Interview: Mary Chieffo On L’Rell’s Sensuality, Power, And “Klingon Couture” In ‘Star Trek: Discovery’

Mary Chieffo at the Star Trek: Discovery season 2 premiere

Star Trek: Discovery stars and producers walked the red carpet last Thursday evening in New York to celebrate the premiere of season two. We continue to bring you interviewers from the event.

We got a few minutes with the always effusive and insightful Mary Chieffo (L’Rell), who was sporting what she described as a “celestial goddess” look for the event that included a “sparkly pink nod” to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s Jadzia Dax.

You’ve talked about how L’Rell is going to have this new sensuality – what are you bringing to that in season two?

Chieffo: A lot of L’Rell’s journey in the first season was actually coming to terms with that and understanding that she could use that. And you know at the time, she was using it to invoke Voq, bring back the love that they had. In this season it’s certainly more visual, she’s trying to embody a more classically feminine esthetic—we get the cleavage, we get the dresses, beautifully designed by Gersha Phillips, who has just done incredible work. I say it’s “Klingon couture” and it’s designed for my body and size. So that’s been amazing, to have people literally crafting outfits for me.

But beyond that, on a technical level, I found that with that visual, I decided that her journey … she was also trying to find out who she is as a woman and as a leader. So often we say that ‘Oh if you have a certain sensuality, a certain femininity, you can’t also embody this image of strength and power.’ And with L’Rell, there’s something that almost surpasses gender in a certain way, because she’s alien. And it’s something certainly from our human eyes, that can’t quite – we’re like ‘Well, she is a woman … she’s got boobs …’ but she’s doing – and certainly in the first season, being so androgynous in a lot of ways [like] not having hair that we so strongly associate with being feminine. Now she has that, it’s a time of peace, the larger political reason why the hair is there. But for me, visually, it was like, ‘Oh, what does it mean to embody that femininity there, and does that negate some of my power or does it give me more?’ And I think it’s not something she’s discussing with Tyler constantly in the show, but I think it’s there. And there’s a lot of fun stuff you’ve seen in the few little trailers, there’s some fighting going on in the dress, and that was one of the most empowering experiences. Ginger Rogers is like ‘backwards in heels‘? Backwards in heels with prosthetics, and a dress, and carrying two large Klingon weapons, so I’m really excited for the fans to see that.

I think I also have always appreciated that she is a strong female character, but she is flawed, and she’s made mistakes, and she admits her failures, which is a very un-Klingon thing to do. And in this season we are getting to lean into that, have those kinds of quieter conversations a little bit, and I’m interested to see what the audience takes from that.

L’Rell fights in style in season two of Star Trek: Discovery for a reason

Are L’Rell and Tyler a couple, are they together?

Chieffo: (laughs) It’s complicated! It’s very complicated. Yeah, I think I have problems! It’s complicated. There is a real respect that they came to at the end of the first season, which is that there was love between Voq and L’Rell, and there was love between Burnham and Tyler, and now Tyler embodies both of these entities. We get to talk about it.

[Enter James MacKinnon, stage left …]

Cheiffo: He’s my lifeline, my savior. My incredible artistic inspiration who tolerates all my heartbreak pop women music that I play in the trailer.

MacKinnon: I put a little 80s, heavy metal on just to freak it up a little bit.

Chieffo: We go back and forth. It’s a good symbiotic relationship I think.

Mary Chieffo and James MacKinnon at the Star Trek: Discovery season 2 premiere red carpet

Mary Chieffo with James MacKinnon, who oversees prosthetic and special effects makeup on Star Trek: Discovery

Are you going to see L’Rell and Tyler really have it out and hash through their relationship?

Chieffo: Yes. I’ll be very interested to see exactly how the audience responds, but conversations are had, that was very very important to me, that you at least get to see them touch on the topic. I can’t say much more than that now, but it’s coming. Don’t worry. We’ll be having full-fledged discussions very soon, I promise you, ’cause it’s a lot to unpack. But that was very important to me. I was very grateful that we were given that opportunity.

So it’s an ongoing thing and not just a quick resolution.

Chieffo: Yes. It’s never quick and easy with the Klingons.

The relationship between L’Rell and Voq/Tyler is complicated

(Asked by another interviewer) So as L’Rell grows into her role as Chancellor, does she experience any of the same kind of pushback women do in leadership roles? Is that something that’s prevalent in the Klingon Empire too?

Chieffo: Yeah, that’s something I was actually really thrilled about, is [that] Starfleet is this ideal where we’ve kind of surpassed that in a lot of ways, and so L’Rell is actually one of our few opportunities within a Star Trek context to really explore things that we’re seeing so clearly in 2019, 2018. I say too, and again we’ll be discussing in full extent soon, but a lot of what began to manifest in the first season—you saw how Kol treated L’Rell, and that’s part of why she says, “But I am no one.” She literally does not see herself as significant because her society has told her so. And so now that she has been given this power, it’s exactly that: how does she maintain it, but also, maybe find compromise. I’m really excited to see – and I will also say, the caveat of that, it is still mythology, it is still very heightened, it is Greek and Shakespearean. So for me, embodying this storyline is about reflecting a mirror to our society, like this is the extreme of where we could go, this is what we have to understand is kind of the extent of the female power. And it’s pretty epic. You’ll know when you see it what I’m alluding to. It’s pretty intense.

Mary Chieffo as Chancellor L'Rell - Star Trek: Discovery season 2

Mary Chieffo’s L’Rell is now the Klingon Chancellor

(Asked by another interviewer) Did you have to do as much ADR [Automated Dialog Replacement] work this year as last year?

