Interview: Doug Jones On The Human Side Of Saru And Keeping The Captain’s Chair In ‘Star Trek: Discovery’

WARNING: Interview contains spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery season three.

In the latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery (“Su’Kal”), Captain Saru leads an away team to rescue the sole survivor of a crashed Kelpien ship, and they find themselves being integrated into a degrading holodeck program which has changed their appearance, and Saru is transformed into a human. TrekMovie had a chance to talk to actor Doug Jones about this acting challenge, and where Saru finds himself as the season comes to a close.

Let’s jump right into “Su’Kal” and the most obvious thing.

What would that be? [Laughs]

Were there any elements or tricks you wanted to bring to your performance as a human to ensure that there was still a Saru-ness to yourself when you look so different?

Well, that was the trick and the confusion for me personally. I’ve played many humans over the years but I’ve never played Saru as a human. I wanted to make sure to keep his persona intact even though his look had changed so much. So his speech pattern and voice, that was a part of me already. So I got that. His gentlemanly gesturing perhaps and a fluidity in his hands. But the footwear changes everything. When I’m in my hoof boots, it changes my posture, my hip carriage, my stride. So when I had to walk, that’s when I was like, “Okay, what do I do here? Oh, geez.” Because I’m in flat boots. What am I going to do? So I tried to give him a glide that was Saru-esque but still had to be human. I tried to work up a hybrid. I don’t know if it worked or not.

Well, I noticed when you were approaching the fortress that Saru still had a bit of that runway walk.

You know when you’re a fashion model like me, you just can’t hide it. Right?

Doug Jones as human Saru in “Su’Kal”

Another big thing for this episode was Bill Irwin as Su’Kal. I know you have a background in mime and he is a famous clown and movement guy. Had you guys ever crossed paths before?

We had never run into each other before. But we had heard people speak of each other so much over the years. Someone who knew someone who knew them, and back and forth. And I have been equated with him countless times over my career. We do even kind of look like each other in our human forms. There had been some talk for this Kelpien. [Co-showrunner] Alex Kurtzman called me to ask, “Would you be interested in playing this character? So you can play opposite yourself?” And I’ve done that before, where I played two characters. And I said, “Oh, uh, NO.” That was going to be just a crud ton of work.

And he said, “Well, I do have a relationship with Bill Irwin, I can give him a call.” When I heard the name Bill Irwin, I just almost became apart. If you can get Bill, that’s the answer. Discussion over, get Bill Irwin! I’ve been such a fan. As a performer and an actor, he’s so grounded and precise. Oh, I knew he would pull it off. So thankfully when Bill was being courted for Su’Kal they got us on the phone together before he before his contract was done to talk about all things Kelpien. Bill and I were able to gush on each other on the phone, and it was really, really very sweet. Thankfully, that cinched up the deal and I think what he did with Su’Kal was magical. He brought such a childlike quality to him. I really believe that was a Kelpien who had never seen another living breathing being since he was a child. He grew up by himself with holograms.

I know you have done “Doug’s Kelpien School for Movement” before for new actors, did you have to do that with Bill too?

I had talked to him on the phone and since Bill already is such a master, physically, himself, I didn’t really need to work in person with him. He had seen footage of me; they showed them some old episodes. And so he’d seen what a Kelpien is. And there was utter trust there that he knew what he was doing to take in that information. But he was also making it himself. He wasn’t mimicking another Kelpien. He became his own Kelpien, with the species traits, but with his own personality, and his own childlike… he had a posture that I didn’t have that I felt really worked for him.

Doug Jones and Bill Irwin in “Su’Kal”

When we chatted before the season started you talked about how the big question was about the captain’s chair. Should we consider that resolved? And how would you evaluate Saru’s captaining in season three up till 311?

I think he’s been doing just fine. [laughs] Oh, he questions himself all the time still, even though he’s got a confidence and he’s not living in the fear he used to live in. I think the reality of any leadership position is, are you always making the right decision unquestioned? I don’t think a young anybody is and Saru is very much aware of that. So when the admiral pulls him aside to have a little coaching session on what you might want to consider doing differently Saru takes all that in. Is there room for improvement? Sure.

