Interview: Jennifer Kroot Talks Directing "To Be Takei"

Photo Credit: Photo by Larry Busacca - © 2014 Getty Images - Image courtesy gettyimages.com
August 25th, 2014

‭“‬To Be Takei‭”‬ is the latest documentary about a member of one of the most famous shows in history,‭ ‬“Star Trek‭”‬.‭ ‬You may remember him as Mr.‭ ‬Sulu,‭ ‬but believe‭ ‬it‭ ‬or not George Takei‭’‬s life is more complicated than being the helmsman on the Enterprise.‭ ‬Director Jennifer Kroot takes us inside the life of the great actor and goes from his early life being imprisoned in the Japanese American Internment camps,‭ ‬to his latest project,‭ ‬a play called‭ ‬“Allegiance‭”‬.‭ ‬Here is what Jennifer told The Movie Network about her new film‭ ‬“To Be Takei‭”‬.


Nick Leyland From The Movie Network:‭ ‬Hey Jennifer,‭ ‬I enjoyed your new film‭ ‬“To Be Takei‭”‬.‭ ‬I didn‭’‬t really grow up a Star Trek fan.‭ ‬Are you‭?

Jennifer Kroot:‭ ‬I am.‭

TMN:‭ ‬I never really watched the series.‭ ‬So I knew very little about George other than what I read in the media.‭ ‬It was nice to see what his life was really like.‭

Jennifer Kroot:‭ ‬Great,‭ ‬yeah.‭ ‬I was always an original Star Trek fan and still I am.‭ ‬I became fascinated specifically with George much,‭ ‬much later.‭ ‬But definitely liked him even more since I was already a fan.‭

‬TMN:‭ ‬Now did you know him before taking on the movie or were you picked by them‭?

‬Jennifer Kroot:‭ ‬No,‭ ‬neither.‭ ‬I actually reached out to them,‭ ‬I didn't know them.‭ ‬Like I said I was always a Star Trek fan,‭ ‬and then when George came out in‭ ‬2005‭ ‬I became really intrigued by his sort of brand of activism,‭ ‬LGBT civil‭ ‬right activism,‭ ‬where he just started being sort of this voice for that movement in the media and I just loved his ability to laugh at himself and his honesty.‭ ‬He was‭ ‬68‭ ‬when he came out so I thought that was very interesting.‭ ‬Then I read his auto biography which was written before he was out but it focused more on his experience being imprisoned in Japanese American Internments when he was a child.‭ ‬And I just thought,‭ "‬Well how I can't believe this Mr.‭ ‬Sulu was imprisoned by the Venetian government‭"‬,‭ ‬that‭'‬s hard to imagine.‭ ‬And really wanted connect the dots to all of these things and how he became the first sort of friendly Asian face in television in Hollywood.‭ ‬So I wrote a letter to an agent,‭ ‬and was surprised to hear back relatively quickly cause I didn't know these people.‭

[‬laughter‭]

Jennifer Kroot:‭ ‬The agent was a fan of my previous film‭ "‬It Came from Kuchar‭"‬.‭ ‬And so he set up a meeting between me and George and Brad.‭ ‬So I think we kind of clicked fairly well right away but it took a series of several meetings over several months to really get started filming.‭ ‬So we kind of talked about it a lot first for a while.‭

TMN:‭ ‬What was the original idea of the film‭? ‬Was it to help to promote his play allegiance or was it always gonna be about his whole career‭?

