Shazad Latif on playing a man with PTSD and the twists and turns of Star Trek: Discovery

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Jan 14, 2018

This interview contains spoilers for Episodes 10 and 11 of Star Trek: Discovery.

Star Trek: Discovery has been explosive ever since its season premiere. The show isn't afraid to take risks and tells bold stories with intricate characters. It's hard to grasp that the show is just 11 episodes in, given just how far it's gotten in such a short time.

While viewers were introduced to Shazad Latif's character, Ash Tyler, in the fifth episode, "Choose Your Pain," now it turns out we've known him since the beginning. As was revealed in the midseason premiere (and was heavily theorized by fans of the show), Ash is actually the Klingon leader Voq, who was surgically altered and had a fake personality implanted atop his real one in order to infiltrate the ship. I spoke with Shazad Latif on the latest episodes, the challenges of portraying such a conflicted character, keeping Ash's true identity a secret, and South Asian representation.

This has been a huge few episodes for you. What is it like to play a character who's so conflicted?

It's one of the greatest gifts, and scariest gifts at the same time, that you can get as an actor. Just so much going on, double the amount of things that would normally go on with just one person. Getting to explore that, doubly, at the end of the day is stressful and scary, but very beautiful and very rewarding, as someone who likes to express themselves. It's just crazy.

Ash has been through a lot, but I loved the decision to portray a character who believed he was experiencing, and was experiencing in many ways, PTSD.

It was always there. You think it's because he's been through this war stuff or this torture, and it's not. He's been in this crazy war zone, it's just this trauma that you've never seen before. It's this crazy alien operation.

Me and Sonequa, we always wanted to push it. Because you meet Tyler and he's this guy who's going through this trauma and we've seen that story many times. It's amazing to explore, but we wanted to see him ... With him and Michael Burnham, she's always very strong. She's the strong one and she's the one looking after him, and he's weak around her and he's vulnerable around her, in the bedroom, in the hallway.

I wanted to make sure that that was clear because, to show a man's vulnerability and weakness and show that you can still be a man and vice versa, that Sonequa is a very strong female character — it was very important to us in the scenes that we played that and we showed that. It's nice to play the inner turmoil and suffering and weakness of the man as well, rather than being this classic sort of rogue action hero. There's more to it than that.

Because when you first see him, he is playing that, we're playing that sort of archetype. He's this guy coming from the ship, he's getting his job and "Aha! He's a classic American hero," but really he's crumbling, and it's very beautiful to watch.

There was a lot of fan speculation about Ash's true identity. Was that hard to keep quiet about? You were doing publicity with so much of the cast towards the beginning of the show. People were like, "Wait til you see him," but we had seen you but we didn't know it yet.

It was my idea. I've been keeping it for a year now. It's harder than any acting ... That's the hardest acting I've ever done; I did it terribly. I actually chose the pseudonym for the actor who played Voq in the beginning.

On the credits, it's Javid Iqbal who played Voq, and we created a fake IMDb page, but that was my father's name, who passed away about six years ago. I was asked to choose a pseudonym, so it was a shout out to him. He was a big movie lover, changed the film reels in the cinema when he was young. I just wanted to shout out to him. We kept that a secret for a long time.

It's nice to have the buzz, still keeping a secret. You know people are going to find out, whether they find out in the first episode or the last episode.

The characters always find out secrets about the show and stuff like that, but it's more about how you tell the story and execute. How it's executed is more interesting. Even if you have figured it out, you still tune in to go, "Am I right or am I wrong? Or how have they done it?" Really, just to see the acting, to see the way they've cut the story.

Did you wade into any of this fan speculation at all, or did you try to stay out of it?

I've got a flip phone. I only got social media this year, on the advice of publicists. Reluctantly, I gave away all my principles, but I rarely use it. I never go online and do that kind of stuff anyway, but I think it's quite a dangerous dark road if you start.

Acting's a very lonely place anyway. I think it's dangerous to delve into that, but ... I play to those scenes, and if people like that and respond to that, that's very nice.

Can you tell us anything about what's coming for Ash/Voq?

It's all coming to a head. This four-way love triangle in three bodies, basically. It's L'Rell and Sonequa and Tyler. That's gotta come to a head. The solving of the Culber case, all this kinda stuff. Some people don't know, how are people gonna react to it? It's a culmination of everything, and it's going to be very exciting to watch.

Do you have a personal preference between playing Ash versus playing Voq? I imagine the Voq makeup isn't a lot of fun.

The makeup is horrible. I don't know how Doug Jones does it. He's incredible. He's an inspiration, so I'll never complain, but it's very hard getting up at 3 a.m., and it's very claustrophobic. It hurts your eyes in contact lenses and all this kind of stuff, and you're just getting very grumpy and angry. It's unbearable.

But what I will say about mask work is that it's very freeing. When you're in that mask, literally, I don't feel any part of remnants of Shazad. It's very freeing as an actor, 'cause, literally, you can do anything. I'm doing another voice, it's a completely different voice and language even. There are so many layers of that, which make it easier to act and feel very different.

But I also enjoy playing the freedom of Tyler and not having to put anything on and just sit there and do these painful, painful scenes, which are also very freeing.

How long does the makeup take?

It started off, the first few months, always three hours, and we slowly got it down. Got a brilliant team, James and all that, everyone got it down to one hour fifty or something like that. It's worth it, it's all right.

Did you have to take Klingon lessons?

Yeah, we had a crash course. Luckily, I studied Spanish when I was younger, so I got the rolling Rs pretty easily, and a bit of Arabic when I was younger. Language was always ... I always enjoyed them, so it was fun to try and delve in and get the sounds right and find a voice for the character, try and relate that to what the other characters are playing, 'cause multi-roling, playing Mirror Voq and Voq and Tyler, so many things.

What's it been like, encountering and interacting with the wide world of Star Trek fandom?

I first realized at San Diego Comic-Con just how passionate and how engaged they are. It's a very beautiful thing. I'm a big movie buff, so I understand why people care and what it means, 'cause they're expressing themselves in an artistic way and people feel alive when that happens, and it's very beautiful. I can only enjoy it. I'm a very lucky person to be in this position. I can just embrace it and spread love.

You're the first regular cast member of Star Trek who is South Asian -- a big deal for me personally, because I'm Indian. What do you think of the diversity and representation for us?

It's still a long time coming. The doors are slowly opening. Riz Ahmed winning an Emmy, Dev winning a BAFTA, Aziz and all these people are opening doors, and hopefully I can keep pushing it down and helping the next generation. For us, we knew it was coming, and every race goes through it.

Normal, good scripts are starting to arrive in the film world. TV is slightly ahead, I've always thought, with diversity. I feel that way; I don't know if I'm right, but I feel, on my CV anyway, the film roles have been very Indian-specific and the TV roles are played particularly random.

It's very slow progress, but it's definitely on its way, and hopefully we can all just speed it up by ... it's getting Asian, South Asian people in the writers' room, in the directors, and the producers, they're the ones, the people with the money. You need to start from there and then trickle down rather than us trying to always push up and fight against it. If we all work together, it'll just happen a lot quicker. But it'll happen, it's inevitable.

What do you hope people take away from your Ash/Voq performance?

Just the exploration of who we are, that it's okay to be weak and try and figure these things out. I want them to be sympathetic to both characters, not just Tyler, that it's also Voq has his own journey. He's this outcast, albino Klingon who loses everything as well, sacrifices everything. He's got his own story, towards the end, he can be expressing in a violent, dangerous way, but it's equally justifiable, in my opinion. It's very tragic that one of them, something's gotta give.