Mary Chieffo who plays the Klingon L’Rell on Star Trek Discovery took some time to talk with us at WonderCon 2018 about a wide variety of topics about her coming into her character and her time on the show. We discuss how she sees L’Rell’s relationship with Tyler, her future as leader of the Klingons, and tells us which Star Trek characters she would pick for an away team if she was leading a mission.
Your character, L’Rell, how much of that came from you versus the makeup you were wearing in getting you into that character?
Mary Chieffo: Ooh, that’s a good question. Well, I will say that definitely the external helped a lot in manifesting in exactly how she carried herself. Obviously…I did a lot of mask and movement work in college and that was definitely something I leaned on, in this. Very outside-in sort of experience. But at the same time, what was so beautiful, when it came to the scenes as they were writing, in particular, in episode four onward… There was room to find a kind of softness and vulnerability, despite the fact that she is this intimidating looking Klingon. But I found it to be a mixture of everything, as the actor approaching it and then story-wise, that just developed I think as we all go to know each other. On the writer’s side and the actor’s side. It really is such a great mixture.
Mary, you have been very active in the fan community with the fans. What were your expectations when you came into Star Trek and how do you see it today?
Mary: Um, well, it’s been such an incredible journey with that. And particularly… starting that journey before anything had come out, when just the announcement that I was a part of the show. To now, the full season is out and there was such a great journey for my character. And, kind of now, the reverberations…Starting to do things like this, kind of discussing what happened in season one. My big goal always, as somebody who grew up loving certain franchises and just being passionate about things. I wanted to give that level of respect to the fans. Because I take it seriously and I think it’s important that we bring all of ourselves to everything we do. But particularly with something that is so beloved for so long. And the interactions, its been so fun, I hadn’t done Twitter before I did the show. But its been so fun! I’ve met people, fans from all over the world. Different artists who are creating fan art. Artists that I respect, in different mediums, that I find out are watching the show, and I get to meet. It’s just amazing across the board. And I think Star Trek is something that is beloved by lots of different types of people. And so, it’s fun to learn who has been a Trekkie their whole life, and is embracing Discovery. It’s been very humbling and very beautiful.
Is it tougher to learn lines in Klingon or to say it with the teeth in?
Mary: Hahaha! I like the teeth. They tease me on set too. Teeth, eyes. Like, I don’t feel complete until it’s all in. So, I definitely feel that next level of saying the words is… I don’t feel complete until it’s all there. But I definitely appreciate not having to practice my lines in the full makeup and teeth. It’s great. I mentioned on the panel, I do have these two hour sessions with Rea Nolan, our dialect coach. And that’s really about breaking it down. And getting kind of the basis of the sounds. Reminding me to really go in the back of my throat for certain odd noises. But it is that final moment when it’s all coming together that there is a certain release. So in a certain way, that feels easier. It just flows more. I wouldn’t say, “That was a piece of cake.” But it definitely feels like all that hard work beforehand pays off.
Do you have a favorite aspect of your character?
Mary: Yes. Many. I treat all my characters with a lot of respect. But I also feel like they come to me at a time in my life when I need them. And I felt that very much with L’Rell. Just kind of her arc of living in the shadows and working from the sidelines and not having confidence in her own abilities and power. And that was a big journey for me… a continued journey for me. I’m still trying to own myself and my own power, in my own life. And coming out of school, there is just a lot of uncertainty after you graduate. And to have this role, where I got to kind of manifest all those insecurities and fears. And then to finally culminate it with, like, be given this detonator, and kind of be like, “Well, I gotta do it.” And all those fears and nerves that I felt… Doing that speech, as the actor, I got to manifest it in the character. So, the short answer to the question I would say would be that her sensitivity and her vulnerability. Because, I think that’s true for all characters. But I think that I’ve been given room to really breathe into that… from a lot of the scenes and moments that I’ve had from the writer’s room.
So things have been happening rather quickly at the end of season one for L’Rell. So how tenuous do you think her hold is on the Klingon Empire?
Mary: I mean it’s a good question right? (Laughs) I’m very interested to see how they explore that in season two. I think that, it could go a lot of different ways. And what’s fun being in this part of the timeline is…there’s a lot of room for finding out why things ended up the way they are in ten years. I think it’s really fun. I love that they have the moment, where I say, “I’m the leader,” and they laugh at me. So obviously not everyone is just like, “Okay, cool, great, it’s all good.” And the fact that my last line is, “the reunification of our race BEGINS now.” I think that L’Rell is a very hard worker and very determined. And fierce and always…she starts with plans A, B, and C. But usually reverts to X, Y, and Z. But she WILL have a plan. I’m very interested to see how it unfolds. I am as in the dark as you are. Hahaha!
