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Mary Chieffo says playing L’Rell in Star Trek: Discovery is 'extreme' and 'empowering'
The Klingons in Star Trek: Discovery are not woke. And nobody knows this better than Mary Chieffo, the actress who plays L’Rell, High Chancellor of the Klingon Empire. In the latest episode, “Point of Light,” L’Rell has to make major sacrifices to appease the patriarchal and hypocritical forces within the Empire. And as Chieffo explains, what L’Rell deals with allows for Star Trek to not only go full-on Shakespearean, but also comment on real-life sexism in an extreme way.
**SPOILER WARNING! Spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Season 2, Episode 3, “Point of Light”**
“Of course, Starfleet is the ideal that we’ve moved past sexism,” Chieffo tells SYFY WIRE. “But the Klingon Empire is this great way to explore a lot of themes that are very prevalent today. What I keep coming back to is that sci-fi is our modern mythology. And the Klingons, in particular, are very Greek, very Shakespearean. And so, painfully, L’Rell has to embody those archetypes for our story.”
In “Point of Light” we learn that L’Rell had a secret baby with Voq, prior to his transformation into the human/Klingon hybrid Ash Tyler in Season 1. But the baby, and her human-ish lover, Tyler, become a big liability for L’Rell in this episode. Basically, the male-dominant Klingon Empire won’t take her seriously as a leader if she is caring for a small child and has a human-looking lover at the same time. At the end of the episode, a scheme is devised (with a little help from Michelle Yeoh and Section 31) to fake the death of both Tyler and the baby, essentially securing L’Rell’s position of power, but at great cost. As proof of her devotion to the Empire, L’Rell holds up the heads of Tyler and her child, in a scene that feels very Shakespearean, but also a little Game of Thrones, too.
“I talked a lot with Olatunde [Osunsanmi], our amazing director for this episode. And he talked about my relationship between those two heads. I have to view Tyler as this traitor. But with the baby, it’s almost this invocation,” Chieffo elaborates. “I mean, even though I know the baby isn’t actually dead, I still have to kill it for myself, it is still letting go of the child as something I was going to have. And I think we very much see that in 2019: A woman is particularly scrutinized and has to negate herself.”
Mary Chieffo isn’t someone who is lost in her character per se, but she is aware of the power of what her character can do. Not only in an episode like “Point of Light,” but in the canon of Star Trek in general. Since the new aesthetic for the Klingons was established in Season 1, Star Trek: Discovery has taken a lot of heat from certain kinds of Trek fans. And those fans often demand answers as to why the Klingons look different than they did before. The biggest debate lately has been all about Klingon hair. They didn’t have it in Season 1, and now, in Season 2, they’re growing it out. This is explained, quickly, as a sign that the Klingons are at peace.
“It’s a time of peace and everyone’s letting their hair down, Tyler’s grown his beard. It shows the passage of time,” Chieffo says. “But, on an aesthetic, more archetypal level, it’s the image of L’Rell not only letting her hair down but embracing her femininity as well. Gersha Phillips' [costume designer on Discovery] costumes are inspired by classical Klingon stuff, with our own kind of riff. But it’s partially inspired by what I like to wear as Mary. Usually I don’t have a prosthetic chest I have to deal with! But I do like a good low-cut dress. I really appreciate that we get to explore that aesthetic juxtaposition.”
For those who follow Chieffo on social media, the actress is very active in responding to fans, even when those fans ask nitpicky questions about the designs of the Klingon makeup. For Trekkies of the 21st century, this seems normal, but in the past, Trek actors weren’t on social media explaining the motivations of their characters. When The Next Generation was on in the ‘90s, Michael Dorn didn’t get Twitter messages from angry fans asking him about Klingon hair. But Mary Chieffo does, and she replies to all of it.
“When I know I’m going to have to answer to stuff, I hunker down and do my research,” Chieffo says of her vigilance to talk about Klingons on Twitter. “When I first got the part, I went and watched every Klingon-centric episode in every iteration.I wanted to know what we were inspired by, what we were riffing off of, what we were departing from. And I did that so I could answer my own questions and not just be like, ‘It was a choice by production.’ I wanted to own it.”
Chieffo also decided early on to own the idea that she would not be recognizable as herself in the role, and to treat it as a blessing and curse she shares with co-star Doug Jones. But, despite the isolated nature of the Klingon makeup, Chieffo feels she’s in a unique place in which her art is being discussed ahead of her status as an actress.
“If we’re doing our job right, you’re not thinking about the fact there’s an actor in there,” Chieffo says. “L’Rell is a little bit more ... human ... for lack of a better term, this season. In aesthetic at least. But last year, I felt that she was such a creature that people saw her as a creature. It was harder for people to make that connection between the actor and the character. But as an artist, I’m thrilled! It does create an interesting challenge. But, on the feminist, female side of things, the fact that so often women [actors] struggle with the idea that they don’t fit a certain standard and so they don’t get cast in stuff. For me, if people are commenting on my performance, they’re not actually commenting fully how I look as Mary. They’re commenting on the character I created. That’s been very empowering and exciting. People are having to speak about my craft as opposed to my aesthetic.”
Star Trek: Discovery Season 2 airs on Thursday nights at 8:30 p.m. ET on CBS All Access.