By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Having conquered Facebook and Twitter, George Takei is expanding his social media empire into a new frontier.
That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the actor, activist and author is indeed adding talk-show host to his list of occupations thanks to AARP, which has launched “Takei’s Take,” a light-hearted look at technology issues, on YouTube (www.youtube.com/TakeisTake).
“They came to me and it was an offer that was intriguing,” Takei said in a phone interview. Topics include new devices like Google Glass and Internet trends like online dating. The segments, just a few minutes each, come out every other week. He hopes to complete 12 of them before the end of the year.
Takei, 76, stressed that both AARP members and younger people are part of the target audience. “Older people are very engaged with social media, but I bring with me to ‘Takei’s Take’ a larger demographic because yes, the original ‘Star Trek’ fans are now members of AARP, but their grandchildren … are also ‘Star Trek’ fans. They are probably the most tech-savvy of them all, with technology from the time they were toddlers.”
In the segment on online dating, which he discusses with comedian David So, Takei notes that in addition to general-interest websites like Match.com, there are specialized ones for Jewish singles, cat lovers, “Star Trek” fans and even AARP members.
“Very interestingly, most people think that’s for young people on the hunt, but members of AARP are now either becoming widowed or becoming divorced, and they are active in online dating,” he observes. “It’s relevant to the entire generational spectrum.”
Takei makes no claim to be an expert, and is learning along with his viewers. “The AARP staff that puts it together comes up with the subjects of each program, and with Google Glass, I was cursorily aware of that, but I got the details when we decided to do that show. It’s a fascinating device.”
Takei and Internet personality Lamarr Wilson discuss Google Glass, a device that is worn like a pair of glasses and allows the user to take photos, shoot video, get directions or look stuff up online just by blinking one’s eyes. Takei adds, “There’s an interesting app … where they have facial recognition. You could be looking at someone and you blink so many times … and find out things about people.”
But as a practical matter, Takei concludes, “I don’t know whether it’s an advance or not … There are lots of problems, lots of downsides.” For example, he says, people are already getting into accidents by texting and driving, and Google Glass would mean even more distractions for drivers and pedestrians. Also, you could easily become a victim of theft while walking around “with $1,500 on your face.”
In another installment, Takei talks with Internet celebrity and comedian Michael Buckley about the “sharing economy,” which started with websites like Craigslist and has evolved into more specialized sites like Airbnb, which enables people to rent out unused rooms, apartments or houses, and Lyft, which facilities ride-sharing and is responsible for those cars driving around with pink moustaches.
Takei’s take: There are some risks involved in sharing a car or a home with a stranger, but if you do your research it might be a good way to make some extra cash.
This isn’t the first time Takei has been tapped for a campaign aimed at retired people. A couple of years ago, he did a series of public service announcements for the Social Security Administration with another actor who was on TV in the late 1960s, Patty Duke. “We’re both of AARP age and instantly recognizable to that demographic,” says Takei.
At the same time, he’s finding that some of his younger fans don’t necessarily know him as Sulu on the original “Star Trek.” “I had a Nickelodeon series, ‘Supah Ninjas,’ which plays to the pre-teen and mid-teen generation, for two seasons. I also did ‘Heroes,’ which lasted three seasons (on NBC). I also do “The Howard Stern Show” (on Sirius XM Radio).”
In addition, he appears in comedy sketches on Conan O’Brien’s TBS talk show; and guest-starred on “The Big Bang Theory” with Katee Sackhoff from “Battlestar Galactica,” on “Hawaii Five-0” as Daniel Dae Kim’s uncle, and on “The Neighbors” with Mark Hamill from “Star Wars.”
“I have a lot of different demographics that I’m known for now rather than just ‘Star Trek,’” Takei says.
Educating the Public
Takei has used his fame to educate the public about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and to speak out against homophobia and for gay rights. He says this activism is what led to his iconic status on social media.
Takei’s Facebook page has nearly 4.6 million “likes,” and Mashable.com lists him as the most influential person on Facebook. He has more than 800,000 followers on Twitter, and his Klout score is 89, the same as Pope Francis. (Klout is a website and mobile app that uses social media analytics to rank public figures according to their online social influence on a scale of 100.) His latest book, “Oh Myyy! There Goes the Internet,” reached No. 10 on the New York Times e-book nonfiction list. Some have crowned him the king of social media.
“I had no idea it would grow like this when I first started out,” he says. “The motivation was one, primarily to raise awareness of the internment; two, to let those people know that we developed a musical on the internment (‘Allegiance’); and three, to build that audience into enthusiastic potential ticket-buyers …
“Here we built a whole musical, invested a lot of time, talent, energy and resources. We can’t have an uninformed audience, so we decided we will use social media for that. My core audience was made of sci-fi geeks and nerds. We had to grow that into a larger audience by trial and error … Witty comments, funny pictures, memes are what get the most ‘likes,’ so you gradually grow your audience that way.”
