Star Trek icon George Takei talks social media, diversity, and ‘Discovery’

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Veteran actor, activist, and internet icon George Takei is no stranger to challenging the status quo, whether in his career-launching role as Hikaru Sulu in the Star Trek franchise or his modern evolution to social media celebrity.

As an outspoken human-rights advocate both within the U.S. and abroad, Takei has earned considerable acclaim, but his latest endeavor takes a considerably more humorous approach to activism. The actor has helped launch House of Cats, an app that uses augmented-reality elements to let users interact with and manipulate “Trumpy Cat,” a feline parody of the U.S. President loaded with some of his most famous (or perhaps infamous) quotes.

In an interview with Digital Trends, Takei weighed in on everything from his latest project to the culture of Hollywood, the evolution of Star Trek (including the success of Star Trek: Discovery), and using social media to forge a common bond with millions.

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George Takei as Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu

Digital Trends: You’ve managed to make a pretty successful transition from Star Trek and TV celebrity to an internet celebrity and influencer. What shaped your approach to the internet and social media? Did you discover how to navigate these waters on your own, or did you have any sort of mentors or examples you followed to connect so well with the next generation?

George Takei: I took the approach that social media should be more about what the fans want to talk about rather than just me. I never wanted to post things like my workout routines or what I had for breakfast. It’s really not that interesting. But with the rise of social media, we have an opportunity to discuss together, laugh together and take action together. And I kept in mind that diversity of backgrounds and experiences made a community stronger. My own mentor here was Gene Roddenberry, who used to say that Star Trek was about exploring infinite diversity in infinite combinations. And so I like to welcome all folks to the table to talk, so long as they act civilly and intelligently, and have in mind our common good.

Science-fiction has typically been a great genre for exploring politics and culture and the way society can change for better or worse down the road. Are you an avid sci-fi fan? What are you watching these days? Are there sci-fi shows you’ve seen that exemplify that spirit?

I am watching the new Star Trek: Discovery on CBS All-Access. That is a powerful show with a powerful message of inclusion. For the first time, there are principal characters who are LGBT, and the leads are women of color. What a wonderful and refreshing thing. And so I remain a Star Trek fan, and will always be one.

Star Trek did lead the way, and, as I mentioned, the franchise continues to be on that leading edge of diversity of character and in casting.

Star Trek has always been regarded as being ahead of the curve when it comes to diversity, and there’s a lot of dialogue happening now about diversity in Hollywood. As someone who was in that original Star Trek cast, from your perspective, how far has Hollywood come since those days, and how far does it still have to go?

Star Trek did lead the way, and, as I mentioned, the franchise continues to be on that leading edge of diversity of character and in casting. But Hollywood still has far to go. Even today, roles that were written in novels and comic books to be Asian characters are being portrayed instead by white actors. We need to move past that. Producers need to take chances with leads who are not white. Otherwise, the cycle is self-defeating and self-perpetuating.

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Back in 2016, you criticized the decision to make John Cho’s version of Sulu gay in the rebooted movie series and suggested that it had twisted Gene Roddenberry’s vision for the character you played. We’re a few more movies into that rebooted series now and a lot has happened in the Star Trek franchise and Hollywood since that time. Do you still feel the same way?

I always felt the 50th anniversary of Gene Roddenberry should be marked by honoring Gene’s vision for the characters, which in that case meant keeping Sulu straight. They decided to make him gay anyway, and there was a lot of chatter about that decision, but in the end, the “gay” moment was but a single shot of Sulu returning, greeted by a man and what appeared to be his daughter. There was little by way of affection in the scene. The man could have been his brother. So this all seems to have been a big nothing burger.

Apart from its content, Star Trek: Discovery has been a standout series in the sci-fi genre for being hosted exclusively on CBS’ All Access streaming service. As someone who’s made great use of emerging technology, are you surprised the show (and with it, the streaming service) has been able to succeed in CBS’ “walled garden?”

Not at all. People are willing to pay extra for great content as many of the streaming services have demonstrated. The advent of the platforms had threatened many makers of content with a great watering down, as content appeared for a while to be both cheap and plentiful, but there is always a flight to quality in the end.

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Star Trek Paramount Pictures

At a time when many people in Hollywood are trying to walk a fine line politically and avoid trouble, you’re jumping right into the fray by adding your name to House of Cats like this. Why is that?

I have seen darker times than what we are seeing now, and I know from experience that the answer is not to shy away from, but rather to confront, the troubles we now face. I’ve dedicated my life to helping ensure that things like internments camps never get built in America again, but here we are in 2018, and again have camps — this time for immigrant children separated from their parents. So the fears are real, and our work is cut out for us. But I do not despair because I know that Americans are fundamentally good people. We sometimes make terrible mistakes, but we also know how to learn from those. And so I am hopeful.

Would you ever consider coming back to TV and/or the Star Trek universe in some form, if asked? Have you ever been approached by producers of any of the latest series or movie franchises for an appearance?

I am ready and willing to helm the Excelsior as Captain Sulu whenever they might need me. And in fact, I have a few irons in the fire with television as well. But you’ll have to follow me on social media to find out more when we make those announcements.

More information about the House of Cats app is available at HouseOfCats.com.

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