‘To Be Takei’ is an entertaining and moving look at the many roles played by eclectic 77-year-old actor/activist George Takei whose wit, humor and grace has allowed him to become an internationally beloved figure who may be more relevant today than ever. The film balances unprecedented access to the day-to-day life of George and his husband/business partner Brad Takei, starting with George’s fascinating personal journey from his childhood in a U.S. internment camp for Japanese Americans during WWII, through his iconic and groundbreaking role as Sulu on “Star Trek,”® to his rise as an internet phenomenon with over 7-million Facebook fans. The documentary, featuring all surviving Star Trek® cast members on screen for the first time since their hit films, is an entertaining look at the life and work of the multi-faceted George Takei. In the film, director Jennifer M. Kroot (“It Came From Kuchar”) brings the viewer behind the scenes, and provides a revealing, rarely seen look into Takei’s world and showing what it truly means ‘To Be Takei.’ Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Jennifer Kroot to discuss her career, the process of capturing George Takei’s amazing life story on film and much more!
I want to give our readers and the viewers of this amazing film a little bit of background on you as a director. What intrigued you early on about filmmaking and made you pursue your passion as a career?
I was in my teens in the 80s and there were a lot of independent films at that the time, like early David Lynch and the films that Alex Cox directed like ‘Repo Man’ and ‘Sid and Nancy.’ I loved those films. Then I got into what would be considered cult films, smaller weirder films that were on the edge of that, for example, experimental films. I ended up going to school at the San Francisco Art Institute and getting into George Kuchar. It certainly never crossed my mind to want to make a documentary until I met George Kuchar because he was such an incredible personality. [laughs] I would try to describe how funny and interesting he was but I could never do it by imitating him, so I thought “What better way to do it than a documentary?” I didn’t make the documentary about him until I had already know him for about fifteen years. [laughs] Before that I was making very narrative films or films that were more experimental. At some point, you just have to stick with it and it can take a long time to really get anywhere with your filmmaking. I don’t know if I would feel the same way if I were growing up now because it seems that everything tries to be so big. There is so much big moviemaking and even small films seem like they are all trying to be discovered. There is all of this reality stuff and everyone has their iPhones and they are making movies. I am just sort of inundated with too much media, so I don’t know if I would find it as appealing now. Anyway, starting back then, those are the types of films I really liked. I always say, “Don’t bother making a film unless you are really obsessed because it is too much otherwise.” You almost have to be at the point where you say, “My life will be ruined if I don’t make this film.” Otherwise, don’t do it, unless you are making a big film or have a big project. That is sort of a different thing but these smaller films are really hard. Bigger films are hard to make as well, it is just different.
Your latest film is ‘To Be Takei.’ How did you come across the story of George Takei and what made you realize it was a tale you wanted to tell in documentary form?
I am a lifelong ‘Star Trek’ fan. I loved the show in reruns when I was a kid. I went to a couple of ‘Star Trek’ Conventions! [laughs] I continued to love it as an adult. I wasn’t obsessed with it but I would watch it if it was on. I didn’t really follow the actors who played the characters or anything. I loved the original movies too or at least enjoyed them! [laughs] I guess I started noticing George, like a lot of people, in 2005 when he publicly came out at 68 years old. It never really occurred to me what his sexual orientation, or anyone on ‘Star Trek’ for that matter, might be. I just thought it was really interesting. He seemed like such a charming voice. He laughed at himself and was very open and honest about his experience. Every time I would hear him on the radio or on the news talking about LGBT civil rights, I would stop what I was doing and what to watch because he seemed so charming. I decided to read his autobiography from the 1990s, which came out before he was openly gay, but detailed his experience of being imprisoned in Japanese internment camps as a child. Although I knew that history was true and made perfect sense with his age, I was shocked that Mr. Sulu would have been imprisoned by the United States government at age five! [laughs] It just seemed kind of unbelievable and then that boy would go on to become the first friendly face in Hollywood on television and one of the icons from what is arguably one of the biggest pop cultural phenomena in the world. I wanted to connect the dots really badly because that seemed like quite a range. I ended up writing to his agent and his agent had liked my previous film, ‘It Came from Kuchar,’ which was great. From there, he introduced me to George and Brad. You know, you never just meet George, you meet George and Brad. [laughs] Maybe other people knew that but I did not know what to expect. That made it a little more intimidating because Brad wants to know all of the details; which is smart because there are a lot of details in filmmaking! We just had a series of discussions over the course of several months and finally started shooting.