Now that you are a little more proficient in this new language, do you ever find yourself answering back either in your mind, or verbally, in Klingon?
Mary: Haha, I hope to reach that point. I think I am still very much on the learning curve. I could definitely recognize the sounds of Klingon. Like I can tell if someone is trying to speak Klingon to me. So that’s a step in the right direction. And it’s, as I’ve said, reading it on the page it doesn’t just look like a bunch of gobbley-gook letters. I do have a sense of the language and its structure. But I’ve yet to reach the point where I can really do that.
Do Klingons come up to you at conventions start speaking to you in Klingon?
Mary: I haven’t had a direct…but I’m sure that time is to come (Mary: It’s coming). Robin Stewart, our translator, did say that to me. Because I did want to have some lines to obviously, respectfully, say like, “I am not a fluent as I wish I was. All this sort of stuff.” She encouraged me to go in that vein. Like, of course, people are gonna think that because, when you have the lines written for you, you make sure it sounds like you are fluent. But that’s part of it too. Like with a franchise like this, it’s that weird line of we know it’s…there’s fiction, but there’s also…I don’t wanna tread in it, in a direction that’s disrespectful.
Has she taught you any Klingon curse words?
Mary: Oh yeah, yeah… Qu’vatlh! That’s my favorite. Because it’s like all the hardest sounds in Klingon in one. Yeah. I’ll let you figure it out, hahaha!
The scenes you had with Voq/Tyler have a very heavy sexual aspect. How did you get prepared for that and what was your take for a Star Trek world?
Mary: Yeah, I’m glad you asked about that. Because that was a big journey for me too, was embracing that the Klingons are innately sensual creatures, in a way that the humans aren’t. But to me that was part of what made them beautifully alien. And part of what I was able to justify. Certainly in the scene in Despite Yourself, episode 10, that Jonathan Frakes directed so amazingly, and particularly that scene was so complex. And I knew Shazad and I where like, “We don’t want this to be some creepy Hannibal Lecter sort of situation.” And it was like for me it was like, right, she’s using her sensuality because she is not the puritan American that I am. That has been taught to have a certain shame around that. She is using that because that’s… love, also. Because for her that connection with Voq is not just carnal. It’s pure and it’s genuine. So, just the way she navigates it is more alien than human. And I think that it’s a very interesting line and I think that’s a beautiful gift of sci-fi. You can explore these themes in a slightly different way than you would if it was just two humans interacting. But, interesting to see too her empowerment by that is misconstrued by the humans. I thought that was an interesting kind of message there. But for me, that was very important, and certainly … with the scene that we all know… Just talking about what that was and making it clear… talking with Aaron and Gretchen. It was not Tyler… that was in the relationship… it was always Voq. It was just… his memories got really screwed up. (Laughs) That’s also my bad. The surgeries. But at the same time, like from L’Rell’s perspective she did not cross that line. And I think that’s very important that we’re sensitive to that. That it’s complex and crazy and again it’s a mythology. When you look at medieval, you look at Antigone, you look at many Shakespeare plays. They go to these crazy heights, but it’s because we’re exploring something deeper in humanity. So, that question is very important to me and something I took very seriously. And I think it’s confronting. I mean like we say the show does go to a certain edge that other ones haven’t. That’s part of it. Because we maybe need to re-evaluate how we think about those things.
Are there any scenes from Shakespeare, because obviously they throw in a lot, you spent some time on Shakespeare. Were there any scenes that are drawn very specifically?
Mary: Hmmm, that’s a good question. I will say that the two roles I played before I played L’Rell were Macbeth and Iago, strangely enough. And I actually feel that their elements, but particularly of Iago, that the way in which he is so malleable. And every scene he’s in, depending on who he’s with, he’s a different person. And I think L’Rell embodies that, but in a female way. And her relationship with Cornwell is very different from her relationship with Tyler, obviously. And then Saru. That she’s a real listener, like she’s from the shadows, and she recalibrates based on who she’s interacting with. And ultimately to her own gain hopefully. But I found this with Iago, which is maybe controversial. But I found a real vulnerable through line for him, as well, that I think a lot of people don’t want to see. I have stuff coming up, projects, exploring that in more detail. Hopefully, I’ll be able to let you know about that soon. But I think that was a real gift, to having just come off of working on that part. And learn so much about how I defined honesty and truth. And to transfer that into L’Rell, it was very, very fun. But L’Rell feels more authentic to me, funnily enough. Than Iago in a certain way. Because something about being a woman… but a Klingon woman…I don’t know. I guess I walk around feeling like a Klingon woman, hahaha!
