Actor George Takei, best known for his role as Lt. Hikaru Sulu on the Star Trek TV series and films, is the focus of a new documentary, To Be Takei, which opens in selected theaters on August 22. The affable Takei, who, as Mr. Sulu, boldly navigated the Starship Enterprise where no one had gone before, is quite a terrestrial traveler, as well. In fact, he is currently on board the Cunard Queen Mary 2 as a guest lecturer. We caught up with him at a pre-sailing press conference on the ship followed by a one-on-one travelandleisure.com interview to ask him about traveling, Howard Stern, his long-running feud with Star Trek co-star William Shatner, and why he agreed to play a talking head, literally, on the animated series Futurama.
On his love of London and all things English
We were [in London] two weeks ago, and we came back to take the Queen Mary 2 back to London. I’m an Anglophile and the son of an Anglophile. I’m named after George VI. When my younger brother was born, he was round and fat and roly-poly. My father thought he looked like Henry VIII, so guess what his name is. So we’re Japanese-Americans named after English royalty. When I got my B.A. from UCLA in theater arts, my graduation present, which I thought at best might be a fancy restaurant dinner, was a summer session at the Shakespeare Institute at Stratford-upon-Avon. First time in England, first time in Europe, and at the Shakespeare Institute to boot, which is in his birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon. I remember reading The Tempest and Macbeth in the cemetery of Trinity Church, where Shakespeare’s bones lie a’mouldering along the banks of the Avon River there. It was a mind-blowing graduation present. We’re in England quite regularly.
On the plays he plans to see in London
We already have two tickets. One for My Night With Reg at the Donmar Warehouse,where we’re contributors as well as ticket-buyers, and Shakespeare in Love. We also want to get tickets for Let the Right One In, which we’ve heard good things about. We saw The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It’s an Olivier award-winner. It’s coming to Broadway next month, I think. That’s a wonderful play.
On how he likes to visit cities
I call the soles of my shoes my “urban tongue”—I taste a city by walking it. But I’m also a theater lover. If I’m not working on stage, I’m in the audience… And if we’re not seated in a theater, we’re tasting the city by walking it.
On why he loves cruises
My very first cruise was an Alaska cruise. I’d never been to Alaska. The word isn’t exotic,but it’s a whole different part of the world—glaciers, seeing salmon being caught and cooked right there by the riverside. It was a very unique experience. But this is my very first time on a legend, the Queen Mary 2. For one thing you eat elegantly. I was going to say sumptuously, but then, with [Takei’s husband] Brad, he sometimes forgets the meaning of the word restraint. The eating is very good. On this one I don’t think that’s going to be a factor. Also, relaxing—but on this one I’m going to be working! But a cruise is a relaxing way to travel. Also, you avoid jet lag. We have a standing policy, as much as we love London theater—and London theater is very, very rich—we never go to the theater on the first night of arrival because of jet lag. But on this journey, we will be going to the theater on the first night, because you avoid jet lag by taking it in human steps—an hour at a time over an eight-day period. So it’s a much more comfortable way to go to London and see plays. The other thing wonderful about it is people on a cruise ship are all prepared to enjoy themselves. They’re relaxed; they don’t have their guard up. And you make friends. We’ve maintained friendships with friends that we made on prior cruises.
On his travel bucket list
I’ve always wanted to see Prague. I’ve heard many people talking about it. I saw it in the movies. Amadeus was shot in Prague. But I’ve never had the chance. And I have friends who tell me they have relatives there who will show us around. And so I really want to see Prague, but I just haven’t been able to make that work.
On why he will not travel to Russia
My parents went to Russia. They were inveterate travelers and liked to go to off-the-beaten-track places. I think they were some of the few early Americans to go to St. Petersburg and Moscow. My mother—and this was back in the seventies; was it possible back in the seventies?—my mother wasn’t too impressed with the food. My father was a history buff and he’d enjoy it for reasons other than food. But given the politics there now, I don’t think I’d like to be going there. In fact, I actively advocated pulling the Winter Olympics out of Sochi. I was on The Last Word on MSNBC and I also did Ronan Farrow, urging the International Olympics Committee to pull the Olympics out of Sochi because of that gay propaganda law that they passed. It’s just free license for hooligans, thugs, to assault anyone they perceive to be gay or lesbian, to beat them up, and a couple of people have been killed in Russia. I don’t want to support that. And certainly not now, with what [Russian President Vladimir Putin] is doing with the Russian military in Eastern Ukraine. So that’s definitely a place I’m fiercely opposed to going to, despite my parents having pioneered going there early on.
On his feud with William Shatner
[Editor: The Takei-Shatner personality clash goes back to the earliest days of Star Trek. More recently, Takei disputed Shatner’s claim that he was not invited to Takei’s 2008 wedding to partner Brad Altman.] We were driving down Sunset Blvd…. There was that billboard advertising William Shatner’s new talk show, Raw Nerve. And I think that’s why he made a big fuss about not getting an invitation two months after the wedding. I mean, that's clearly irrational. But as you saw, we had all the Star Trek cast members—surviving Star Trek cast members—in the film. And Bill was there. We’re a family. And like so many families, we have our crazy, eccentric uncle. And our crazy uncle shows up when we have these gatherings. As [Star Trek co-star] Nichelle [Nichols] said, “That’s our Bill.” That’s the way we feel about it.
On Howard Stern’s participation in the documentary
[Editor: Takei is a frequent guest on Howard Stern’s radio show, where he developed his now-famous catch phrase, “Ohh, myyy!”] I thought it was brilliant, on his part, to…say that he’d do the interview only on the condition that [the director] conduct the interview on the air, on his show. His vast listenership now knows about the [documentary]. So there’s that audience that’s guaranteed, because Howard’s audience is very, very loyal. They are going to flock to the theaters, I’m sure. And we’ll be promoting Howard as well. Howard is a very savvy guy. He challenges me, and I have to get down to the nitty-gritty with him. But they’re fun debates… And Howard is a very well-read, very well-informed guy. Yeah, he holds his own.
On being an icon to multiple generations of fans
Icon? Tell them I’m still alive, and that you spoke to me, I’m flesh and blood! I like to think my demographics cover the entire waterfront. [T]he Baby Boom people who are Star Trek fans. I also did Heroes, so the Millennials know me from that. And I also, for Nickelodeon, did two seasons on a pre-teen show called Supah Ninjas. I was a holographic grandfather who was a master ninja [Laughs.] At Star Trek conventions, grandpas usually bring their grandsons to the convention and they want my autograph because I’m Sulu, but the grandsons want my autograph because I’m Hologramps from Supah Ninjas!
On why he took a role in Futurama, in which he voices The Head of George Takei
They asked me! [Laughs.] [Infectiously.]