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'Star Trek Beyond' stars on 'uncomfortable conversations,' Sulu's sexual orientation and the future

For 50 years, Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” has been doing two things: enthralling audiences around the world with a vision of a future in which humanity has put aside its petty differences, and taking to the cosmos to show how that future is possible only through diversity.

As has been made clear over the course of six television series and 12 movies — the 13th, “Star Trek Beyond,” hits theaters Thursday night — Starfleet and its captains (most notably James T. Kirk) would be nowhere without women and people of color leading the way. “Beyond” advances that inclusion further with the revelation that helmsman Lt. Hikaru Sulu — played by George Takei in the classic series and by John Cho in the new cycle of movies that began with J.J. Abrams’ 2009 film — is gay.

We sat down with Cho, Zoe Saldana (who plays Lt. Nyota Uhura) and director Justin Lin for a frank roundtable discussion about the legacy of “Star Trek,” representation and optimism.

 From Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s deaths, to the killings in Orlando, Nice, Turkey, Dallas and Baton Rouge, it can seem as if the world is on fire. Talk about what it means to be involved in a franchise that’s all about a positive future.

Cho: We’ve been thinking about it a lot while we’ve been talking about this movie the past couple of weeks. “Star Trek” … it posits a future in which we’ve figured these things out to some extent. Starfleet is about meeting new peoples and figuring out the commonalities, rather than the differences and, I guess it’s a message that we need to hear right now.

Lin: To me, it’s a bit emotional and kind of eerie how reality was kind of catching up to something we were sitting in a hotel room talking about theoretically [18 months ago].

Given how long you guys have been involved in “Star Trek,” how has being part of the films changed your relationship with the Trekkie universe?

Saldana: I’m a fan of the fan. I’m a fan of the active devotee who lives his life believing in something, who represents to me the character of a person that is very confident and sure of himself. Those are people I admire.

When I go to conventions like Comic-Con or when I meet a Trekkie or a Trekker, if anything, I’m the one who’s kind of in awe because it takes a great level of devotion and determination and time to sort of go, “I love what this is. I don’t care if you’re telling me it’s real or not. What it makes me feel is real, and it makes me act in a certain way in my life, so therefore I’m gonna actively love it and promote it and celebrate it.” I like that about being a part of something like “Star Trek.”

Lin: For me, it was very interesting. When you make a movie of this size, you really do feel like the art and the commerce is colliding. In many ways, I felt it was really cool to be a part of this franchise at this point in my career. Many times, you feel the commerce. As we were building this, with these characters, instead of trying to make “Star Trek” this or that, I felt like, “Let’s go back and really celebrate the essence of what made it great.” In that sense, I felt very protective.

“Star Trek” has always been on the forefront of pushing the idea of an inclusive world. In Roddenberry’s original pilot, there was a female first officer. In the first series, you have Uhura and Sulu as active members on the bridge. Why does science-fiction allow for, even welcome, that kind of inclusion?

Saldana: I think it removes the weight of an uncomfortable conversation that must be had. You know? You go, “Oh, it’s in space, therefore I can watch this. I won’t be putting myself or my opinions in danger.” You watch it, and the message is subtextual. Therefore, it’s much more effective.

You’re skipping over the uncomfortable conversation.

Saldana: Yes.

Cho: Your bridge can be very diverse because it has to be — it would be ridiculous if it weren’t.

Lin: There’s also this sense of expectation and hope that’s built in. What happened in the 150 years [between today and “Star Trek”] to get to that kind of acceptance, that kind of inclusion? That’s not really talked about in the show, but that’s something to strive for. I think ultimately that sense of hope is something that even as a little kid I was able to kind of grab onto.

Can you remember the first time you saw somebody who looked like you on TV or in the movies?

Cho: “Star Trek.” It was George Takei. Well, I started watching TV in Korea — there were a lot of people who looked like me.

Lin: There was “Star Trek,” and there was an extra in “Teen Wolf.” There was an Asian American guy dancing. I still remember, like, “Oh man, he’s at the high school!”

Saldana: “Sixteen Candles”!

Cho: We don’t ever speak of the Dong.

Saldana: Rae Dawn Chong for me. And “Sesame Street.” But I’m a kid from New York, so urban life reflected into art and music was around me and accessible and tangible.

For all of “Star Trek’s” groundbreaking inclusion in 1966, Uhura was kind of a switchboard operator. Sulu was kind of a driver. How have you guys worked since 2009 to make more space in the story for them, to give them more agency in the story?

Cho: For me, my engagement with “Star Trek” was the original series in reruns. I remember thinking, “Do they eat together? Do they hang out? Do they even like each other?” So this idea of what these characters that I love, off-screen, very quickly became part of my thinking with “Star Trek.” Part of the fun of doing this movie was to make sure that we were able to get glimpses of moments with these characters. 

Lin: That’s something that as a fan, I really don’t think I’ve had, and I’ve been wanting since I was a little kid.

Cho: J.J.’s iteration of “Star Trek,” and Justin kept expanding that vision. It was much more ensemble-oriented. I don’t know that J.J. could have set up a “Star Trek” that had characters of color without any agency. The times had changed, and he went further with it. Then Justin took it further.

When did the conversations about revealing Sulu’s sexual orientation begin?

