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How Sulu Saved <i>Star Trek</i>: George Takei Speaks

"Oh my," indeed! George Takei -- the original Star Trek series' Mr. Sulu himself -- will be doing a voice in a new episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars this Friday night, and we jumped at the chance to interview him about it. (See the Telefile for his take on Clone Wars and Heroes). But during the interview, he dropped some tasty tales about his involvement with the upcoming Star Trek movie. Turns out he not only counseled director J.J. Abrams on casting the new Sulu, he also goes way back with Sulu 2.0 John Cho! Check out his story (in his own words) after the jump.

Is there any truth to the rumor you make an appearance in the new Star Trek film yourself?

George Takei: That started in the press when I had breakfast with J.J. [Abrams]. I think some people in the press tend to read into things. The only one from the original cast who's in the 11th film is Leonard [Nimoy], and the justification for that is that Vulcans are much more long-lived than humans. And the guy that's been cast to play Spock in this film, Zach Quinto, I've worked with on Heroes. And I said to Zach, "Congratulations, first of all, and if you want to know what you're gonna look like in 40 years, all you have to do is look at Leonard Nimoy, because you guys are the spitting image of each other. I knew Leonard 40 years ago, and I would have mistaken you for him back then." They're both talented actors, and their personalities are somewhat alike, too. They're very serious and sober.

What was your breakfast with J.J. about?

Takei: J.J. Abrams was very concerned about how he was going to cast. And he asked me to have breakfast with him, and he told me that he was interviewing many Asian actors for the part. And he said he had tried as hard as he can to find an actor of Japanese ancestry, because that's what I am. And he found another actor who was not of Japanese ancestry who he thought would be wonderful, and he wanted to get my reaction to that. I told him that, when I was first interviewed [for Star Trek], I asked Roddenberry how he had come up with the name "Sulu," and he said he wanted the people to represent regions of this planet. Lt. Uhura was Africa, and her name was based on Swahili, and he was looking for an Asian name for an Asian character. But Asian names are all nationally specific -- Tanaka is Japanese, Wong is Chinese, Kim is Korean -- and Asia has a turbulent history of warfare and colonization. Japan colonized Korea, and there's a lot of strife internationally. And he didn't want to bring that into this character. And so he was looking at the map of Asia, trying to solve that dilemma, and he saw that there's a sea called the Sulu Sea, in the South China Sea area. And he thought, "Ah, the waters of a sea touch all shores." And that's how he came up with the name Sulu.

And I told this story to J.J., and I said, "So it would be entirely in keeping with Gene Roddenberry's vision that you not confine yourself to any cultural group, and that you should not cast according to that. If you found someone of Chinese ancestry or Korean ancestry or Vietnamese ancestry that you think fits the part, and you think that actor brings that kind of talent, then you should go with him." And so, assured by that, he said he was thinking of John Cho, and I said John would be wonderful. I'm on the board of governors of the East West Players, an Asian-American theatre company, and John had done many plays for us before I had that breakfast with J.J. And I said, "He's a personable actor, and I've seen him do comedy, and I've seen him do very serious drama, and he would be wonderful," and assured by that, he went on and cast him. But John, then, seemed to have been somewhat awed by this new challenge, and he asked me to have lunch with him, and I told him, "Do your thing, I've seen your work, you're a talented actor." And I assured him that it won't be long before I'll be known as "the old guy who played John Cho's part." And assured by that, he went on to do his thing. And all of the stuff that I'm hearing is that John's done a great job. Sulu's got a new lease on life.

Read more with Takei in the Telefile, then let us know what you think of John Cho as Sulu!

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