Sure, ‘Star Trek’ has always been about our heroes exploring the galaxy in an optimistic, humanist future. That’s a given. But more than that, even the earliest production documents stressed that while all that may be the case, the show was really about its characters. It’s a tradition that has continued throughout the franchise’s fifty-plus year history, all the way down to the latest installment, ‘Star Trek: Discovery’. ‘Discovery’, of course, is a largely character-driven show with a strong ensemble, and two of the standout members of that ensemble are Kelpian officer Saru and the neurotic trainee (now Ensign) Tilly. Following the ‘Discovery’ panel at New York Comic Con, we had the opportunity to sit down with Doug Jones and Mary Wiseman, the performers who so brilliantly bring those characters to life for a conversation that covered Jones’ development of Saru, fandom’s embrace of Tilly, and more.
While Tilly is often one of the lighter characters on the show, there is sometimes a complete swing away from that. Do you find that that range keeps things fresh?
Mary Wiseman (MW): Right. It’s a bit more exciting and satisfying to me as an actor because we all contain multitudes, you know? No one wants to play one note forever. And so I think they’ve been very generous in letting Tilly have more of a life than just maybe what she seems on the surface. Which is also an important lesson, I think, as a character study, that people can be more than just the outside container. So yeah, for me it’s very exciting. It’s much more satisfying to get to ping-pong back and forth and to understand how those parts of her connect.
What are some of the things you’re looking forward to people seeing once this season gets underway?
MW: I’m excited! Tilly gets angry this season! She gets pissed!
Does she drop another F-bomb?
MW: I don’t know. I don’t think so. [laughs] I might’ve accidentally and it could squirrel in there, but not of the writers’ volition! No, she has moments of frustration this season, and I’m excited for that color too. She’s gonna be tested. I’m excited for that.
Doug Jones (DJ): I’m excited for you to see my home planet of Kaminar and to meet my sister. She’s also tall, thin, and supermodel-like. [Doug puts on a Brooklyn accent] “She’s gorgeous. Just gorgeous!” So that and seeing how gorgeous my home planet is. It’s like a travel brochure.
How much do you get to see before the effects and such is added in post?
DJ: They found a great location. We film in Toronto, so it’s right on Lake Ontario. There’s a lot of shoreline that gets very gorgeous the farther you get out of the city. So we found a great spot that became Kaminar.
In bringing a character like Saru to life, you obviously have the prosthetics and whatever other added effects are called for, but that’s only part of the puzzle. You also use your voice to convey emotion and characterization. Can you tell us a bit about the process of finding Saru’s voice?
DJ: Saru’s voice came with a personality type that wants to prove himself, that wants to be the most austere and polite person in the room, but he also wants to live by the rules, he wants to get everything right. He wants to present pure etiquette and so what comes with that, I think, is a very proper way of speaking. He’s almost trying to get that Mid-Atlantic sound, like the Cranes from ‘Frasier’. You know, how they spoke very, hoity-toity all the time. He’s just this side of that, I think. Not because he’s hoity-toity, but because he’s terrified that he won’t be.
Mary, you mentioned Tilly getting angry this season. Are we going to be seeing anything like Captain Killy?
MW: Oh! That’s such a good question! I don’t know! I also don’t mean to sell it like, “That’s the moment!” It’s just an interesting color for me. I don’t think I’ve gotten to play that as her, so that’s interesting to me. Um… Yeah, I don’t think I thought about that while it was happening, but that’s a really good point. I mean if what Michelle (Yeoh) was saying during the panel is true, that we all have the seed of humanity and it’s a matter of where we’re nurtured, that she contains the capacity for whatever Killy is, which is cruelty, and rage, and coldness. So yeah, I mean there has to be part of that in there because I think maybe biologically they’re kind of the same. Yeah. That’s a good question and I will steal that from you in the future!
Be my guest! Doug, what do you draw on personally for inspiration for Saru?
DJ: Oh, wow. I have a brother, my oldest brother Bobby is a Ph.D. in molecular biology. So when he talks to me, my eyes glaze over and I have no idea what he’s saying. Saru’s some of him. And also, if you ever watch ‘Downton Abbey’ and you see how the house staff is very proper and prim and polite with the family? I’m kind of the head butler of the ship. That’s kind of how I feel. So there’s a physicality there, some brains there. And even how I relate to a character like Tilly. Like to me, behaviorally, she’s kind of off the rails and I want to reel her in sometimes. “Young lady! Decorum! Decorum! Decorum!” So I see myself kind of as a schoolmarm at the same time.
MW: Well that’s… I mean, with ‘Downton Abbey’, those head butlers are like, “Caroline!” You know, they have that whole thing.
Tilly’s very heroic and very capable, but she’s also very normal. Can you touch on the response to the character a bit?
MW: Yeah, she’s not a superhero, is she? I mean she’s smart. She’s very smart. But I think that she contains the same stuff that we all contain. Certainly that I do. I don’t know, I’ve never been asked to play a superhero-type character. I don’t know why. [laughs] So all I have to bring to it is what I, myself have. And that’s, you know, quirks and all, shortcomings and all. But that she always comes from a good place, that she always wants to do good, that’s what’s heroic, I think. It’s her desire to do the right thing and to help people, and that’s where that heroic thing comes in. Maybe that’s why people like her. I still don’t really know. But I appreciate it so much!
The second season of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ is set to premiere January 17, 2019 on CBS All Access.