Interview: Mary Chieffo Talks Klingon Sex And L’Rell’s Future On ‘Star Trek: Discovery’

(Photo: Aaron Harvey)

Mary Chieffo, and her character L’Rell, has been one of the breakouts of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, and it has been confirmed she will be part of the second season as well. At WonderCon over the weekend, Mary moderated the Star Trek: Discovery “Visionaries” panel and afterwards TrekMovie had a chance to speak with her at a roundtable interview, joined by other journalists.

Mary Chieffo at WonderCon 2018

L’Rell needs a plan to lead the Klingons

Things happened really quickly at the end of season one for L’Rell. How tenuous do you think her hold is on the Klingon High Council?

I’m very interested to see how they explore that in season two. I think it could go a lot of different ways, and what’s fun being in this part of the timeline is there’s a lot of room for finding out why things ended up the way they are in ten years. I think it’s really fun… I love that they have the moment where I say “I’m the leader” and they laugh at me… and the fact that my last line is “the reunification of our race begins now.” I think that L’Rell is a very hard worker and very determined and fierce. She starts with plan A, B and C but usually reverts to X, Y and Z, but she will have a plan! I’m very interested to see how it unfolds. I’m as in the dark as you are! (laughs)

L’Rell claims her place as leader of Klingon houses during the Season 1 finale

L’Rell’s complicated love life

How do you see L’Rell’s relationship with Tyler now, do you see them getting back together?

I am very interested to see what they come up with. From my perspective in [the season finale] was that I really didn’t think there was any remnant of Voq left, until he speaks to me in Klingon. At the end of episode 12 when I do the surgery, that was a “Goodbye Voq,” he was no longer there. I chose to make that sacrifice, so that Voq does not suffer, so it is such a surprise [for him] to still have these memories, even if they are muted memories. It is complicated. It isn’t a typical love triangle. Voq and L’Rell had a legitimate relationship and Tyler and Burnham had a legitimate relationship and L’Rell is smart enough to get that. I certainly don’t think they walk off into the sunset in that moment [in the season finale]. They are not “Everything is fine,” they understand the complexity. The possibilities are endless.

You have to have the breakdown before the breakthrough. I think that L’Rell had that breakdown and is piecing herself back together and try to do the right thing. Ultimately the right thing in episode 15 was to bring peace, or to understand this collaboration was more important than any personal grievances. Leaders, making personal sacrifices.

The scenes you had with Voq/Tyler were very sexual in nature, how did you get prepared for that? What was your take on it?

That was a big journey for me too, embracing that Klingons are innately sensual creatures in a way that Humans aren’t. That is part of what made them beautifully alien and part of what I was able to justify. Certainly, in the scene in “Despite Yourself” – episode 10 that Jonathan Frakes directed amazingly – that scene was so complex and I didn’t want it to be a sort of creepy, Hannibal Lecter sort of situation. For me she is using her sexuality because she is not the puritan American that I am that has been taught to have a certain shame around that.

She is using that because that is love also, that connection with Voq is not just carnal, it is pure and genuine. So, the way she navigates is more alien than human. I think it is a very interesting line and a beautiful gift of sci-fi is you can explore these themes in a different way than if it were just two humans. It is also interesting to see that her empowerment by that is misconstrued by humans. I thought that was an interesting message. For me, and in talking with Gretchen [J. Berg] and Aaron [Harberts], and Bo [Yeon Kim] and Erika [Lipoldt] – that it was important that it was not Tyler that was in that relationship, it was always Voq that got his memories screwed up. That was also my bad, with the surgeries. From L’Rell’s perspective, she did not cross that line. But it is complex.

Mary Chieffo in Star Trek’s first ever Klingon sex scene

L’Rell’s squad would include Grilka, and Cornwell

If you or L’Rell could form an away mission team from any Star Trek, what five characters would you pick.

For L’Rell, I think she would want to band together the other female Klingons. She would talk to the Duras sisters and Grelka. That’s three. Then there is K’Eheylr and B’Elanna. I think with half-Klingon, we would be OK with it.

I do think that [L’Rell] is at a turning point. I do think at the beginning of the season, she would have picked a bunch of Klingons, but by the end she is starting to look outward more and realize there is more to the humans. And if there is more to the humans, perhaps there is more to the Romulans or the Andorians. And so I think L’Rell would pick Cornwell. That is one of my favorite relationships she has on the show. There is a real respect there.

