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George Takei as Mr. Sulu on the set of ''Star Trek''
MW: I'm just going to ask you directly: Do you like the very first movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture?
TAKEI: No, frankly. As a matter of fact I still remember how we reacted at the premiere. It was held in Washington, D.C., at the Air and Space Museum. Walter sat next to me. The movie was slow and ponderous, and throughout the picture we kept turning and staring at each other with that quizzical look, "Is this the way it's supposed to be?" It wasn't the way we saw it in our mind's eye. It was, I must say, not what we thought it was going to be.
MW: It was the wrong director. Robert Wise was not the right choice.
TAKEI: Well, you know, directors reach their peak, and then they kind of ride on their reputation. That's what seemed to be happening with Bob Wise. He was perched on his tall director's chair, looking very wise, but he didn't give us much direction.
MW: Well, they fixed everything with The Wrath of Khan. I remember thinking, ''This is what the first movie should have been like." But maybe Wrath of Khan was better because of that first mess.
TAKEI: I think so. In fact, they kind of de-fanged Gene Roddenberry. They brought in [producer] Harv Bennett and he knew how to tell a story at a television pace. He resurrected Khan, which was one of our more popular episodes, and made it into a rip-snortin' good movie.
MW: I've got to ask you about Ricardo Montalban: Was that a real chest or a prosthetic chest?
TAKEI: That was really him. He was very fit. He was doing pushups on the sound stage.
MW: I want a chest like that at his age.
TAKEI: You know, it's possible. It's all a matter of discipline and regularity. He was in great shape.
MW: Speaking of Khan, the previews imply that the villain in the new film may indeed be him. Do you know who the villain is?
TAKEI: I've been told, but I am sworn to secrecy. You'll find out. In May, as a matter of fact.
MW: Would you be in the reboot if they found a way to bring you into it?
TAKEI: I'm not in this one, I can tell you that. There's a little anecdote there. When they were casting the first reboot, I got a call from J.J. Abrams asking me to have breakfast. The first thought that came to mind, of course -- that lightbulb flashing -- was a cameo. And I was very excited about that. I met him for breakfast and we had a nice chat about generalities and then he came to the point. He said he's been looking at many actors to play my part and he wanted to get some of my thoughts on casting the new Sulu. He was focusing in on one actor in particular, and I said, ''Well, is the actor you're looking at Asian-American?" And he said, ''Yes,'' and I said, ''Well, that's all that matters.'' Then J.J. said, ''Well, I tried very hard to find a Japanese-American actor because you're Japanese-American." And I said, ''Well, that really doesn't matter. In fact, that wasn't Gene Roddenberry's concern.''
And I told him how Gene wanted the cast members to reflect the diversity of this planet Earth. Uhura is an African character. The captain is a North American. The engineer is a European. The doctor is not only an American but a Southerner. And he wanted my character to be an Asian character, incorporating the diversity of the world. The problem he had was finding a name for the Asian character because all Asian surnames are nationally specific. Tanaka is Japanese, Wong is Chinese, Kim is Korean. He didn't want to introduce that nationalistic element in the character. It was a real dilemma for him.
So Gene pasted up a map of Asia and was staring at it trying to figure out what name to come up with and found off the shores of the Philippines a sea called the Sulu Sea, and he thought, ''Ah, the waters of a sea touch all shores.'' And that's how the character came to be called Sulu.
So I said to J.J., ''So it really doesn't matter whether he's of Japanese ancestry or Chinese ancestry or Korean ancestry, as long as he is of Asian ancestry. Comforted by that, J.J. went on to cast John Cho, who is of Korean ancestry. When he told me that I said, ''Oh, he's a fine actor. He would make a great Sulu.'' And so that's what came out of that breakfast. Not a cameo.
MW: John did a great job honoring the legacy of your character.
TAKEI: He did an excellent job. In fact, I'm green with envy because he got to skydive in that movie.
MW: You got to transport! Most of us don't get to transport to places!
TAKEI: [Laughs.] It's wonderful to sparkle and disappear and, in a few seconds, sparkle again at your destination and transform yourself.
MW: If science fiction is the precursor to what will happen in terms of future technology, we will perhaps one day get to that point.
TAKEI: You know, they have actually teleported a molecule about a foot. So that's the beginning.
MW: Let me know when they develop something that doesn't turn you into a mutant fly creature and I'll give it a go.
TAKEI: I wish I could let you know, but I don't think it's going to happen within my lifetime. Though I have the genes of a very long-lived side of my family. My grandmother lived to 104.