Star Trek: Discovery’s Mary Chieffo Talks L’Rell, Femininity, And Ruining Her Prosthetics

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Returning 2020

This week’s episode of Star Trek: Discovery, Point of Light,” saw the return of Klingon High Chancellor L’Rell, played by Mary Chieffo. We undoubtedly have more to see from L’Rell this season, but before the episode aired we caught up with Chieffo to talk about L’Rell’s leadership style, why L’Rell suddenly has hair now, and what the rest of Season 2 has in store for L’Rell and Voq,

We just saw L’Rell for the first time this season. Tell us a little bit about what can expect to see from her going forward.

Mary Chieffo: We’re definitely getting to explore where she is now that she’s been Chancellor for a bit…she is now asserting her power and trying to find ways to still unify the Klingons, because that is the end goal. T’Kuvma’s method proved not so great, now she’s now trying to find her own way. We’re seeing that embodied both on an aesthetic level as much as it is on an emotional level—she’s embodying this more feminine archetype, and while we don’t spend tons of time talking about her frustration with “I can’t wear a dress that isn’t criticised,” I do think it’s a fun way to comment on what many women have to deal with when they ascend to power. There’s a million different ways in which they can be critiqued, whether it be on their actual political stances or just literally how they look.

L’Rell is a Klingon. Is there something about playing a non-human character that frees you from having to think too much about traditional or expected ways of playing a female?

What’s been really interesting with L’Rell is…being an alien species is one thing, but the Klingon culture has been so fleshed out in the past—and as it’s been fleshed out, it’s one of the more patriarchal alien species out there in the Trek world. So that was something that really started feeding the story for L’Rell in the first season…the reason she works from the sidelines and from the shadows is because her society told her that that’s what she was worth, and that was the only way she could survive. So Burnham empowering her at the end of Season 1 to rise above, to go into the limelight, was a huge shift.

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And what’s been true for a female Klingon in every iteration [of Star Trek] is, from a human perspective, they are indeed strong and powerful and intimidating and very not typically female. Certainly last year L’Rell, on an aesthetic level, not having hair…tons of qualities that we associate oftentimes with femininity she did not possess in the traditional way. At the same time, what we’re getting to explore this season in particular is that within her race, within her culture, that is the first things that her critics go to and we get this great archetypal patriarch to point that out to everyone. I think it’s really interesting that while she surpasses gender from a human perspective in a lot of ways, she’s still tied to it within her own culture—and it’s a huge thing that she struggles with.

As L’Rell, you get to wear extravagant clothes and makeup and use all of these interesting weapons—what’s the most enjoyable part about playing her? What’s the most difficult?

On a character level, I really appreciate that, certainly in Episode 3, I get to wear these fabulous outfits and also get to wield swords and kick butt. And obviously that’s been pretty true for most of the women on this show, which I’m very proud of in general. But then there’s a fierceness that she has, this certain sort of monstrous quality that she gets to be empowered by that I find really exciting. I would love that to be true of more human female characters as well.

But the sort of reverse “Beauty and the Beast” archetype is something I talk about a lot…we’re so used to the Beast being the male figure in the equation, and so to have that reversal with Tyler is very cool and evocative. Any time we reverse something, we’re able to just view something we take for granted in a different way and evaluate why we’re kind of obsessed with these sorts of pairings. What does that mean? Why do we associate love with these very extreme explorations? Everything about L’Rell is very exciting to me, but I do think that getting to play with both sides of myself and have it be completely truthful and accurate for the character has been really fun.

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On a physical level, that’s where it gets challenging. It’s so fun, but it’s sweaty and the prosthetics are intense and it’s a whole different way of emoting and learning how to express. You have to be so centred in your truth because the eyes are kind of the biggest window into the soul for the character. No matter how humanised the plot can be, you’re still having to communicate on a “creature” level.

You briefly mentioned Tyler. Will there be any kind of resolution in terms of the romantic past between L’Rell and Tyler/Voq? Does Voq exist in any substantial way anymore?

I do want the season’s story to unfold for the audience…I can tease that there will be a return of L’Rell because in that Demi Lovato dancing video I’m in a different outfit, so we know that more will be explored. But I will say…where she stands at the end of this episode is so much about cutting off those vulnerabilities. So certainly in her mind, she is isolated, she is taking on this mantle of leadership to the most extreme level because it seems to be the only way she can do it. For her, that’s where she needs to stand in order to be the leader that she needs to be. It’s the ultimate sacrifice. But more will be revealed [laughs].

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As you mentioned, L’Rell is in a leadership position now. What is her leadership style like? Is it traditionally Klingon, or more modern and her own?

I really appreciate that, [in] the opening…she’s using the D7 to kind of unify everyone. It’s very different from T’Kuvma’s mentality of attacking and fighting and creating a common enemy. Instead of trying to create a common enemy, she’s trying to create a common positive thing, a way in which we can all work together. I think that her experiences with the humans last season—being that good leadership can happen, obviously a positive relationship with Cornwell—she cannot deny what she learned. While she’s not outright saying “this is what the humans did, so I think we should do it,” she was very affected by how she saw their society work, and it was very different from what she had been told by T’Kuvma and others.

We’re in this point in history where that’s really where the Klingons are—they haven’t been in direct contact with the Federation for over 100 years, so they’re just starting to find out where they exist with the Federation being more of an ally. At the same time, she still is a Klingon. She’ll still pull out her swords, and sometimes diplomatic conversations aren’t enough. I appreciate that while she’s trying to embody new things, she still also has to keep the Klingons in line, and very much why she embodies this mother archetype by the end is like “OK, that was too nice for you? Well OK, then if you need a mother to keep you in shape, then that’s what we’re going to do.”

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What was different for you coming into Season 2? Were you more confident than for the series’ debut?

I think we’ve all spoken to the fact that you just have a little bit more confidence. You trust who the character is…like she tends to not speak in contractions, so if there was a contraction in a line I would just be like “I think I’m going to say ‘do not’ and not ‘don’t.’” And they were like, “oh yeah, cool.” Me knowing that I need ice packs on my wrists and hands between takes as much as possible to stay cool, and that I need a fan—little things like that.

And I just feel that this episode is a direct result of all that we explored in the first season. Everything from her relationship with Kol is then taken up to 11…obviously so much of what transpired between Voq and L’Rell in Episode 4 last year to the relationship that Tyler and L’Rell had… we get to re-explore that on a new level. Everyone I feel is more settled in and yet still very open to the continued evolution of the characters…there were like three and half weeks or so of coming in for fittings and stuff. I say it was like Klingon summer camp. I was there working with two of my best buddies, Shazad [Latif] and Ken [Mitchell], and I would get in trouble for laughing because I’m not supposed to laugh in the prosthetics…it messes up the lips. So I would have to be like, covering my mouth while laughing with my body because Ken and Shazad are doing some silly bit between takes. We’re a family, and we are a really tight cast, and I’m really proud of that.