PASSION PLAY

A conversation with veteran stage and screen actor
George Takei on his starring role in East West Players’ Equus,
coming out of the closet,and the dire need to claim a voice
in today’s world

BY ALEXANDER CHO

PHOTOGRAPHED BY
STEVEN BARSTON FOR FRONTIERS

George Takei is recognized around the world as Mr. Hikaru Sulu, a character he played on three seasons of the TV show Star Trek and in six subsequent films. Takei’s portrayal of Sulu is a watershed moment in television history—never had an Asian-American actor played such a prominent role in the national media, certainly not without a marginalizing accent or stereotypical job as a chef or servant or cook. In fact, Takei’s clear, booming voice and perfectly enunciated English as he helmed the U.S.S. Enterprise, flew in the face of traditional Asian male stereotypes prevalent even up to that time on TV and in film.

What many may not know is that Takei, 68, has been a passionate activist for civil-rights and a community leader for many years. He is chairman emeritus of the board of trustees of the Japanese American National Museum, is on the advisory committee of the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program, and even ran for L.A. City Council in 1973, losing by only a small margin. An L.A. native, he was appointed to the board of directors of the Southern California Rapid Transit District by former L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley, and to the board of the Japan–United States Friendship Commission by President Bill Clinton.

Takei’s next challenge is taking on the complex and demanding role of psychiatrist Martin Dysart in the classic Tony Award–winning play Equus, running October 26 through November 20 at East West Players. The play, about a deeply troubled teenage boy who systematically blinds six horses with a metal spike, is an intense examination of the ideas of normality, society, and sexuality. In this production, which continues the minimalist tradition of the play’s run in London and on Broadway, action is almost continuous, set pieces are spare, and the horses are portrayed by muscular, half-naked men with ornate headdresses—this time, accompanied by taiko drums.

We sat down with Takei in his Hancock Park home recently and talked about his role, the idea of claiming one’s voice publicly and why activism is as important now as ever.

FRONTIERS: Let’s talk about the character Dysart and the play, Equus. It’s an amazingly meaty, compelling role, but was there anything personally that drew you to it?
GEORGE TAKEI: I first saw it in London at the National Theatre and I was blown away. I’m an anglophile. I visit England regularly, sometimes three or four times a year, at least once a year. I was roaming around England and I was in Leicester, subsequently, and I saw a small production there, with a different set of actors playing it; it still blew me away. And then I saw Anthony Hopkins in it.

Wow.
Yes, I was so impressed by the play, and then I saw Tony Perkins [in the lead role]. I never did see Richard Burton play it on stage. And then finally, it was my Star Trek colleague Leonard Nimoy,who played Dysart on Broadway. And then I saw Burton’s movie, and I was just so disappointed by that. And Burton’s one of my heroes. My very first film that I got, while I was still a student at UCLA, I was seen in a theatre-arts department production by a casting director from Warner Brothers, plucked out of this student production, and put in my first feature film, starring Robert Ryan and Richard Burton [the film was Ice Palace]. It was two weeks on location in a small fishing village in Alaska and then two months back at the studio. Burton and I were a perfect fit, because here’s this star-struck, stage-struck young actor, full of questions, and here’s this legendary figure who loved to talk about himself. I would pose a question, and he would carry on, you know, holding court, and the assistant would come and say, “Mr. Burton, we’re ready for you on the set now,” and then he’d say, “Hang on, George, hang on,” then go on the set and tear your heart out with a wonderfully performed scene, and when the director said, “Cut,” he would come back—“Now George, as I was telling you …” I mean, it was amazing. And here I am now, playing the role that he played on Broadway and in the movie version. There’s kind of a circularity about Dysart for me.

Tell me more about what resonates with you with this character.
Well, he’s got a lot of demons that he’s fighting. It’s been festering in him for a long time. And then this boy explodes on him. I mean, obviously, clearly deranged, but that fire that he sees in him, that burning passion, and focused on creating his own worship, that’s been missing in [Dysart]. And that’s what’s been gnawing at him. He’s a bright guy, he’s an outstanding psychiatrist, and yet he talks about his “eternal timidity.” He’s a guy who’s got all of this churning, not able to do anything about it. And then he has coming in front of him this seventeen-year-old who’s doing so much, outside the frameworks of normal society. There’s something in him that connects with—I mean, he’s sick, but he connects with that boy. So, there’s all this kind of him having something that Dysart doesn’t have. But Dysart has something that he clearly needs. It’s that dramatic tension that Shaffer’s created. He’s an amazing playwright.

