Tech-savvy actor still explores new worlds

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Rebekah Sewell

“Star Trek” star George Takei now hosts an AARP YouTube series called “Takei’s Takes,” which covers a wide range of technology topics. Takei also recently created a musical called Allegiance about his Japanese American family’s internment in a camp during World War II. The musical will soon be headed to Broadway.
Photo by Chris Young/AP

In the second season of “Takei’s Take” — a web series hosted by George Takei, the 77-year-old actor who played Mr. Sulu on “Star Trek” — Takei punches a virtual reality shark in the face, learns about a “brain-activated” skateboard, drives an electric car, and explores how Boston could become the next Silicon Valley.

The rapid-fire technology program, sponsored by AARP, premiered last fall on YouTube and quickly gained a following. “Takei’s Take” now has 100,000 subscribers, and his video episodes have been viewed nearly 2 million times.

In the program, he conducts one-on-one mini-interviews with experts and celebrities, discussing new technologies and their developments.

In an interview with the Beacon, he said, “This season we’re going on location. It is going to be even more engaging,” he promised.

“Star Trek” gadgets now reality

Takei is most famous for originating the role of Hikaru Sulu in the popular science-fiction show “Star Trek,” which premiered in 1966. He has often been credited with providing one of the first positive portrayals of an Asian character on television.

Takei’s appeal to the sci-fi crowd that so adored “Star Trek” inherently ties him to the technological community. His role as an actor on that show continues to provide him with a measure of authority when discussing and exploring current technologies that once only existed in fantasy. 

“We live in a whole different world from the one that I grew up in,” he noted. “In ‘Star Trek,’ the compact device we carried around on our hip and [let us] start talking [to others] wherever and whenever was an astounding technology.

“And here — less than half a century later — we have this amazing device [the smartphone] that connects us to the global audience, sharing and liking and communicating with each other.”

He noted that some older adults are afraid to explore new types of technology. “There are a good number afraid to boldly go where they haven’t gone before,” he said with a smile, recalling the “Star Trek” mantra. His sister, for example, doesn’t own a computer and frequently leaves her iPhone at home. “It’s so frustrating!” he sighed.

Starting a regular show

Though an internet celebrity now, Takei wasn’t always so savvy about online marketing. He didn’t become active on Facebook or Twitter until 2011. Today, he has over seven million “likes” and followers.

Prior to that, “my fan base was very small: essentially sci-fi geeks and nerds. I had to grow it. By trial and error, I discovered that humor is something that gets the most shares and likes. I started concentrating on that, and the audience grew,” he said.

For those unfamiliar with Facebook, imagine a computer screen with a personal bulletin board where you and your friends (and even strangers, if you allow them) can post jokes and pictures with captions. Users can communicate and interact with each other by “liking” each other’s posts, leaving comments, or “sharing” the posts with their friends.

In addition to his Facebook page and the AARP program, Takei has his own website, blog, Twitter account (where people share opinions or observations through short, frequent statements called “tweets” that others can “follow”) and Pinterest board — a kind of online bulletin board where users can “pin” websites and pictures they like.

Takei excels at posting photos and video clips with humorous comments that catch on quickly via these social media outlets. Posts that are particularly popular “go viral” as thousands or millions of people spread them through sharing or liking.

Takei’s growing following on the web made him a natural choice for the role of host of the AARP series that began last year. “The original “Star Trek” fans are now AARP members,” Takei noted. “This way, I can keep in contact with our original fans.

“We also cover other demographics as well [on “Takei’s Take”], because the original fans have children who are fast approaching AARP membership age, and they also have children. So our demographic covers three generations.”

Takei insists that educating others about technology, especially older adults, is imperative. “We’re making people aware of our technological environment. The developments are coming fast and furiously. We need to be aware of this rapidly changing dynamic.”

Takei also noted how families living all over the world can benefit from cell phones, video chat and social media to help them stay connected.

Face-to-face calls, made possible at no extra cost by programs like Skype and Face Time, enable people to see their loved ones in real life. These services are quickly becoming more commonly used by the older generation. “Skype is a wonderful way to not only keep in touch with grandchildren, but to see them developing,” Takei said.

“Older people are losing the community they grew up with. Technology keeps people engaged. It’s a great way of combating isolation,” he added.

Driven by social causes

Takei has long been active in human rights issues. He was born in Los Angeles, but following the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was no longer treated like an American citizen.

Takei’s family is of Japanese heritage, and the attack ignited severe racial tensions and mistrust of Japanese Americans. Concerned about their loyalty, the government imprisoned nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans in internment camps.

Takei was only 5 years old when his family was moved to a camp in Arkansas that featured “barbed wire fences, sentry towers, and machine guns pointed at us,” he said. The family was there for more than three years.

“I’ve been on lecture tours ever since I was in my 20s, talking about what it was like to be an American citizen who suddenly has everything that citizenship means — including our property, home and freedom, and in the case of my father, his business” taken away, Takei said. 

He doesn’t understand why most Americans know little to nothing about this grim part of American history. “I’m always surprised there are so many people — seemingly well-informed people — who are aghast when I tell them about that. They don’t know a thing about it.”

That realization led Takei to an unexpected solution: a musical that tells the story of the internment experience. The most powerful way to reach people is through a musical, because music and drama has a way of reaching into the heart, as well as the intellect, the mind,” he said.

After a chance meeting in 2008, Takei worked with composer and lyricist Jay Kuo, and writer and producer Lorenzo Thione, to create Allegiance. The production opened in 2012 at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, Calif. 

Takei initially concentrated on promoting the show through Facebook, but he soon began using several other media platforms. The technique worked, and Allegiance opened to a sold-out show.

It was named the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle’s “Outstanding New Musical” of 2012. Plans are underway to open Allegiance on Broadway in the near future.

In addition to the musical, Takei has used his newfound Internet celebrity to start “introducing social justice issues, like equality for the LGBT community” of which he is a member.

All of Takei’s passions and activities keep him young at heart. He travels frequently, and he looks considerably younger than his 77 years. His signature deep voice booms whenever he speaks.

Takei’s advice for living a long and healthy life is simple. “For longevity, I obey the laws of nature: Eat properly. Sleep properly. Exercise sufficiently and keep the mind engaged.

“It’s up to you to be ‘law-abiding’ people. Some people don’t eat properly, and they gain weight. Some people don’t exercise properly, and that makes their bones weaker. Some don’t get calcium, and when they fall, their bones are brittle. You have to obey the laws to be able to live a good life.”

To view current and past episodes of Takei’s Take, visit www.youtube.com/user/TakeisTake.