SPOILER ALERT: THIS ARTICLE REVIEWS PLOT DETAILS OF STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. TURN BACK NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE “WILL YOU TAKE MY HAND.”
After spending nearly half of the season in a prison cell, Chieffo’s L’Rell was set free in the season 1 finale and given the power to destroy her home planet in order to bring her fractured people to heel. We spoke to Chieffo about that moment and what it been like acting under the Klingon prosthetics and makeup.
Debbie Day for Rotten Tomatoes: L’Rell’s status has just blown up. How long did you know that was going to be in the cards for the character?
Mary Chieffo: It was definitely something that was found over time. It was not something that when I got the role they were like, “Oh, and then you’re going to become the leader of the Klingon empire.” I was like, “Oh, OK.” It’s such a tribute to Aaron [Harberts] and Gretchen [Berg] and the entire writers’ room and team and all of our EPs. Because what really ended up happening was they saw who L’Rell was becoming, particularly in episode 4, and they knew that they wanted her to be the one who came up with the plan for the Voq-Tyler situation. But once they really saw that there was stuff going on, just chemistry-wise and what not, they really ended up developing her arc more and more.
Once I was captured and on the Discovery, we just continued to find things. I wasn’t in the writers’ room as they continued to discuss and develop. It was certainly a humbling experience, for me, once this was the decision that was made. To me, I believe in the arc so much. I’m proud of it because you see a woman who is in this patriarchal society, who has learned how to survive by living in the shadows, working from the sidelines, and a lot of her behavior seems duplicitous or manipulative because that’s just how she knows how to get by, and she’s always been the fuel behind these male Klingons. But as we see, T’Kuvma gets killed, Kol gets killed, and Voq, as a consequence of all this craziness, ends up being lost as well.
I really appreciated that they saw that this is happening and realized that in a certain way she’s been the one who has been the strongest and has been the smartest, even though she doesn’t realize that about herself. She is the Klingon that we do want to invest in. I think what Burnham realizes is she is the last believer of this larger message of unification. L’Rell also comes to realize on her own terms that the way in which T’Kuvma believed that the Klingon should be unified, which was in war against the Federation, is not working. That’s what she really comes to terms with in 14 and 15, is that we’re out of control and they need someone. And Sarek says that without a concrete leader that they’re just scattered all over the place. To me, I’m humbled as an actor to get to have that journey, and then just as an audience member I’m really proud of how much of a nuance sort of feminist story it has become in that way.
RT: Are we seeing L’Rell softening her stance a little bit? Are we seeing the beginnings of cooperation maybe?
Chieffo: Yeah, I would say that … Jayne Brook talked about this a bit after episode 8: Just a sense of the diplomatic relations that we will eventually see happen in Undiscovered Country. There is potential, the seeds are planted here for true collaboration. I think L’Rell’s journey, she really didn’t have much exposure to humans at all in the same way the Federation hadn’t been interacting with Klingons directly for over 100 years, around 100 years. She, in her journey, particularly in her relationship with Cornwell, and then just having to come to terms with the fact that this plan, that she believed that the Klingon spirit would just inevitably triumph over the human one. The fact that the human spirit was stronger than she believed it would be. The fact that Burnham ends up treating her with respect, and giving her this opportunity to become a leader. She’s a very, very smart woman, and how could she ignore the evidence that is presented to her, that there is something to this Federation, there is something to these humans? That’s been really, really fun to play.
I’m still a Klingon, and I still adhere to our culture and our beliefs, but at the same time, when you get to know more about my history, in four, about how my mother was from House Mo’Kai and my father was House T’Kuvma, that I’ve already spent my entire life learning how to compromise. But that’s something that’s innate in me, in my sensibility. I think, in the same way it takes Burnham the arc of this season to begin to accept the Klingons, whereas she was able to really have empathy for the tardigrade. She’s a xenoanthropologist. She’s able to see, oh, well when the tardigrade’s provoked, then it may became more hostile. But in the same way that she has that journey, she has that in her, but it takes her all 15 episodes to start to have that with the Klingons. For L’Rell, she’s been able to do that within her own world, within her own culture, but it takes the arc of the entire season and her experiences within to really allow her to begin to see that maybe there is room for compromise outside of the Klingon empire.
