One can say a lot about George Takei. He’s a talented actor, public speaker, and can really pull off wearing a non-baseball hat in public. His sexual orientation was never something I worried about while growing up watching Star Trek reruns, I was more concerned about Sulu getting in some sword play on screen. Over the years George has taken many stands in support of gay and lesbian rights and some very public stands against some of the hatred and slurs made by people in the news. He’s done it with a style and dignity that has impressed me. I used to just like him for his acting roles, now I respect him as a stand up guy.
George discussed the topic of “White Washing” in Hollywood at conventions before, I remember a talk he gave about the difficulty of just getting auditions for roles that were specifically written for Asian characters. In a recent interview with The Advocate George discusses this common and recurring Hollywood issue of casting Caucasian actors in Asian roles. The most recent example is the adaptation of Akira, where producers are courting cacasian actors for roles written for and portrayed in manga and animation as Asian.
Below are some of the interview highlights:
Were you surprised to find out Warner Bros. is courting white leading men for roles in the adaptation of Akira?
George Takei: It’s not a surprise because that’s been a Hollywood tradition. For example, when I was very young, I read Pearl Buck’s epic novel of China, The Good Earth. And that film, all of the principal major roles were cast with Caucasians. As a matter of fact, Luise Rainer, who played the wife, won an Oscar for that. Paul Muni was her husband. It’s an old Hollywood tradition that we’ve always been battling, not just Hollywood but Broadway too, if you remember Miss Saigon and the furor over that. So, no, I really wasn’t surprised, but the audience has changed now, and I’m surprised Warner Bros. is not keeping up with the audience. The manga and anime phenomenon is mostly white in this country. It originated in Japan, and, of course, it has a huge Asian fan following. But it’s the multi-ethnic Americans who are fans of Akira and manga. The idea of buying the rights to do that and in fact change it seems rather pointless. If they’re going to do that, why don’t they do something original, because what they do is offend Asians, number 1; number 2, they offend the fans. The same thing happened with M. Night Shyamalan. He cast his project [The Last Airbender] with non-Asians and it’s an Asian story, and the film flopped. I should think that they would learn from that, but I guess big studios go by rote, and the tradition in Hollywood has always been to buy a project, change it completely and flop with it. I think it’s pointless, so I thought I would save Warner Bros. a bit of failure by warning them of what will most likely happen if they continue in that vein.
It seems this is particularly still a problem for Asian and Asian-American actors. Do you see something like this happening with a role written for a black actor?
Oh, absolutely not. African-Americans have made enormous advances. There are a whole host of bankable stars who are African-American. Can you name one bankable Asian-American star? No. There isn’t. You have Denzel Washington, Samuel Jackson. A whole host of them. One can’t name a single Asian-American whose name you can take to the bank and get a project financed. We are making headways. I’m not a pessimist. We have made tremendous headways from the time I started in this business in 1957. Asian faces are part of the ensemble in many TV shows playing not roles that are specifically Asian, but playing doctors and detectives. Advances have been made, but we have still not caught up with the African-American achievements.
Why do you think there seems to be a reluctance to cast Asian-American actors in leading roles?
I don’t think it’s a reluctance, they just don’t know better. They have the experience of Shyamalan’s project, and I would think any savvy production company would learn from that. So I’m really baffled by the lack of learning from experience. Hollywood doesn’t like failures, and there’s a string of failures in the past. With this effort, I’m trying to warn them of what is likely to happen with this Akira project.
What would you ideally like to see happen with the Akira adaptation?
Well, ideally, they should do it properly and get Asian-American actors cast in those roles. In the adaptation they would of course be speaking in English and understandable to a popular American audience. That’s the whole point. They bought a project that is popular and enormously loved by its fans, and if they want the fan following to support the film, that’s the way you do it.
I am glad George took a logical and thought out stand on the subject and not an emotionally charged one. By appealing to the financial argument, George might just get Hollywood money men to listen, and that might lead to changes.