James Frain on playing Sarek and the illogic of Vulcan extremists

Contributed by
Oct 23, 2017

James Frain returned to Star Trek: Discovery as Sarek, Michael Burnham’s foster father, in this week’s episode, “Lethe.” In the episode, Sarek is on his way to a secret negotiation with renegade Klingon houses that haven’t fallen under Kol’s banner. It’s possible that these talks could be the first steps toward peace.

However, on the way to the conference, Sarek is targeted by “logic extremists,” a fringe group of Vulcans who believe Sarek has betrayed their race by marrying a human and trying to foster closer relationships between the two races. Through their katric bond, Michael senses Sarek is in distress and tries to help him. What she finds in his mind, though, are answers she’s thoroughly unprepared for.

We spoke with James Frain on this episode, his history with Star Trek, and what it means to play such an important character in the franchise.

You’ve worked in pretty much every genre and have had such a broad career. Did you watch Star Trek growing up?

I grew up with Star Trek, it was on Saturday morning TV in England. When I was a kid, there wasn't a huge array of choices, but Saturday morning is when we saw all of the American import stuff that I guess was in syndication, although I didn't know what syndication could possibly mean at the time. And so, yeah, I mean, Spock and Kirk and who they all are and what they represented was a part of my childhood. And it's an honor to be invited to be a part of that.

What attracted you specifically to Star Trek: Discovery?

Well, I mean, I love everything about it. I think it's just wildly imaginative and inventive. It honors the spirit and the promise of the original series and it just digs deeper into the pre-story and finds all this interesting stuff. I think it's brilliantly written and really kind of gripping. I think that they've dug into Sarek's backstory and really kind o. trying to get to like, "Who is this guy who married a human?" The struggle that we see Spock having, we now see Sarek having. He's his father's son. It's really interesting.

We get to some of this root stuff with Michael and himself and these extraordinary confessions that he makes. But there's so much more there, like who's Amanda and how did that come about? And people are trying to kill him because of his progressive ideas. They're trying to kill him because they think he's a threat to the purity of the race. I mean, it's chilling and it's something that we see all around us.

You’ve portrayed quite a few historical characters. How is that similar to, and yet different from, portraying Sarek who is in many ways a historical character in this universe?

It's interesting that I was always surprised at first to discover that fans of sci-fi are also fans of history. It's really interesting. And then I realize that it's because they're both active imaginations and they both involve creating a completely different world, a completely different look, a completely different way of behaving. So they're related in that sense . . . with Sarek's kind of poised, kind of ambassadorial, slightly regal bearing. I think some of that royal stuff may well have rubbed off on me and comes about in this in a handy way.

Sarek takes a certain arrogance, and yet his emotions run deep and he is a sympathetic character, especially in this upcoming episode. Is that a challenge to portray that kind of duality?

Well, one of the things we found out, or I found out when I was kind of digging through the Vulcan backstory, is that they were once considered to be, and were, a very passionate species. They actually had a catastrophic nuclear war, which the survivors determined that it was emotion that was responsible. It was primal emotion had caused this level of horror and that they must never go there again. And so even their kind of history is this notion that emotion is not to be trusted. Logic can be trusted. But here we have the irony of these terrorists of logic who are saying, "It's logical we try and kill your child, it's logical we kill you to protect logic." No, that seems pretty illogical to me, Captain. That seems very passionate and dangerous.

And so there is a lot of complexity there. I think, also, really interesting characters have a huge range between the poles of their personality. And Sarek is someone who's grown up in this very proud, efficient, almost like a samurai code. And yet, he is progressive, he is sufficiently attracted and interested to even to marry a human being and then have a child with them. This is all extraordinary stuff. But he can't be not himself, he's still . . . he's a Vulcan and that is in the marrow of him. So being a Vulcan is not what we thought it was, it's not as straight-forward as best we assumed it was.

And I think it's really interesting in this episode because when you see Sarek’s final confession to Michael, he's reporting to his superior. And in this role, he's the child. His commanding officer, for want of a better word, is the parent. And the parent's admonishing him and punishing him. And he takes the punishment and he's told that he's being emotive and that is a profound insult in the culture. He cannot be that and so that's what he takes back to Michael. He takes back to, "I'm not going to be emotional about this, I'm going to be clean and clear and I think it might be for the best. Maybe I have failed you and maybe you do need to be amongst humans."

And he places her with Captain Georgiou as someone who could educate her in the ways of Starfleet. He didn't know that he was humiliating her until this moment. He says it, "I didn't know, but I do know now and I have a feeling." And she says, "It's shame." And he's like, "Yup, yes, that's what it is," and then that confession brings him back to life. It's an extraordinary bit of writing.

You’re playing Sarek at a younger age than we’re used to seeing him, with the exception of Ben Cross in the first Abrams movie. How did that knowledge play into your performance?

What’s interesting about it to me is like people change over the course of their lives and they go through experiences, so how did he get to be that person? What was his journey? What was he trying to achieve? And why didn't he speak to Spock for 18 years? All these kind of questions that are brought up.

I watched, obviously, Mark Lenard's performance and really liked what he did with it . . . It all kind of in the end, matches up. And I think also, it's open and the writers are inviting us to think about expanding the character, maybe even sort of to the point of we learn more about who he is as an older man and how he's handled things.

Yeah. I mean, in one of Sarek's final episodes, I think it's in The Next Generation, where he has a kind of break and he experiences an emotional kind of maelstrom. That was very kind of key to me. I was like, "Ah, okay. Alright. This guy's got a lot more going on than he's prepared to necessarily tell us."

What is it like to work with Sonequa Martin-Green? You have a great onscreen rapport.

I mean, she's just fantastic. I can't praise her highly enough. I mean, she's extraordinary, I think. And I love what she's doing with the character. The words on the page are very tricky, it's very kind of theatrical language, takes a while to kind of meld it into something honest for the genre but at the same time she goes like people talking. And she just, her delivery, her choices are so interesting. She, I think, is a brilliant actress. I love working with her and we have a really good time. Yeah, I feel lucky.

What other characters would you like to work with in the future of the show?

I love all of them. I mean, I would be kind of like slightly falling in love with everyone. I mean, everyone is so interesting. Don’t you think?

Definitely. One of the things I love about the show is that every time you learn something about a character, it answers something but brings up five more questions.

Because ultimately we ask these questions of characters, as if that's how we can look at ourselves in our own lives, but we don't. We don't have the ultimate truth of anyone, we don't have the ultimate truth of ourselves. Being alive is very, very complex and full of ambivalence and ambiguity and contingency and all these kind of ways in which you can look at yourself and see your culture, we can see different cultures and different ways of doing that.

I think that we sometimes ask questions of characters that are impossible to answer because we need to leave them with their mystery and with their intrigue, just as we are sort of mysterious to ourselves, to an extent.