George Takei apologises in advance because he may cough uncontrollably and unpredictably, which is why he is in bed the morning of our telephone interview from New York.
The 80-year-old Japanese-American actor and activist has been in the Big Apple performing in an off-Broadway show called Pacific Overtures. It was supposed to end on June 2, but its popularity led to a two-week extension.
“When I’m working I don’t get to do New York things, but it was Memorial Day and we went down to see Oculus, the futuristic looking transportation hub by architect Santiago Calatrava, whose work I admire,” he says.
He also visited the One World Trade Centre observatory, and it was upon returning home that he came down with the chills and felt exhausted, and so the need to recuperate.
Nevertheless, he is eager to talk about another of his projects. It was announced last night that Takei has been appointed creative director of Hong Kong-based Fifth Journey. The company, founded in March 2015, works with film studios to appoint developers and publishers for next-generation mobile games, virtual reality entertainment and Esports.
It has been involved in mobile games based on movie franchises including The Expendables, and an interactive game involving comedian and actor Kevin Hart.
Fifth Journey’s partners include Universal Pictures, Lionsgate and MGM. Now, the company is expanding further, working with the Hollywood movie studios to also devise strategies for marketing, distribution and financing.
Fifth Journey has just released its first game, based on the stop-motion animation Kubo and the Two Strings, which beat out Disney’s Zootopia and Moana, and Disney/Pixar’s Finding Dory to win the Bafta for best animated feature, and was nominated for an Academy Award this year.
The fantasy story, set in Japan, is about a boy called Kubo who must find his missing father’s magical suit of armour to defeat a vengeful spirit. Takei is the voice of Hosato, the father of a girl who is curious about legends and ceremonies in pre-Meiji Japan.
Voice-over work is nothing new for Takei, who used to dub a lot of Japanese films into English beginning when he was 18 years old.
“It’s a magical story and at the time I could see it in my mind’s eye, but when I saw the images on the screen it was spectacular,” he says.
The film didn’t get much screen time or distribution in cinemas, but the film studio, Laika, is hoping the new game will generate more interest in it – and Takei will play a role in promoting it.
“They [Fifth Journey] offered me this opportunity to participate in this new medium, and as they say in Star Trek, I’m going boldly where no one has gone before,” Takei says. “This is a new medium for me, just like social media was. I was a pioneer in Facebook and once I got into it, I loved it and explored all the possibilities, for entertainment and informing my followers about social justice issues.”
As the creative director, Takei will help suggest story lines for the game.
“I love the movie so much that I want to show my passion for it through the game,” he says.
“My character Hosato is not fully developed in the film, so there is a lot of back story potential. I might slip in some social advocacy, like Hosato being an advocate for samurai values. That’s all I’m going to hint for now,” he adds with a chuckle.
Eric Tan, Fifth Journey’s founder and CEO, says he couldn’t have found a more inspired individual to help bring Kubo’s magic to gamers on both sides of the Pacific.
“George is an amazing storyteller and one of the first in Hollywood to bridge East and West,” he says.
Although Takei turned 80 in April, he is keen to remain active as long as possible. He claims to be blessed with good health (except on the day we speak), and says he’s a healthy eater.
“I exercise every morning and I’ve run six marathons. Now I make it a point to walk, especially in New York, where it’s faster to walk than taking a cab,” he says.
Being young at heart has also garnered the actor a slew of young fans who never knew Takei as Sulu in the phenomenal Star Trek television series of the 1960s.
“It’s totally unexpected. My colleagues who I used to work with 50 years ago ... on Star Trek, their fans are dropping off, but I have a new set of fans and I’m delighted. You have to be young, think young.”
Takei’s Twitter and Facebook posts mock US President Donald Trump at every turn, particularly his travel ban on Muslims, which chime with Takei’s experience of being sent to internment camps during the second world war because of his Japanese roots.
“At the root of it all, it’s a negative aspect of stereotypes. Now it’s people of the Muslim faith,” he says. “It’s a way to make people [become] ‘the other’ ... Because of the stereotypical depiction of Japanese-Americans 75 years ago, we were described as bloodthirsty, cruel and inscrutable by the press.
“One hundred and twenty thousand of us were summarily rounded up and put behind a barbed wire fence with rifles pointed at us,” he adds. “My grandparents came from Japan, my parents from California, me, my brother and sister born in Los Angeles. It was a jingoistic campaign where they put us into camps in an unconstitutional way that never went through the courts.
Takei wants to “raise awareness of that chapter of American history”. “We founded a museum [Japanese American National Museum], developed a musical [Allegiance] on Broadway, to fight stereotypes,” he says. “Our strength as Americans is our diversity. People come here for the American dream. They want to be bigger than their parents and grandparents. We can’t be this if we characterise people as ‘the other’.”
Takei cites his civil rights credentials, having met Martin Luther King and marched with him, and how starring in Star Trek was a breakthrough in television in terms of diversity in the 1960s.
“Our president is ignorant of our history,” he says. “When he was campaigning during the election, he said we need to ban Muslims and I thought ‘that’s dangerous‘.”
He invited Trump to watch Allegiance, but he wasn’t interested, Takei says .
“After he got elected he immediately signed the executive order just like 75 years ago. But where we are as Americans is different this time – people rushed to airports all over the country to protest,” Takei says. “That didn’t happen when we were incarcerated.”
But not all Takei’s political activism is serious. On April 1, he announced on Twitter he would run against Devin Nunes for senator in Tulare County, California, in 2018.
“He was chairman of the intelligence committee and as soon as he had info he would share it with the White House,” Takei says. “You’re not supposed to do that! He was vilified by every red-blooded American.
“So I announced I was running against him – and that was true – I meant that for 24 hours. So many people believed it. I did my part to put the spotlight on Devin. There are so many shockingly irresponsible people in public office now.”
Takei is also doing his bit to push for more Asian faces on television and in film.
“Remember The Good Earth?” – a novel about life on a Chinese farm,” he says. “It was a wonderful story and it was made into a film. It would have been wonderful for Anna May Wong, an ethnic Chinese actress, to play the role. Yet they made the whole thing starring Caucasians and ethnic Chinese actors in minor roles.
“We’re still fighting the yellow face battle. It’s the same issue … Characters that are supposed to be Asian are turned white,” he says, citing Scarlett Johansson’s Japanese character in Ghost in the Shell and Tilda Swinton playing a Tibetan in Doctor Strange.
“Two years ago the Oscars were criticised with the hashtag #oscarsowhite, and the most recent Oscars had more African Americans. But that just made it more black and white. We need to reflect diversity, the reality of the scene,” he says.
Takei says African Americans have made tremendous progress since actor Sidney Poitier became the first African American to win an Oscar in 1964, but the Asian American community needs to become more active in creating opportunities on the big screen.
“Hollywood is a business. If it knows certain actors are box office draws, then they are bankable. And one reason we need Chinese or Asian stories and actors is that now Hollywood is chasing the China market. It’s huge, and Hollywood wants a piece of it,” he says.