Jennifer Kroot:‭ ‬I mean I didn't know anything about his play until I met them.‭ ‬Definitely it was obvious from my first meeting that George was obsessed with making the musical‭ ‬“Allegiance‭”‬ and at first I thought,‭ ‬just like some of the people in my film do,‭ ‬that that just seems really crazy.‭

[‬laughter‭]

Jennifer Kroot:‭ ‬I was really intrigued by how compelled George was.‭ ‬That this obviously,‭ ‬the Internment,‭ ‬had affected him so much that here he is in his seventies making a musical about this.‭ ‬He wants to educate people and I just though that was really interesting and so I wouldn't say the film is to advertise the musical and promote it.‭ ‬It's just one of the interesting unique,‭ ‬bizarre,‭ ‬pieces of George Takei's life and the thing he is really focused on‭ ‬now.‭

‬So it's included with the various reactions of people,‭ ‬and it's really an amazing project.‭ ‬Like I said,‭ ‬not too many people make musicals about their lives or even attempt something like the Internment.‭

[‬laughter‭]

Jennifer Kroot:‭ ‬So that was interesting but it was just one of the present day threads.‭ ‬So it didn't occur to me until we met and then I wasn't sure how much it would be in it or not.‭ ‬And I didn't know,‭ ‬none of us knew if it would be having a regional premier or if it would go to Broadway‭ ‬or neither.‭ ‬So just sort of followed them on the event that they were doing at that time,‭ ‬about it,‭ ‬and George's enthusiasm,‭ ‬endless enthusiasm for it.‭

TMN:‭ ‬This film,‭ ‬it covers so much of George's life.‭ ‬It covers from,‭ ‬like you said Internment camps.‭ ‬It‭ ‬covers his homosexual lifestyle,‭ ‬it covers his fame,‭ ‬it covers his public service,‭ ‬it covers his career,‭ ‬all of this stuff.‭ ‬How did you manage to juggle all these different things because I noticed a lot of the film wasn't exactly sequential like you'd see in some documentaries.‭

Jennifer Kroot:‭ ‬Yeah.‭

TMN:‭ ‬How much of a challenge was that‭?

Jennifer Kroot:‭ ‬It's a complicated puzzle.‭ ‬His life is especially a complicated puzzle and I think that's what interested me about it.‭ ‬And yeah,‭ ‬you could do it in different ways.‭ ‬It's not a puzzle that everybody would put together the same.‭ ‬But I was really happy that I got to put it together because I think,‭ ‬well it's so unique.‭ ‬There are so many obstacles that are faced by George and so much sort of triumph and sort‭ ‬of this ability to inspire others and I mean I'm just proud that I was able to make a film that ranges from The Howard Stern Show to a serious look at the interment of Japanese Americans.‭

‬That's quite a mood change‭! ‬So,‭ ‬that's interesting to me,‭ ‬the variety of moods and experiences.‭ ‬I mean everybody's life has a variety of those things.‭ ‬George's might be a bit more extreme,‭ ‬and probably a bit more interesting than most peoples.‭ ‬And,‭ ‬that's what intrigued me.‭ ‬I think it's nice when you can work in a little bit of a non-linear way in a documentary if it's a portrait about someone because you have that freedom,‭ ‬unlike life where we're just all in a one way conveyor belt towards infinity here.‭ ‬In a film you can actually look at things differently.‭ ‬You can speed up time.‭ ‬You can skip over time.‭ ‬You can flashback.‭ ‬There's a lot of present day moments in this film between him and Brad,‭ ‬or him working on the musical.‭ ‬Those are all things that happened in the present.‭ ‬And then there's reflection back to the past.‭ ‬So,‭ ‬I think about it like you're in your day-to-day life,‭ ‬but you're haunted by certain things,‭ ‬or you remember certain things,‭ ‬or you're inspired by certain things.‭ ‬So,‭ ‬these different things happened to him.‭ ‬Or,‭ ‬maybe he's talking about like,‭ ‬the musical...‭ ‬He's doing it now,‭ ‬but it's inspired by these experiences in his life.‭ ‬And instead of having just like one big section of the Internment,‭ ‬I thought it would be really nice to be able to break that up as something that he was frequently thinking about it.‭ ‬It's haunting him,‭ ‬ongoing,‭ ‬as opposed to it's way in the past,‭ ‬it was this one bloc,‭ ‬and now he's on to something else.‭ ‬Because,‭ ‬you're kind of the sum of your experiences.‭

‬They're always kind of with you like it or not.‭ ‬And,‭ ‬the things that happen in‭ ‬our minds are things usually from the past.‭ ‬And,‭ ‬sometimes it's thinking about what you're hoping to do.‭ ‬And,‭ ‬I think there's sort of a movement to the future.‭ ‬That's where you don't know where the musical will go or what's next for him.‭ ‬So,‭ ‬that's my thinking about how to put it together time wise.‭

TMN:‭ ‬Alright,‭ ‬now was George open to all your ideas‭? ‬Was he pretty easy to work with‭? ‬Was he the same person on and off-camera‭?

