"We should be paying tribute to Gene Roddenberry rather than to me," Takei tells PEOPLE
The actor, 79, sparked controversy after he told The Hollywood Reporter he was “disappointed” that his character from the original TV show had been altered for the franchise’s new movie, Star Trek Beyond. He later clarified his comments in a lengthy Facebook post saying he is “delighted” that the LGBTQ community will be represented in the Star Trek universe, further adding to the franchise’s diversity.
Takei, who came out as gay in 2005, further elaborated on his feelings to PEOPLE, explaining the history of his involvement in the decision, and why he has had mixed feelings about the end result.
The gay rights activist revealed that he first learned of the idea for a gay Sulu over a year ago, when John Cho, who plays Sulu on the big screen, called him to gauge his reaction.
“I said, ‘Oh at long last, the issue of LGBT people is being introduced into Star Trek.’ I had been campaigning for a long time on that.”
Takei reiterated that when the original show was on the air in the ’60s, he and show creator Gene Roddenberry, with whom he had a close friendship, had discussed the possibility of introducing a gay character. Roddenberry ultimately decided against it, fearing the inclusion of a gay character on the already progressive show (Star Trek famously featured the first televised interracial kiss) would destroy ratings beyond repair.
“John said, ‘Well this is to honor you,’ ” Takei remembers. “And I said, ‘Well I’m very flattered, I’m really delighted that the issue of LGBT is being finally addressed on Stark Trek, but because I respect and admire Gene as a bold and strong producer of television shows and I love him as a friend, I want to honor him.”
George Takei on ‘Star Trek Beyond’s’ Gay Sulu: ‘I Think It s Really Unfortunate’
Takei says he had a followup conversation with Star Trek Beyond director Justin Lin, who he says, “Listened very carefully and agreed that it would be appropriate to honor Gene.” Takei says he suggested to the director that they create a new character into the franchise who would be gay. When they hung up, the actor says, “I thought I had communicated my point to him.”
But a year later, after the film was already completed, Takei says he learned that his advice was not heeded. He first became aware of the decision when Cho called asking him for advice on how to handle the film’s press tour. Takei says he wished Cho the best, but made it clear that he would be “very candid and honest” with his feelings.
Shortly afterwards, Takei says he received an email from Star Trek writer and star Simon Pegg, who explained, “We didn’t want to create a fresh new character, we wanted to take an original hero and suggest that he’s gay.”
Takei notes that during his initial conversations with Lin, he pleaded with the director to “be imaginative, be creative, don’t be lazy.” He adds, “I urged Justin, but they decided that they wanted to take that iconic character and change him, which I think is very simple to do.”
Ultimately, Takei explains, “We should be honoring Gene … We should be paying tribute to him rather than to me because it’s not really about me. Yes I am gay, and I am an active advocate for LGBT equality, but don’t pay tribute to me. It’s not about me, or Sulu. It’s about Gene and what he did.”
The actor is currently preparing to return to the New York stage in a revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical Pacific Overtures. The musical, which is set in mid-19th century Japan, will feature Takei as the narrator character known as Reciter telling the story of a fisherman and a samurai and the difficult westernization of Japan.
“It’s really an exciting part because I’m the storyteller but I also become the different characters within the drama,” he says. “I couldn’t be more excited or delighted to be part of this production.”
Star Trek hits theaters July 22 and Pacific Overtures opens Off-Broadway on April 5.