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The Terror: Infamy - Working with George Takei: how cast of supernatural thriller were star-struck by Star Trek legend
Veteran actor George Takei isn't just one of the stars of The Terror: Infamy - his story is the inspiration behind the drama. His co-stars told us what it was like to work with a stellar talent.
The Terror – a fictionalised retelling of the disappearance of 19th century polar exploration ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror – gripped viewers when it aired on BBC Two last year.
Now a second season of The Terror has arrived, but while it’s very different to the ice-bound original, it’s sure to send a chill down the spine of fans of the first series.
The Terror: Infamy, set during World War II, centres on a series of bizarre deaths that haunt a Japanese American community on the west coast of the US, and follow a young man’s journey to understand and combat the malevolent entity responsible.
But while the supernatural element might be completely fictional, the historical element of the show certainly is not. Like season 1, the show is based on an actual historical event, with horror layered on top. This series is set in the Japanese American Internment camps - something its star George Takei had first-hand experience of as a child.
Speaking exclusively to BT TV, Takei, alongside cast mates including Derek Mio, Kiki Sukezane and Naoko Mori, Takei reveals what he brought to the show during filming for the historical horror series, and spilled more Secrets from the Set...
Takei: From inspiration to cast member
Legendary actor George Takei was much more than just a cast member on the show - he was actually the reason the show was made, and his own childhood stories from the Japanese internment camps weaved themselves into the script.
Takei also worked as a historical consultant - ensuring the production remained truthful to the reality of what he endured as a child in the camps.
“It’s been my mission in life, having been imprisoned unjustly [in an internment camp] as a child, to raise the awareness of this dark, shameful chapter of American history, so that we don’t repeat this again,” said the octogenarian actor and activist.
After coming on board as a consultant to ensure the authenticity of the stories from that era, Takei then signed on as a cast member too: he plays an elderly fisherman called Yamato-san.
“I came on as a consultant, but I’m a professional actor, I’ve been at it for over six decades now, and Alex Woo the showrunner and exec producer said ‘You’re an actor: if we’re going to have you on the set, we might as well get you in front of the camera’,” he explained.
“So they created a part for me so that I could do my thing professionally as an actor, as well as to do my civic duty to raise the awareness of this chapter of American history [as a consultant].”
Actor and comedian Derek Mio, above, stars alongside Takei as one of the show’s main characters, a budding photographer named Chester Nakayama. He told us how special it was to work alongside Takei and, in effect, to help tell his story.
“It’s pretty crazy to have learned that it’s because of George that this series even exists,” said Mio.
“Max Borenstein, who is the creator of the show, said that he had gone to see George speak at a university, and it was that night Max had the idea for the show: he jumped out of bed and scribbled it down on a piece of paper, and here we are telling the story with George Takei as a consultant and a character on the show.
“It was so special to have George be a part of this project. It’s been his life’s mission to spread the message about the Japanese American internment.”
‘A story shaped by personal experience’
Alongside the spooky, supernatural tale of ghosts from Japanese folklore, The Terror tells the true story of Japanese American internment camps.
During World War II, shortly after the Imperial Japanese Navy's attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in 1941, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the forced relocation and incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Americans of Japanese descent.
One of those incarcerated was a young George Takei. Born in Los Angeles to Japanese American parents in 1937, George was an American citizen, and yet at the age of five he was forced to live in the converted horse stables of Santa Anita Park, California, before being sent to the Rohwer War Relocation Center internment camp in Rohwer, Arkansas.
“We were American citizens. We were incarcerated by our American government in American internment camps here in the United States. The term 'Japanese internment camp' is both grammatically and factually incorrect,” he said.
The Terror: Infamy showrunner Alexander Woo - of True Blood and Manhattan fame - told BT TV: “A lot of the stories from George’s childhood we’ve put in the show, so in that [sense] some of the storytelling is shaped by his personal experience.”
‘A wonderful storyteller’
Takei’s co-star Kiki Sukezane, above, who portrays the restless ghost Yuko Tanabe in the show, says of working with George: “He taught me about what the camps were like back when he was little and I was really surprised and also it was good to learn what it was like from the real experience.”
Naoko Mori, who has appeared in hit Hollywood movies like Everest but who British fans may recognise as the Spice Girls’ pregnant best friend Nicola in the Spice World movie of 1997, recalls Takei telling many stories about his life in the camps on set.
“George is a wonderful storyteller, and just spending time with George is always amazing,” said Mori.
“Having first-hand accounts from George has been one of the most valuable things on the show.
“I remember him telling me about being interned at the age of three or four, pledging allegiance to the United States with guns pointed [at him], surrounded by barbed wire.