In our first scene together, and there is this whole first chunk [which was cut], where we were scoping each other out and she really proves to me that she is smart and gets that I am not like the other Klingons, and I respect that.

L’Rell and Admiral Cornwell earn a respect for one another.

Embracing L’Rell’s sensitive side

Do you have a favorite aspect of your character?

Yes, many. I treat all my characters with a lot of respect but I also feel like they come to me at a time in my life when I need them, and I felt that very much with L’Rell. Her arc of living in the shadows and working from the sidelines and not having confidence in her own abilities and power. That was a big journey for me; it’s a continued journey for me, I’m still trying to own myself and my own power in my own life. And coming out of school there’s a lot of uncertainty after you graduate and to have this role where I get to manifest all of those insecurities and fears, and to finally culminate it with being given this detonator and kind of being all “well, I gotta do it!” All those fears and nerves that I felt doing that speech as the actor I got to manifest in the character, so the short answer to your question I would say would be her sensitivity, her vulnerability, because I think that’s true for all characters, but I think I’ve been given room to really breathe into that from a lot of the scenes and moments I’ve had from the writers’ room.

How much of L’Rell came from you, versus the makeup that you were wearing getting you into that character?

Definitely the external [makeup] helped a lot in manifesting how she carried herself. I did a lot of mask and movement work in college, that was definitely something I leaned on in this; a very outside-in sort of experience. But at the same time, what was so beautiful, when it came to the scenes as they were writing, and particularly from episode four onward, there was room to find a kind of softness and vulnerability despite that fact that she’s this intimidating-looking Klingon. But I found it to be a mixture of everything, as the actor approaching it and then story wise; that just kind of developed I think as we all got to know each other on the writers’ side and the actors’ side. It really is such a great mixture.

Chieffo is made up into L’Rell

Not fluent in Klingon, yet

Is it tougher to learn lines in Klingon or to say it with your teeth in?

(laughs) I like the teeth! They tease me on set too; it’s like teeth, eyes, I don’t feel complete until it’s all in. So, I definitely feel that next level of saying the words is…, I don’t feel complete until it’s all there, but I definitely appreciate not having to practice my lines in the full makeup and teeth! It’s great, I mentioned on the panel that I do have these two-hour sessions with Rea Nolan our dialect coach, and that’s really about breaking it down and getting the basis of the sounds. I really need to go into the back of my throat for certain noises. But it is that final moment when it’s all coming together that there is a certain release, so in a certain way that feels easier. It flows more, I wouldn’t say “oh that was a piece of cake,” but it definitely feels like all that hard work beforehand pays off.

Do Klingon speakers come up to you at conventions and start speaking to you?

I haven’t, but I am sure that time will come. Robyn Stewart – our Klingon translator did say that to me because I did want to have some lines to respectfully say “I am not as fluent as I wish I was.” And she encouraged me to go in that vein.

Of course, when you have the lines written for you, you make it sound fluent. That is part of it too with a franchise like this. There is that line that you know it is fiction, but I never want to tread in a direction that is disrespectful.

Mary Chieffo studying her lines on set

Interacting with the fandom

You’ve been very active with the fan community. What were your expectations when you came into Star Trek and how do you see it today?

It’s been such an incredible journey with that, particularly starting that journey before anything had come out, just the announcement that I was a part of the show, to now that the full season is out and there was such a great journey for my character, and now the reverberations, starting to do things like this, kind of discussing what happened in season one. My big goal always as someone who grew up loving certain franchises and just being passionate about things, I wanted to give that level of respect to the fans because I take it seriously and I think it’s important that we bring all of ourselves to everything we do, particularly with something that’s so beloved for so long.

The interactions, it’s been so fun. I hadn’t done Twitter before I did the show, but it’s been so fun. I’ve met people; fans from all over the world; different artists who are creating fan art; artists that I respect in different mediums that I find out are watching the show and I get to meet; it’s just been amazing across the board and I think Star Trek is something that’s beloved by a lot of different types of people. And so, it’s fun to learn who has actually been a Trekkie their whole life and is embracing Discovery. It’s been very humbling and very beautiful.

