Jennifer M. Kroot and Bill Weber’s To Be Takei follows pop culture icon and activist George Takei and it plays in this years Queer Screen Film Festival.
With the film, you have what appears to be a dream project. In George, you have this charismatic subject who is very sweet and easy to relate to, and who has so many admirers and friends that you can talk to. He has his commitments to social justice, gay rights activism, and so many others. Did it feel like a dream project, or was there anything daunting about taking that on?
Both! It’s a daunting dream project, I guess I would say. Certainly, in approaching George – because I didn’t know him before I made the film – I admired all of those things. They almost seemed a little superhuman! Obviously he is human, so they’re are really amazing things that people can do; the way he has leveraged his pop culture presence and power for social justice. Even with Facebook, besides there being social justice, there’s his ability to just make people happy. He’s obviously this beloved figure, so I definitely saw him this way. Even though I started this before Facebook, I saw him that way. Sometimes I still think “wow, it’s so weird that I did this and I met him!” I’ve met him so many times now, I continue to see him fairly regularly. Yeah, it’s definitely a dream project in getting to know a pretty unique person.
It’s also daunting just to do an independent documentary. They’re not really easy things to put together. They take a long time. It’s hard to get money sometimes. We travelled around a lot with a really small crew, so there’s a lot of daunting things about putting something like that together. Before you start editing, [you’re] just hoping that it’s going to come together, and before you actually start working on it. It’s daunting in many ways, and at the same time, very exciting to get to know someone like that and work with them and follow them around.
You’ve spoken in interviews how you were already fairly familiar with him through Star Trek reruns, and getting to know him as Sulu. What would you say was the most surprising thing about spending that time with him over the course of filming, in contrast to how you knew him beforehand?
Part of the reason I got interested in the project was not just because of Star Trek – although that’s a great reason – but also because of his activism and the obstacles that he’s faced in his life. Putting the story of that together seemed like an interesting task. I guess what I say about getting to know him and meeting him is that he’s very present; very in-the-moment with everyone that he’s with. He’s a very good listener. Maybe that’s why he’s such a good actor, or part of the reason. When he’s with someone, he really is able to just focus on them, so it’s a really good skill to have if you’re an iconic person because you get a lot of fans coming up. They want your attention, so he’s hanging out with someone for thirty seconds or a minute and a half. They love him, and they’re saying the same thing for the millionth time that he’s heard. He’s really focussed on that individual.
The surprise I had watching the film was getting to meet Brad, who seems like such a perfect, sweet partner for him. He just complements him in so many ways, and keeps him grounded. What was the rapport like with Brad on the set? Was it a long time in getting his trust and getting to know him?
Oh yeah, definitely! What you see in the film is definitely Brad. It has not been edited to make him look like that. George, like you said, is fairly naïve in a lot of ways. Part of the reason he can afford to be naïve is because he has Brad to lead through reality for him; to organise reality, and then George will follow along. When it’s time for George to perform, he takes over.
Getting to know Brad was tough in a lot of ways. I liked him immediately, I admired their long, devoted relationship immediately. Obviously the way that they are together is very charming, and even their comfort with bickering is charming. The first thing you see in the film is the first thing we shot, which is that walk they took in the morning, which never happens usually in narrative films or documentary films, so it’s funny that that would have been the first thing in the film. When he’s yelling at us to turn off the camera, he was really yelling at us to turn off the camera! Earlier before that, he was saying “we’ll walk as fast as we can to lose the camera”, and they did! They lost us for a while. I think Brad wasn’t super comfortable with suddenly having his life documented. He had always been comfortable coming along with George when he was invited, but there were many years when George was publicly closeted that Brad wasn’t invited. Now he’s getting used to being his husband in the limelight, and this was one of the first times when people were really following him. At first I thought “I don’t know if this is going to work,” with Brad yelling at us or not always being comfortable. But then I thought there was also something very sincere.
Also, most people are more like Brad than George. I don’t know that I would want someone following me around. He’s this devoted spouse, and also they work together. [He’s] this devoted manager-spouse, who’s trying to make this work because of what his celebrity husband does. He has to put up with stuff like this. You got a real honest experience of Brad and what that’s like. I kinda got used to it. I was less comfortable with it at first, and then I realised is that it’s just the way Brad is. Definitely he’s got more comfortable over time.
Now, the film obviously the film spends a lot of time on how George treated his homosexuality, leading up to his coming-out in 2005, and here in Australia where we’re premiering the film [for Sydney], just this year we’ve had our own experience with a very public figure coming out after years of denial: a champion swimmer called Ian Thorpe. There was the same discussion about whether he should have done it, and what effect that has on people. Why do you think, nearly ten years after George did it himself, it is still so difficult for public figures to expose themselves, particularly in the entertainment industry?
Well, I think first of all that George isn’t an A-list actor. I think it was very brave of him to come out at that time in 2005, but he wasn’t an A-list actor and he was at what he thought would be the end of his career at that point. He thought “well, I’m 68, what is there to lose?” He really wanted to be able to participate in the political discussion to support marriage equality.