There definitely is something that gets challenged within Dysart—he grows, although I’m not sure he goes through a complete arc, because the end is quite somber. How is the end, for you? Is it negative or is it positive?
It’s very sad. You know, when Dysart addresses the audience, in my mind, to create my reality: I’m a psychiatrist. And I’m on the psychiatrist’s couch. When I’m talking to the audience, I’m talking to another psychiatrist, and I’m sharing with him my story, which is played out, my experience with the boy, Alan Strang. So the opening speech is really the same speech as the ending speech. He’s telling this story on the psychiatrist’s couch. He’s had this turbulent experience, and now he has more understanding of himself and what he does, and he’s still troubled, and so he’s talking to a psychiatrist. “There is now in my mouth this sharp chain, and it never comes out.” That’s his last line. He’s not that wild spirit, that wild, crazy spirit that Alan is. He’s still got the chain in his mouth. And he’s aware of it. See, before, he was frustrated, and it was churning in him, but he didn’t really understand where this doubt and unease and distress is coming from. Now he knows, and at least he’s gotten to the point where he can talk it out.

So maybe that’s his arc. But it doesn’t exactly end on the sunniest of notes.
You can’t make a musical out of it, no. [Laughs] Although some of the horses try, of course, when they come stomping in.

What makes you want to come out, publicly?

You know, it’s not really coming out, which suggests opening a door and stepping through. It’s more like a long, long walk through what began as a narrow corridor that starts to widen. And then some doors are open and light comes in, and there are skylights and it widens. Brad’s my partner, we’ve been together for 18 years. So, I’ve been “open,” but I have not talked to the press. In that sense, maybe that’s another opening of the corridor there.

Since this interview was coming up, I’ve been thinking on that. I’ve been thinking of my childhood. You know, I grew up in two American internment camps, and at that time I was very young. My memories of camp—I was four years old to eight years old—they’re fond memories. We were first sent to a camp in Arkansas. I remember catching pollywogs and seeing them sprout legs, and then it snowed one winter in Arkansas, and for a Southern California kid, to discover snow was magical. Yes, I remember the barbed wire and the guard towers and the machine guns, but they became part of my normal landscape. What would be abnormal in normal times became my normality in camp. We had to line up three times a day, and take our meal in a noisy mess hall—normal for me to go to school in a black tarpaper barracks, and I used to begin school every morning pledging allegiance to the flag, and I could see the barbed-wire fence out there, and the guard towers, saying, “With liberty and justice for all,” without being aware of the irony of those words. But when we came out of camp, that’s when I first realized that being in camp, that being Japanese-American, was something shameful. That camp was sort of like jail, and bad people go to jail. So, when you’re eight, nine … I didn’t want to talk about being in an internment camp. They would ask me, where was I? I would say I was far away … Arkansas. But I never went into details. And there’s a sense of some shame being Japanese-American.

I would imagine so, if you have to basically disavow or pretend away four years of your life just because of that fact.
And I can never forget that teacher, Mrs. Rugen—I hated that woman. She would refer to me as “that little Jap boy,” and that stung. But I didn’t even tell my parents about it, at home, because I thought, you know, it would hurt them to know that there was a teacher that was calling me “little jap boy.” So I just swallowed the pain. I mean, everytime she said that—she wouldn’t say it to me, but I would hear her talking to other people about “that little Jap boy.” It stung. But I just swallowed it. And you grow up like that, feeling ashamed of who you are, and having to swallow pain like that. And then when you get this realization that you have a different focus in life, you know, that other boys are interesting to you—I remember certain boys, you know, who when they would hunker down their pants would go up and I would see their ankles, and that was exciting. At that time, that was exciting, but then you start realizing, that’s not “normal.” And so you start kind of hiding that as well. So [there’s] that duality—of feeling ashamed because you’re Japanese-American, and feeling like you’re different because of your [homosexuality]. And then [as you grow older], with reading, and talking to other people, your understanding of the situation starts to grow. And you think, “It’s wrong, this [shame] is not right.” And you start sharing it with more people, and you find other friends and organizations. As a matter of fact, I met Brad through Front Runners [an L.A.-based gay running club]. I was a runner from my junior-high-school days. And at a bar, you see a paper, and you see a gay running club. “Oh, I’ll show up,” you think. People would see me and they were kind of astounded, but I ran with them, they saw that I’m George, not Sulu. So your frame of reference, your community broadens. And as I said, that corridor that was narrow becomes wider and brighter. And you start realizing that this is “normal.” For me. There’s a lot of talk of normality. Equus talks about this, too. The large popular normality is that rigid, constrained normality. But there’s another natural normality. And you come to realize, “This is who I am. And by gum, I’m not going to let it be a constraint!” In the same way that I’m not going to let the fact that I am a Japanese-American, who was unjustly incarcerated and grew up with that, be a constraint.

