Star Trek: Short Treks has so far been the perfect way to while away the time until Discovery’s return in a few weeks. “The Escape Artist,” the fourth and final minisode in the series, shines a spotlight on the infamous Harcourt Fenton Mudd — and to learn more, we spoke to Mudd himself, Rainn Wilson.
Wilson, who also directed the short, stars once again as the cosmic conman Harry Mudd, wheeling and dealing his way across the Star Trek galaxy after his prior Discovery appearances in the morally murky “Choose Your Pain” and the excellent time-loop episode “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad.” While those episodes gave us some intriguing sides of Harry to explore, “The Escape Artist” instead focuses on the more humorously zany side of Mudd’s many escapades—digging into a lighter humour that Discovery at large is looking to capture more often in its second season. We recently had the chance to speak to Wilson about his time playing Mudd so far, and why he thinks humour will always be a vital part of Star Trek’s mission of boldly going.
io9: Can you tell us a bit about how you were approached for the chance to be a part of this Short Treks venture?
Rainn Wilson: Yeah, well, I really enjoyed playing Harry Mudd for Star Trek: Discovery, and we’d always been having a kind of back-and-forth discussion about, “How do we have more Harry Mudd?” And, you know, “Can you do more episodes?” And trying to figure that out. Then this kind of came from out of the blue. They just said, “Hey, we’re doing these shorts and we have a Harry Mudd short and we’d love for you to direct it as well as act in it.” And I think they wanted to sweeten the deal by having me direct it. Which was great. It was a great opportunity for me. And I had a blast.
io9: You’ve directed a few episodes of The Office before, as well—with this, you’re working with a much smaller cast, and you’re a main part of that cast. What’s it like coming from both the perspective of being an actor and the director, as well?
Wilson: Well, it was interesting. In this case, I was confident in my acting. I knew how Harry Mudd should be played. I had kind of learned about the character. But, this was a tricky one to direct—much trickier than The Office. The Office, you know, it’s essentially the same every episode. There’s a few little tricky parts to every episode, but it’s two cameras and they’re sort of swivelling around, capturing behaviour. And you just decide, “do we want to put the cameras on this side of the desk? Or this side of the desk?” You know? And that’s basically it. And it was a great warm-up in the directing, because you have production meetings and you have to make directors decisions and work with the actors. But…this one was way more challenging. I mean, it’s different alien species and laser beams and beaming up and visual effects and androids, and all kinds of crazy visuals demanding directorial decisions that you had to make. So, I was very intimidated by that and put a lot of work into it. They allowed me to hire a storyboard artist, so I got it kind of storyboarded out—it was an incredible learning experience. That’s how I viewed it. First and foremost.
io9: It paid off, it looked fantastic. So, as part of that—you’re coming at this with a script from Mike McMahan, as well. And when the short was first revealed, you were very excited in telling people to go follow him on Twitter. What was it like working with Mike on something like this?
Wilson: Yeah, you know—that was the real joy in this. The script that came across my desk for the short was brilliant. I mean, it was so funny, really captured Harry Mudd’s voice and had some really surprising twists running throughout it. So I just loved it. I loved his writing. Meeting him was really a joy. And obviously, he’s well known for Rick & Morty. But this is a super funny, super smart guy. And I know he’s going to be involved in this Star Trek animated series that’s coming up, so, it was a joy to work with him. Just an outrageous sense of humour.
io9: We’ve seen different sides to Mudd in his past Discovery appearances. He’s a crafty groveler when he’s locked up in Klingon jail, and then in the time leap episode, he’s a pretty significant threat for the crew to overcome. This short is a much more lighthearted view of Mudd at his peak, if you will. Was it important for you to show that funnier, smarter Harry doing his con-artist best?
Wilson: I’m glad you brought that up. There’s an interesting tone with Harry Mudd. And it was there in the original series, too. There’s something really dastardly about Harry Mudd, and yet he’s funny and loveable at the same time. But if you look at those two original series episodes with Mudd, he’s pretty villainous. In the second one he wants to trap the whole Star Trek cast down on that planet. And kill them, essentially! But people always remember how lighthearted and what a charming rapscallion he is. So, it’s an interesting balance with Mudd to really have fun with him and remember that he’s entertaining…and I wouldn’t even say he has a good heart, but, there’s something loveable about him. But at the same time, he’s got to have an edge. Which we got to explore in the second Discovery episode.
io9: Humour has always been such a big part of Star Trek and I wanted to ask how you felt about getting to be part of that legacy of humour, and that avenue for levity in Discovery. Because, like you said, Discovery’s been a pretty dark take on the franchise.
Wilson: Yeah, people kind of forget the original series—and The Next Generation—have a lot of humour in them. And some episodes were almost straight-up comedic. And so, there’s another aspect of the Star Trek legacy that’s not just the humour and the banter, but, humour in the situations. Think about “The Trouble With Tribbles,” so many other episodes that were almost like watching an hour of comedy, you know? And Discovery— and I think it was a good choice that we made—that this modern world, if you’re rebooting a Star Trek franchise, I think it was the right way to go to have it be more episodic and have a through line. Maybe “episodic” is not the right word, but to have a through line and take people on an adventure. And have the stakes be really high. Have it be about war and hard science. I think that was the right, tonal choice to make for the show. But I think that there’s other aspects to the Star Trek universe. Yeah. I’m just really excited. It was such an important part of my childhood. I’m really thrilled to be a part of that world.