I think – and I guess it’s still unfortunately true all over the world – there’s still, although it’s much much better (it gets better), a perception of straight male masculinity. I’m thinking right now of gay men, and I’m sure it’s also hard for lesbians who are entertainers. I think it’s a little harder for men, especially if they have a fanbase that might include straight women, or they think they’re part of their customer base. I’ve never understood why that is, because it’s not like the straight women could have them anyway! They’re not available. I think there’s sort of this mythology of that. I think it’s getting less and less, but obviously it’s still worth discussing as people do feel comfortable to come out. I know that there are A-list Hollywood actors here in the United States that are completely closeted. They might be gay-friendly, but really I think they’re gay. I know George doesn’t like to blame them, because that’s what they’ve chosen to do. It’s something that obviously he did too. I know some people would blame them. I think often when they’re not hurting anyone, and as long as they’re not politicians who are creating anti-LGBT legislation, it’s not as big of a deal.
It’s certainly bizarre that people aren’t that comfortable yet. It does seem like things have changed a lot. It’s just a much different tone. People talk about LGBT all the time, it really rolls off the tongue. I think especially there’s a fear, especially when it’s men in the limelight, that they’re somehow less masculine, which is of course completely absurd. I think there’s still that perception.
You talked about how George was nearing what he expected would be the twilight of his career when he came out. Obviously after that came his massive popularity on social media…
…and Howard Stern…
…yeah, and the Jimmy Kimmel skits. I hadn’t seen that skit with the basketball player before, so I had a good chuckle at that. Do you think that popularity online and in those spaces is helping to get to those people who have those outdated notions of masculinity and sexuality and so on?
I certainly hope so, but I think so. First of all, George has that incredible deep voice. He’s a gay man with an incredible deep voice. He’s in great shape. I think people just want to like him too. I know so many different gay men, ranging from very effeminate to quite a bit more masculine, and I love the whole range of those guys and I think you should be able to be anywhere in that spectrum. I think in the case of George, he’s someone that isn’t the stereotype of the effeminate gay man, who is like “look, you can seem reasonably masculine and have a deep deep voice, and be gay and really comfortable with that, and even have a loving marriage and be open about that”. I think he really unites people. I can’t imagine that there’s too many conservative people that aren’t charmed by him in some way. Everybody likes something about him.
And he laughs at himself, too! He’s not afraid to laugh at himself. He’s not afraid to laugh at some gay or LGBT stereotypes. It doesn’t hurt him. If someone on Howard Stern says something outrageous about “gay sex”, he’s not devastated. He just rolls with the punches and he goes on like “eh, no big deal”.
That indomitableness that he has is especially impressive when the film goes into the terrible fear he went through as a child with the Japanese-American internment, which he speaks about so eloquently.1 That just compounds the amount of fear and struggle that he went though. Was it tough to mix those tragedies or struggles that involve concepts of dignity and democracy with the light-hearted elements of the film?
Yeah, it was definitely a complicated goal and I knew that going into it, but that’s why I was so intrigued by George and to make this film about him, because there’s such a wide range of moods to his experiences; The incredible successes and fun pop culture, and then to have been imprisoned by the United States government when you were five years old. All of those things seemed really interesting together. I knew I had to have a really great editor, and so I kept following [the film’s editor] Bill Weber around.
I understand it was just you and him in the editing room. George and Brad didn’t really much of a say…
No, no. They came to the editing room like six months after we finished, just to see it. We’re in San Francisco CA, and occasionally they visit for something but they’re live in Los Angeles and sometimes New York and they travel all the time. No, they didn’t have any editorial control, so they saw some different scenes along the way to make sure we were doing things accurately with some of the history and stuff, but they really didn’t see the finished product until we premiered at Sundance.
Between this and your last feature documentary It Came From Kuchar, you’ve had the opportunity to talk to so many interesting people in the entertainment industry. What do you like most about conversing with those kinds of people?
I’m just fascinated by pop culture… and I guess gay men named George! George Kuchar was really coming at pop culture from the underground, and influencing it kind of quietly, whereas George Takei is influencing it maybe from the galaxy or something. You can’t help but get some influence from him. I guess they’re a mirror of our culture; what’s going on in the media, what science fiction or movies are being created, and what it really means about us and our beliefs and culture. It makes reality bearable in a way, people doing interesting things. It is a really exciting part of making documentaries about culture to get to talk to some of these people, otherwise I’d never get to talk to William Shatner! I was able to meet John Waters in It Came From Kuchar, and now I actually know him pretty well. It’s really exciting to be around people like that who are doing really interesting things.
A lot of those people that I’ve interviewed happen to be older, too. I tend to be inspired and attracted to people who aren’t afraid to keep living their lives as they get older. If they’re actors or artists and they’re still sort of obsessed with the same things they’ve always been obsessed with, I find that really interesting to follow.
To Be Takai plays on the 20th of September during the Queer Screen Film Festival. Tickets can be purchased here.