By Melissa Chan
August 15, 2019

George Takei tells TIME about living in a Japanese-American internment camp as a child and what inspired his new show, ‘The Terror: Infamy.’

You were in Japanese-American internment camps from ages 5 to 8. What was that like?

We were plunked down in the swamps of southeastern Arkansas. To me, it was an exotic, alien planet. Trees grew out of the water of the bayou that was right next to the barbed-wire fence. I remember catching pollywogs and putting them in the jar. Dragonflies, which I’ve never seen before. The first winter, it snowed there. I was a Southern California kid. To wake up one morning and see everything covered in white, it was a magical place.

What was it like for your parents?

For my parents, it was a series of goading terrors, one after the other. But children are amazingly adaptable. We adjusted, and we got used to what would have been a grotesque thing–lining up three times a day to eat lousy food in a noisy mess hall, or going with my father to bathe in a mass shower. When I made the night runs to the latrine, searchlights followed me. I thought it was nice that they lit the way for me to pee.

What do you remember about the journey there?

I remember the terror of when the soldiers came to our Los Angeles home to order us out, and the confusion and chaos at the Santa Anita racetrack. There was a chain-link fence around the whole racetrack facility. We were unloaded and herded over to the stable area. Each family was assigned to a horse stall. For my parents, it was a degrading, humiliating, enraging experience to take their three kids to sleep in a smelly horse stall. But to me, it was fun to sleep where the horsies sleep.

When did you understand what you were part of?

It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I learned about the reality, the horror, the terror and the injustice of that incarceration. I was inspired by speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King that I heard on the radio and what I read in the newspapers. I read about the ideals of our democracy: all men are created equal. I couldn’t reconcile that with what I knew to be my childhood imprisonment and what my parents went through.

You’re both an actor and consultant on AMC’s The Terror: Infamy. Why did you get involved?

My mission in life has been to raise awareness of this chapter in American history. I’m the last of the surviving generation that experienced internment.

The series, set during World War II, centers on a series of bizarre deaths that haunt a Japanese-American community. Why tell this story through a horror movie with supernatural elements?

That is organic to the story. The immigrant generation brought with them their old beliefs, superstitions, religious rituals. When people are terrorized–genuine, government-sourced terror–older people cling onto what they found security in. People went crazy. And when crazy people do crazy things, the immigrant generation thought it was the spirit of whatever evil that was done coming to punish them.

We rarely see the story of internment being told in a major U.S. TV show. Why do you think that is?

It’s a shameful chapter of American history. The U.S. looks very bad because it was a horrible mistake.

How much of the show is historically authentic?

I play the oldest of the immigrants. I went to school in Japan, so I speak Japanese fluently. But I had to learn the Wakayama accent, the old Japanese of the province, to play the part of my character. That’s how authentic this is.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

This appears in the August 26, 2019 issue of TIME.

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