Jennifer Kroot:‭ ‬Yes,‭ ‬pretty much.‭ ‬I mean they were both pretty easy to work with.‭ ‬I mean Brad is really the great man behind the great man in this case who really worries more about the details as he confesses in the film.‭ ‬And so I mean George is probably easier to work with than Brad.‭ ‬Brad who isn't always comfortable being filmed,‭ ‬but got filmed a lot too.‭ ‬And at first I thought,‭ "‬Wait,‭ ‬is this gonna to work‭?" ‬But,‭ ‬then I realized he's sort of had some cinematic genius of his own.‭ ‬His discomfort that was so opposite to George,‭ ‬and maybe a little more humanity in a way I think.‭ ‬Maybe,‭ ‬more people can relate to,‭ ‬to who Brad is,‭ ‬because George is just such a superhero in many ways.‭ ‬He's kind of incredibly perfect.‭ ‬I mean obviously he's a person,‭ ‬but Brad really lets you know,‭ "‬I'm not comfortable right now.‭"

[‬laughter‭]

Jennifer Kroot:‭ ‬They didn't have any editorial control over the film,‭ ‬over the position on this,‭ ‬the first time they saw it was when it was premiered at Sundance.‭ ‬And,‭ ‬it was such a relief that they did like it and that they were comfortable with it.‭ ‬I mean it was important to them that it wasn't a vanity piece.‭ ‬I mean I think it's a positive look at George because he's...‭ ‬He's not like he's exactly a train wreck.‭ ‬He's had these kind of shocking things happen to him like the Internment,‭ ‬and then being closet-ed.‭ ‬It's a very honest look at someone that I think is sort of considered the Dalai Lama of pop culture.‭ ‬So,‭ ‬it kind of had some ups and downs to it in his life.‭ ‬But,‭ ‬I think it captures who he is,‭ ‬which is a really positive individual.‭ ‬And,‭ ‬then the dynamics of the relationship were very interesting to capture as I think I said.‭

TMN:‭ ‬One of the best parts of the film also is he has a lot of people from his past talking about him,‭ ‬and things like that.‭ ‬And,‭ ‬obviously one that is a little uncomfortable is William Shatner‭’‬s interview in the film.‭ ‬He seemed a little apprehensive about answering your questions.‭ ‬Did you get that vibe from him‭?

Jennifer Kroot:‭ ‬Oh yeah‭! ‬He's got an intense vibe.‭ ‬For sure,‭ ‬I mean.‭ ‬Well,‭ ‬they're not friends.‭ ‬They don't really like each other,‭ ‬so I would probably be apprehensive too if someone came into my office and wanted to know about someone who I had a feud with.‭ ‬So,‭ ‬I have to thank William Shatner as a really good sport to even let me do that.‭ ‬I had‭ ‬10‭ ‬minutes with him,‭ ‬I was really nervous,‭ ‬ahead of time that I had everything covered because I felt like I have a lot of material and very little time with this person.‭ ‬So,‭ ‬it was a very intense interview.‭ ‬And he's just got,‭ ‬I don't know if it's charisma or aggression or what,‭ ‬but like,‭ ‬that person,‭ ‬he just has such a personality.‭ ‬Like when he comes into the room,‭ ‬it's just like‭ "‬Whoa,‭ ‬look out‭!" ‬So,‭ ‬it was a little intimidating,‭ ‬but it was really exciting to talk to him.‭ ‬And,‭ ‬yeah.‭ ‬I think the feud is real.‭ ‬And,‭ ‬I think he wasn't super thrilled to be talking about George in a way.‭

