Mary Chieffo Talks Returning to Her Klingon Roots for Star Trek Online

Mary Chieffo Talks Returning to Her Klingon Roots for Star Trek Online
L'Rell is ready to lend advice to the Klingons of her far, far future. (Image: Perfect World/Cryptic Studios)

When Star Trek: Discovery shot itself into the 32nd century at the end of its second season, it left behind a pretty major chunk of its supporting cast in the process: most notably the Klingon factions helmed by the Empire’s newest Chancellor, L’Rell, played by Mary Chieffo. But now, by new time-twisting circumstances, Chieffo’s back trekkin’, albeit in a video game way.

Today Perfect World and Cryptic Studios announced House Reborn, the latest story content for Star Trek Online. Recent arcs of the long-running MMO have seen players explore a fractured Klingon Empire, as House Mokai matriarch J’Ula’s machinations inadvertently drove her people to civil war. Now plagued with guilt, J’Ula heads to the Klingon monasteries on Boreth to seek guidance from across time, bringing together the teachings and cultures of Qo’noS’s sons and daughters from across Klingon societies’ long, evolving history to understand how to reunite her people once more.

And while that means facing familiar faces in STO’s story like Adet’Pa (voiced by Star Trek: Discovery’s Rekha Sharma) and Aakar (played by Robert O’Reilly himself, the man behind Chancellor Gowron in The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine), it also means that famous Klingons from the shows themselves will be making an appearance too, including the returning J.G. Hertzler as fan-favourite Martok from Deep Space Nine, but also for the very first time, Discovery’s own Mary Chieffo as Chancellor L’Rell.

To celebrate her return to her Discovery role — one we’ve not seen on TV with Discovery’s recently concluded third season now on a far different path — and the arrival of House Reborn, Gizmodo chatted with Chieffo about re-inhabiting her breakout role, and what it means to see different eras of Klingon society come together as Star Trek fan.

Image: Perfect World/Cryptic Studios Image: Perfect World/Cryptic Studios

James Whitbrook, Gizmodo: What was it like joining Star Trek Online, and why now, in particular, was it the right time to return to L’Rell? Because, due to some…timey-wimey things, it’s been a while since we’ve seen her on screen.

Mary Chieffo: Well, I’m so grateful that the Star Trek Online team felt it was time. As a mere actor, I’m just always thrilled for the opportunity for a creative mind to say, “Hey, I think we could create a great story for this character…” So I was very, truly — in a Klingon way — honoured when they approached me. And what’s interesting about the whole Star Trek Online process is that when they approached me two years ago or so, when the initial idea of having L’Rell a part of the game started it was at a convention — I believe it was Vegas, the big ol’ Star Trek Las Vegas con. I’m such a lover of sci-fi and fantasy, and what franchises can create and having online games, I was just thrilled out of my mind that L’Rell would get to have another form outside of Discovery, itself.

But as we obviously moved closer to the actual creation of this story, to recording the voiceover and everything, I do feel — yeah, we’ve sadly been away from her for a whole season. She’s still in a different century! This is a really fun way to go into more depth, to experience more Klingon culture which Star Trek Online has been doing so much recently, which I think is fantastic. Honestly, being so entrenched in that culture, I’m really excited when it gets fleshed out more for the fans. Because it’s all there when you look at so many great episodes, particularly in Deep Space Nine and Next Generation. Just that lore that gets unearthed, and this is a great opportunity to take that to the next level. And though Tenavik [played by Kenneth Mitchell in Discovery, and now voiced by Clone Wars’ Sam Witwer in House Reborn], my lovely son, and what those Klingons on Boreth are like…to me, it feels like a wonderful time to just explore that corner of the universe a bit more. [Discovery] is exploring a whole different timeline — the actual timeline, not the Kelvin timeline! But, exploring a whole different time and world. I think it’s a great opportunity if you’re craving a bit more Klingon culture.

And particularly with L’Rell, I mean, any opportunity to learn more about her is fun. And what they’ve done with her, I think, continues to explore what I love about the depth of her character and where her priorities lie when it comes to sacrifice for the greater good. You know, I always say that she leads with her heart which everyone’s like, “Really?” Yeah. She just has a very Klingon way of doing it.

Gizmodo: Part of what we know about L’Rell’s role in House Reborn is that players and other Klingons are reaching through the past to talk to her, and you have this clash of their history and these evolutions of culture. What’s L’Rell’s headspace being brought into something like that?

Chieffo: I feel that the fun part of exploring different times and Klingons from different eras is you do get a great comparison of philosophies, depending on the time that they come from. What is needed in the assertion of power at any given point for Chancellors to be able to compare their stories. Or you know, be like, “Well this is what I needed to do in my time to get the Klingons in line…” — there’s something sort of bittersweet, as well, for L’Rell being a Chancellor from an earlier time, to realise that while she put in a lot of effort and did a lot of good, history tends to repeat itself, and Klingons tend to remain Klingon. As we very well know, politics fluctuate and good rulers and bad rulers come and go, so I think there is an element of reality check and understanding that this doesn’t negate all that [L’Rell] did, but…humans are still humans and Klingons are still Klingons. There’s always going to be a struggle for unity and power, and certainly, bringing the Klingons together is a difficult task, which we also very much explored in the first season of Discovery, and within the Klingon plot in the second season, as well.

