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How Santiago Cabrera created the tragic, holographic world of Captain Rios for Star Trek: Picard
Traditionally, in the Star Trek franchise, various different crewmembers operate different functions of a boldly going starship. But in Star Trek: Picard, nearly every essential starship crewmember is played by the same person: Santiago Cabrera as Captain Rios and his merry band of matching holograms. From Emmet the Spanish-speaking tactical hologram to Ian the Scottish engineer hologram, Rios' holographic crew represents various aspects of his own psyche. The show may be called Picard, but on some level, the series takes place in Rios' world — both inside and out of his head.
As Picard heads toward its final two episodes, SYFY WIRE caught up with Santiago Cabrera to discuss how he created so many different personalities for his holograms, what space heroes mean to him, and how the physical world and the psychological world of Captain Rios collide.
**Spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Picard Episodes 1-8.**
From his first episode, "The End of the Beginning," Rios was a character that seemed like an archetypal loner who loves reading downer books and listening to sad music while drinking tequila, but there's more to him than just that. Cabrera knew that the gimmick of playing multiple versions of himself via Rios' various holograms wouldn't land without a good reason.
"The whole thing with the holos was, it couldn’t just be for the sake of it," Cabrera explained to SYFY WIRE. "There had to be substance to it. What hooked me and what I loved about it was the psychology behind a man who is alone and happens to be with these versions of himself. It's better when you can reveal something about a character without saying too much."
When it came to each character, though, Cabrera says that from the very beginning each of Rios' holograms was supposed to have a different accent and that his process in creating the different holograms was totally collaborative among himself, Alex Kurtzman, Akiva Goldsman, and showrunner Michael Chabon.
"They said: 'What accents can you do?' and I said, 'I can do anything!' Which was mostly true. Some accents are very easy and accessible for me," Cabrera says. "With Emmet, it was my idea to just go into Spanish. That was an archetype that's very familiar to me, in Latin America, a tactical military guy." But not all the accents were easy for Cabrera to nail. In Episode 8, "Broken Pieces," Raffi meets the engineering hologram — Ian — who speaks with a thick Scottish accent.
"That was the one I had to work on the most," he admits. "Michael [Chabon] really wanted to do an homage to Scotty, so he was like, 'Can you do Scottish?' That was a tricky one. So I got a Scottish friend of mine to help read the lines with me. I just made sure I had the lines down very, very early. It was one of my favorites because I had more time with it."
But the virtual world of Rios isn't just limited to his various holographic avatars. In another change from old-school Trek, the vast majority of the controls on the La Sirena are 100 percent holographic, too, meaning the way in which Rios flies the starship — and his knowledge of the galaxy in general — was something Cabrera had to come up with himself, and internalize to make sure nothing came across as phony.
"The scripts are so dense, and I had to do a lot of work in my mind to get a sense of where I was [in the galaxy]. It’s the most visual work I had to do for myself. I had to really imagine where I was and what all the planets looked like," Cabrera says. "Sometimes it's just one sentence in the script and you just over-read it, but I was really breaking into those descriptions for myself. Because I was a pilot, Kirsten Beyer was very helpful for this kind of thing. I just kind of picked her mind about the world we’re in. I had maps on my wall, just to sense of the geography of it all. Rios is a guy who knows his way around. And I kind of needed to see it all in my head."
Part of Cabrera's approach to his research wasn't just trying to become an expert in Star Trek (he did some big binges on that, too), but to try and approach playing Rios from the most realistic point of view possible. In many ways, Cabrera says that Rios does represent an old-school hero, but that he gained inspiration for how to tackle the role from none other than his co-star Patrick Stewart.
"Patrick was inspiring, but working with him was also liberating to me. His approach to it is character and story. He doesn’t have a different way of doing it just because it's Star Trek," Cabrera explains. "It's all about embodying character and story. With Rios, it's all about the life he led, and the effects of consequences, and the things that happened, him being alone in the ship, and this world."
In some ways, Captain Rios is a mash-up of an old-school Star Trek archetype (sexy space captain) and new-school idea (hologram existential crisis) rolled into one man. But Santiago Cabrera doesn't see those as two separate things at all.
"And I love the concept of the hero," he says. "They’re kind of lonely characters, aren't they?"
Star Trek: Picard airs its final two episodes over the next two Thursdays on CBS All Access.