Next at Microsoft Podcast: George Takei

DAVID CHEN: Hello and welcome everyone to the Next at Microsoft Podcast, a series of conversations about technology, innovation and the future of Microsoft. My name is David Chen and this is episode one: Tech with Takei. Today I’m going to be speaking with actor, author, and social justice activist, George Takei. George Takei played Mr. Sulu on the original Star Trek TV series and in many of the Star Trek films that followed. Since then he’s also appeared in dozens of features films, and made hundreds of TV appearances. He’s currently the host of Takei’s Take a YouTube series produced by AARP that explores the world of technology, current events, and pop culture. George Takei, welcome to the Next at Microsoft Podcast.

GEORGE TAKEI: Thank you very much. Good to be talking with you.

DAVID CHEN: So George, we like to begin every one of our episodes with a breaking‑in story. And it seems to me that you first started becoming nationally known as an actor, whereas now you’re well known as just a general personality. So can you tell us about how you broke into the entertainment industry as an actor first?

GEORGE TAKEI: Well, I was a theater student at UCLA, and a casting director from Warner Brothers happened to be in the audience, and he plunked me out of that play, and plunked me into my first feature film, Edna Ferber’s epic novel on Alaska. I played a Chinese cannery worker, and Richard Burton played an English immigrant cannery worker, as well. So breaking into the movies for me was kind of a piece of cake. One week on location in Alaska and two months back in the studio, and then back to my classroom at UCLA.

DAVID CHEN: (Laughing) Excellent. So as of right now you have over 8 million followers on Facebook.

GEORGE TAKEI: Yes, I just reached 8 million yesterday.

DAVID CHEN: Congratulations!

GEORGE TAKEI: Thank you. We’re over the moon.

DAVID CHEN: You are an institution unto yourself sir. So I’m curious, you became well known as an actor, but now you are a social media god. How did you go about attracting such a following?

GEORGE TAKEI: Well, I had another project going, a project that I consider my legacy project. A musical drama on the internment of Japanese Americans entitled Allegiance. Here we have invested a lot of our time, our passions, our energies, and our money into this project and we had to raise the awareness of that chapter of American history. And social media I thought was the best way to do that. However, my base audience at that time was essentially made up of sci‑fi geeks and nerds, actually Star Trek fans. I had to grow that. So I went into social media with the agenda of one: Raising the awareness of the internment of Japanese Americans. And once that was accomplished, my next goal was to let them know that we’ve developed a musical on it entitled “Allegiance” and once that was accomplished to turn them into enthusiastic, potential ticket buyers. And we did succeed in doing that. Because when we had our world premier as we call it at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, we broke all box office records, 77‑year record of the Old Globe Theater and all attendance record. And next year, actually, 2015, is going to be the year of Allegiance on Broadway. That was the reason, actually, that I went into social media.

DAVID CHEN: So it seems like your social media presence has evolved dramatically since then. I mean you’re still promoting social issues, but you’re talking about other things, as well. Can you talk a little bit about how that evolved?

GEORGE TAKEI: Well, as I said, the audience was very small. I had to grow that. And I couldn’t grow that if I went right into a lecture on the internment of Japanese Americans. But trial and error, I discovered that humor was our common ground. Whether you’re a sci‑fi geek and nerd, or someone who is just peeking in out of curiosity. And that started to grow my Facebook likes and shares. And then the big success was Grumpy Cat. Now I’m not grumpy, but people are always amused by people who can’t see the bright side of life. And Grumpy Cat always sees things in a grumpy, negative, complaining way. And grumpy cat helped me really expand the audience. So now with humor I’ve been able to grow it large enough that I can inject commentary on campaign finance reform or other issues that seem a little finger waggling, but are important for Americans to be thinking about.

DAVID CHEN: I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve heard Grumpy Cat and campaign finance reform used in the same sentence.

GEORGE TAKEI: (Laughing) First time. Well we will make sure you hear it again.

DAVID CHEN: (Laughing) Well done sir. You’ve used online social media to raise awareness about a wide variety of social issues. Have you ever seen your work impact the world in a tangible way, and if so, how has that played out? Can you give us a specific example?

GEORGE TAKEI: Well last year the U.S. Supreme Court was having hearings on two LGBT equality issues. One was proposition eight in California, which banned marriage equality in California after the California State Supreme Court ruled that it was indeed constitutional. And the other issue was for Massachusetts where a lesbian couple who had lived together for almost 50 years, one of the two passed away. And the surviving member of that couple was treated like a total stranger and taxed $332,000 for inheritance tax. It was so egregiously unfair, and she was suing for equity there. And at that time we wanted to build support for equality. And the human rights campaign launched a campaign to have the equality sign in red and for people all over to use that as their identity. And it was overwhelming. It was enormous. It was huge. And that created the social climate where the Supreme Court felt confident enough to rule as they did.

DAVID CHEN: How did you feel when that decision came down? What emotions were going through you at that time?

GEORGE TAKEI: Well, I spent most of my life closeted. It’s a very uncomfortable existence always being on guard. We can’t let anything slip out, particularly because I was an actor protecting my career. So when that was passed and we had marriage equality in California at that time and Massachusetts, it was a joyous event. And I was in a partnership in my husband now, Brad, for 21 years. So it was both a sense of relief. I can set down my guard to totally be who I am and to have our relationship legitimized as husband and husband. It was a joyous and long sought event.

