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The deleted line in Star Trek: Discovery that fueled Mary Chieffo's L’Rell performance
Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery has definitely focused less on the Klingons than the first season did, but members of everyone’s favorite ridge-headed warrior race have popped up twice now for two glorious episodes.
The first was “Point of Light,” which found High Chancellor L’Rell dealing with drama of Shakespearean proportions. The ramifications of that episode are still being felt, especially in the season’s most recent episode (and second one to feature Klingons), “Through the Valley of Shadows.” Chancellor L’Rell pays a visit to the U.S.S. Discovery just as the ship travels to the revered Klingon planet of Boreth.
For Trek fans, Boreth is a familiar location. The two-part Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Rightful Heir” takes place there, Worf talks about visiting its monasteries many times after that, and according to Klingon legend, it is the planet where Kahless the Unforgettable promised to one day return.
SYFY WIRE caught up with Klingon High Chancellor L’Rell herself, Mary Chieffo, to discuss her character being further integrated into Trek canon, vulnerable conversations, parallels to Queen Elizabeth I, and even the (slight) possibility for a Klingon musical (based on “Point of Light”) to be performed in Las Vegas.
When we last saw Chieffo’s High Chancellor, she was not only giving up on the great love of her life (Ash Tyler/Voq, played by Shazad Latif), but also her son. Tyler joined Section 31, and her baby was sent to Boreth. As far as greater Klingon society was concerned, both Tyler and the baby were dead; L’Rell had to go along with the ruse to keep them both safe. In a monumental speech to the Klingon houses, L’Rell affirmed her power and told Klingon society that they may call her “mother.” What has L’Rell been doing since that moment?
According to Chieffo, L’Rell has embodied the archetype of “mother,” and “she realizes there’s this image that the Klingons need, but she still is trying to create a better empire than what she’s seen before.” She referenced a particular line that was cut from the most recent episode, which used to occur during a moment with she and Captain Pike (Anson Mount) discussing the Klingon War.
Pike originally referenced the brutality of Klingons, and L’Rell responded with, “That was before me, Captain, when honor was confused with brutality… and pride with savagery.” For Chieffo, it was great for her “to read that line and think about so much imaginary work between the ‘you may call me mother’ moment to this moment.”
According to Chieffo, “That line informed me that she has been enforcing that. She is aware of the brutality and the savagery, and wanting to elevate, not negate who the Klingons are. As a lover of the Klingons, their brutality, their power, it’s part of what we love about them — but I do feel that she is trying to be level-headed, and she has come from a very intense experience learning about humans in a way that most Klingons at that time have not. I do always feel that she’s trying to infuse what she’s learned into her policies.”
L’Rell has certainly been left in a vulnerable place, losing both her lover and her son, and both of her episodes this season make the viewer (at least this viewer) think of Queen Elizabeth I. A particular moment from Shekhar Kapur’s film Elizabeth comes to mind, especially when Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth I is fully in power at the end, and tells a former adviser, "I am married…to England.” L’Rell, it could be said, is similarly married to the Empire. Chieffo cited the former British monarch as having a big influence on her portrayal of L’Rell.
“Elizabeth I was always a big point of inspiration,” Chieffo said. “I did very much feel coming into this episode that that was what I wanted to really embody. It’s part of having the hair back, also — there were some images of Queen Elizabeth that we were looking at, and when we were talking about it, this idea that she has embraced archetype. Also in the costume design, there was the all-black [in “Point of Light”], but now there’s a bit of red, there’s this element of being empowered by the choice that she’s made.”
Much like other characters in the history of Star Trek (though not necessarily all Klingons), L’Rell’s greatest strength comes from a specific place. “I absolutely feel that one of the most intriguing strengths she has is her heart,” Chieffo said. “That was ultimately what made her make the initial choice to save Tyler in the first season, she has a certain level of compassion and empathy... I don’t think she’s the only Klingon that has that… but I certainly think that when it comes to Klingons that we’ve seen, she embodies it to a level that is very unique.”
Chieffo mentioned that in the most recent episode, it’s implied that she’s been keeping the Empire in line for many months (no easy task), but that now when we meet her again, she’s brought back to a place of extreme vulnerability. “You’re seeing her interact with the man who is the center of her greatest heartbreak. You’re getting to see the quieter moments. I love seeing strong powerful characters, male or female, but certainly female, that are embodying a certain persona externally, and getting to explore that inner life, because that’s certainly how I feel," said Chieffo.
“I’m not a Klingon Chancellor, but I am a strong, smart, 6-foot tall woman in the modern day," she continues. "There’s still an element of people expecting a certain level of intensity from me, or make certain assumptions about who I am, or that I’m fully confident all the time because that’s what I try and put out… I have a lot of those scenes in my own life, where I’m quiet, and vulnerable, and heartbroken, and speaking with people one on one, so it’s a neat parallel to have. When you see L’Rell this season, other than when she’s fighting a bunch of Klingons, there’s a lot more of that intimate stuff that you couldn’t see quite to the same extent in the first season because so much of her story was shrouded in mystery. You were viewing her as an extremely villainous character until you weren’t.”
L’Rell’s vulnerability underneath her immense strength has never been as clear, perhaps, as it was when she was reunited with Tyler. With insanely effective use of a pause (in the line, “I didn’t expect to see you… ever again”), Chieffo makes us feel every bit of that vulnerability.
