Composer Jeff Russo during STAR TREK: DISCOVERY scoring session January 15, 2018 in Los Angeles (Lisette M. Azar/CBS)

Star Trek: Discovery composer Jeff Russo told us about scoring the epic final moment of “Will You Take My Hand” that aired on Sunday night.



Back in January, CBS Television Studios invited journalists to witness the scoring session for the final moments of Star Trek: Discovery’s season 1 finale. Audiences have finally gotten to see the footage that Russo and his team worked on that day — footage of the arrival of the Enterprise that blew those journalists’ minds almost a month ago.

Russo, who started his career as a founder of Grammy-nominated rock band Tonic, now has an impressive list of credits as a composer for film and TV, including recent releases Altered Carbon and Counterpart, as well as Legion, The Night Of, and Power. He won an Emmy award for season 3 of Fargo.

We got on the phone with him this past week to get the full lowdown on scoring such a huge moment for Discovery.

Composer Jeff Russo during STAR TREK: DISCOVERY scoring session January 15, 2018 in Los Angeles (Lisette M. Azar/CBS)

Debbie Day for Rotten Tomatoes: You’ve got such an amazing list of credits. How’s the past decade treating you? Amazing?

Jeff Russo: Well, you know, yeah, I would say. I’ve been working on a lot over the last four, five years. Before that, it was the day to day struggle. I mean, still the day-to-day struggle, but I’ve been working on some very, very cool over the last few years, and I really feel very lucky to be doing that. But, yeah, I guess it’s been treating me really wonderfully, and I’m knocking on wood, because we’re all just independent contractor people who tend to go from job to job. And so, you never know what’s ahead, you never know what tomorrow is gonna bring.

RT: I read that you freaked out when you found out you’d be working on Star Trek. Can you tell me about that moment?

Russo: That’s one of those very unique special moments that you find out that you’ve been hired to do the thing that you’ve loved since you were a kid. I mean, I was watching Star Trek early on when I was watching the original series in syndication, and then when Next Generation came on the air, it was so exciting because it was a new Star Trek, and then the next one. I’ve been a fan of the movies, all of the original movies, and then all of the newer movies. So, to find out that I was gonna be working and writing music for a story and a franchise and a way of life for some, it was mind-blowing to me. It was literally mind-blowing. I couldn’t believe it.

Imagine growing up loving baseball, and then all of a sudden you are on the Yankees. You know what I mean? It really is like that, it really has that feeling like, “Oh, my God.” It almost feels and felt and continues to feel unreal, to me. And, yeah, so the day I found out, I literally lost my mind. I got that phone call, like, “Yeah, they want you to do Star Trek.” At the same time it was thrilling and terrifying … “Well, what if I can’t do — what if I don’t do a good job? What if I can’t do it? What if I’m sitting there and writing and nothing comes out?” It’s pretty terrifying, and amazing all at the same time. It’s almost impossible to put into words the emotional feeling, the feelings that went through my head at the time and continue to go through my head.

RT: When I was at the scoring session, and the first time you guys started playing The Original Series theme, and the Enterprise came on screen, I felt like that little kid in The Incredibles: “That was totally wicked.” 

Russo: I know exactly what you mean. Like, even when I was in my studio writing that. So, I was writing the cue that sort of comes before you see Enterprise. I’m writing the scene and they’re talking and then Michael Burnham looks up, and when you’re in the scoring session, you don’t hear any of the dialogue. She looks up and she says, “It’s Captain Pike of the Enterprise.” And I just started tinkling around playing. I was like, “Oh, OK. So that’s where this theme should come in.” And so, when I went to start playing that theme, and I looked up, I got a chill. You know? It was really weird. As I was writing, as I was doing it. And then I sort of went from the thing that I was writing to, “Oh. Oh, yeah, this is the [Alexander] Courage theme right here.” And then the Enterprise came on. She said, “It’s Captain Pike.” And my head exploded even though I knew it was happening. Like, I had read the script. I’d seen the thing, I spotted the episode, I knew it was going to happen, but it was still spectacular.

