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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

September 22, 2014 at 11:20 AM

Q&A: George Takei on spaceflight, selfies, social media and more

One of Hollywood’s great second acts could hardly take a step through the Pike Place Market last week without someone asking to take a selfie with him.

George Takei signs an autograph for Gina Embry of Tennessee at Pike Place Market. Photo by Erika Schultz, Times staff photographer.

George Takei signs an autograph for Gina Embry of Tennessee at Pike Place Market. Photo by Erika Schultz, Times staff photographer.

Security guards and publicity agents tried to hustle him through the crowd, but George Takei stopped and smiled every time he was asked, posing for pictures with flower sellers, tourists and babes in arms.

Takei is best known as Commander Sulu, helmsman on the USS Enterprise in the original “Star Trek” TV series and movies.

Actors like Takei became icons for a generation that went on to build the modern tech industry, which continues to draw inspiration from futuristic gadgets that Sulu, Spock, Capt. Kirk and other characters used to explore strange new worlds.

Now 77, Takei has become a superstar in the new galaxy of social media, where he has an audience of 10 million across Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube and other channels broadcasting his commentary.

Takei’s popularity leapt in 2005 when he publicly disclosed that he is gay and spoke out against Arnold Schwarzenegger, then-governor of Takei’s native California, for vetoing the state’s marriage-equality bill.

Since then, Takei has become a prominent advocate for gay rights, expanding on political activism stirred in part by his family’s internment during World War II.

Photo by Erika Schultz, Times staff photographer.

Photo by Erika Schultz, Times staff photographer.

Takei has also become an honorary Seattleite. He visits regularly with his husband, Brad Takei, and served as grand marshal of this summer’s Pride Parade. He also has done events at EMP’s Science Fiction Museum, even though he thinks the zany building looks “like a Klingon ship that crash-landed in Seattle.”

Last week Takei was here filming an episode of “Takei’s Take,” an online series sponsored by the AARP that looks at new technology and trends. He’ll beam back up in October to visit, which will be selling the documentary “To Be Takei.”

Takei took a break from the action to have a few cups of tea and talk about the lasting influence of “Star Trek,” space travel and more. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:

Q: How many selfies have you been in?

A: Today, it’s been controlled because we’ve had minders around us to make sure we keep moving. Ordinarily, if we showed up at a place like Pike Place we would be doing constant selfies, occasional autographs.

We’re now in the age of selfies.

Q: Seattle has a number of entrepreneurs who grew up watching you and sci-fi in the 1960s. That generation went on to create today’s tech industry, and some — like Jeff Bezos, Paul Allen, plus California’s Elon Musk — are now building spacecraft.

Did you have any inkling back then that you might be inspiring kids this way?

A: Well, Gene Roddenberry, the creator of “Star Trek,” was a great sci-fi fan and himself a sci-fi writer. He wanted to use sci-fi as a metaphor for contemporary issues. So a lot of our writers were top-notch sci-fi writers at that time.

I think the future is created by these imagineers who imagine the seemingly impossible, and that places a benchmark in our imagined future. The scientists, the technicians, the innovators take that as a goal and start working toward it.

So I think in that way “Star Trek” did stimulate a lot of thinking. …

We still haven’t got there yet but people are working toward it. They’re making attempts at teleporting molecules.

Q: And you’ve got a Communicator in your pocket, right?

A: We had a thing called a Communicator that was amazing back in the ’60s. It’s like a tricorder now, the Communicator. We talk on it, it takes pictures, we text on it, we find out what the weather’s going to be.

It’s an amazing device that has far surpassed anything we had on “Star Trek.”

Q: As the face of the show, you and the others became icons.

A: We’re the beneficiaries of the visionaries that worked on “Star Trek,” like Gene Roddenberry and Harlan Ellison.

(Brad Takei interjects: “George is now Mr. Technology to the AARP audience … He’s destroying the myth that old people don’t know anything about technology.”)

Obviously, the “Star Trek” demographic is my generation — the baby boomers — but we have gone past that to embrace the millennials as well because, well, for one thing I did the “Heroes” series and then I did a Nickelodeon series for preteens called “Supah Ninjas.”

But we live in an age where the grandchildren’s parents get jobs elsewhere, far away, and via technology the grandparents can watch their grandchildren grow up, whether the parents are working in London or Tokyo or Buenos Aires. So they become technologically fluent as well.

Q: They also bond as one generation asks the other for help with technology.

A: Right, and everybody benefits.

Q: What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen so far doing the AARP show on new technology?

A: This season we’re going out of the studio to places where there are interesting innovators or technological trends happening. So we went to Austin, Texas, we went to Boston and here we are in Seattle this week.

We also went to Japan in June and there we met Asimo, the robot that greeted President Obama when he visited Japan.

What they’re developing are robots that are humanistic, for lack of a better word — (robots) that have expressions in their eyes, that read your emotions, or are being created to become companions to isolated elderly people.

They were playing disco music and Asimo started dancing, so I danced along with it. Dancing with a robot. When I changed the movement, it changed with me, just like in a real disco.

Q: How did you build such a huge audience on social media?

A: The important thing is regularity; we’re there every day. We backlog the various posts, and we have interns that do the posting because I might be on a set. I might be on a speaking tour throughout the country. I can’t be there every day so we backlog the memes.

Through trial and error I discovered it was the funnies, the humor — particularly “Grumpy Cat” — that gets the people.

So you hold the people with honey, then periodically I sock it to ’em with issues or current events, events that are of importance to society that they should know about and my take on it.

Q: Do you think your legacy as an advocate for gay rights will be greater than your legacy as an actor on “Star Trek”?

A: I think it will be both. I am an actor and all my life I’ve been active in civil rights.

I’ve been active in the political process, but throughout that (early) period I was silent on the issue that was organic to me — the fact I was gay — because I passionately loved and wanted to continue to be an actor.

And it was delusion for me to think I could have an acting career and be open at the same time. No producer would hire me — you’re box-office poison, ratings poison.

So I was closeted most of my life. At 68 years old — when Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the marriage bill — I felt my voice needed to be authentic for the first time.

Q: Do you ever want to go up in a real spaceship? There are people around here who have done it and could probably take you up one of these days.

A: I do. People like Elon Musk (CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors) are real inspirations now. The Starship Enterprise was called enterprise, and now we are going for space exploration via government to the entrepreneurial, private sector.

That’s precisely what happened (last week) with the contracts being given to Boeing and SpaceX.

Q: Would you like to take one of the private space flights?

A: I absolutely do but it’s initially very costly. But like so many technological advances, with competition between Boeing and SpaceX, the cost is going to be brought down to where it’s affordable for me.

I know that at my age — I’m 77 — time is important, but I think technological advances are accelerating, too.

So I think that within my lifetime I will be able to make that ‘trek’ into space at a rate where I won’t be destitute.

Q: Maybe they’d let you go for free if you drive.

A: I have experience as a helmsman, and a captain.

George and Brad Takei explore the strange new world of the Post Alley gum wall. Photo by Erika Schultz, Times staff photographer.

George and Brad Takei explore the strange new world of the Post Alley gum wall. Photo by Erika Schultz, Times staff photographer.

Comments | Topics: Billionaire techies, elon musk, george takei


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