How did your original vision for the film differ from what we see as the final product? Were there any surprises for you there?
I think the biggest surprise was Brad, the relationship between the two men and being able to include their present day relationship as sort of a romantic comedy thread through the film. I didn’t know who Brad was beforehand because he wasn’t in the media that much. I felt that they really opened up to me about who they were as a couple because they wanted that to be seen in the documentary. They wanted to show the normalcy, which is a term they always use, of their relationship. A lot of people really resonate with that. I think anyone who has been in a long-term relationship really can find something to relate to in their dynamics. That became a really key part of the film. You have to really be open to surprises when you are filming. All of the scenes I was planning from way back before I met George are definitely in the film but how you find those scenes in the footage can be a mystery, You have to go with where your subject leads you. You have to be open to that, which is sometimes hard because you are interesting what you want it to be and how you want it to be. It was great to get to know Brad that way. When I first saw him on camera I was a bit nervous and thought, “Oh God, he is really trying to control this. He is telling me to cut.” [laughs] it just became something that he sometimes did and it had to do with his comfort level. It was very real to how he was feeling about it.
As a filmmaker, was there anything you wanted to accomplish stylistically or in some other matter that might differ from your earlier work?
I think this film is fairly similar, in some ways, to my early works style-wise. There is a lot more present day footage in ‘To Be Takei” than in ‘It Came From Kuchar.’ I think both films play with time and I think I do it a little more in ‘To Be Takei.’ It isn’t structured exactly lineally. There is some linear time in it but it is like we are starting with present day and then reflecting back to different points in George’s life that may be discussed in linear order but sometimes not. It is more like you are in the present reflecting on different memories that haunt, inspire or motivate you in some way. You learn about George through these flashbacks and it is a little more stream of conscience. I often appreciate directors who do interesting things with time. Richard Linklater (Boyhood) is a great example. He always seems to do interesting things with time. You can’t tell if you are in real time or what pace you are in. I think film is the only medium to really explore time in, so why not do something interesting if it makes sense to your project. Sometimes I think portraits that are just linear can be a little dry. Not always but sometimes, it just depends. Playing with time can give you freedom to explore.
You have been very fortunate to have subjects who are very interesting people. What is the biggest life lesson you took away from this experience?
I have always thought of myself as being somewhat of a negative person or a moderately negative person. Having spent so much time with George Takei, who is such a positive person, I think it either rubbed off on me a little or I realized that I had some of that in me! [laughs] Independent filmmaking is pretty tedious. It can be hard, frustrating and depressing. It usually takes several years and fundraising is hard and can be sometimes disappointing. It is just hard to get it together to do that and keep hope that it is going to work out. I kind of realized, “Oh my God! I must be at least a bit hopeful because I can always see where I am going with projects like this.” I think being around someone who is relentlessly positive and feeling hopeful after all that George has been through, which is a lot than anything I have been through, helped me put things in perspective. I really think his positivity rubbed off and keeps things reasonably in perspective.
What can we expect from you next when it comes to filmmaking?
I have a couple of projects I am considering but I am not quite ready to commit to them yet. These two documentaries have been very back-to-back, about the two different Georges! [laughs] I am kind of looking forward to taking a couple months to think about what it is I want to do before I jump back into something.
Totally understandable! What you have done is terrific, so we are anxiously awaiting whatever you have in store for us in the future! Thank you so much for your time today!
Thank you very much, Jason! It’s been so nice to talk to you. Take care.
‘To Be Takei’ is being released in select cities, VOD platforms and iTunes on August 22nd. To learn more about the film, visit the official website at www.tobetakei.com.