DAVID CHEN: So tell us about Takei’s Take, which is your Youtube series. You’ve been a part of so many projects over the years, what made Takei’s Take stand out as something you might want to do?

GEORGE TAKEI: Well, AARP, which produces the series approached me with the idea of talking about technology, innovation, and pop culture. And I thought it was a great opportunity because I have a Luddite sister who I had to buy the iPhone for. She did have an answering machine, but she never played them back.

DAVID CHEN: (Laughing)

GEORGE TAKEI: So I thought well, by giving her a present I’ll be able to keep in touch with her. But it still hasn’t worked because when she goes out, she leaves it at home. So this was an opportunity to demonstrate the aspects of technology where their lives would be more enriched. For example, we live in a global society now. Global economy, global job opportunities. And many young couples are taking jobs abroad, in London or in Tokyo, or in Singapore. And grandparents are losing out on that opportunity to watch their grandchildren grow, and particularly at a young age they grow so rapidly. But if they had Skype and used that, then they could communicate with their grandchildren even if they’re growing up in Singapore and be able to share their lives as they grow older and older.

So I thought this would be a great opportunity to point that out to people of my generation. But fortunately because of my social media following, I was able to get young people, the grandchildren of the original Star Trek generation to join in, as well. So this was an opportunity to reach that vast demographic of Millennials to the Baby Boomers. And we have succeeded indeed in doing that with Takei’s Take.

DAVID CHEN: So you recently visited the Microsoft campus to film an episode of Takei’s Take.

GEORGE TAKEI: Yes, indeed.

DAVID CHEN: What did you find interesting about your visit here?

GEORGE TAKEI: It was a real learning experience for me to see the things that are being done at Microsoft. I visited a place called “The Garage” which when I first heard about it, I thought that was a place where the employees parked their car. But it turned out it was very young innovators gathered together as a team and worked on marathon projects. And one that particularly intrigued me was what they did for Steve Gleason, an NFL player who was immobilized in a wheelchair, could move only from the neck up. And in a two‑day, mad, intense team innovation project ‑‑

DAVID CHEN: Yes, this was the Microsoft Hack‑A‑Thon team who figured out a way for him to both control his wheelchair and speed up the way he typed with just his eyes, right?

GEORGE TAKEI: Yeah. What that does to completely change the life of someone who is totally immobilized was a fantastical thing. So to be able to know that the human inventive power when it’s working in concert as a team and can intensely produce magical things like that, it can literally change the lives of people. Another thing that I saw in The Garage was this universal translator. What we called a universal translator on Star Trek.

DAVID CHEN: Skype translator. Yeah. It’s been compared to the universal translator in the Star Trek TV series.

GEORGE TAKEI: Exactly. Where the person I see on the screen is in Germany and talking to me in German and it’s automatically translated audibly as well as visually in print on the screen. And I can answer back in English and he gets my response both audibly translated and visually translated on his screen.

DAVID CHEN: Overall, did you ever think you would see a Star Trek technology becoming real in your lifetime?

GEORGE TAKEI: There were all these things being developed that were unimagined on Star Trek. But one of the things that was imagined on Star Trek that I still earnestly pray for the early invention of is our transporter.

DAVID CHEN: (Laughing)

GEORGE TAKEI: I travel a lot. I go to a lot of airports and have to put up with all the nuisance and nonsense of getting on an airplane and spending hours seated. If I could only step on a transporter pod and sparkle and pop out and a few seconds later sparkle at my destination and solidify and be at my destination, that device would be devoutly to be prayed for.

DAVID CHEN: OK, we will get our people right on that immediately.

GEORGE TAKEI: Have a garage hack‑a‑thon develop the transporter please.

DAVID CHEN: OK, I will let them know that you requested it.

GEORGE TAKEI: (Laughing)

DAVID CHEN: George Takei, we like to close out the podcast with a recommendation from our guests. Is there a book or a blog or a movie or TV show that you’ve consumed recently that you would like to tell us about?

GEORGE TAKEI: Well the movie certainly is one both Brad and I are enthusiastic about. It’s called “To Be Takei.” We’re branding ourselves with Takei on everything. This is a documentary on my life. It starts from my childhood imprisonment in the U.S. internment camps. But it also traces my closeted life as I pursued my acting career, and having met Brad in a gay running club. And then our struggle for equality and finally getting marriage equality and our getting married. It’s a fun movie, as well. And Brad with his poker face I think is hilarious. He really steals the picture. That’s the movie I would recommend.

DAVID CHEN: To Be Takei is available right now on home video and video on demand.

GEORGE TAKEI: Yes.

DAVID CHEN: And I would highly recommend it.

GEORGE TAKEI: Well, you too. Thank you very much.

DAVID CHEN: Yes. George Takei is the host of Takei’s Take, which you can find right now at Youtube.com/takeistake. George Takei, thank you so much for joining today on the next At Microsoft Podcast.

GEORGE TAKEI: It’s a pleasure. I’ve enjoyed chatting with you.

DAVID CHEN: You can find all the episodes of this podcast at Microsoft.com/next. And to keep up with all the innovation at Microsoft, go to blogs.microsoft.com/next. You can also email us with feedback for the podcast at next@microsoft.com. That’s the word “next” the “@” symbol, and then Microsoft.com. This podcast was hosted and produced by me David Chen. Executive produced by Steve Clayton, Richard Eckel, and Kim Stocks with technical assistance provided by Run Studios. Thank you very much for listening. We’ll see you guys later.