ATLANTA – George Takei easily could have spent the past few years just peddling autographs at sci-fi conventions and ripping former co-star William Shatner on “The Howard Stern Show.”
Instead, the actor best known for playing Hikaru Sulu on the original “Star Trek” has doubled down on his mission to bring greater attention to one of the most unjust chapters in U.S. history.
His latest platform is the AMC horror series “The Terror: Infamy.” Premiering Monday, it fills the standard genre requirements with mysterious spirits infiltrating the lives of unsuspecting victims shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. But it’s the season’s real-life backdrop — the internment camps where thousands of Japanese-American immigrants were forced to live during World War II — that will send shivers down your spine.
“Franklin Roosevelt was a great president who pulled the nation out of a crushing depression,” Takei said. “But he was also a human being that got swept up by the war hysteria and racism of the time.
“He made a horrible mistake that was inflicted on us.”
The repercussions are personal for Takei, who, at 82, looked every bit as dashing as the show’s 37-year-old leading man, Derek Mio, as they sat side by side last weekend in a hotel conference room. Takei was 5 when his family was forced to live in converted horse stables in California’s Santa Anita Park and, later, a relocation center in Arkansas.
He wrote about the experience through the eyes of a child for the graphic novel “They Called Us Enemy,” published this year. The Broadway musical “Allegiance,” based on his memories, ran on Broadway from 2015 to 2016.
But Takei has been shining a light on that period for decades, speaking at colleges across the nation.
Max Borenstein, best known for co-writing “Kong: Skull Island,” saw one of those lectures at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He was inspired to develop a TV project, which became the second season of “The Terror” anthology series.
His producing partners make no apologies for wrapping up a history lesson in a ghost story.
“Period pieces can feel musty and removed,” said showrunner Alexander Woo, who counts “True Blood” and “Sleeper Cell” among his TV credits. “In order to bring it into the present, you use that rich toolbox from the horror genre that can really bring out the sweaty palms and fast heartbeats.
“If you’re doing your job right, you get into the characters’ brains and into their skins. You really feel what these people are going through.”
Takei was hired to play a supporting character and serve as a consultant, a decision that paid off almost immediately. On the very first day of shooting in Vancouver, the actor noted that the dining set the family used was too nice. Minutes later, the production team was making chips in the plates.
The “Star Trek” veteran wasn’t the only person on set with a connection to the camps. On the final day of shooting, Woo conducted an informal poll. Nearly 240 members of the cast and crew had immediate relatives who were incarcerated on U.S. soil.
That includes the leading man. Mio is a fourth-generation American whose grandfather was among those detained. He was so inspired that after filming the 10 episodes he flew to Japan to delve deeper into his roots. He was also moved by working with so many others with the same background.
The writers room includes Japanese-born playwright Naomi Iizuka, whose oft-produced work includes “The Last Firefly,” premiered by Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis in 2016. Josef Kubota Wladyka (“Narcos”), who is of Japanese and Polish descent, directed the first two episodes.
While filming one of the early scenes, Mio turned to co-star Shingo Usami and remarked how surreal it was that the primary players behind and front of the camera were Japanese-American, while nearly all the background extras were white.
“That was a surreal moment,” Mio said. “In traditional Hollywood, Asian-Americans usually play the sidekick or the butt of the joke. To play the romantic leading man and an almost action star was like nothing I’m used to.”
Woo, who has been in the business for 16 years, has written several plays about the Asian-American experience, but this is his first such TV project.
“The climate has changed,” he said. “With more than 500 scripted shows on television, broadcasters have to distinguish themselves. They can’t be doing the same things over and over again. Look at the success of ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ ‘The Farewell,’ ‘Fresh Off the Boat.’ If they were only attracting Asian viewers, they wouldn’t be hits. But they are getting viewers across the board. I mean, look at ‘Gangnam Style.’ You might not understand many of the words, but it was still a huge sensation. The success of those things makes a network investing in this series a little less scary.”
Takei has been a part of one groundbreaking series, and he’s optimistic that he’s done it again. As he prepared last weekend to be honored by the Asian American Journalists Association alongside civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Maria Ressa, founder of the citizen-journalism network Rappler, he couldn’t help but slip in a “Star Trek” reference.
“This is a great leap forward,” he said. “We’re ready to boldly go where no show has gone before.”