Tell me more about how you met Brad.
We were runners. He was an outstanding runner; he’s stopped running now. He’s done more than me; I’ve done six marathons. We’d train together. And we were with the Front Runners, and there would be a lot of Front Runners that were planning on doing a particular marathon, training together. And then, you know, we discovered that we had common interests in the theatre—he was a journalist—we’d go to plays together and, you know, things happen. [Laughs]

Are you out to your family and friends?

You know, I’ve not had a good experience with one sibling. And I won’t be specific because it’s still a problem. My mother, initially, had some adjustments to make, but she got to like Brad very much. She got Alzheimer’s, and it got very difficult for her, so we moved her in with us. Brad was wonderful. He was a saint. It’s very difficult when you’re dealing with someone with Alzheimer’s. And some of the stages were … horrific. And Brad helped throughout that. She was with us for the last four years of her life. And I owe so much to him.

There definitely is a huge degree of introspection that goes along with this character, Dysart, that you’re currently inhabiting. Has that influenced your life, or your decision to come out?
This is something that I’ve mused on for a long time. I’ve been thinking on sharing it with the media, but the media is an ungovernable creature. [But] it’s still a constraint in life, [and] you want to act on those constraints, like the marriage bill [AB 849]. Arnold Schwarzenegger is like some of those duplicitous Southern politicians who would say one thing and yet maintain segregation in the South. And that’s what he’s doing here. He’s a dangerous politician, in the same way that Strom Thurmond or other politicians who say one thing in order to try to curry a broad base of support, and then when push comes to shove, they act in a segregationist way. You know, that’s what Arnold Schwarzenegger is. When he first was mouthing the words he was mouthing I thought, “Hmmm, alright, let’s see.” And then this bill was passed, which was landmark, and it hung on him. And he failed utterly. When you see things like that, you say, “I can play a part in trying to change some of those constraints that we have to struggle with.” We talk about diversity, ethnic diversity, but there’s another kind of diversity [sexual orientation] that we haven’t really come to grips with as a society. And the segregationist mentality is so strong, but it’s as destructive as racial segregation was in the South, or incarceration on the basis of looking like the enemy, as in the case of Japanese-Americans during the second World War—you know, it’s that same mentality, and in order to be vocal on those issues, I think I need to address those issues as who I am.

I was in the march from the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center the day after Arnold vetoed the bill. We stopped Hollywood Boulevard. It was quite a thing to feel, walking down the middle of the street.
You’re much too young to have been in the civil-rights movement. I marched back then—I was in a civil-rights musical, Fly Blackbird, and we met Martin Luther King. What a profoundly, both uplifting and empowering thing that was. He shook my hand! [With] certain people, you feel a charge through their hand. It was a fantastic experience. It was a big rally at the Sports Arena. And you know, the gay-marriage movement has to get that kind of numbers. I mean, today, this week—who would have thought—Time magazine’s cover story is on gay teens. And the commentary is that it’s a whole different mentality with the young generation. I do think society will eventually change. I mean, it’s changed incredibly from the time I was a teenager to today, both in terms of Asian-Americans in the theater and television and films, but also for gays and our self-image, and the ability to move in our society. We still have the archreactionary conservatives. It’s that mentality, the Bible-thumpers, “We have the whole truth, and by gum we’re going to impose it on everybody.” It’s that same mentality that had segregation in the south: Blacks and whites can never mix. And the segregationists had the truth. The Bible-thumping religiosos are not the holders of the truth, and yet they are the ones who want to impose their truth—and I respect their truth, if they find it for their strength and their guidance through life—but for them to impose that on the rest of society, the rest of America, I think is just as corrupt as the segregationists trying to impose racial segregation in the South.

Equus runs October 26 through November 20, 2005, at East West Players’ David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles. Frontiers night, featuring discounted tickets and a cast reception, is November 17. Call 213/625-7000 or visit www.eastwestplayers.org for tickets.

 

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