RT: I think Star Trek fans on the internet, their heads will all collectively explode.

Russo: It’s funny because I’ll go on Reddit, or I’ll go on certain places and see what people are saying, and there’s a lot of speculation like, “Will we see the Enterprise? Will we see this? And who would it be? And who’s on the thing?” I think the thing that’s gonna really freak them out is the way it happens because you don’t expect her to say, “It’s Captain Pike,” like she knows him. But it’s possible, of course, she knows who he is. So, it’s just I think that’s gonna blow people’s minds.

Composer Jeff Russo during STAR TREK: DISCOVERY scoring session January 15, 2018 in Los Angeles (Lisette M. Azar/CBS)

RT: Getting into sort of nuts and bolts a little bit: How do you get the scenes? How do you start? And like, do you just watch it first, and then decide? 

Russo: Generally speaking, episode to episode I sit down, or have sat down with a producer and screen the episode in a pre–visual effects form, but it’s locked. Like, the all the scenes are there, but not all the great stuff you actually see when it’s broadcast. And we sit down, and we watch it and we talk about like where we want music to go, and what we want that music to do at any given time in the episode. And it’s gotten easier, and easier, and easier as we’ve gone along throughout the season. Like, we started and it was really, really like long. We took a few hours to do an episode. Whereas, now, we sort of have the tone, and have the understanding of how we use music, and how we spot the music to help underscore the episode. So, we sit down and we watch the episode, we talk about that, and then I go to my studio, and write music for wherever we needed music. And then takes about five to six days maybe a little longer.

It depends on how much music is in the episode. And then from there, I simultaneously send the score to them to the producers to review. Like, a mocked up version of the score, and then we start orchestrating it to go to the scoring stage because we do every week with an orchestra. I say every week — it’s like every 10 days or so, every 10 to 15 days. So, the entire time between the time we watch it to the time it has to be delivered to the mix stage, which is where we dub the music into the show, is about two and a half weeks because after I write it, then we go and record it, and then it gets edited and mixed, and then it gets mixed into the show.

RT: Do you ever get writer’s block?

Russo: Somebody else just asked me that. It’s a question, I think, that gets asked to anybody who writes anything. Right? It’s like, “Do you ever sit down and just are not able to write?” I’ve sat down and like had to think like, “OK, what do I want to do here?” And I try something, and it’s not working. You just try something else, but music exists. Right? It just exists in the world. So, I just have to sort of chip away at the world in order to find the music. That’s sort of how I look at it. So, writer’s block, for me, is just trying to find the inspiration for writing something. Some days are easier than others, but I don’t know that I’ve sat down and gone, “Oh, my God, I have nothing. What am I gonna do? I’ve got nothing.”

Occasionally, I’ll just get up and walk around, or go make a coffee and come back. There are moments of, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do right now, so why don’t I wait a half an hour, or switch to something else.” So, if I’m working on Star Trek, and I’m working on something else at the same time, I can just flip over to that and see if I’m inspired to do anything on some other project and then come back.

I can’t believe that it’s all that different from writing an essay, or writing an article, or writing a script, or writing anything, a book. It’s just trying to tell a story, and how are you telling it? What words are you using to tell it, and how are you describing it, and its colors, and its sounds, and its words?

Executive Producer Alex Kurtzman and composer Jeff Russo during STAR TREK: DISCOVERY scoring session January 15, 2018 in Los Angeles (Lisette M. Azar/CBS)

RT: Going back to the Star Trek theme that you — would you say that you had to “reimagine” it for Star Trek: Discovery?

Russo: OK, so here’s the thing, so, my main title theme that I wrote for the show is basically our opening title sequence. What I had wanted to do was give a nod to the Alexander Courage theme, so at the end of that theme when you Discovery sort of fly around, I play the Courage, “Dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah.” That was something that I had imagined I would do from the very beginning when I was thinking about what I was gonna write for the main title, so I thought about that. And I think two or three times during the entire season I have nodded to that theme. Meaning like, I could use it because it’s very effective at having an emotional response. It can evoke that very fast. I did the same thing at the end in 15 where, “OK, so now it’s obvious we see the Enterprise. I have to play the Enterprise theme.” So, I did that. Now, the idea to play the original series end credits music right after that … that was an idea that was born out of something else. I was recording a vocalist for episode 12 and 13. There’s this Kasseelian opera that I had to write for the episode. So, I had a singer come in to sing it, and then I thought, “Oh, you know what? Let me just see like what it would sound like if I just have her sing the notes from the original series end titles, see what that sounds like.”

