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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
More TrekMovie WonderCon 2018 coverage
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