RT: Can you tell me a little bit about the subtext of when Burnham hands L’Rell the bomb? It’s kind of a “W-T-F” moment.
Chieffo: Yeah, yeah. I’m like, “You’re giving me what now?” Yeah, yeah. Exactly. I do not expect this. I mean my last interaction was Georgiou beating the crap out of me. I’m like, “This is not going well.” But I really think that, as I’ve been saying, L’Rell still may lean towards not wanting to trust humans because that’s been her entire existence, but it’s just another moment where she’s like, “OK, I guess this woman has empathy for me, or she’s smart.”
The big thing with L’Rell, I should actually say, is that — yeah, that’s part of why she ends up befriending, for a lack of a better term, Cornwell — is when she sees another person, whether they’re another Klingon or another human or whatnot, when she sees that they are smart, that they have some sort of larger plan, I think she respects that. I think that as a Klingon, respect is extremely important to L’Rell, and part of why she gives Cornwell the information she does in 14 is because she knows that she’s not going to take that information lightly.
So I think it’s very much a moment for L’Rell to realize that the humans are continuing to surprise her. I basically am agreeing with you, that it is a surprising moment. But I think, also, certainly something that Sonequa and I played with, was energetically. It’s not a big wordy scene. I think it’s fun that we don’t have a classic sort of love triangle sort of duking it out. Like, “Well, you did this, and how dare you.” It’s very much like, no, we have a larger issue at hand, which is hopefully the end of a war. So a lot of is unspoken, and I think that was certainly what Sonequa and I wanted to play with, was that we didn’t have to say, “Oh, you’re the one. You’re the reason that … Oh, OK.” No, it’s like there are larger issues at hand here.
RT: Going back to you getting beaten up, is that all you or is there a stunt Klingon happening there?
Chieffo: We have our great stunt coordinating team. Yeah, we have stunt doubles. But certainly when we filmed it, Jayne, Michelle [Yeoh], and I did all of our takes. They edit it together so well. They’ll always do wide, medium, close with one or two takes with the stunt people as well. But for the most part, particularly for me because of my prosthetics, my double uses a mask, which is not as nuanced, and is like glued on. Mine is multiple parts and all that sort of stuff. So, usually, they end up using most of my stuff because you can see who it is. You can tell if it’s a mask or not.
I love doing all those stunts, and obviously Michelle’s quite good at it herself. That was such an amazing learning experience watching how she, as we learned the choreography. Then on the day when we were filming, she gets camera angles and which kicks looks best for whatever moment, or what will actually be the best to get me against the wall or whatnot. She’s just such an incredible legend in that way. She was laughing at me, because I kept on saying, “Oh, it’s such an honor. It’s such an honor to be beaten up by you.” Yeah, I love stunts. I love getting that adrenaline going. It’s a very specific experience when you’re covered in prosthetics, but I’ll take it.
RT: How is the makeup treating you? And did you get any tips from Doug Jones?
Chieffo: Yes. Doug Jones. Oh my goodness. Thank God for that man, on so many levels. When I first met him at the table reading for the pilot, I told him it was my first time doing prosthetics. He was like, “Oh, precious.” He’s such a sweet, loving man, but he made it very clear from the get-go that he was available. He easily could have been like, “Well, good luck, kid.” But instead, anytime that we were in the makeup trailer at the same time, he would always check in. Then, down the line as we were getting more settled, we got coffee and just kind of chatted about things and his experience. He’s had so many different experiences and lengths of time when it comes to being in that chair. Everything from … I know Hellboy was like seven hours. He was saying a certain camera test was 11 hours just to get in the makeup before actually even filming anything. He’s just been an incredible support in that way.
