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'Star Trek keeps me inspired': Kenneth Mitchell on living with ALS, Lower Decks, and his return to Discovery
If you thought the angry bug alien in Episode 8 of Star Trek: Lower Decks seemed familiar, then there's a good chance you've been trained to listen for Klingons. The insect-like Captain Seartave is voiced by Star Trek: Discovery actor Kenneth Mitchell, who has played three separate Klingons on that series. And in this episode of Lower Decks, "Veritas," Mitchell lends his voice to two additional roles — a Federation Guard and a Romulan Solider — bringing his total number of Trek roles to six, representing four different species.
But for the Trek fan community, Mitchell is much more than a talented actor who can pour his unique intensity into a variety of roles. He's also someone cherished by the fans for his strength in the face of real-life adversity. In 2018, Mitchell was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a debilitating affliction that has required Mitchell to use a motorized wheelchair since 2019. And yet, like the noble Klingon warriors he's played, Mitchell continues to work. And his latest Lower Decks cameos are actually just the beginning.
"Working on Lower Decks is... the last time I remember walking before having to be in a motorized wheelchair," Mitchell tells SYFY WIRE. "I remember walking up the stairs to go into the studio and the recording booth, and I remember having a great time with [showrunner] Mike [McMahan] and the team. And then I remember walking down the stairs but having trouble getting down. But, to be honest, that’s my last memory of walking on my own. And for that to be last memory, it’s pretty damn special."
In our brief conversation, Mitchell makes it clear that he doesn't view having a "terminal illness" as anything more than the obvious tragedy that it is. But he also has clarity on what it means for not only his life but the life of his family. Mitchell is a father of two and says he's "selfishly thankful" for the extra time that COVID lockdowns have given him with his kids. "Thankfully, I feel like I lived a life and a mantra that, pre-diagnosis, I was proud of," he says. "But, it’s certainly hard and created a shift in my focus. I’m more focused on my family than ever before. My kids are my everything. Thinking about them has been the hardest part. I don’t want to leave them."
The notion that Mitchell's personal challenges are reflected in his work on Star Trek isn't just limited to having a laugh in a recording booth for Lower Decks. In fact, his last role on Discovery was connected to what he was going through at the time it was filmed. In the 2019 episode "Through the Valley of Shadows," Mitchell played the Klingon Time Keeper Tenavik, who gives Captain Pike (Anson Mount) a terrible choice: Commit to a future in which Pike is permanently crippled or lose the entire galaxy.
For Trekkies, this story added another layer to Pike's eventual fate in The Original Series, turning Pike's tragedy into something that Anson Mount has described as a "victory." When those parallels' profoundness is pointed out, Mitchell quickly quips, "Yeah, you're telling me!" and then adds: "I mean, that was a really special experience for me. It was also one of the roles I did while I was diagnosed. So, to be part of expanding the story of Pike was a really incredible experience. His story seeing his future and the choices he has to make are very parallel to what I’m going through. It was very meaningful on that level."
Starting with Kol in Discovery Season 1, and then with Kol'Sha and Tenavik in Discovery Season 2, we've gotten used to seeing Kenneth Mitchell as a Klingon, even if he is a bug alien in the new Lower Decks. But, in Discovery Season 3, he'll be back again, only this time, he'll be playing a human. He admits he's sad that he wasn't able "to have that same camaraderie with the prosthetic department," but he's also happy that he got "an extra three hours of sleep in the morning," because he didn't need to be in a make-up chair getting into character.
"For the new character in Discovery Season 3, I worked a lot with Mario [Moreira] and the props department and the special effect department, so you can interpolate that as much as you want," Mitchell teases, without giving away too much of the new role. "I’ll just say it’s pretty damn cool and very unique and something Star Trek hasn’t had a lot of. I think it was special they adapted this part for me. I think it will be meaningful to the Trek community and beyond."
After Discovery Season 3, Mitchell says he's not sure what comes next. Right now, he says he's hanging out a lot with Anson Mount and Ethan Peck and isn't ruling out showing up on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. "Ethan Peck was just over the other day. He was teaching my son to skateboard. We've started calling him 'Tony Spock' instead of Tony Hawk."
If Mitchell does appear in Trek series after Discovery Season 3, fans everywhere will certainly be thrilled, and with so much more on the way, it feels like Mitchell's Trek repertoire is just getting started.
"Being a part of Star Trek keeps me inspired and gives me purpose," he says. "Hopefully, that will keep going."
Lower Decks Episode 8, featuring Kenneth Mitchell as the voices of Captain Seartave, the Federation Guard, and Romulan soldier, is streaming now on CBS All Access.
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3, featuring Mitchell's new mysterious human character, drops on Oct. 15.