A Klingon in Her Own Words – Mary Chieffo Discusses Discovery

With their US release date of September 24th approaching, CBS has already shown off a great deal of promotional material for its newest iteration of Star Trek, but what we’ve seen so far is probably just the tip of the iceberg. Videos featuring Sonequa Martin-Green as Starfleet’s Cmdr. Burnham and Chris Obi as Klingon Commander T’Kuvma, both in their respective uniforms, describe their philosophies and seek viewers’ sympathy. These thirty-second teasers help generate hype, but don’t provide much insight into what the show will be like.

Luckily, the string of interviews with Discovery‘s cast and crew are just beginning. It’s not often one gets a chance to sit down with a Klingon. But, that’s exactly what staff writers at startrek.com did. Well, kind of. They actually sat down with Mary Chieffo who plays Klingon battle deck commander L’Rell. And although she didn’t have much to say about the new show’s plot, she did provide some insight into her character’s motivations.

A Klingon in Her Own Words: Source Material

Performing in the newest version of Star Trek gives actors an opportunity to draw on hundreds of hours of source material. When Chieffo got the part, she got to work reviewing every Klingon-centric episode she could find. A newcomer to the franchise who had only watched the new movies before auditioning (nobody’s perfect), Chieffo talks about watching a lot of late-season Star Trek: Deep Space Nine after learning she got the part. Specifically, Chieffo found the Klingon feminist Grilka a source of inspiration for her portrayal of L’Rell.

I love her story of eventually becoming the leader of her own house … Her strength and power don’t negate her sensuality.

As a new Trekkie, Chieffo certainly seems to know her stuff. Speaking about Grilka, who first appeared in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “The House of Quark,” she had lots to say. “I love her story of eventually becoming the leader of her own house. Klingons are so patriarchal, so that was a great way to explore that story, in both episodes that she’s in.”

Showing off her far-reaching knowledge of Klingons, Chieffo also discussed K’Ehleyr, Cmdr. Worf‘s mate who first appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “The Emissary,” and B’Elanna Torres of Star Trek: Voyager. “I love K’Ehleyr and I love B’Elanna, but they’re both half-Klingon.”

Although Chieffo says she loves to watch both B’Elanna and K’Ehleyr deal with their inner conflicts as Klingon-Human hybrids, she’s drawn more of her performance of L’Rell from Grilka, a full Klingon. “There’s something about [Grilka] I’ve tried to transfer to L’Rell, and it’s that her strength and power don’t negate her sensuality.”

A Klingon in Her Own Words: Makeup, A Klingon’s Best Friend

When asked if acting under pounds of latex is difficult, Chieffo mentions that her co-star Doug Jones, who played Abe Sapien in both Hellboy movies and Fauno in Guillermo del Toro‘s Pan’s Labyrinth,  had some advice. Recalling it, Chieffo says, “You have to have that emotional core. If anything, you almost have to be more grounded in the emotion, because you can’t fake it.”

Klingon
“Warriors don’t use straws.”

A potential drawback to the facial prostheses? Actors can’t eat when wearing them. Instead, Chieffo and her fellow Klingons drink specially formulated smoothies through straws to avoid damaging the expensive prosthetics. A Klingon slurping a smoothie from a straw, now that’s something I’d like to see.

A Klingon in Her Own Words: “It’s all Klingon to me!”

If wearing pounds of latex and not being allowed to eat solid food weren’t bad enough, Chieffo and the other Klingons need to have a functional understanding of the Klingon language. Although Chieffo finds the process liberating, it sounds like anything but. ” … we have to memorize the meaning of each word and the structure of each sentence, and make sure you really understand it logically, so that you can then inhabit it emotionally.”

Chieffo talks about frequent two-hour sessions she has with Discovery‘s dialect coach who helps her refine her pronunciations. Pronunciation is important because Klingon is a full, constructed language that’s been developing for nearly forty years. First heard in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and devised by James Doohan, who played Scotty, and the film’s producer John Povill, Marc Okrand developed it into a full language in time for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock at director Leonard Nimoy and writer-producer Harve Bennett‘s request.

A Klingon in Her Own Words: Getting Battle Ready

The rest of Chieffo’s interview with startrek.com focuses on her training and experience as an actor. Chieffo attended Juilliard among other notable acting schools and has experience playing Shakespearean roles and roles in musicals. With that kind of training, hope springs eternal that viewers may get to see L’Rell perform a Klingon opera. I hear ‘u’ is lovely. Sorry, I hear it’s courageous and bloody, not lovely.

If you want to learn more about Chieffo and her approach to what sounds like a multifaceted character, check out the full interview at startrek.com.

Michael Bedford
Michael Bedford
Under intense scrutiny by the Temporal Authorities, I was coerced into actualizing my capsule in this causality loop. Through no fault of my own, I am marooned on this dangerous yet lovely level-four civilization. Stranded here, I have spent most of my time learning what I can of the social norms and oddities of the Terran species, including how to properly use the term "Hipster" and how to perform a "perfect pour." Under the assumed name of "Michael Bedford," I have completed BA's with specialized honours in both theatre studies and philosophy, and am currently saving up for enough galactic credits to buy a new--or suitably used--temporal contextualizer ... for a friend.