And the thing is, Burnham and Saru have had such a respect for each other that’s grown and built as a brother and sister would do. When you meet them at the beginning of the series, they’re kind of like a teenage brother and sister at each other’s throats. Now we’re adult brother and sister and there is really no other person more important in the world than that other person. So we’re both rooting for each other. We trust each other’s leadership. Now, she goes rogue a bit. And Saru’s aware of that. But when she does go rogue, it always has a very positive outcome where she saw through the troubles to find the answer. So, I don’t know. The captains on our show has always been a musical chair. So no one’s ever quite sure how long they’re going to have it. But Saru feels comfortable enough in there, even with all that he has to learn still.

Well, I got a bit nervous in this latest episode when Michael uses the phrase “emotionally compromised.”

That’s usually a takeover phrase, isn’t it? [Laughs]

That feels like a specific regulation. So should we be nervous or am I reading too much into things?

Well, I think he is tethered to home, in a way emotionally. And finally seeing a Kelpien in need, his nostalgia is very strong for home. She is aware of that. No one knows him better than Burnham. No one else really detected that he might be emotionally compromised right now. She does know that. So can he work through it? Here is the question. Can he make intellectual decisions without getting too emotionally involved at this point for the betterment of the galaxy and the Federation? That’ll be resolved.

Before the season started, you also hinted that there was going to be some romance with Saru. So, I started shipping Saru with President T’Rina. Am I seeing things, or is there something happening there?

Well, you keep on shipping that! [laughs] That was the happy accident, actually. When T’Rina showed up in the script, it was our goodbye scene when she was leaving the ship and Saru asked if even aside from business, can they keep their conversations going? And she said that she would like that. That was a hint to me, like ‘Oh!’ When I asked the writers that, they were like ‘Oh!’ [Laughs] That hadn’t really occurred to them. How could it not? So, I did play sort of with a little glint in my eyes. Any of my dealings with T’Rina have been sort of like, ‘Oh, there she is, again. Ahhhh.’

So Saru’s got the hots for a Vulcan, is what you are saying?

Yep, I think he does. And, we’ll see where that goes.

Saru and T’Rina in “Unification III”

Also in our last conversation, you said Saru will sing again this season, so were you talking about this Kelpien lullaby? If so, can you talk about that challenge?  

Oh! I am terrified. That is the second time I’ve been reading a script and here is Saru sings. No! No! In Kelpien? No. [Laughs] We have two great singers on our cast. Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz both have played on Broadway. So let’s have Doug Jones sing instead, that’s a better idea. [Laughs] No, no, no, no. no! And in Kelpien, which is a memorization issue which is much, much tougher. Thankfully they went with my idea both times that I saw on camera now that I pre-record those vocals with script in hand and with my Kelpien dialogue in front of me. So I can sing it with a vocal coach that helps keep me on pitch, yadda yadda. So I can get that all down on an audio track that they then play on the set that I lip-sync to. And that helps me with the memorization of the dialogue because the Kelpien is coming audibly. That helped me immensely. We did that both times. For Airiam’s funeral and for this lullaby.

Going back to the previous couple of episodes, you got to play Mirror Saru again. So while everyone else gets to have fun chewing up the scenery playing evil versions of themselves, you don’t get to do that. You go the way.

Quite the other way!

What is it like for you to go back and forth between Captain Saru and this other version, especially working so closely with Michelle Yeoh on her last episodes?

It was fun and different to be Captain Saru saying goodbye to this Georgiou, who had been grating on his nerves for most of her existence since we brought her from Mirror Universe. The relationship was, she looked at him as dinner and he’s aware of that and keeping each other at arm’s length and throwing barbs back and forth. But he met her tit for tat on all that. I was very proud of how he handled her.

But then jumping back to the Mirror Universe. This was a new Georgiou, going back. She was a Prime Universe-informed and relatable Georgiou with a new heart and soul. And going back into this world of bloodbath which is the Terran Empire. So when she sees her slave Saru, it’s different this time. She is not just hungering for his ganglia for a snack. She knows he is going to pass through Vahar’ai and there is more in store for him and his people. Can she do something good for once in her life to actually help another? And she did make the right choice. And he was quite taken aback by that because that was Terran behavior that he had NEVER seen before. So to go back to that humble place of bowing at the right time or you’ll lose your life was quite an emotional transition to make in the same episode for me. Yeah.