I’ve got a fan service question for you. Were you a fan of Star Trek before getting on to this? So L’Rell, or you as yourself, if you were in charge of your own away mission and could choose any five characters from any of the Star Trek series to go with you on this mission who would your team be?
Mary: Hmm. Away mission. Me or L’Rell. I think, actually coming from L’Rell’s perspective, just because I am kind of aware of how she is in the world. I mean I do think… and if we can span timelines and all that sort of stuff… I think she would kind of try and maybe bandthe other female Klingons. Like maybe she would talk to the Duras Sisters. And Grilka. Grilka’s Mary’s personal favorite. That’s three right there. But I’m not sure about like K’Ehleyr and B’Elanna. I think half Klingon we wouldn’t be, we’d be ok about it (laughs). But trying to think I feel if it were L’Rell she would be trying to…But I will say I do think that she’s at a turning point. I think the L’Rell you met at the beginning of the season would have picked a bunch of Klingons. And I, think perhaps, by the end she is starting to realize that maybe she should look outward more. And there is more to the humans. And if there is more to the humans perhaps there is more to the Romulans or the Andorians. I think she’s at a turning point, so… And I actually do think L’Rell would Cornwell now that I think about it. That’s one of my favorite relationships she has on the show. Of course, the Tyler relationship, but like, I just think that there’s something, there’s a real respect. And in that Jane talked about this on After Trek… The first scene that we have together, after the scream. There is like a whole first chunk, that…where we’re kind of scoping each other out. And she really proves to me that she’s smart. And she gets that I’m not like all the other Klingons. And I kind of respect that. And kind of…that’s already innately there with what was cut. But I think that sort of …complexity, like, “Oh, I’m smart and you’re smart… So the smart thing to do is to not just kill each other.” And I think that she would trust that she would have her back… in a certain way. But then of course, I’m the one that almost kills her (laughs). But, that’s on L’Rell. She knows Cornwell’s trust for her (laughs). So that’s my long-winded answer.
Following up on what you said. That L’Rell sees herself growing. So the last scene, Tyler decides to go with L’Rell. Can you see L’Rell and Tyler getting back together in some way? How do you see that relationship pan out?
Mary: Yeah, I am very interested so see what they come up with. But from my perspective certainly, where I was in fifteen, was that, I really didn’t think that there was ANY remnant of Voq left, until he speaks to me in Klingon. That, at the end of twelve, when I do the surgery, that death wail. That’s like, “Good-bye Voq.” he’s no longer there. I choose to make that sacrifice so that Voq doesn’t suffer. And so it’s such a surprise to suddenly have him have this, still have these memories, even if they’re neutered memories. I think it’s complicated. I was saying to someone earlier too, that it isn’t a typical love triangle. That Voq and L’Rell had a legitimate relationship. And Burnham and Tyler had a legitimate relationship. And I think that L’Rell is smart enough to get that. I certainly think, that they don’t walk off into the sunset in that moment. But they’re not, “And everything’s fine!” I think that they understand the complexity of it. In that way I think, as my friend would say to me, in college, “You gotta have the breakdown, before the breakthrough.” And I think that L’Rell kind of had that breakdown… and is piecing herself back together. And trying to DO the right thing. And ultimately the most important thing, in fifteen, for L’Rell was to bring peace. Or to understand that this collaboration was more important than any personal grievances. So…(sighs). Oh, leaders (laughs). Making personal sacrifices.
Mary, what’s your biggest surprise about Star Trek?
Mary: Biggest surprise? I wouldn’t say it’s like a shocking surprise, but I will say that it has been overwhelming how much LOVE has been given from the community. That I have seen far more love than hate. I’ve seen people, like the girl on the panel today, was like, “I wanted to hate this, but… I liked it.” Like that sort of mentality, of like… She still watched it. Like, she still eventually… she was resistant but eventually watched it. And she could have liked it or not. But I think there is an open-mindedness… and a hope for the future that propels fans forward. And I really thrilled that that’s true.