Lin: Simon [Pegg, actor and co-screenwriter, with Doug Jung] came up with the idea. Then we expanded it. We talked to John. John talked to George. I talked to George. It shouldn’t be a big deal — it’s not in this “Star Trek” world, and to me it’s not a big deal. It was something that I felt like, after talking and thinking about, was a no-brainer.

Cho: I first heard about it from Justin. I had concerns. I was concerned that George not feel like we were negating his value as an actor. He was a gay actor who played a straight character; we weren’t lifting from him. I also had concerns about how Asians would view it. I really disagreed with it; I was afraid it would be seen as some kind of feminization of Asian men. Lastly, I didn’t want it to seem like we were setting up sexual orientation as a choice — because it was the same genetic Sulu in two different timelines. But I think all those were concerns about how it would be perceived, not about the thing itself.

The thing itself I felt very confident about because it was true and honest, and it set up a great story. Now, because of the way it was handled, in this very nonchalant way, all my worries about the way it would be perceived have essentially been nullified. 

Lin: I had a lengthy conversation with George. A lot of it I’ll keep between me and him. One thing that he did say was that he approached Roddenberry and said, “I’d like to be able to play Sulu gay.” Roddenberry said, “We just had an interracial kiss and got shut down in some stations in the South. There’s no way I can do that. The show will go down.”
 I went back and watched all those episodes. It was interesting.

For me, as a kid watching George Takei portray Sulu, he was a human being. Whenever he was onscreen, I was like, “Oh, he’s someone. He’s a human being on the Enterprise.” That’s the best thing about the portrayal of Sulu. As an Asian American, especially, seeing him, that was a big moment in my life. At the end of the day, that’s the whole point. There’s a bunch of human beings together on this journey.

What kind of roles are you tired of being presented with? Given the success you have enjoyed, what don’t you want your agents to bring you anymore?

Saldana: The kickass, only female character in the movie. I want to be one of many women. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt, let’s start creating better roles that accurately depict people we know so closely.

Do you think there’s a world — especially in the wake of “Hamilton,” which is so diverse and so multiracial and so boundary-shattering — in which you guys start getting offered roles, historical roles even, that do not require you to be Asian American or African American or Latina?

Saldana: I think there are roles there; we just have to choose them. We have to fight for them. We have to fight for these projects to be made. If there’s any relevant influence we may have with an investor, with a studio, with a director, with an actor, I think we have to fight.

Sometimes we get too caught up in wanting to do that one movie that will get seen and approved and nominated, that we lose sight that there are so many other movies that are worth your time. I do believe in us as actors and directors and writers and producers and also as movie-goers. We have much more power than we believe we have. Without our ticket, studios can’t make traditional decisions. Trust me: Studios, investors, filmmakers, they will shift because they just follow the money trail.

Lin: They’re reactionary. When we did “Better Luck Tomorrow,” I went to the first marketing meeting, and they showed me this pie chart of all the movie-goers and it was like, African American was a big piece of the pie. There was Caucasian, Latino. … I said, “Where’s the Asian American slice on this pie?” They’re like, “Oh, they’re patterned just like the Caucasians, so they’re just in that piece.” I was like, whoa. If you go buy a ticket, you tell them what you want to see and you have that relationship, they’ll make that movie. You do have the power. You’re the consumer.

Given that we talk about how money changes everything, especially in Hollywood, it’s weird that when you have films like the “Fast and the Furious” series, “Ride Along,” “Central Intelligence” these movies with diverse casts that make billions of dollars, why don’t the studios see that money sitting there? Why doesn’t that penetrate executive suites?

Lin: They’re behind the times. It’s a very slow system. I have been in rooms that other people haven’t been in. I’ve listened; I’ve been in on conversations that most people haven’t been in on. I can tell you, it’s a very reactionary, very conservative process. I think once you know that, as a participant, it is very important to support what you believe in. [The system] operates on fear. If you cast an all-white movie and it doesn’t do well, no one will say it’s because you had an all-white cast. If you put forth a really diverse cast and you fight for it and it doesn’t do well  — and it may fail for other reasons — you’re gone because you stuck your neck out for that decision.

The easiest word in Hollywood to say is “no” because nobody will ever call you on “no.” They only call you on “yes.” 

Cho: Conversely, the most powerful thing an actor can say is “no.” If something is presented and it’s a stereotypical role or something, you can say no to that, and that’s very powerful. 

Is there a final “Star Trek” story to tell? Yes, it’s a saga, and it’s gone on for years — that’s part of its joy and wonder. It’s eternally renewable. But great stories have great endings. What would you like Sulu and Uhura’s ending to be? Where’s that final act that makes “Star Trek” echo throughout eternity?

Cho: You set this up for a super operatic answer. I think Sulu’s happiness, my reading of him is that he’s very ambitious. I think he wants his own ship. If he were to achieve those career aims and maintain a family, I think he’d probably be a happy man.

Lin: I actually think the idea of it going on forever is a great one. This idea that it’s infinite but yet we keep pushing because we ultimately get to know ourselves a little bit better by pushing forward. So I know “Star Trek” is gonna exist. I feel fortunate to be a part of this. I know it’s gonna exist beyond me. That’s very comforting.

Saldana: We can’t control that. We’re here and now, and it’s been really positive. So we’re just gonna be here for now. To live long and prosper.

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