So, I just like literally scribbled it down on paper, and said, “Hey, can you sing this?” So, she sang it, and I recorded it on my iPhone. I recorded a video of it on my iPhone, and I sent it to Alex Kurtzman (pictured with Russo above), who is one of our executive producers, and I said, “Check this out. Isn’t this cool?” And he said, his response was, “We have to do that for 15. We have to do the end credits for 15.” And I was like, “Oh, OK.”

So, then I had to go and find the original scores, and then do a rearrangement and a re-imagination of that. I didn’t want to change it too much from the original, but I wanted to sort of update it and bring into the 21st century. So, we did it with a much bigger band and a much bigger string section, and brass section then they did originally. And I think it sounds like a modern sort of version of that. But the idea was born from just, “Check this out. Isn’t this cool?” You know? I just wanted to show him because we’re both Star Trek fans. I thought it was fun, and it turned into us doing it actually live for the end of just our finale, which is a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun to do that.

RT: That’s a great story. So, did you have the same singer? Was she there? There was a vocalist there.

Russo: Yes, she was there on the day. Same person. Her name is Ayana Haviv. Love the sound of her voice. She has the ability to evoke that old Hollywood sound, which is exactly what we wanted to do.

RT: It was really a joy to watch. I was so very pleased to have been there. So, thank you for allowing it.

Russo: Oh, absolutely. Those things are so much fun, and that, to me, that was the most fun I’d ever had on a podium conducting an orchestra. Now, I’m also new to the world of doing orchestral music. My background is I’ve been in a band for 20 years, and rocking on my guitar, and playing drums. So, doing this kind of music has been great, and then getting to conduct the orchestra at that level is just such a fantastic feeling. And then to do that for Star Trek is — my mind kept getting blown at every level. It was kind of funny.

RT: How long you have you been working with orchestras, and was it a weird transition when you first started?

Russo: My first truly orchestral score was Fargo season 1 … It was a terrifying transition to go from writing and playing music on the level that I had been doing for 20 years, and then all of a sudden writing for a much larger group. At the same time, in my mind I was thinking, “If I can write a melody for me to sing, or if I can write a melody for me to play on guitar, why can’t that melody be played by 20 violins, and why can’t all the chord stuff that I do on guitar be played with the cellos, and the violas?” And it actually I think it had a great effect on the way I write that kind of music. I think that I tend to utilize that part of my brain when I’m writing music for all these orchestral instruments.

I think the thing when I listen back to it, I say, “Oh, it doesn’t sound terribly traditional, but it still has this cinematic feel because simply because of the group playing.” But it was pretty scary, like, this is something new for me. I’m continually in awe of the way orchestras work, and the way orchestras play, and how taking a simple melody, and sort of fanning it out to these many players how that feels when that all comes together. There’s something that is absolutely greater than the sum of its parts when you put all these really wonderful musicians together to play and it sounds better than you think its gonna sound in my opinion.

RT: You’ve got some rock stars behind the scenes, too, not just the players in the orchestra. You seem to have a very professional team that you’re working with, and it was inspiring honestly to see everyone work so cleanly together.

Russo: I think that to put together scores of this size, having a good team is imperative. I have a really, really great team of people that I work with, orchestrators, and my engineer, and assistant, and score editor. You couldn’t do it without all those people. It’s such an enormous undertaking to do this much music at this level and the breadth and scope of the music itself, like, to not have a team that like a well oiled machine team to work together. It would be next to impossible.