“That’s devastating, that’s absolutely heartbreaking, and sends such ridiculous, mixed messages to a child, you know? Just things like that.”
Walking in the footsteps of family members
But while Takei could point to first-hand experience of the camps, many members of the cast and crew had relatives who were interned during World War II.
This shared heritage helped create a strong yet friendly dynamic on set, according to showrunner Alexander Woo, above.
“It was a delightful set, everyone was very professional and felt very passionate about it,” said Woo.
“It was a very special set because we had not just George, but cast and background actors in fact, whose families were interned.
“We did count in fact there were 138 immediate relatives of our cast and crew who were interned, so there were even background actors who felt that they were walking in the literal footsteps of their parents and grandparents.”
‘The devil’s in the detail’
Having grown up in an internment camp, Takei takes the portrayal of the camps on the TV show incredibly seriously.
Naoko Mori, above, who plays Chester's mother Asako Nakayama, said that Takei was “brilliant” and “wasn’t shy in saying ‘this isn’t right’,” while Derek Mio agreed that Takei’s presence on set was “invaluable”.
Showrunner Alexander Woo recalls one specific moment on set when Takei was particular about a certain set of props.
“On the first day, we shot in the mess hall [where meals were served]. George noticed that the plates weren’t chipped enough. He said: ‘These are too nice, everything looks clean.’
“So we went back and chipped a whole bunch of the plates, so there were times when something wasn’t quite as he remembered, we would make those adjustments.”
Takei explains: “We had a stack of very sturdy plates, but they were brand new from the store. I didn’t remember them as being that polished. They had chips in them, some had hairline cracks, and dribbles from the sauce that was served on them, so we corrected that.
“Just little details like the cooks had white restaurant worker caps on. We didn’t have those in the internment camps - we had men who got a piece of white cloth and made a headband out of it.
“So these little touches, the devil’s in the detail, so we tried to make it as authentic as possible, both in the preparation and on the set itself.”
Star-struck by a Star Trek legend
Thanks to a film and TV career spanning 60 years which is best remembred for his groundbreaking role as the iconic Star Trek role of Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu, as well as his presence as an influential and powerful voice for social justice, marriage equality and LGBTQ rights, Takei is something of a legend in Hollywood as both an actor and an activist.
This didn’t go unnoticed by his co-stars on The Terror: Infamy, who admitted feeling rather star-struck by his presence.
Naoko Mori comes from a similar sci-fi background to George, having appeared in the British Doctor Who spin-off series Torchwood.
“Obviously it’s George Takei, he’s a legend!" she admitted.
“Especially for me having done shows like Torchwood in the sci-fi community, just having the opportunity to be in the same room as Sir George - I call him Sir George - let alone work with him, having that sci-fi crossover, there’s a big part of me that was fangirling at the beginning.”
Derek Mio was also taken aback by the fact he got to work with Takei. Mio himself has a personal link to the show’s setting as both his grandfathers were Americans of Japanese descent living under oppression in World War II.
“For me, being a Japanese American actor and working with one of the most legendary actors – period - of Hollywood, it was pretty surreal.
“I couldn’t help, in our scenes with each other, I’d just go blank, or start laughing, as it was just ridiculous that I was in this position, and us having such a close personal tie to this storyline was pretty special.”
Kiki Sukezane, who you might recognise from TV series like Heroes Reborn and Westworld, added: “I was really honoured to work with George because I knew of him, everybody knew him. He’s so funny and so cute on set!”
Takei didn’t seem fazed by the attention, telling us he made friends on set, despite the serious subject matter.
“We’re actors, we’re not living the characters 24/7. In between shots, we’d chat with each other and share gossip. I made a lot of new friends!"
George’s ‘passion and energy’ for the project
But Takei’s influence undoubtedly extended beyond overseeing practical matters like props and scripts. Showrunner Alexander Woo says his presence was felt by everyone on the set.
“As as a leader of the cast, he brought a passion and energy to the entire set that everyone fed off. Really within a couple of weeks everyone felt like we were doing something really special.”
Of Takei’s influence over filming, Mio agrees that all the cast took his lead, treating the material with a certain level of respect, but also keeping things light as he so often would on set.
Mio recalls: “It was very special. He would always remark how great this is that as an Asian American [actor], I’m playing a romantic lead, which we don’t see hardly ever on television or film, so it’s pretty groundbreaking in that sense too. But to have his support just meant everything.”
The Terror: Infamy begins with a double-header at 9pm on Friday 6 May on BBC Two. Two new episodes will be released every Friday afterwards, but if you can't wait, every episode is already available on BBC iPlayer.