Then it was such a thrill to then work with him. In 12, we were so excited, and they were very wordy scenes, so we really got together and drilled beforehand. My instincts about how to navigate the prosthetics very much ended up being what he said his process is, which is: It’s not about just being the creature externally. It’s so much about, as you would with any part, whether you’re covered in any makeup at all, is, what is their heart? What is their soul? What are their motivations? But then you do have this extra layer of, when you do see your face and it’s not yourself, or the back of your head is much larger, then it’s this combination of all this kind of organic actor work.
Mask work was really something that I gravitated towards in college, so it was really fun to be able to use that in movement work. I’ve always really enjoyed that. It’s been a beautiful kind of culmination of so many of the different skills that I developed in school, that I knew I would love to be able to incorporate, and to have the opportunity to do it on such an extreme level has been wonderful. But it’s challenging. Doug’s the first person to acknowledge that you don’t get to goof around on set in the same way that everybody else does. I’m a very joyous person and I like to laugh a lot, and because of my mouth I really shouldn’t be opening my mouth that largely, unless I have to in the scene. James MacKinnon, who’s our prosthetic department head, who’s wonderful — luckily, they are such a great team, it makes those two hours in the morning fly by — but he’s always like, “Don’t laugh. Don’t laugh now.” It’s being in the trenches and powering through. Yeah, huge learning experience, for sure.
RT: Are you glad to be outside of the prison cell now?
Chieffo: It has been really fun to get to just watch and enjoy. Certainly, when I would get the scripts and see all the characters’ continued journeys, I would get so excited. So then to see that next level of it manifesting and all the finished visual effects. Yes, because I love L’Rell so much, it’s fun to see her come alive. Because she’s different from me on a lot of levels, I’m able to kind of view her in a way that’s a little different from just watching yourself on screen. Because she is so alien, I’m able to kind of appreciate her in a way that I’ve never been able to look at a character before. Which I’m still kind of processing exactly what that means or what that is, but definitely been fun, yes, to be on the other side and kind of enjoy it in a different way.
RT: Over the course of the entire season, do you have a favorite moment for performance?
Chieffo: I will say that there have been so many beautiful, delicious moments. I will say, actually, in 15, this speech was particularly moving. Because when they said, even, L’Rell’s going to kind of start to become the leader, they didn’t say, “And then there’s going to be this incredible speech that you have to deliver to the High Council.” So when I got that script, and I got those pages, I was just so moved. It’s Shakespearean. She is saying, “We are proud. We are honorable.” It’s a journey of this woman owning herself. Then on a technical level, Rea Nolan, who is our dialect coach, who’s been there from the beginning, from episode one onward, we developed such a beautiful relationship, and she believes in the character, and we’ve just had so many hours of drilling the Klingon lines, and we developed such an amazing system.
That to then, in this final moment of thinking, “OK, we have this whole year, and here we are with this speech.” We just drilled it, and it was really intense memorization process, but at the end of the day, it was all in service of this larger story. All the nervousness I felt — I’m on like a rotating platform, and in a green screen, there’s so many different factors — I should’ve had a nervous breakdown. But I realize that that was how L’Rell felt, too. It was this kind of amazing moment of my heart and her heart coming together and trying to tell a larger story and really, really just own myself, and L’Rell own herself.
RT: Where are they?
Chieffo: It’s the High Council, which is where the 24 Houses come together … The idea is, that L’Rell had this detonator, and she’s like, “You have to listen to me or I will explode our planet. I have a plan.” So she’s able to get there through the threat of force, which is part of Burnham’s brilliance, is to not to actually explode the planet, but to have the potential of it. So it’s me appealing to the court, essentially. Because there’s no way that I’m going to be able to just suddenly rule everybody or try and be that person unless I get some sort of approval. I love the nuance of they kind of scoff and laugh, and then I’m like, “No, no, no. You have to listen, because I can kill us all.”
RT: I was thinking that it’s going to be hard for her to get out the building.
Chieffo: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I say that, and then I’m like, “OK. Thanks, you guys. I’ll see you later. I’m just going to —” [laughs]
Star Trek: Discovery season 1 is available to stream on CBS All Access.