Lt. Paul Stamets got off to a rocky start not only with fellow Star Trek: Discovery character Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), but also with viewers. Anthony Rapp, who portrays the astromycologist (a space fungi expert), acknowledges the character’s testy personality, but told Rotten Tomatoes earlier this week that it’s all in the service of drama.
The character’s journey takes a turn in Sunday’s episode, “Choose Your Pain” — which also introduced Rainn Wilson as Harry Mudd and Shazad Latif as Lt. Tyler — Stamets’ sometimes irascible nature is softened by a genuine care for a creature that cannot communicate its distress through language.
When Discovery Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) is captured by Klingons, First Officer Saru (Doug Jones) pushes the crew to use the ship’s top-secret mycelial network drive to retrieve him. Burnham raises an alarm that the navigator, a giant tardigrade-like species they have captured, is dying from repeated use of the technology.
With Saru unmoved in his mission to save the captain, Burnham appeals to Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) and then to his partner Stamets to find a way around using the tardigrade.
The resulting effort — which, for one, sets up the first Star Trek series f-bomb drop — leads Stamets to an act of self-sacrifice rather than strike a final lethal blow to the tardigrade by using the drive technology.
Rapp explained Stamets’ personality peculiarities, revealed his favorite Discovery scene to film so far, and told us how it feels to have wrapped season 1.
Debbie Day for Rotten Tomatoes: I just watched a screener of the new episode last night, and was very excited to talk to you about some of your scenes.
Anthony Rapp: I just watched it myself this morning, and I was really, really proud and really moved.
RT: We spoke to you before the series premiere, but now that we’ve seen Stamets, can you tell us a bit more about the character — for instance, how does he feel about Lorca’s “My ship, my way” stance?
Rapp: Stamets has been pretty steadfast in being dedicated to science, to being dedicated to the sort of really declared mission statement of Starfleet, which is exploration and diplomacy first, and dismayed to find Lorca’s belligerent, gung-ho “This is war. This is a warship” attitude pervade everything. It’s been problematic to deal with for sure. It’s one of the tensions that’s run throughout the history of Star Trek. In different ways it’s been explored, and I’m happy that it’s getting an airing out in our show as well.
RT: At the same time, I think Stamets had some problems being accepted by the viewership, because he came off as not very diplomatic at first. I think that’s changing, and I wondered how you felt about that?
Rapp: Well, I mean, I know where it’s going, and I like playing people who are a little challenging, or difficult, or not easily put into a box. I find that compelling and human. So, it didn’t really concern me too much when people, you know, there were some people who are off-put by the fact he was kind of, a little bit persnickety. I didn’t mind that at all. I mean, it’s part of the nature of playing complicated people.
I’m gratified to see that there are also people who are able to understand why some of the underlying causes of some of the frustrations that Stamets feels. I think we’re kind of retraining traditional Star Trek audiences, in some ways, because they’re a little more accustomed to characters being a little more fixed — your sort of this-way-all-the-time kind of characters. And our show, because of the serialized nature of it, that affords us the luxury of being able to grow and change, and show all sorts of different colors.
But if you look back, I mean, I don’t know also how many people who are getting, sort of, off-put really saw the original series. I mean, Bones, Dr. McCoy, was kind of persnickety — a lot. Spock was pretty dry and sassy — a lot. I think there was a lot less of that in Next Gen, which is probably the most popular of the more modern series. And I think a lot of times, people are, sort of, using the lens to look at our show, and not always as familiar with the original series.
RT: Given some of that growth that you mentioned in the characters, I was wondering what Stamets’ sacrifice for the tardigrade toward the end of the episode meant to the character.
Rapp: One of the stories that is being told in this particular episode is that whether, through willful ignorance or just plain ignorance, Stamets was not aware of what was happening to the tardigrade. Stamets was so focused on just the success of the jumps, and wasn’t made aware of what was happening to the tardigrade, so that, once made aware, yes, the initial response was like, “Well, all right Burnham, you’re the one who caused this problem, now fix it.”
But, at core, he is interested in biology, and would never want to put a living, sentient — possibly sentient — creature in danger, so, has to find some way to get around it, and if the ultimate thing that is the only possible way is put himself in harm’s way, then, yes, would make that ultimate sacrifice. I find that really compelling, and really, it feels very true to me about who he is. And I find it also really, really interesting storytelling.
