Discovery feels both familiar and new at the same time.
I think that that’s been the goal: To honor what has come before. But the truth is we are in 2017, and the technologies available to us are far beyond what was available in the 1960s, and camerawork and digital imaging and special effects. I find it hard to believe that Gene Roddenberry wouldn’t join in this, the revolution that uses the effects that would be available to this day. He wouldn’t stay married to a certain visual aesthetic just ’cause. If you have the opportunity to make something that look and felt more reflective of what technology could get us. And at the same time, to be able to create our props that are extremely respectful and evocative of what’s come before, and also at the same time feel modern — I would like to believe we’ve done a good job of straddling both lines in a meaningful, respectful way. There are many people who have a great deal of affection and respect and love for Trek in our DNA who are working on this show, and I count myself among them.
What was it like when you realized you were going to be a part of this show and the Star Trek legacy?
I’ve always been a geek, and it’s been a part of my geek landscape, but I would never have called myself a huge Trek geek because that’s a [slight] to the many, many Trekkies who are far more [dedicated] Trekkies than I am. But it’s always been a part of something that I’ve had great affection and respect for. I was hopeful when it was offered to me that it was then gonna be worthy of the name, and I’ve been thrilled with every script that I’ve read and every day on set. And the little clips that I’ve seen have to me expressed all of the things that we’re trying to do with it.
In line with Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future, your character is one half of a boundary-breaking gay couple. What does it mean to break a barrier like that?
It’s intensely, profoundly meaningful. I’ve been a proudly out actor myself for 25, 26 years, something like that, so it’s been a part of the work I’ve been doing. That’s not to say that I always want to play gay roles necessarily, but that I believe very strongly in visibility, and I believe very strongly that the conversations around sexual orientation, and equal rights, and discrimination in the workplace, and all those things can be forwarded by visibility. So it’s very meaningful to me to be a part of furthering that conversation in such a public and monumental way as being a part of Star Trek.
One of my very best friends is himself a huge Trekkie — for decades has been going to conventions and was mimeographing fan letters — and he’s gay. He’s shared with me before I was even a part of this that there is a pretty sizable gay population in the fandom, and that they’ve been hungry for more representation in the storytelling. So yeah, I’m deeply honored and aware of the moment that this is. And at the same time, one of the things I’m proudest of also is that in the great tradition of Trek, no issue is made of the color Uhura’s skin, or the fact that Sulu was Asian, or Chekov was Russian. They just were characters on the bridge who had a job to do and were treated with respect by all people. Similarly, there’s no real issue made of Stamets’ sexuality or the fact that he has a male partner on the ship. It just is what it is, and is as much a part of the fabric of life on that ship and life in Starfleet as any other thing. That’s, to me, a demonstration of the vision of the future — where these things won’t be an issue, they will just be.
George Takei was notoriously not exactly thrilled with the fact that they made Sulu gay in the Star Trek movies, but he has said that he’s really excited to see your character. What did that mean to you?
It means a great deal. My takeaway from his feelings about Sulu were that he had always played Sulu as a straight man, and on the one hand, he understood the impulse on those filmmakers’ part, the good intentions, and he also felt in a way it was a little bit strange, in that it then made it almost seem like his character had been closeted or something. I don’t think he came out and said that, but on some level, his argument was for, “Let’s create a new character.” And I think the filmmakers understandably were also trying to honor him in some way. So it was kind of a shame to me that it became a little bit more controversial or messed up in that sense. At the same time, I’ve been very, very gratified, given his status as a figure in Star Trek world, the gay world, the political landscape. He’s a role model to me of activism. That he has been so vocally supportive of what we’re trying to do with Discovery has been very, very, very meaningful.
What’s the coolest part of being on Discovery?
I got to hold a phaser on my first day on the set in the scene. Even before that, we did a photo shoot, and it was before I had filmed an inch of actual footage as Stamets, I was already doing a photo shoot as Stamets, which is kind of weird, cause I hadn’t really gotten to play him yet. But I held … They were like, “Here, hold a phaser.” I was like, “Aaaah!” “Here, hold a tricorder.” “Aaaah!” “Here, hold a communicator.” Every time, it never ceases to be enormously satisfying.