We work under these like ridiculous scheduling constraints, so if we’re not all operating at 100 percent at all times it’s like something will get missed. So, we do our best, and … our vernacular with each other is just like it’s all second nature the way we speak, and my telling the booth things, and the booth telling me things about what’s going on. It’s a pretty incredible experience to like be a part of that, it’s really great.

RT: It was very impressive to watch. How long did you know that you would be doing the original The Original Series theme for that last episode for the finale?

Russo: A few weeks. It might have been right before the holidays … right before Christmas. So, three weeks, I’d say, is when we were like, “OK, we’re gonna do that for the finale.” As soon as the idea was sort of in play it was like, “Oh, yeah, this is gonna be a lot of fun.”

Star Trek: Discovery season 1 is available to stream on CBS All Access.


Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham; James Frain as Ambassador Sarek of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (Jan Thijs/CBS)

Star Trek: Discovery Executive Producer Alex Kurtzman chatted with us about the season 1 finale, “Will You Take My Hand,” that aired Sunday night and that epic closing reveal.

Plus, Mary Chieffo, who plays Klingon L’Rell, talks about her character’s new challenges, and Emmy-award winning composer Jeff Russo shares his thrill in scoring the episode’s final scene.



In the season 1 finale, the ultimate Star Trek guest star showed up just before the credits: the Starship Enterprise — a huge development that promises big things for season 2. In that final scene, Captain Christopher Pike was name-checked, so that’s at least one other known Star Trek character to look forward to.

We asked Kurtzman if that meant film universe actor Bruce Greenwood would make an appearance or if Spock might show up, but the veteran writer and producer, who co-wrote feature films Star Trek and Star Trek: Into Darkness, isn’t giving away a thing. Kurtzman does review some of the politics of the series, Michael Burnham’s (Sonequa Martin-Green) new relationship with Klingons, the possibility of Discovery making it back to broadcast TV, and the phenomenon of toxic fandoms.

James Frain as Ambassador Sarek; Doug Jones as Saru of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. (Jan Thijs/CBS)

Debbie Day for Rotten Tomatoes: The Enterprise showing up at the end of the finale — was that the plan all along?

Alex Kurtzman: Yes, it was. The whole season was reverse-engineered from an ending that we had when we broke the season. When you’re breaking a season of television, along the way, you hit a certain point where you realize that you need to start thinking about what’s going to happen in season 2. Having the Enterprise show up in season 2, was the result of a lot of things. Obviously, the fans have a lot of questions about how we tie into canon, how Burnham and her half-brother’s relationship will play out, and those are all questions that we know an answer to.

RT: I know that you’ve been asked this a million times before, but that means Spock will show up and you will be exploring that?

Kurtzman: Anything is possible.

RT: You know what we want: We want Spock. Will we get a surprise Bruce Greenwood appearance?

Kurtzman: What you’re really asking me is Captain Pike in season 2?

RT: Yeah.

Kurtzman: Anything is possible.

RT: With that, is Discovery on The Original Series timeline? It’s not like a —

Alex Kurtzman: It’s 10 years before, but it is in the same timeline, yes.

RT: So it’s not some alt-universe, Romulan thing.

Alex Kurtzman: No. It’s not some Romulan thing.

Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. (Jan Thijs/CB)

RT: Burnham, at the end, says, “We have to be torchbearers.” Can you dig in on her use of that specific word?

Alex Kurtzman: Star Trek, at its best, has always been a mirror to the time in which its made. From the beginning, obviously, the Klingon mandate of torchbearer was to carry on the tradition of the Klingon hierarchy, of the Klingon race, the Klingon species, of their history, their traditions. Part of what the message of Star Trek is and has always been, is that despite our differences, we have major commonalities. If we can find ways to see those commonalities, maybe we can avoid war and learn to coexist, and that’s the vision of Star Trek. Star Trek is a future in which very, very different species with very different belief systems, can find a way to come together. Eventually, even Klingons and the Federation, although obviously much has been said about that in the past.

