."

"Anything that's conceivable I think will eventually happen," Takei said of science fiction versus science fact. "It takes the imagineers to set the fantastical goals, and then with the goals set, the inventors and the innovators and the technicians start working toward that goal, and it becomes possible."

"Heroes" obviously has strong roots in comic books, and Takei admitted to a childhood fascination with the medium. "When I was a kid, I had a collection of Superman comics, and also Batman comics, but when I went off to college, up to the University of California at Berkely, I wasn't home to guard my collection," Takei said. And, in what has become an all too familiar story, while he was away his mother threw out what would now amount to a king's ransom in comic books. "It was a fortune that she gave away, and a big chunk of my boyhood, you know? Mothers don't understand their sons' passion for comic books."

Life wasn't always so easy for the man who would be Sulu; Takei was born just in time to catch the brunt of the anti-Japanese sentiment in the wake of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. "I still remember that scary day when American soldiers with bayoneted guns came to our front door and ordered us out," Takei recounted. The almost five year old Japanese American citizen and his family were relocated to the San Bernadino racetrack, where they were kept until the internment camp where they were bound was completed.

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Hiro and Ando

"They keep referring to them as Japanese internment camps. We were not prisoners of Japan, we were prisoners of America," Takei insisted. "They were Japanese American interment camps." And the irony of his youth, spent reciting the pledge of allegiance to the American flag day in and day out while he and his family were unjustly imprisoned behind barbed-wire fences is not lost on the actor. "And I'm really in awe, I can say, with my father, because despite all that he went through, losing everything and then having to take his wife and three young children into barbed-wire confinement, he felt that both the strength and the weakness of American democracy was that it was a true people's democracy," Takei explained. "It could be as great as the people can be, but it can be as fallible as people. And he felt, once it came out, it was very important for us to be actively engaged in the democratic process. If we default on that, then things like interment can happen."

And surprisingly enough, the family's return home to Los Angeles turned out to be more traumatic than the interment camps ever were. "Hostility to Japanese Americans was still intense, and housing was enormously difficult," Takei explained. "And the first place that my parents found a home for us was on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. My little sister said, 'Mama, let's go back home,' meaning behind those barbed-wire fences again."

Of course, today, the one-time internee is an internationally-known star. And Takei said that it's his distinctive voice, more than anything else, that earns him recognition on the street. "I think the timber comes with age," the actor said. "And good pinot noir. [Takei also attributed some of his harsher jibes on Comedy Central's Roast of William Shatner to his wine of choice.] When I stop to talk to somebody, that's when people turn around and say, 'Oh,' and usually they say 'Sulu.' But I think from now on, they're gonna start saying 'Mr. Nakamura.'"

"That Vulcan greeting, 'Live long and prosper,' didn't quite work with [the original] 'Star Trek,'" Takei said. "But I think with 'Heroes' it will live long and prosper indeed."

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