Earlier this summer, we reported on the release of The Terror: Infamy, a historical horror show about the haunting aftermath of Japanese American internment. Coinciding with the release of the show on August 12th, we obtained an exclusive interview with George Takei of Star Trek fame. Takei both stars and acts as a historical consultant, having survived internment himself as a child.
Otter Lee (AsianCrush): Thank you for taking time out of your busy promotion schedule for this interview, George.
George Takei: What did you think?
Very unsettling and suspenseful so far. I enjoyed seeing a full Asian-American starring cast, but I must admit that horror is a genre that I have little fondness for. I’m very easily frightened.
You must be the perfect person to cover the show then!
How did you become involved with the Terror: Infamy? Did you watch the previous season of the series?
I did, but I never thought they would be doing the next season on the interment of Japanese Americans, a chapter of American history that still to this day is little known.
A neighbor of mine, Alex Woo, who is also the showrunner, called and said he’d like to come over and talk about his latest project. I said
“Sure, come on over.” So he hopped on in and told me he was working on a ten-part series on the internment of the Japanese Americans, and that had been a subject I had been lecturing on for the last fifty years.
I said, “That’s fantastic. That’s a way to get the story heard by a lot of people.” He started explaining it to me and I became absolutely fascinated and gripped by the concept.
Tell us about Yamato-san, your character on the show.
He is the oldest member of the immigrant community on Terminal Island. Terminal Island is a small fishing island in LA Harbor. A lot of people living there come from Japan, particularly the south coastal province of Wakayama. The thing that made it particularly difficult to play Yamato-san was his Wakayama accent. I speak Japanese, but not in the same way as someone from Wakayama.
It’s like in American English when you can tell someone is from Atlanta, Georgia because of their distinct southern drawl.
George follows this up with a very impressive Georgian accent: How y’all doin’? I’m fine. We’re havin’ a cloudy day today!
So that’s the type of quality I had to affect. I listened to recordings of the accent and practiced it, but it turns out that the actor who plays the father of Chester, (Shingo Usami) is from the province next door to Wakayama and he knows that accent. So it was really helpful to have a genuine consultant for that accent on set with me.
As the oldest person and a native to Wakayama on Terminal Island, Yamato-San is looked to as a wise elder. He was a fisherman, but he is now retired, and spends his time enjoying his retirement on Henry’s ship. He tells all these great fishing tales to all the other men on the boat.
He also has a great deal of old country knowledge, including the culture, the lore, and the superstitions. Of course everyone from that immigrant generation brought that with them, but Yamato-san is the most deeply steeped in it all.
Can you speak about anyone from your own life who was like a Yamato-san to you in how they shared stories?
I was born in LA and my mother was born in rural Sacramento, but my grandparents on both sides came from Japan. One of my uncles was a very long-lived immigrant. He was also a tough man, a strong man. He certainly shared the types of things Yamato-san does, like the old culture, beliefs, and tales. I saw a lot of him–my mother’s uncle, Kashiwabara no oji-san–in the character and used aspects of him.
Without spoiling too much, was there a particular scene or moment you enjoyed working on the most in the show?
In general, I was very proud of the Wakayama accent. I went to Japanese school on Saturdays, which of course, as a kid you hate, but I’ve I’ve been grateful for it since however, because as an actor, it has remained a valuable skill in my toolbox. I played Hiro’s father on the show Heroes, which involved speaking a lot of Japanese, so knowing the language gave me a leg up on a lot of the other competition. A lot of Asian American actors do not know the language of their family’s old country.
For The Terror: Infamy though, that Wakayama accent really had me feeling like I was on level ground for once.
There’s a scene where I got to use a ton of it with another character, who I knew in Wakayama, but who went to Hiroshima and speaks with a Hiroshima accent. It’s the Japanese equivalent of hearing someone from Atlanta speaking to someone from Boston, you know “Pack da Kah ovuh there!” That was a lot of fun to do and be in.
How did you help the showrunners balance the supernatural and historical aspects of the show as a consultant?
Alex was concerned that the supernatural aspects might seem too pasted on. I told him “No, it’s organic to the immigrant generation. The American born generation would not share that. In their desire and journey to become American, they do not always hold the same regard for the traditions and lore of their ancestors and relatives who immigrated.
What would you say are the biggest misconceptions about Japanese American internment camps floating around today?
The main problem is that today, most Americans know very little about the internment, and they should know about it because it’s a deeply important part of the nation’s history. Our constitution was egregiously violated. We were Americans who had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor, and yet, we looked exactly like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. And after the bombing, this country was swept up with war hysteria, fear, and racism. It was a combination of all of that.
We were at war with Germany and Italy, but we didn’t (and thank god we didn’t) incarcerate German or Italian Americans on that level because they looked like other Americans–we were different. Because of what we looked like, they put the blame on us, exactly as Trump is doing right now when he says there has to be a complete and total ban on Muslims because he infers that they are all potential terrorists.
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, American politicians were saying that all Japanese Americans are potential spies, saboteurs, and disloyalists. With no charges, trials, or due process, the central pillars of our justice system disappeared. Soldiers marched outside our homes, pounded at the front door, and at gunpoint ordered us out of our homes, and into barbed wire, American concentration camps. It was a completely heinous violation of the Constitution and American democracy.
The detainment of innocents without justice in American history is still relatively unknown to most people. We have plenty of glorious chapters, but I think the chapters where American ideals were blatantly trampled on are more important because of how little known they are.
What are your thoughts on the current undocumented detention crisis?
This is a nation of immigrants. Everybody in America is an immigrant or is descended from immigrants. I believe that all Americans have a responsibility to speak up and against this administration.
I speak out on it because I am an American that wants to see an America be truer to its ideals and values.
We’re violating those ideals in the most grotesque way today. The incarceration of innocent Japanese Americans was bad enough, but in the same way that we were all characterized as potential spies, saboteurs, and disloyalists, now the sweeping generalization is that Latinos from the southern border are all drug dealers, rapists, and murderers. It’s outrageous. These are people that are fleeing violence and poverty. Some women have seen their husbands murdered right in front of them. They are literally people fleeing for their lives and seeking asylum. Seeking asylum is not illegal, despite the fact that that vile orangutan in the White House keeps calling it illegal. Asylum is inherently American.
In our case, during Japanese-American internment–I was five years old, at least the children were together with their parents. What’s happening today is that they are being torn from their parents, and put in filthy, disgusting cages reeking of human waste. People have said the smell coming from those cages is horrible, disgusting.
Really to underscore the evil, some of the children are being taken and scattered to outlying areas throughout the country to Wisconsin, Minnesota, and New Jersey. It is deliberately, intentionally evil. When the courts order them to return the children to their parents, they are so incompetent that they cannot find the children or their parents to bring them back together. This is a new low in American history and democracy, and it happening before our eyes. Daily and reaching lower and lower depths. It’s really a horrible situation.
What advice do you have for people of color and LBGTQIA actors trying to break into Hollywood today?
Be the best that you can be. if you have talent, that talent will shine through. Commit to the craft, practice regularly, and do the best that you can always. You will eventually find some success.
The Terror: Infamy is currently running on AMC. New episodes premiere on Mondays at 9 PM ET. Catch up here.