You want to find a word that means something to one species and something else to another species, and yet they are able to find common meaning in the idea of it. It’s no accident at all that Burnham is adopting Klingon language at the end, because in some ways, not only is she speaking to the need for everyone in the universe to coexist, she’s speaking to her personal connection to the Klingons, to her history with the Klingons. Obviously, we’ve referenced her history with the Klingons, but it isn’t until the finale that we fully understand her story. For her to be able to say, “The Klingons murdered my parents, but I find forgiveness in that, and I adopt their language and I adopt the meaning of this term, to say we must move forward into the future,” is a way of Burnham finding her grace. It’s a way of her finding forgiveness, both for what happened to her and for the choices that she made that started the war, or didn’t start the war, depending on how you see that, in the pilot.

RT: I also thought, after she said that, Well, this just sets it up for some Klingon faction to complain about cultural appropriation.

Alex Kurtzman: You got it. They certainly will, there’s no doubt. Of course they will. Look, here’s the thing, just because we found a way for a truce to happen, does not mean that the Klingons are now happy with it. Look, we say that all the houses are divided, and L’Rell, through her ingenuity and with the help of Starfleet, is able to figure out a way to basically out chess maneuver them into making a choice they don’t want to make. In the episode right before, she’s extremely clear about it. She says, “We’re never going to stop until everybody is dead.” That’s just the way of the Klingons. There is a détente, that’s forced by ingenuity, but it does not mean that the Klingons have decided that everything’s fine. That problem could flare up at any point.

RT: With that in mind, I also thought that I was seeing a parallel to real-life foreign policy: weaponizing a religious fanatic, and expecting that person to pacify and unify their people. If that’s the case, then I think we know where this is going.

Kurtzman: Look, as Cornwell said in 14, last week’s episode. She says, “We’re not trying to change you. We’re not trying to change the way you think. You attacked us and this is not a war that we started.” I think that the idea there is that how do you come up with a solution that doesn’t force them to become other than what they are, but that does stop the war? That’s really the challenge for Starfleet. They can’t turn the Klingons into what they are not. They wouldn’t want to, but they also need to find a way to survive. It comes down to the person who initiated the first part of the conflict, to figure out a way to solve that problem.

There were lots of conversations we had over the course of the season, and it was very interesting watching all the fan conversation online, because the big question was, “Wait a minute, are we totally obliterating the meaning of Starfleet in season 1 of Discovery? Are we denying the fundamental nature of what Starfleet is? Are we presenting a dark dystopian vision of Star Trek? What happened to Gene Roddenberry’s optimism?” Those are all great questions and they’re the right questions. They’re the questions that we asked ourselves every time we were in the writer’s room, every time we were breaking a story. Fundamentally, everyone understands that on this show. That is what Star Trek is, but optimism is easy when everything’s going well. It’s much, much harder to maintain that point of view when we face challenges that potentially forces us to compromise our ideals and our values.

What happens when it comes down to a literal matter of survival? If it’s us or them, where do we fall on our value system? Interestingly enough, Starfleet is pushed to the point of having to reckon with that choice. Burnham, because she’s Burnham, and because of everything she’s experienced in the first season and everything she’s learned, has realized that it’s in some ways fundamentally more important for us to lose and be gone, than it is to break with our value system. Once we do that, Starfleet is never going to be Starfleet again. Ultimately, Starfleet accepts that outcome. They agree with her. I think that was our way of reinforcing how much we, as the writing staff and as the producers of the show, fundamentally agree with the vision of optimism. Obviously, we are facing all the same questions in reality today, and we face them every day. That’s the beauty of what Star Trek is, we get to talk about that through allegory.

RT: It’s fine to have a sort of Utopian vision of where you want to go and who you want to be, but getting there is the messy part.

Kurtzman: One hundred percent, one hundred percent. Ultimately, that vision is restored at the end. When you asked me the first question, which was, did the Enterprise, — was that always the plan? It was always the plan because we need to restore order and balance at the end. That’s the point. Now I’m going into Star Wars language, I apologize. That’s the idea, is that at the end of the show, we will travel through a great darkness in order to emerge into the light and to reaffirm everything that Starfleet is about.

