Photo by Danielle Levitt
Going where no man has gone before, George Takei continues to delight, surprise, and be gayer than a Tribble. The original Captain Sulu (in Star Trek and six feature films), he’s the subject of the new documentary To Be Takei, which just played the Sundance Film Festival and which should be upon us later this year with its easygoing look at an enduring force of nature.
The film details the 76-year-old’s hideously oppressive childhood in an internment camp for Japanese Americans (the subject of a musical which he recently starred in, called Allegiance.) We find out about his later interest in muscle magazines and the initial same-sex encounter that spun his head around, young Takei finding it as exciting as a one-way trip to Risa, “the pleasure planet.” As his career took off, he cautiously bearded himself with female dates, a routine which Leonard Nimoy speculates must have been “draining, tiring, and dispiriting.”
But once Takei came out in 2005—after years in the glass closet—it was like a Klingon out of hell. He and his husband Brad Altman proudly endorse equal rights, and that apparently includes the right to be versatile (“We play all the roles,” crows Takei in the film), as well as the right to bicker, which they’re shown doing, albeit with a deep-seated sense of mutual appreciation.
Takei is love personified—except when it comes to William Shatner, whom he’d clearly like to beam up somewhere far, far away. Rather than try to do that, I simply rang Takei up and we had a hydraulic blast of a chat.
Out: Musto: Hello, George. So you’re versatile, huh?
George Takei: (Laughs) We’re Renaissance men. Jacks of all trades.
Brad comes off like a sweet person in the documentary.
He can be sweet, and he can be stern.
Well, he doesn’t come off like a lackey. In fact, he always seems to tell you the truth.
He certainly does, and he’s a great organizer and someone who strictly goes by what he’s organized, while I’m quite the opposite. I tend to be lackadaisical and slightly messy, so we’re a good couple.
Sometimes you’re seen lecturing him, too.
Yes, I do. I’m a little bit of a pedant. I believe in proper grammar and pronunciation, particularly of foreign names. He’s of Germanic ancestry and I have to correct his German! His father was a Spanish teacher and I have to correct his Spanish!
Speaking of lectures, why did you tell Wil Wheaton (from Star Trek: The Next Generation) that he’s gained weight when you ran into him at a convention, as shown in the doc?
I said it innocently. It was an observation. When I saw his reaction, I thought I touched a sensitive nerve. He has gained weight. I thought that would surely be a word of advice from a grizzled old veteran. But that taught me a lesson. He’s a young man. He also has an actor’s sensitivity.
Did your terrible childhood make you more sensitive? (Except for this particular instance.)
It made me aware of the importance of fighting for justice. I was active in the civil rights movement as a young guy. I was silent in my adulthood on the LGBT issue because I wanted to work as an actor. It wasn’t until 2005, when Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the California gay marriage bill that was passed by both houses, and all it required was the signature of our governor. He had campaigned with, “I’m from Hollywood, I’ve worked with gays and lesbians, and some of them are my best friends.” I thought surely he was going to sign, but when he played to his arch conservative Republican base and vetoed it, my blood was boiling. That’s when I talked to the press for the first time. And of course we found out that at that very time, he was carrying on with his housekeeper under his wife’s nose! Vetoing marriage equality, while he himself was completely abusing his marriage vows!
And now, Utah governor Gary Herbert has been working hard to try and squash gay marriage. Whether it’s imprisoning innocent Americans because they look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor or innocent gays and lesbians who joyfully got married, governance by hysteria throughout this country’s history will go down.
On a way lighter note, in the doc, Nimoy looks more than a little uncomfortable when he’s asked about the massive amounts of homoerotic art that have spun out of the series.
He’s aware of it. You see it at the conventions. He would rather not discuss it. But he gave me the HRC Equality award in 2007. He flew up to San Francisco in his plane for that evening.
He’s extremely cool. And Shatner?
He’s an odd bird. He tries to say we didn’t know each other. And to say he wasn’t invited to my wedding when he was! We invited everyone from the show, and [Star Trek’s] Walter Koenig and Nichelle Nichols were our best man and maid of honor. When Bill came out with his rant on YouTube complaining about supposedly not being invited, it was two months after the wedding and just in time to try and boost his talk show’s ratings.
Funny, how that worked. On a more inspiring male-bonding note, the most recent Star Trek movie seemed more homoerotic than ever, no?
Spock has always been attracted to a sexy mind. He’s a very intellectual guy. (laughs)
>>>NEXT PAGE: Charles Busch, Billie Jean King, and Rebecca Hall
Watch the trailer for To Be Takei Below:
Kindly fasten your intergalactic seatbelts for my Charles Busch interview, which I assure you is a real trip, complete with amenities. From Vampire Lesbians of Sodom to his most recent cabaret act, the sardonically witty Busch has always been tons of fun in a dress. And The Tribute Artist, the new play he’s written and stars in for Primary Stages, sounds like as comfortable a fit as that nun’s habit and set of fake lashes was several shows ago.