A recent comment: “Facebook went down for a few hours this morning, and people everywhere discovered this wonderful thing called ‘outdoors.’ I am investigating it as well.”
The popularity of his Facebook page, which features everything from cute animals to jokes about current events, has gotten to the point where fans “tell me that they check me out first thing every morning. It’s a strategy to bring a smile, or better a giggle, before they begin the day.”
His audience now includes people interested in social justice issues, with those knowledgeable about the internment learning about LGBT issues, and vice versa. Along the way other causes have come up, such as raising relief funds for victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
The Road to Broadway
Takei has utilized “crowdfunding,” or crowd-sourced fundraising, for “Allegiance” as well. In order to give the musical “a richer production,” about $158,000 was raised to put on last year’s world premiere at The Old Globe in San Diego, he says. “We used (the website) Indiegogo … You set a goal. If you reach that goal, you get the contributions that have been made … but if you’re not successful in reaching your announced goal, you get nothing … There’s an element of risk. That’s why we set it at $50,000.”
“Allegiance” is now looking for a home in New York, Takei reports. “There’s an interesting phenomenon happening this season. Usually there are few new productions coming in for the new season and some Broadway theaters lie dark, but this season there’s a new situation where there is a plethora of plays and musicals trying to find theaters. So we’re like vultures perched on those Times Square buildings, looking down at theaters below … waiting for a show to die.”
The goal is to open next spring, but if there are no vacancies, “it could lapse into next fall,” he says.
The musical features Telly Leung as Sam Kimura, Lea Salonga as his sister Kei, and Takei in a dual role as Ojii-san in the 1940s and as Sam in the present day. Sam joins the Army while Kei’s boyfriend, Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee), resists the draft.
“We had a workshop in May and we tweaked it some more,” Takei says. “Some numbers have been dropped and new numbers have been added. Some scenes have been tweaked.”
One musical number that was dropped: “Better Americans in a Greater America,” in which Frankie mocks JACL’s policy of cooperation with the government. “That was a dream sequence. It sort of brings the story, the narrative, to a halt. To Japanese Americans, we immediately recognize that as the JACL motto; there’s an irony in the context of the internment. But the drive of the story comes to a stop with that patriotic number … The larger audience can’t really get the irony.”
One of the new elements: “We expanded the baseball number and the choreography is fantastic. It’s called ‘Gotta Get in the Game’ — much more up-tempo, active, and a choreographically dynamic number.”
The character of Mike Masaoka, played by Paolo Montalban last year, is being recast, and “Michael Lee, who’s wonderful as Frankie, was not available for the workshop … but he will be back for the Broadway production.”
‘Star Trek’ and Beyond
Asked if he will ever again play Sulu, Takei responds, “I’d like to think I’m a visionary, but I can’t predict the future.”
But he suggests that the studio will find some way to celebrate the golden anniversary of “Star Trek” three years from now. The show made its debut in 1966.
He has seen “Star Trek Into Darkness,” J.J. Abrams’ second movie featuring younger versions of the original characters, including John Cho as Sulu. Takei calls it a “rip-roaring good space opera. That’s what J.J. is good at. He’s an action-adventure and sci-fi director … He’s directing the next ‘Star Wars.’”
Takei notes that he is the only actor from the “Star Trek” franchise to have a recurring role in the “Star Wars” universe. He does the voice of Neimoidian general Lok Durd in the animated series “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.”
Takei’s voice can also be heard in “Free Birds,” an animated movie that opens Nov. 1. “It’s about two turkeys, voiced by Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson, who go back in time to the days of the pilgrims to persuade them to not serve turkey at the first Thanksgiving dinner … I’m the very wise and witty vehicle that takes them back into the past as well as back to present time, as well as to the future.”
One of his upcoming roles will be as himself. “For the past 2½ years, a documentary filmmaker (Jennifer Kroot) has been following (husband) Brad and me. She’s gotten some wonderful footage, traveled with us to Arkansas when I went to a pilgrimage, went back there again for the opening of a museum in the town of McGehee, smack dab between Rohwer and Jerome …
“She went to San Diego for opening of ‘Allegiance.’ We have a place in Arizona; she spent a week at our place filming us, and also New York, where I do a lot of gigs.
“She’s now putting together this documentary, ‘To Be Takei’ (www.takeidoc.com). She’s aiming for Sundance, which is in January. She’ll do the film festival circuit first and is trying to find a distributor.”
Summing up the Takei phenomenon, Brad Takei says, “A decade ago, George might have been labeled as ‘that guy from Star Trek.’ Nowadays, in popular culture, he is simply George Takei.”