Jennifer M. Kroot Talks TO BE TAKEI – Michelle McCue Interviews

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TO BE TAKEI is an entertaining and moving look at the many roles played by eclectic 76-year-old actor/activist George Takei whose wit, humor and grace has allowed him to become an internationally beloved figure.

It balances unprecedented access to the day-to-day life of George and his husband/business partner Brad Takei with George’s fascinating personal journey, from his childhood in a Japanese American internment camp, to his iconic and groundbreaking role as Sulu on “Star Trek,” through his rise as an internet phenomenon with over 6-million Facebook likes. Read on…

From director Jennifer M. Kroot, this insightful film features interviews with George Takei, Brad Takei, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, Dan Savage, and Walter Koenig.

The documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2014, played in St. Louis at Q Fest in April and opened in select cities, VOD platforms and iTunes on August 22nd.

Recently Michelle McCue spoke with the filmmaker about her documentary and what it truly means TO BE TAKEI.

George in 70's

MICHELLE McCUE: How did the film come about?

JENNIFER KROOT: I’ve always been a lifelong Star Trek fan. When I was a kid I watched the original series in reruns and went to a couple conventions as a teenager. Fast-forward to 2005. George Takei, at the age of 68, decided to come out and I found myself loving to hear his voice as an LGBT activist. Not only to his ability to laugh at himself, but to be so honest.

Then I read his autobiography, written before he came out, about being imprisoned as a child in Japanese American internment camps (Tule Lake War Relocation Center, CA and Rohwer War Relocation Center, AR) at age 5, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how Mr. Sulu was imprisoned and amazing his life is. I became compelled and obsessed.

I ended up writing a letter to his agent, who had been a fan of my previous film (IT CAME FROM KUCHAR), who then called me back right away to set up a meeting pretty quickly with George and Brad. That was kind of a surprise.

We talked about making a documentary portrait of him for about six months, followed by filming. The whole project took about three and a half years.

MM:: Had George ever considered making a film about the internment camp?

JK: He actually wanted to make a narrative film about the internment of Japanese Americans. He was hoping to make a biopic about his experience, but ended up making the musical “Allegiance” about being in the camp.

For him, it was about seeing his family go through it, especially his parents’ suffering, and them having to restart their lives. That really haunted him. I don’t think a day has gone by where he hasn’t thought of it. It’s all about an overwhelming, haunting memory that he wants to keep alive.

MM:: There’s a section in the film where you go along with Mr. Takei on a trip to see the internment camp – was this his first time back to the one in Arkansas?

JK: No. He was imprisoned in two internment camps and we went to the one in Arkansas. They went on a pilgrimage there because they were doing historical work to preserve it and they wanted George’s input on it. He’s been there, but not anytime recently. It is an intense thing every time he goes back.

MM:: It’s a very intense part of the documentary and it’s nice to see the chemistry between the two as they make the drive.

JK: I love them in that drive.

Driving takei

MM:: Was anything ever off-limits?

JK: There wasn’t anything ever discussed that was off-limits. We thought we might, but in the end no. There were moments when Brad told me to stop filming – which ended up in the movie. He was afraid we looked like paparazzi and he would say, “turn the camera off.”

They’d reveal very personal things and it would be great, then there’d be times were they’d both be tired and let us know. It’s all part of how a documentary is done. There are people following you with a camera. It’s not happening every second, but it’s real and the audience sees how they’re reacting to the camera.

MM: What surprised you most about the research?

JK: Learning about the internment camps. It’s upsetting to learn that it happened here. To find out that all the adults had to sign loyalty questionnaires and his parents refused to do that, which is why they were sent to a higher security camp.

I was surprised to find out that George had done two Jerry Lewis movies where he played very typical Asian roles, which was common for the times. It’s something that he really regrets. And we show it in the film. It was important to show how those roles were prominent then. I knew George had promised his father he wouldn’t do roles like that and was interesting to hear him talk about that.

I was also surprised to learn that George feels that Howard Stern, whether you love him or hate him, was the one who really re-ignited his career. They have a friendship as the result of working together. It’s really interesting because they seem quite different, personality-wise. Stern gets a big audience and they like hearing George on his show.

Walk of Fame TO BE TAKEI

MM:: The best line in the movie, “it’s okay to be gay, it’s okay to be Takei,” I absolutely love it.

JK: It was actually Brad’s idea for the title. He just came up with it one day.

MM:: What was your favorite interview with Mr. Takei?

JK: It was always fun to talk to George. It was interesting talking to him about being closeted and that whole experience because he’s been a celebrity since age 30 and it was a long time to live that double life. Times have changed very much in his lifetime. He’s been wonderfully very open in the struggle for marriage equality. George is very giving in relating his experience and trying to make it better for future generations.

MM:: You’re a Star Trek fan. I’m a Star Trek fan. That must have been such a cool feeling when it sunk in, “I’m making a movie about Mr. Sulu!”

JK: Yeah… I’m making a Star Trek movie! And all the remaining cast is in the documentary.

MM:: That leads to my next question. What was interviewing William Shatner like, because it’s a real eye-opener.

JK: Yeah, that was nerve racking. Brad helped to set that up. He helped with all of the Star Trek people. Shatner was willing to give me ten minutes, which is not a lot of time – usually 30 to 45 minutes is what you need for an interview – and I’m thinking, “oh my God,” but you get what you get. Honestly it was very action packed.

I’ve got to say, he was 80 when I interviewed him and I’ve never met someone with so much charisma coming into a room. He knocked me off my chair. He’s got a real aggressive personality and it was really fun to talk to him. Shatner is very smart and I really appreciated him being such a good sport in participating.

It can’t be that much fun in talking about someone you don’t like. It’s one thing when it’s private but it’s been all over the media. I don’t think he’s losing a lot of sleep over it.

Midtown Comics takei

MM:: George is on Facebook (and Twitter). Had that already happened when you started filming and was he comfortable with social media right away?

JK: George was not on social media when we started filming, believe it or not. It was insane to see how quickly he became a social media phenomenon! I think it’s great that he’s reinvented himself this way. He’s 76 and completely unafraid of new technology, and now he even hosts an online tech show for seniors. He was comfortable with social media from the beginning, or that’s how it seemed to me.

MM:: What did the Takeis say about the film once they saw it?

JK: They first saw it at Sundance and they love the movie.

MM:: What do you want audiences to take away from the film and what he’s accomplished?

JK: He’s accomplished a lot and I really loved showing the relationship of George and Brad – the normalcy of their same sex marriage that has prevailed for so long. They have legally been married since 2008 and have been together for 27 years. I know that’s very key to them, letting people in. I know that’s why Brad was willing to do it too – to really show the bond that they’ve had.

It’s the only documentary that’s a romantic comedy. (laughs) I’m really proud that we were able to do that.

Thanks to Jennifer M. Kroot and when you watch her film, make sure to stay to the very end of the credits.

© Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
© Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
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Michelle Hannett

Michelle Hannett (formerly McCue) contributes to and edits