AMC’s The Terror: Infamy, season two of the anthology series, is set during World War II. The new season shines a spotlight on the chilling chapter in American history in which the United States government locked up Japanese Americans in internment camps. Stars George Takei and Derek Mio were among the cast members representing the series at the 2019 San Diego Comic-Con, and each had direct connections to that disturbing period in America.
George Takei spent years in internment camps as a child. Derek Mio’s grandfather was forced to leave his family when he was placed in a camp. Takei and Mio joined their co-stars Kiki Sukezane and Cristina Rodlo as well as co-creators/executive producers Alexander Woo and Max Borenstein for a press conference to discuss The Terror: Infamy.
The Terror: Infamy will premiere on August 12, 2019 at 9pm ET/PT.
The first season featured a lot of flashbacks and flash-forwards. Will we see that in The Terror: Infamy and will we spend time outside the internment camps?
Alexander Woo: “If you loved season one, none of it will be the same in season two. Everyone here is new. New cast, new story, new subject matter, new writers – everything is different. But I think it shares some of the DNA of the first season which is we’re telling a historical story using a genre category. This case it’s Japanese ghost stories and the Japanese horror movies that have descended from that.
In terms of where our settings are, we’re not going to be locked in one location.”
Why did you decide to tell this story about a time period a lot of people aren’t familiar with?
Alexander Woo: “So many good reasons.”
George Takei: “That’s the very reason that you cite is why it’s important to tell this story. This is a part of American history. It happened in the United States to American citizens of Japanese ancestry ordered by the United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt and imprisoned in the United States. I hate the term the press always uses, ‘Japanese internment camp.’ Now, anyone who knows simple English grammar knows Japanese internment camps would be run by the government of Japan. It was not. It was an American story.
It’s an important story that has chilling resonance for us today. And yet so many Americans are aghast when I tell people about my childhood. They don’t believe that something like that happened. That’s why it’s important for Americans to know their own American history.”
(Takei clarifies when asked about his dislike for the term ‘internment camp.’)
“No, Japanese internment camp. It’s that combination of ‘Japanese’ and ‘internment.’ They were American internment camps for Japanese Americans. Many Japanese Americans prefer the word concentration camp because that’s precisely what it was. We had barbed wire fences confining us, tall sentry towers with soldiers with guns pointed at us. When I made the runs from our barrack to the latrine, searchlights followed me. But I was five years old at the time and five-year-old me I thought it was nice that they lit the way for me.”
Which came first, the idea for a story set in the internment camps or the supernatural elements?
Max Borenstein: “Obviously the first season of The Terror was its own story. When AMC contemplated doing a second season, the challenge was how do you take another moment in history and combine it with a genre element that would heighten the supernatural. And I told the story of George.
I’m a history buff and I had sat in on a class that a cousin of mine taught where George was visiting the seminar and talking about his experience. He talked about his story having grown up in an internment camp. So, I had that in mind. And after meeting with AMC and thinking about what would be an interesting historical moment to explore and put a supernatural element in it, that was the genesis.”
Why is now the right time for this story?
Max Borenstein: “I think we’ve hit on a peak television time when greater risks are being taken. And then the great strengths of the medium…one of the strengths of the television medium is that you can really build a relationship between the viewer and the characters and build a really strong empathy. That’s what we’re trying to do.
And our strategy rather than telling this as a docudrama – although there have been many very, very good ones, that puts you at a bit of a safer room. We didn’t want the viewer to feel safe. We wanted the viewer to feel the terror. We’re using the vocabulary of the Japanaese ghost stories and horror in order to hopefully make the viewer feel a constant, ambient dread of horror of what it was like to not only go through wartime but wartime in an internment camp.”
George, with you actually living the experience, what’s your take on the events combined with a supernatural aspect?
George Takei: “It was a harrowing time for my parents. Their bank account was frozen. Their house was taken away from them. They were placed under curfew. They had to be home by 8pm and stay home until 6am…imprisoned in our homes and straight-jacketed financially. And then they imprisoned you for no good reason other than you looked like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor.