— Star Trek: Discovery (@startrekcbs) October 16, 2017
RT: And then Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman) dropped the F-bomb. Is that the first F-bomb in Star Trek history?
Rapp: As far as I’m aware, yes.
RT: When she did it, I was like, “Wait a minute — that’s the first one ever, right?” And then you followed it up with another one.
Rapp: As far as I know, I can’t imagine there’s any other circumstance in which there was one, right?
RT: I don’t know. I’ll have to research it.
Rapp: But, yeah, it just seemed so perfect for the moment. That scene was one of my favorite scenes that I’ve shot in the whole series. When I read the scene, I was like, “Oh my goodness. When are we shooting this?” Because it’s like, chunks of dialogue, that is just incredibly technical and heady. And then when we got to set that day, all three of us were just ready for it, and it was musical. We were totally in sync with one another, and it was joyful.
RT: I read that Discovery just wrapped filming.
Rapp: Yeah, we wrapped 1–15. And, through November 12, will air 1–9, and then 10–15 will air starting in January. Now, we can just enjoy sharing of the really hard work we’ve done. It’s been really gratifying to see the groundswell of support and appreciation for what we’re doing.
And I can recognize, for some of the long-term, hard-core Trekkies, that there’s a bit of a wrapping your head around this new paradigm of serialized storytelling, and, in some ways, yes, there are darker aspects, but, there is a pulsing heart of the idealism of Starfleet going through our show. It’s just that, it’s being severely tested. And I think people are starting to come around to realizing that that is the case, and that’s gratifying to see too. It’s like anything. We’ve been saying all along, “Trust us, trust us, trust us,” and now I think we’re starting to earn people’s trust.
RT: When we spoke to you previously, you listed some things that you found incredibly satisfying, some firsts. And I was wondering, now that you wrapped the season, if other things have come up that have been extraordinarily rewarding to you?
Rapp: Well, it’s hard to speak specifically about so many things, because I can’t, without spoiling anything. I mean, it’s just been rewarding throughout the whole six-month process that I’ve been shooting to continue to feel so well taken care of by my friends and collaborators on the show, and that we’ve really put our whole hearts and souls into this, and done our best to do our best. And that that is coming through is incredibly gratifying, and some of these — like this episode that I just saw today was filmed, I guess, in May, maybe, so it’s several months ago. We’ve filmed so much since then, that’s it’s also wonderful to be reminded of that stuff we did way back when, and to see how well it came together.
This is all a first for me, because I’ve never been a regular on a TV show before. Usually, when you do a project, like — I’ve done films — you do a story that’s 90 minutes long, or two hours long, and it’s so much more self-contained, so it’s much more, it’s much easier to hold it in my head in the time between doing it and seeing it. In this case, there’s so much swirling around in my head about all the different storylines, that I’m getting captivated myself as just a viewer. That’s a first for me.
RT: I imagine it’s a different kind of camaraderie than you might find on a film set.
Rapp: Yeah. We have so much material that we have to work on week to week to week, and we have to be there for each other. And, I know that in some shows, it can get really sideways with people, or between people, or among people, and it’s been the opposite. We’ve come together beautifully as a family, as an ensemble, and it’s a total joy and privilege.
RT: Just to jump a little bit back into the details of this particular episode, when Stamets wakes from being knocked out after navigating the experimental drive himself, he asks, “Did we make it?” and then laughs, and I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about what was going through your head in that moment?
Rapp: I think I went on a trip. Like a Doors of Perception, mind-altering trip. And that it was a success is a huge relief, but at the same time, I literally have seen into the fabric of the universe, and it was incredible, and it’s the inarticulate release of joy and release and — not madness, not like I’ve gone crazy — but, like this, something is unlocked in my brain.
And acting can be weird, but it was — I’m lying there, as we were shooting, I was lying there on the floor, and I wake up to Doug over me, and he’s such an incredible actor and person, he was so present, that he could just receive that from me. So, however many takes I did, over and over and over and over again, the laughter, it just consumed me. I just felt it was a really wonderful, weird, joyful experience to film that scene.
RT: We get a little cliffhanger at the end of the episode. Can you say anything about that moment and your alter — erm — person in the mirror?
Rapp: It’s a little bit of a residue, you could say, of the doors of perception that have been opened.
Star Trek: Discovery streams Sundays at 8:30/5:30 p.m. ET/PT on CBS All-Access.