In a phoner, Busch explained to me that Jimmy, his character in the play, has been fired from a Vegas drag revue because his Bette Davis impression doesn’t quite fit in with all the Rihannas and Beyonces prancing around him. When his elderly landlady dies, Jimmy finds his best impression of all—assuming her identity. “It’s a cross between Some Like It Hot and Arsenic and Old Lace,” said Busch, “which won’t mean anything to anyone under 60. Maybe a touch of Weekend at Bernie’s, but that’s only good for somebody under 50,” he added, laughing. And a hint of Charley’s Aunt too, but with some much needed gayness. “I thought, ‘What do I have to offer to the story that hasn’t been done before?’,” mused the author/actor. “It’s always about a heterosexual guy and what a struggle it is for him to pose as a woman and pull it off. There’s always an element of homosexual panic—what if the straight guy’s attracted to him as a woman? But the twist for me is that I play a professional female impersonator—I do it well from the start and could convince people. And with the character being gay, what if he was really attracted to the straight guy? What complications could ensue from that? The result is a very sexy play that becomes a bit of an erotic rondelay.”
It’s also different for Busch in that he usually plays women, not people pretending to be women. But to restore some sense of the familiar, his longtime costar, the hilarious Julie Halston, is aboard as the character’s best friend. “Julie’s always my Ethel Mertz,” said Busch, who never needs soft focus like Lucy in Mame.
Busch has had a whole other bosom buddy lately in musical director Tom Judson, who’s a talented musician and happens to be an ex-porn actor too. (He was Gus Mattox, the star of immortal films like Big Rig and Brooklyn Meat Company). “Two years ago,” Busch explained, “I got this call from RSVP gay cruise, asking me to do an act, with three weeks notice. I guess Idina Menzel had passed or something. I said, ‘I don’t have an act.’ Then they said how much they were paying and I thought, ‘I’ll get my act together, honey!’ I was thinking who’d be fun to be a musical director and be on a cruise with. I thought my friend Tom Judson would add a gravitas to the act. When we’d be walking down the Lido deck, I felt like Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Now I’ll never hire someone who wasn‘t under contract to Chi Chi LaRue!”
Busch can probably traipse around cruises with sex gods on his arm even more now that he’s utterly single. He and author Eric Myers (Uncle Mame: The Life of Patrick Dennis) never lived together, but they were a couple for over 20 years and one of New York’s most reliable twosomes. “We decided we were better as friends,” said Busch. “It was not a traumatic thing, it was an evolution. I was afraid we were about to turn into characters in a Mart Crowley play, and I’d rather be glittery divorcees in a Lubitsch comedy.” Once again, his references won’t mean anything to anyone with an IQ under 60.
Rebecca Hall and Morgan Spector in Machinal | Photo by Joan Marcus
TENNIS TAKES MORE THAN JUST BALLS
As long as we’re dabbling in the fertile past, let’s beam ourselves there for a couple of plays that underscore how fresh nostalgia can be when served in the proper basket. She Is King is creator/star Laryssa Husiak’s fascinating glimpse at ‘70s tennis champ Billie Jean King, who pioneered new avenues for women in sports with her talent, smarts, and chutzpah. The piece—at Incubator Arts Project—recreates three TV interviews King did and revels in the articulateness with which she expressed a desire to dissolve words like “feminine” and “masculine” and instead celebrate what makes individuals tick and flourish. Husiak is personable and deft as King, and Joshua William Gelb and Louisa Bradshaw are wryly funny as the alternately patronizing and compassionate interviewers. The final Q&A comes after King has been outed by ex-girlfriend Marilyn Barnett in a 1981 palimony suit that rocked the sports world and caused King to lose all her endorsements. Interviewed (by Barbara Walters) with her then-husband, King cagily says she doesn’t feel like a homosexual, but she would never put such people down since she’s always been a believer in rights and expression. Remaining relatively noncommittal yet positive, she asserts that she made a mistake in having an extramarital affair, but if the revelation helps those living in the shadows, it’s for the good. The air is tinged with the more open admissions that came later, but this piece doesn’t go for the obvious, and it’s fleshed out with video screens, a silent chorus of adolescents, choreographed segments, and other avant-garde touches that remove it from the too-literal. Pardon my mixed metaphors here, but the result is a home run.
Meanwhile, Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal—currently being revived on Broadway—is a 1929 play about the darker side of women’s lib. The play is based on the real-life case of a woman who married her boss, then found life insufferable and killed him to set herself free. (Her hot, new lover and the husband’s sizeable insurance policy just might have been factors too, lol.) The expressionistic 1929 drama has the tortured character—well played by Rebecca Hall, especially in one spiraling monologue—driven mad by a deadening job, that hideous marriage, and a manipulative mother, generously murdering hubby because simply divorcing him would have hurt his feelings! Treadwell’s staccato, mannered dialogue is fascinating, and it’s presented here in a strikingly designed production (sets by Es Devlin) that evokes the way the period’s oppression of women occasionally led to an illegal catharsis that backfired. There’s also a flamboyant older gay character in a bar, trying to seduce a young man with talk of wine and love—and the scene was in the original! Maybe the 1920s were more, I don’t know, versatile than I’d imagined.