Doug Jones as Mirror Saru with Michelle Yeoh as Georgiou in “Terra Firma, Part 2”

You are now around six weeks into shooting season four. What’s that been like under this new world we live in?

Right. Well, we’re plodding along. We’re getting things shot and it’s going beautifully. It’s just going a bit slower, because of COVID protocols. There are a few more hoops to jump through to get your day done. So with that slower pace, we’re still getting it done. And they are keeping us very safe. It’s all worth it in the end.

I know one of the new things for season four is the AR wall tech, which Alex Kurtzman has talked about. Have you had a chance to work with this new technology yet, and is it a strange experience?

Any of the scenes that involve the AR wall have not been shot yet. Because they’re still putting all that together. When we come back after our Christmas break we’ll be getting into those scenes. We are going to catch up from scenes we are missing from episodes one and two go with that technology. I can’t wait to see how that works. I’m very excited.

Last question. Have you settled on a captain catchphrase, or is it a work in progress?

[Laughs] Oh, I wish that was a yes or no answer. After we went through the “execute” and the “carry on,” I think we landed on “carry on” and people seemed to nod on that one. I don’t know if we ever revisited that ever again. I don’t remember because we filmed it over a year ago. [Laughs] I can’t remember what I said from this point forward.

Doug Jones as Captain Saru in “Su’Kal”


New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery premiere on Thursdays on CBS All Access in the U.S. and on CTV Sci-Fi Channel in Canada, where it’s also available to stream on Crave. Episodes are available on Fridays internationally on Netflix.

Keep up with all the news and reviews from the new Star Trek Universe on TV at TrekMovie.com.

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The episode is really weird. I assume Saru became Human because of the high radiation on the planet. What caused The Burn really disappointed me. I was expecting a high stakes situation but instead it was a mundane occurance.

Saru is my favorite character on the show. I like him more than Michael Burnham to be honest. That is saying something. He is very compelling and a good captain. The writers did the right thing there.

I’m trying my best to like Discovery. I don’t hate this show but I can only go so far. My patience is at a breaking point.

I know what you mean; I don’t hate Discovery…but I don’t love it…

It goes both ways is what I mean.

Saru is awesome.

He became human because of the holodeck, not the radiation.

Saru became human — and Burnham became Trill and Culber Bajoran — because they were all in a holodeck program. No matter how much radiation you get, it doesn’t turn you into another species. :-)

I love Saru! Doug Jones is so very good, and I love Saru’s gentleness and dignity. Something about his self-presentation reminds me a bit of Spock, who also had gentleness and dignity.

You are so correct, doug jones plays him well and there is a bit of Spock to him. Discovery has been tough for me to swallow as I go back to the original series, but with the new twists of the captain’s chair it has me intrigued.

The holodeck could disguise physical appearance in the 24th century, why do you assume that it can no longer do that 800 years later?

Last edited 6 months ago by Corinthian7

To be fair, it does otherwise appear to have taken major steps backward in A/V quality.

Let’s not forget that this is a holodeck that’s been running on autopilot with nobody to repair it for more than a century. Glitches should be expected.

Lol to be fair rereading the original comment it’ would appear that I’m defending against a criticism that wasn’t actually made.

Saru’s human appearance was due to the holodeck program.

Mr. Jones, you’re a treasure!

He is a treasure indeed.

Saru seems to be a good peace-time, diplomatic captain. But he lacks crew leadership capabilities, and the ability to command.
I felt episode 3.11 where he puts the ship at risk in the nebula to be out of character.
His decision to appoint Tilly as XO, in command of the ship is plain stupid. I’m sure Doug Jones is disappointed by what they’ve done with his character.

I think the writers INTENDED that to seem out of character for Saru, to show us just how important that lone Kelpien in the nebula was to him.

Although this last episode was IMO, disappointingly the worst of the season, I have to admit I liked the holo story and it was great to see Doug Jones play a human version of Saru! He must have been happy not having to go to make those mornings!
Also, thanks for the update on filming S4!

I’m beginning to dislike discovery. Season 1 and 2 were good, although I’m not a fan of the Burnham centric plot. But having a mutated Kelpian teenager with temper tantrums be the cause of the burn has to be the worst plot ever imagined.