But on the other hand they both seem to get a lot of PR,‭ ‬which was weird.‭ ‬People are so intrigued by actors,‭ ‬but then by two actors from Star Trek who didn't get along.‭ ‬It's sort of a funny thing,‭ ‬but people would be so obsessed with that,‭ ‬I'm including myself in that.‭ ‬But interesting to see them really talk about it,‭ ‬and yeah I think...‭ ‬I don't know,‭ ‬William Shatner definitely,‭ ‬I think he's being honest but he says that he didn't really know him,‭ ‬but I don't know,‭ ‬but that's the line that he always says.‭ ‬I don't know if he's being honest with himself when he's saying that,‭ ‬but I think he thinks he's being honest saying that.‭ ‬I don't think there's anything that malicious behind it,‭ ‬I just think he doesn't wanna be involved with him and I think he wants to lessen any importance that he has.‭ ‬Maybe he's a little threatened by how reignited George's career is.‭ ‬In pop culture,‭ ‬he wishes that he was the only star of Star Trek.‭

[‬chuckle‭]

TMN:‭ ‬Now,‭ ‬I wanna know your honest opinion on this.‭ ‬In the film you follow George to ComiCons,‭ ‬I've never been to a ComiCon.‭ ‬What are the people like there,‭ ‬in ComiCon‭? ‬And what were they like to George‭?

‬Jennifer Kroot:‭ ‬It's hard-core fans,‭ ‬and I have to say I don't like being in big crowds,‭ ‬and that's a big crowd.‭ ‬So that's a little terrifying,‭ ‬but if I had to be stuck with a big crowd,‭ ‬I think science fiction fans are not the worst group to be stuck with.‭ ‬I mean I think they're generally pretty nice,‭ ‬they're not particularly pushy,‭ ‬they're pretty polite,‭ ‬they're pretty thoughtful.‭ ‬It's really kinda great to see people so interested in these subjects.‭ ‬I mean it doesn't hurt anybody,‭ ‬it's just kind of fun.‭ ‬They're fun loving and there's some serious intensity,‭ ‬because serious emotions,‭ ‬people coming to see the actors that they really admire and sometimes you'll see tears,‭ ‬and so people get pretty serious about it.‭ ‬I mean look at how serious people are about Robin Williams right now.‭

‬Like people fall in love with these figures.‭ ‬So it's interesting to see...‭ ‬I mean what I think is pretty amazing to see is George talking to a‭ ‬1,000‭ ‬fans in a day.‭ ‬That he can really sit and be present with each one who gets this tiny amount of his time,‭ ‬and they wanna tell him what he means to them then he can just sit there and listen,‭ ‬take it in,‭ ‬and be grateful.‭ ‬Not everybody can really do that.‭ ‬It would get really tiring to think.‭ ‬So that was pretty unique,‭ ‬and George appreciates them.‭ ‬I mean,‭ ‬he's the brand,‭ ‬he's the product,‭ ‬and he's for sale‭ '‬cause he's an‭ ‬actor and they're coming in and purchasing a little of that product.‭ ‬That's really what it breaks down to,‭ ‬but yeah there are certainly are worse products in the world.‭ ‬I wouldn't wanna go to one and just be stuck in a big crowd,‭ ‬but by and large,‭ ‬it was a‭ ‬pretty positive experience and pretty fun to film.‭

TMN:‭ ‬I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me and congratulations on your new film.‭ ‬Everybody can now see the film on VOD.‭

Jennifer Kroot:‭ ‬That's right.‭

TMN:‭ ‬Cool.‭ ‬Well,‭ ‬everyone's gonna‭ ‬have to go check it out.‭

‬Jennifer Kroot:‭ ‬Yes,‭ ‬thank you so much,‭ ‬I appreciate it.‭