Mary Chieffo and Wilson Cruz taking a selfie with fans at Discovery Hollywood premiere

More TrekMovie WonderCon 2018 coverage

Full Star Trek: Discovery Visionaries panel video

Roundtable Interview: ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Showrunners Reveal Season 2 Theme, Plans For Burnham, Airiam And More

‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Showrunners Confirm Number Of Episodes In Season 2, Give Production Update

7 Things We Learned About ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Season 2 At WonderCon Visionaries Panel

WATCH: ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Bonus Scene Reveals A Familiar Storyline For Season Two

WonderCon18: IDW Announces ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation: Terra Incognita’ + Talk ‘Discovery’ Comics

Star Trek: Discovery is available exclusively in the USA on CBS All Access. It airs in Canada on the Space Channel and streams on CraveTV. It is available on Netflix everywhere else.

Keep up with all the Star Trek: Discovery news at TrekMovie.


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of course she would take 5 females on the away mission. It is Discovery after all. And No, I am not a male chauvinist. This show has so feminized the male persona. The only strong male was Lorca and they justified that by saying he was a mirror maniac. Tyler was a mess the whole time. We have 2 gay characters that were far from an alpha male, as much as Staments tried to be. Mudd was insane. Sarek was whatever he was. Let’s not fix all of Hollywood’s discrimination’s with one show. Discovery certainly tried with one season. Here’s hoping season two evens the score out a little. I don’t need a womanizing Kirk, but a smart Picard or Sisko would be refreshing.

You poor boy.

It is a very sunny day out.
Take a walk and enjoy nature for awhile.

Lorca and Culber were both prettt strong characters. So was Tyler, except for the brief period when Voq took him over. And Voq himself is a pretty strong character. And Saru started out as a bit of a wuss, but he is becoming stonger.

Yes…but clearly you feel threatened by women to some degree. Why else invest in writing the post? Are you sure you’re not an itsy-bitsy chauvinistic? C’mon…be honest.

The problem with spiked cannons is, they tend to blow up.

“And No, I am not a male chauvinist. This show has so feminized the male persona.”

I mean…yeah, you kind of are.

I’ll have a crack at disagreeing with you without being dismissive. Is Discovery’s lopsided gender ratio really such a bad thing? When you roll the demographic dice on any group of TV characters – particularly when it’s small, <10 – it's really unlikely you'll have total balance. There have been a ton of TV shows where the characters' gender ratios have favoured men, but weren't necessarily sexist against women. And that's usually fine (though I'll happily acknowledge that's a whole 'nother topic in itself). Is it really so ghastly that this show instead leans female?

If the interview was with a man and he listed 5 guys to hang out with, you wouldnt complain. Since when is it weird for a group of women to want to hang out? Have you ever been outside your house? Women travel in packs! lol

Nothing to see here.

I actually quite liked the knowledge of Trek that she demonstrated with that answer.

The pendulum has been so far on the other side for so long, favouring the straight white male as the hero and role model for everything. If we see the pendulum swing a bit far the other way in the current crop of shows, then so be it. It brings some much needed change in the depiction of all those that didn’t fit that previous mould.
Will things even out over time? Most likely. But in the meantime you may want to take a step back and reflect that the way you feel now is how everyone else used to feel about their own depictions in the media. Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and all that.

The original pilot for Star Trek focuses on a captain who was suffering from PTSD and we’ve seen both Picard and Sisko depicted similarly over the years.

You are all missing the point. They are in your face about it. They have an agenda. If the agenda went the other way it would still be annoying. Don’t be Trek blind. They are confusing the fact that Trek explored social issues brilliantly in the past to presenting an entire series based on a social issue. Be a little smarter with your answers

In what way is it in our face?

They are not “Trek blind”. They are PC blind. God forbid a straight cisgendered white male doing anything even close to important when PC police is around.

So happy I am not living in US…

You realize there is no way to pick on that aspect of STD without igniting a flamewar lol
I hate that STD basically became a femminist propaganda show… but given current state of US, there’s no hope S2 will be better. I’ll just go downhill as that is one of the main selling points.

If you do not like STD, you are a bad person because, given how progressive it is you must love it. It is mandatory. You are either with them or against. Common sense was forgotten in the closet.