Chieffo: I did not, actually! Funnily enough, I went in for the session, and I had a handful of things, and I was like, ‘So what about those other scenes?’ and they were like, ‘Oh yeah, the prosthetic, it doesn’t–‘ (indicates it doesn’t interfere with her speech) and I was like, ‘What? What do you mean?’ because I was so used to being able to kind of tweak my performance, and so now I just have to trust that it all worked. But it’s better for everyone that I don’t have to re-dub every single one of my lines.

More from the season 2 premiere

There is more to come from our red carpet coverage of the season 2 premiere in NYC.

Star Trek: Discovery is available exclusively in the USA on CBS All Access. It airs in Canada on Space and streams on CraveTV. It is available on Netflix everywhere else. The second season debuted on All Access and Space on Thursday, January 17th, 2019, and on Netflix January 18, 2019.

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

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L’Rell is not a good example of a powerful woman, she is a bad written generic alien that took power by threatening with the destruction of a whole planet.

If you don’t see her layers I feel for ya.

I wholeheartedly disagree. She’s a perfect example of a woman that is oppressed by a patriarchal society. She is very clever, and it shows from the very start, but she is hesitant to reveal herself as a leader of men. When she finally does, she is laughed at. And yet she becomes the leader of the Klingon Empire. It is true that she only got this power because the Federation gave her control of the bomb. But let’s not forget all the scheming that put her in the position of being chosen for this in the first place. She’s the one that broke behind enemy lines, not T’Kuvma, not Kol… she’s the most clever Klingon we’ve seen in a long while. The only one that comes to mind as a fair comparison is General Chang. Let’s face it: Klingons in general follow the “microbrain” prototype. Even Worf is not really brilliant. But L’Rell is really clever, and that is what propels her from anonymity to being the leader of the Empire.

Until someone steals her iPad with the codes. I like her character, I don’t like how they handled her rise to power.

Something tell me that now that she is there,
It won’t be easy to get rid of her.

The detonator is coded to her DNA so it won’t be quite that simple.

That’s House Mokai for ya’, Salvador. I wholeheartedly agree with you! General Chang, and a few other Klingons come to mind, when I think of artful scheming.

Worf is not brilliant by Human standards because he doesn’t see things from a human point of view so well. He can be pretty crafty in managing his fellow Klingons, is very ethical within his lights, and got through Starfleet Academy, fitting in with the primary human culture enough to graduate and succeed on the Enterprise.

Plus, any man who can maintain a relationship with Jadzia Dax has something going for him besides brawn and Klingon sex appeal!

Well you clearly watched a whole other show.

She seems just fine; I just wonder at the necessity of having a steady Klingon sub-plot at all on Discovery. If they want to center on Klingons, CBS should just develop a Klingon show.

I agree that it’s not feasible to maintain a steady Klingon subplot but I don’t really think a show centred on Klingons is realistic either. I could see Chieffo getting a franchise contract with the character jumping from show to show.

That might be pretty cool. Then we could see Klingons, and L’Rell’s management of their alien culture, and not have it dominate the subplot of “Discovery.” That said, I’ve enjoyed their presence, including Season 1, so far. It was neat to see that their science is as good as the Federation’s. I just wish there had been more with the war and less with the Mirror universe.

The alienness of the Terrans in the MU was fascinating too, but not so much as the Klingons. [Both were cannibalistic to races outside their own, sealing their sense of superiority. Ugh.]

As written, L’Rell is much more layered and interesting to me than the Emperor. Both are performed well. L’Rell’s inner conflicts and outside challenges are fascinating, while the Emperor appears to have none.

I think a Klingon-centric series would be a spot-on idea. There are a slew of people they could bring aboard that are well skilled in Klingon lore. The writers could explore the culture, politics, etc. of the Klingon people. I would love to see what life aboard a bird-of-prey is like, and how Klingon agriculture works, etc.

It’s too niche. I like Klingons and Worf is one of my favourite characters but it would have very narrow appeal even within the existing fan base and don’t even get me started on trying to sell it to a new audience.

It might be good across “Discovery” and “Section 31” … surely Klingon stability will be important to the balance of power in the galaxy/Alpha Quadrant, so Sec 31 would have an interest in that sphere as well.

@Marja you would certainly think that Section 31 would be keeping their eye on the Klingons and with Tyler potentially joining the organisation then L’Rell might be keeping them too…

Early klingons

“The relationship between L’Rell and Voq/Tyler is complicated” Maybe it would be a good idea to bury this next to Threshold.

Funny, when L’Rell said, “But I am no one,” I took it as a multi-layered statement. The sexism was reinforced by the Klingon males laughing at her, and she dignified herself by her response. But I also thought in her “no one” comment she was alluding to her “hiding in the shadows” and not wanting “the mantle of leadership.”

I was very impressed by the femininity Mary Chieffo brought to L’Rell in S1. “Shall we uncouple” was pretty dang sexy, as was her eye contact and body language with Voq. Klingon women don’t need hair and boobies on display to evince femininity. [Not that I object so much — Mary C. really rocks those new dresses!]

Even though I was VERY mixed on the Klingons in the first season, you can’t deny how passionate Mary Chieffo is about playing this role. She lights up every time she talks about it, which is great to see. She has embraced Klingon culture I don’t think I’ve seen since Michael Dorn.

And I’m curious how her character will be worked in this season. And its the first female chancellor we will see and the challenges with that should be especially interesting.

And they are bringing back women Klingon cleavage again! It’s definitely getting back to traditional Trek and in a GREAT way! ;D

I like my Klingon women bald and beautiful.

I’m quite looking forward to discovering the details of the Klingon wartime hair-removal rituals.