Mary Chieffo is worlds apart from her character L'Rell on Star Trek: Discovery — in all ways but one.
When I stand up to greet her during the show's press line on Friday at San Diego Comic-Con, the 6-foot-tall actress stands head and shoulders above most of the people in the room. In spite of the imposing figure she cuts, her warm personality, friendly smile, and effortless ability to set you instantly at ease makes her a far cry from the female Klingon she inhabits on the latest small-screen addition to the Star Trek franchise, now heading into its second season on CBS All Access. It's a testament to how good Chieffo is in the role because you'd certainly never get her confused with L'Rell when speaking with her in person. When we start off by talking about the character's legacy, Chieffo admits that she gave a lot of thought to the female Klingons who have already appeared on other Star Trek shows, like K'ehleyr from The Next Generation or Grilka from Deep Space Nine, who technically show up on the scene after L'Rell in the overall timeline.
"I really wanted to go and look at all of these female Klingons from every iteration," Chieffo tells me when discussing her research into the role. "I wanted to look at that the Klingons in general. Of course, I knew of Worf, but I realized from more of a distance, I didn't know all of that many female Klingons. I couldn't list them off. I can now, but that's because I dove in. What was really, really great was seeing how I responded to Grilka and K'ehleyr in different ways. Particularly with K'ehleyr, she's such a great character and I was like, 'I want more of this.'"
Past examples of female Klingons have been illustrated as sharing many of the same characteristics that their male counterparts do, including heightened aggression and an honor value system, something Chieffo also wanted to keep in mind for her own depiction of L'Rell. "The female [Klingon] can almost surpass gender in a lot of ways," Chieffo says. "I'm really just diving into what that means, particularly with L'Rell being a soldier in the first season and now Chancellor, and just the ways in which she navigates [both] her femininity and her masculinity."
Chieffo tells me that she decided to take a page from certain female figures, many of whom held their own reigns throughout history and literature alike. "I'm literally looking to Medea, Antigone, Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare's Richard III, Queen Elizabeth the historical figure, Hatshepsut the Egyptian pharaoh. So many of these women whose stories have almost been told, but not quite." The Klingon society, at least when we encounter them in the first season of Discovery, is a patriarchal one, and Chieffo adds that the show will expand on that particular dynamic even further as L'Rell fights to lead. "It shows why she wanted to stay in the shadows [last season] because any time you put yourself at the forefront, it's vulnerable. And yet she does really believe in the idea of unification and she wants to push that forward. But she's also struggling with her femininity, how she can embrace the archetype that we know from female Klingons and yet make it her own. It's a struggle, and I relate to that as Mary, too."
Behind the camera, Chieffo has experienced an evolution of her own, as she gradually learned the best methods for toughing it out in the makeup chair. The extensive process, which involves both makeup effects and prosthetics, took some getting used to — and Chieffo credits several individuals in the Discovery costuming and makeup departments for being communicative and open with her, which makes the process heading into Season 2 a lot easier."I'm coming in more informed; I know what I need to ask for," Chieffo says. "James McKinnon, who's our department head, applies my makeup and Doug [Jones]'s makeup, and then Hugo Villasenor and Rocky Faulkner, they're the three main prosthetic artists. We have such a great relationship because we spent most of our time together last year. They know when I really need something. They know how to clean up my sweat." But Chieffo has developed some unique techniques of her own when things start to get a little hot under the spiked collar: "I have to keep the [Klingon] hands on between takes for the most part, unless I really need to take them off or we have a long stretch between a set up, so now I put ice packs on my hands." And, when it comes to immersing herself in the character, Chieffo reveals she's learned to ask for one other essential item: a full-length mirror to view herself once she's completely costumed. "I get the last bit of my stuff on right before I go on. And, so often [before] I wouldn't ever see myself fully, so that's part of the transformation." As for L'Rell's epic armor? "Gersha [Phillips] has definitely done wonders to continue to make me more comfortable in my costumes. They're still tricky and heavy, but we just work together."
As a fan, Chieffo admits she wasn't as well-versed in the Star Trek universe as some of her co-stars; she says that her love of genre tended to lean more towards fantasy when she was growing up. "I was very obsessed with Harry Potter. I was very obsessed with the Chronicles of Narnia. My thing with franchises, in general, is that I love the sensation of them. And so, even if I didn't know every single thing from the canon, I would love getting immersed in the world." Eventually, Chieffo says it was Discovery co-creator Alex Kurtzman who got her hooked on watching the original Trek movies, though she also lists another well-known franchise as a favorite: "I enjoy Star Wars very much. Actually, I feel really thrilled that we're at this point in time where we're seeing both Trek and Wars being reevaluated with more representation. I love going to support those films and going to support the show because I'm getting to see it more and more."
When the conversation wraps up, I ask Chieffo to play a round of SYFY FANGRRLS' famous game called Frak Marry Kill — this one Discovery-themed. When I give her the options from her co-stars of Ash Tyler/Voq (Shazad Latif), Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz), it's clear that this isn't going to be an easy choice for Chieffo. "Oh, this is very difficult. Well, I'd have to marry Tyler/Voq. I guess I would frak Culber. Oh, I don't want to kill Stamets, but I've already accidentally killed Culber, so I can't kill Culber again. Well, no! No, no, no!" She brings her hands to her face, clearly torn. "The right thing to do would be to kill Tyler/Voq. That'd be the new L'Rell. Oh gosh, this is the difference between me and L'Rell. I think she's a little bit better at making decisions than I am. She'd be like, 'No, we're just gonna frak them all.'"
Season 2 of Star Trek Discovery premieres in January 2019 on CBS All Access.