What I don’t get is that Star Trek’s always had strong female characters and done equality brilliantly without harping on about it or shoving it in your face it just was what it was, Sisko was black (and brilliantly played by Avery Brooks) Janeway was female (again Brilliantly played by Kate Mulgrew) Both were great characters leading great casts and both shows worked (Voyager slightly less so IMO but that had nothing to do with the Captain being female, more so technical aspects) and that’s why it worked and fans got around it. They delved into social issues without getting political or trying to jam an agenda down your throat. I don’t care if the lead on DIS is a black woman, for the love of God just give us a good cast.

By the end of S1 of every other series I’d started to care about the cast. At this point I don’t care if the Discovery is destroyed with all hands at the start of season 2 they haven’t made me care about any of the characters. Stamets is meant to be one of the first gay leads in a Star Trek show but the character is actually a dick. Half the bridge crew I don’t even know their names still and Martin-Green IMO isn’t a flash actress.

She seems delightful. I’m glad she’s having fun.

She reminds me of an opera singer I know. Same openness, brilliance, and joie de vivre.

They definitely should have left in the stuff they cut of L’Rell and Cornwell. That subplot ended up feeling very half baked, much like a lot other interesting things they set up in the season that didn’t really go anywhere. I hope they give the stories in season 2 more time to breathe and develop.

I hope we get to see outtakes and “footage that was cut” eventually.

“For L’Rell, I think she would want to band together the other female Klingons. She would talk to the Duras sisters and Grelka. That’s three. Then there is K’Eheylr and B’Elanna. I think with half-Klingon, we would be OK with it.”

Wow, impressive! Mary seems to be very familiar with Trek lore. The only downside is that the other five would be kinda surprised if they were led by a bald Klingon woman.

“that scene was so complex and I didn’t want it to be a sort of creepy, Hannibal Lecter sort of situation. For me she is using her sexuality because she is not the puritan American that I am that has been taught to have a certain shame around that.”

I thought it rather felt like a creepy SPECIES sort of situation. But in retrospect I think it’s great they did it and finally broke that nudity taboo on Trek.

Klingon head lice epidemic. In this era they’re shaven. It’ll grow back.

Honestly it would go a long way if they at least put some hair on these people.

Hair, hair, hair. That’s all you guys think about. The Kiss Army Klingons are gone forever. Thank God.

Klingons have always had hair. Its not all I think about but yeah it would go a long way.

Klingons have pubic hair.

All the things she said in this interview, I could see in her character when watching the show. She did an amazing job. Yes, and the writers who wrote L’Rell. :)

Is every person in a leadership position a female on this show? Good lord. Taking that “diversity” memo a little to far there Hollywood.
Regardless of that, this show just looks so ridiculous.

Your post is ridiculous.

Lorca, Voq, T’Kuvma, Sarek

I just want to say that the separation surgery L’Rell performs ended in a VERY confusing way. When she screamed I was thinking something went wrong. That she was hurt or messed up or something. Then the scene ended and when we returned to her no mention of what went down. Then I read it was the Klingon Death Scream. So it makes sense but not sure how one can safely conclude that considering the circumstance. So I’m on the side that says Voq is not gone. He will show up next season.

But this playes into what is wrong with the show. Hard core fans could recognize it as the death scream as mentioned in TNG. But non hard cores will certainly not. If it was the scream someone needed to mention it as such so the audience is sure. Unless it was a misdirect from the writers.

They reminded us about the scream in earlier episodes of Discovery, so you should recognize it even if you haven’t seen the other shows.

I do not recall the death scream being mentioned. It certainly could have been and I just missed it. The show was not very engaging so mentioning something like that could easily be missed. But I still say it was not obvious at all that is what it was. It seemed to me like something in the separation went horribly wrong for L’Rell. Resulting in the scream. It just didn’t feel like the right context for the death scream. The better way to handle it would have been to have her disengage from Ash, pause a bit. Then look up and let out the roar. Not while she is still attached to his head. This once again shows poor execution on the part of the people making the show.

She’s been fantastic in Discovery. L’Rell was a stand-out character and she was able to act beyond all the makeup and create a real person.

Most of the Klingon actors had trouble acting through all the prosthetics and make-up, but not Mary Chieffo — she’s been outstanding all season long! I’m really tired of the Klingons and want them to go away, but that’s in spite of her, not because of her.

didn’t you think they all talked like they were holding their breath or had a miniature mellophone in their throat? :-)