RT: We’ve read and heard a million times, people arguing that they want Discovery to be on TV, is there any chance that season 1 could air on CBS, maybe as a promotion, ahead of season 2?

Kurtzman: That’s actually above my pay grade. I don’t know. My suspicion is that I think Star Trek has become the crown jewel of All Access, which obviously we’re super proud of and I think they’re very protective of. We really have that sense. I don’t know. I don’t program the network.

RT: But maybe you could plant the bug that —

Kurtzman: I would be happy to plant the bug.

RT: It seems people are reaching maximum capacity, in terms of paying subscription fees.

Kurtzman: I totally understand that, and I get that argument. I get the argument that it’s annoying to have to shell out more money just for one show every month. I guess what I would say to that is, as frustrating as that is, I do believe it’s also where we are headed, not just at All Access, but with every channel there is. We’ve all seen this incredible shift in the way people are watching television in the last five years, and the way people are watching streaming services versus network. The truth is that we probably couldn’t produce Star Trek as you’ve seen it, on a network budget. It’s probably just not possible. Would the show be different? Yes. Would it be what you saw? Unlikely.

I think part of our goal in understanding that people might be frustrated in having to pay for it, is to get them to watch it and understand why they pay for it. I’ve said this before, but I always think nobody gets angry about paying for Game of Thrones, because Game of Thrones, you’re watching this incredible serialized, cinematic experience, that you would never get on network television, never. That’s why it’s worth it. I want to believe that Star Trek is in that category, whether we have succeeded or not is really up to the fans and the audience, but that’s certainly been what we have endeavored to do.

RT: I was wondering if we could talk a little bit about the fandom, specifically the toxic fandom that we’re seeing nowadays. As a creator, how do you view what’s going on in the fan world. Or are they fans at all? Are we just seeing campaigns by trolls?

Kurtzman: As I get older, I’ve come to accept that there are certain things I can control and certain things I can’t control. I have accepted that not everybody will like me. I have accepted that not everybody will like the work I do. I have accepted that not everybody will like the work that other people do. I have accepted that the internet has given everybody a voice, which is both wonderful and terrible, because obviously you want everybody to express their opinions, and when those opinions hurt other people, often with impunity, it’s very painful.

That being said, I think Sonequa really said it best when she said, “Our show is fundamentally about looking at the human race, and understanding what our strengths are, what are challenges are, what are flaws are, and reckoning with that, in order to become our best selves.” I think that is at the core of what Roddenberry’s vision of optimism is really all about.

I guess what I would say is that we want to talk about that. We want to speak to everybody, and if people don’t want to join us for that or accept that, then that’s entirely their right. They are entitled not to watch. It’s definitely not going to stop us from saying those things. That is our privilege, that is our right, and that is our joy. I can’t change the way people feel if they don’t like the color of someone’s skin, or if they don’t like the things that we believe in. We’re not telling people what to believe, but I certainly can’t stand by it, and I certainly won’t endorse it. I think they’re free to do what they want, but for those of us who recognize that the spirit of Star Trek is about inclusivity and togetherness and finding a way beyond our differences, then I hope you have really enjoyed the show, and I hope you feel that we’ve respected that idea.

Star Trek: Discovery season 1 is available to stream on CBS All Access.


Mary Chieffo as L'Rell. STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (ames Dimmock/CBS Interactive)

Mary Chieffo, who plays Klingon L’Rell in Star Trek: Discovery, talks about her role in the season 1 finale, “Will You Take My Hand,” that aired on Sunday night.



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.

Mary Chieffo will star as L'Rell in STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (Lisette M. Azar/CBS)

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.

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY "Into the Forest I Go" -- Episode 109 -- Pictured: Mary Chieffo (Jan Thijs/CBS)

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.

Sonequa Martin-Green as First Officer Michael Burnham. STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (James Dimmock/CBS Interactive)

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.

Mary Chieffo arrives on the Red Carpet for the STAR TREK: DISCOVERY premiere (Mark Davis/CBS)

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.

Mary Chieffo as L'Rell. STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (Jan Thijs/CBS)

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.