But that was not the end of it. The constant horror of goading with outrage. When Pearl Harbor was first bombed, young Japanese Americans – like all young Americans – rushed to their recruitment centers to volunteer to serve the US military. This act of patriotism was met with a slap in the face. They were denied military service and classified as enemy aliens. They were patriots volunteering to possibly die for their country and calling them an enemy made no sense at all. And equally senseless was to call them aliens.
They were born here. My mother was born in Sacramento, California. My father was a San Franciscan. People were born here, raised here, educated here. To call them aliens was crazy. And then with no charges, no trial, no due process, to imprison them was un-American. Due process is a central pillar of our justice system. And then a year into the imprisonment the government realized there’s a wartime manpower shortage and here are all these people that they could have had that they classified as enemy aliens. How do you justify drafting them out of the concentration camps for service to the United States military? They came down with a loyalty questionnaire. Can you imagine the outrage of that? But, that loyalty questionnaire was put together very sloppily. People who were not literate in the English language. Everyone over the age of 17 had to respond to the questionnaire.
Two questions became the most controversial. Question 27 asked will you bear arms to defend the United States of America. This was being asked of my mother. I was by that time six years old, my brother was five years old, my baby sister was a toddler. She was being asked to abandon her children and bear arms to defend the nation that was imprisoning her family. It was preposterous.
The next question was even more insidious. In one sentence it asked will you swear your loyalty to the United States of America and forswear your loyalty to the Emperor of Japan? We’re Americans; we never even thought of the Emperor, much less pledged loyalty to him. But the government thought we had an inborn racial loyalty. That’s how ignorant they were.
So, if you answered no, meaning ‘I don’t have a loyalty to the Emperor to forswear,’ that also applied to the first part of the very same sentence. If you answered yes meaning I do swear my loyalty to the United States, then that yes meant you were confessing that you had been loyal to the Emperor and were now prepared to forswear it and repledge your loyalty to the United States.
My parents were outraged by that, insulted by it, and they answered no to those two questions. And they were now classified as ‘no nos’ and were transferred from Rohwer, the Arkansas camp, to a high security camp called the Segregation of Disloyals camp in Northern California, right by the Oregon border. This was another outrageous overreaction to innocent people.[…] We had a 10-episode series and we needed to hold an audience for 10 weeks. The cliffhangers at the end of each are very powerfully written, and the ghost stories come into that. I won’t tell you what they are but tune in and you will not be able to resist tuning in for the next episode.”
Alexander Woo: “I think it’s as important for a viewer to feel how powerful it is. When you have George Takei telling you that story, you really feel how emotionally traumatic that experience is. And I think we use the genre strategically and respectfully in order to really bring out the emotional experience of it, so you don’t feel like you’re sitting at home, like, ‘Well, that happened 75 years ago. Thank goodness immigrants have nothing to worry about today.’
You want to get a little bit in the skin of those people.”
Did you have any moments while filming The Terror: Infamy that deeply impacted you?
Derek Mio: “My personal connection to the story, just like George my grandfather was in the internment camps as well. He actually grew up in Terminal Island where our series starts out.
It was a very special project for me, personally. It was remarkable how when I was reading the pilot and other scenes, they were similar to my own grandfather’s actual stories.
But yeah, there were many, many moments on set that were emotionally impactful. In the pilot there’s a scene where some of the members get taken away like they did…like my grandfather. His father – my great grandfather – actually got taken away. When we shot that it was very powerful, probably the most emotional experience I’ve ever had acting.”
Cristina Rodlo: “To me it was just the same. Being Latina and what’s happening right now at the border, every single scene I would feel connected to it.
It’s amazing how we are repeating history, and I think one of the most important things about this show is that many people don’t know this happened. We need to tell them that this happened. The only way to change history is knowing history. We need to be aware of what we have done and we need to change it – and we need to change it now. So that’s why for me every single scene was like, ‘Okay, I’m very lucky to be telling this story because we’re saying something and we’re saying something good.’”
(Additional reporting by Kevin Finnerty.)