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George Takei uses his voice to go where other gay activists can't be heard

Published January 20, 2014 5:55 pm

Sundance • Sulu of "Star Trek" fame uses social media to draw attention to his causes.
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By trial and error, George Takei says he has found humor to be a powerful social glue.

But the 76-year-old "Star Trek" actor-turned-social-media-activist isn't joking about Gov. Gary Herbert's decision not to recognize Utah's same-sex marriages while a federal court ruling is on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Between Dec. 20 and Jan. 6, Utah county clerks issued more than 1,300 marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

"Why is your Governor Gary Herbert so mean?" the actor asked repeatedly in a 30-minute phone interview on the eve of his Utah visit for the premiere of "To Be Takei," a Sundance Film Festival documentary about his life. "Your governor seems to believe in governing by hysteria.

"Your Governor Herbert is consciously bringing harm to 2,600 citizens of Utah," said Takei, who married his longtime partner, Brad Altman, in California in 2008. "That's mean-spirited. He didn't have to do that. Your governor is trying to put toothpaste back in the tube."

Against the backdrop of extraordinary legal decisions about same-sex marriage in Utah, filmmaker Jennifer Kroot is counting on the headlines to draw attention to her cinematic profile of Takei, which makes its debut in Park City on Saturday, Jan. 18.

Fifty years after Takei earned fame for playing Enterprise helmsman Hikaru Sulu on "Star Trek," the actor went on to reinvent himself by conquering the social-media universe.

Starting in 2010, via witty tweets and graphics, Takei built a massive following on Twitter, where he's now approaching nearly 1 million followers. Later that year, he went on to explore Planet Facebook, where his fan page has earned more than 6 million likes. There are other celebrities with bigger audiences, but few — if any — stars' posts are as actively shared and retweeted.

Some of his followers remember Takei and his distinctive baritone voice from "Star Trek," while some 20-something fans know him only as a social-media comedian. "To me, he's sort of a cross between Mr. Rogers and John Waters," said Kroot, who is making her first trip to Sundance. "He's sort of a genteel professorial type, and then he can shock you. And I just love that range."

Building upon a fan base that he referred to affectionately as "sci-fi geeks and nerds," Takei said he set out to build a social-media audience specifically to draw attention to his causes: seeking rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, and reminding Americans about the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans, including Takei and his family, during World War II.

He provided the voice narration for historical markers at Rohwer Camp in Arkansas, where he was imprisoned at age 5.

"We were little more than numbers to our jailers, each of us given a tag to wear to camp like a piece of luggage," he wrote last year in a piece for the Huffington Post, at the dedication of the Japanese American Internment Museum. "My tag was 12832-C."

To publicize his causes, including "Allegiance," his Broadway-aimed musical about one family's internment, "I decided to use today's techonology, just like on 'Star Trek,' " he said, referring to how characters talked across space throughout the galaxy long before Skype. On the show, the ship's crew communicated via communicators, hand-held devices similar to modern smart phones. "We are living in a sci-fi world."

For "To Be Takei," Kroot and her crew followed the actor to a Seattle Comic Con event, where he was treated as "the Dalai Lama of pop culture or something," the director says. The filmmaker also followed Takei on a pilgrimage to Arkansas and filmed his speeches about the internment. Along the way, the film focuses on his relationship with his husband, Brad, a former financial journalist, who now works as the actor's manager.

The film also records what Takei considers his legacy project, acting in and producing "Allegiance," a musical about a Japanese-American family that debuted at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre in 2012. "Who would think that would be a topic one could do a musical about?" Kroot said.

Takei says he has invested five figures since he began working on the $13.5 million musical in 2009. The show stars Lea Salonga, who won a Tony Award for "Miss Saigon" and sang the role of Jasmine in Disney's "Aladdin" and Fa Mulan in "Mulan." Takei says he and the rest of the "Allegiance" producers are "waiting like vultures" this season for a show to close and the right-size theater on Broadway to open up.

The documentary explores the multiple strands of the actor's life, woven together with the love story of a 27-year relationship. "I think a lot of people are going to be able to relate more easily to Brad, because Brad is human," Kroot said. "George is this dynamo rock star. He gets up in the morning, he's positive, he has things to do. He's different than the rest of us."


facebook.com/ellen.weist To boldly go with Takei

George Takei will appear at Comic Con's FanX pre-event event on Friday, Jan. 17, from 5-10 p.m.

Where • The Leonardo, 209 E. 500 South, Salt Lake City.

Tickets • The event is free, with photographs with Takei for $30 and autographs $40.

Also • FanX ticket holders will have VIP access.

Information • saltlakecomiccon.com —

'To Be Takei'

Filmmaker Jennifer Kroot's documentary about actor George Takei screens in the Documentary Premieres category at the Sundance Film Festival.

Saturday, Jan. 18, 9 p.m. • Yarrow Hotel, Park City

Sunday, Jan. 19, 12:30 p.m. • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, Salt Lake City

Monday, Jan. 20, 6:30 p.m. • Redstone Cinemas 1, Park City

Saturday, Jan. 25, 9 p.m. • Temple Theater, Park City