“That scene overall, that was a moment we knew we had to explore, it was definitely a moment of thinking about all of those moments of when she’s alone in her chambers,” said Chieffo. “In my mind, after exorcising the baby and the lover, she is pretty much left to herself. I really imagine she’s quite alone, and has been fully committed to the cause and her work. There’s no Klingon therapist that she gets to go to and hash it out with. This moment is the first time that she’s even putting breath to these words. I think we really did enjoy playing with that idea of what happens when you think you’re never gonna see someone again, and then you end up really having to see them again. That’s quite jarring and nerve-wracking.”
Perhaps a less heartbreaking (or tragic) aspect of this episode came with L’Rell cruising into the orbit of Boreth on a classic D7 Klingon vessel — both the location and the ship are huge in the lore of Trek. For Chieffo, the cementing of L’Rell within that lore (by the writers, not necessarily by Chieffo herself), has been “a huge theme” of the season.
“L’Rell is being cemented in canon as this very archetypal, powerful character,” Chieffo said, adding, “It’s really thrilling, and to see all the little connections and the larger ones makes my little geek heart beat all the faster. That has been one of the most fun aspects of this season overall, not just for me, but I think for all of our characters in different ways. We’re discovering how we tie into the larger lore.”
In terms of new discoveries as far as Boreth itself is concerned, there were two big ones in the latest episode. The first is that the planet is home to time crystals, a very powerful resource that L’Rell herself remarks on, saying that their power is “the very reason we no longer exploit the crystals.” Of course, this is a prequel series, and it would be impossible for Worf or any other Klingon Chancellor to have had this knowledge, but still — as one of the only trustworthy Chancellors that we’ve seen the Empire have, it makes sense that L’Rell would know about this secret, and keep it sacred. Gowron, for example, would probably not have used them to positive ends.
“It is easy to let my imagination go wild, and I certainly imagine that when I ascended to the Chancellorship, like with the presidency, you get 'the file,' with all the secret things, so I certainly thought that was something that L’Rell was endowed with when she rose to power,” Chieffo said. “She found out about the time crystals, she found out about a bunch of other things, and I would certainly be very intrigued to see more of the story behind that.”
The second big reveal involves L’Rell’s son, Tenavik, who (surprise surprise), was played by Discovery’s perennial Klingon shape-shifter, Kenneth Mitchell. Mitchell played the truly nasty Kol in Season 1, and returned to menace L’Rell again as Kol-Sha this season. Chieffo remarked how Mitchell is “one of her favorite humans” and ended up “finally playing a Klingon who isn’t so mean to her.”
Mitchell, Chieffo, Latif are very close both on-set and off (“Being stuck in Klingon plots together for two years kind of binds you very intensely,” Chieffo said), and the three of them discussed various possibilities for the older version of L’Rell and Voq’s son once it was revealed that Mitchell would be playing him.
She also mentioned a moment between the three actors before a convention in Germany, saying, “That’s when we started writing the musical version of ‘Point of Light,’ which I’m still pushing for us to perform at the Vegas convention or something.”
Chieffo added that Mitchell’s casting “felt so fitting,” and that “he was thrilled that he was playing a nice Klingon who didn’t die.” Which of course means there’s the possibility that we could see Tenavik again, either on the show or in a tie-in book. “I am intrigued. Klingon-plot wise it’s one of the interesting challenges…” Chieffo said, “…you can only spend so much time with them in an over-arching series that is focusing on a lot of other characters. When it comes to serving the larger story of Discovery, and the wealth of other exciting characters and species, we get these little pockets of moments, and that’s when the hope is there might be a novel or a comic book, something like that. I think that the seeds that they’ve planted through all of these stories are really ripe for growing, and I’m just very intrigued to see where they manifest in the future.”
L’Rell may have (somewhat) come to a place of peace with Tyler, but Chieffo thinks there’s more drama to be had from a scene between herself and Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). “We are very aware of each other through Tyler, and Sonequa and I have certainly talked a lot about who the characters are, and what that relationship is for the both of us, but I’ve always been interested in what would happen if it wasn’t Tyler and L’Rell in a room, or Tyler and Burnham in a room, what if it was just Burnham and L’Rell?” Chieffo said.
“I just think that that conversation would be interesting,” she added. “Even though we haven’t seen them speak so much, other than the moment in the Season 1 finale, I think they’re being very mature about all of it in a lot of ways. I always appreciated that it was never a catfight, that they’re both heartbroken but they choose peace for the galaxy instead of fighting it out. I would be intrigued to see what they could discuss, and how they would work together.”
Though Chieffo hasn’t had scenes with Anthony Rapp, Wilson Cruz, or Mary Wiseman, she mentioned that the cast is famously close whether they are in scenes together or not. Chieffo is also close with her parents, Michael Chieffo (Better Call Saul, The West Wing, Battle of the Sexes) and Beth Grant (Donnie Darko, Speed, No Country for Old Men, A Series of Unfortunate Events), two character actors that pop up in almost everything. “I’m an only child, grew up in L.A., and they filled my childhood with imagination and creativity and were making their living as working character actors, and I respect that so deeply,” Chieffo said. “It gave me a real sense of why I wanted to be an actor.”
Would she like it if one (or both) of them appeared on Discovery? “I would love to see either of them doing anything on the show. I think it would be excellent,” she said.
Sadly, there are only two episodes left of Discovery’s second season… but there is still a glimmer of hope that we could see Chancellor L’Rell one more time. “Definitely wait and see,” said Chieffo about the prospect. “I think that Klingons have a tendency to appear when you least expect them to.”