But…outside of that, I think, personality-wise, L’Rell is very much still wonderfully regal in her Chancellor ways that she still holds her own [in House Reborn]. I really want to celebrate how when I got my lines I was like, there she is!” It didn’t feel like there was a huge separation from the words I had said and embodied on the live-action Discovery to what she was saying in the scenarios that she was in the game. So that was really thrilling. Her natural poise and regality, but sharpness and intensity — with a little bit of vulnerability and heart — was all there in the lines. So I think, just in the sense of her persona, it’s very much the L’Rell that we came to know as a Chancellor in the second season, in particular. That essence is there. And she’s having to grapple with some new and unexpected circumstances. There’s a lot she has seen and a lot that she hasn’t. She’s learning how to give and gain respect with those new characters, which is really fun.

Gizmodo: Part of what made your performance on Discovery so compelling was the physicality — what was it like for you as an actor to portray L’Rell, but solely through your voice instead of how you carried yourself under layers of Klingon makeup?

Chieffo: I was lucky in that I had some unexpected preparation in embodying her voice without being in the prosthetic, because, for one, when I would rehearse [on Discovery], before we would film on any given day, I was very lucky with my scene partners — Kevin [Mitchell], Doug Jones, Michelle Yeoh — they all were very willing to run lines in the hotel a few days prior. So I would often be practicing being L’Rell in being a scene in my human form — but still embodying her voice and trying to explore what that is. Because, as you’ve acknowledged, on the day, you’re covered in a lot of different things and the last thing you want to be worried about is whether the words will come out of your mouth! So I luckily had practice with that.

And also, I ended up doing a very large amount of my lines, especially in the first season, I did have to re-dub and do ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement), just because we were still figuring out how the prosthetic with the mouth picked up with the mic and all that. I actually had a lot of experience being in human form, in a studio space, but embodying her voice and essence. And I loved it! It was my first time really having to do anything like that, to do that much ADR. And I hope the sound designer would agree I was fun to play with, because I’m jumping around and trying to get into these very physical moments on screen, but in a studio space. And I just really love it.

Dialect and all sorts of voice and speech stuff was just something I really gravitated towards in college — it was always something I really wanted to explore. And I developed L’Rell’s dialect with our dialect coach, when he realised she speaks English, we really went through the Klingon dictionary and developed what her voice would sound like. So getting to work solely through her voice actually was a real gift and thrill. Also, when you have minimal facial expression, I really hoped an inflection here and there would help. But I love it. I’d do her voice forever.

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Gizmodo: A role like L’Rell means not just returning to a character, but for Klingons, an entirely new language as well, one that’s grown over the years and across different shows. Was it hard picking it back up?

Chieffo: Absolutely. Really, this role…which I got a year-and-a-half, I’d say, after I graduated college, which is a very lucky circumstance. I worked hard, but I acknowledge that is such an incredible get as an actor, to have this opportunity. And particularly, yes, I was very much into movement and voice. And these large, Shakespearian characters — that was where I was pushed and encouraged towards. To be able to apply all that training with one role out the gate is just incredible. But yeah, in coming back to it, I was grateful I had those tools and Rhea [Nolan], who was our dialect coach, comes from that background as well. She’s incredible at calibrating towards any given actor. All the different actors who play Klingons tend to have very different techniques. But for us, we figured out our dialogue for the dialect and how we would drill the Klingon — we’d have two-hour sessions and I had a system of doing the sentence in English and then in Klingon in the order that the words are. Lots of fun little anecdotes, there!

But, what I found even when we came back to the second season was luckily, my brain had kind of cemented — like, I can read the symbols of Klingon. Not the ancient symbols, which are gorgeous. I sadly cannot read those yet! But just like, what would be written out for any given Klingon word. I have that sort of sound-symbol correlation down pretty strong, so, when I’m given new text, I’m much faster to jump into it. I’d already observed that in myself, going into the second season of Discovery…and then, thanks to the fact that this franchise is so expansive and my job is not just being the actor on set, it’s going to these conventions, and doing Cameos, and being on Twitter, and Instagram, and doing live things, and chatting with fans, I’m kind of in a constant state of engagement with the character and language and culture, because, you know, the world…particularly in this last year, I’ve been able to pop into some Zooms with certain groups that I’ve met on [the Star Trek cruise], and I’m able to engage with the franchise and the people who love it just on a weekly basis in some form or another. So, I am kind of very lucky to have the Klingon, somewhere, very alive in me.

And when I get the opportunity to re-embody her for a story like this, it’s about anchoring that in a little more intensely. Because it’s not just for fun and for free, I’m like, “now I really have to be L’Rell again.” So, it’s like I’ve been doing — I’ve been to the gym and I’ve been lifting, like, five pound weights, and now here’s 9 kg, oh great, cool, cool! There we go. But yeah, I feel real lucky, it’s not like dusting off a shelf, it’s in some drawers. Wow, I’m really going for the metaphors! [laughs]

Image: CBS Image: CBS

Gizmodo: One thing that’s been clear with your time away from Discovery this season has been your passion and engagement with the fans. There’s so many opportunities for L’Rell to return now, on screen or through things like STO. How do you feel about remaining part of a franchise like Star Trek, as an actor and as a fan, for the foreseeable future?

Chieffo: Yeah, I mean, as you acknowledged, it is something that will always be with me. I remember that initial casting, and that it was officially online, and the acknowledgement of fans [after season one]. And once I started doing conventions and meeting other actors from earlier shows…when you have that Star Trek exchange you’re just like, “Yep, you’re in it for life!” Like, here we go. Which, obviously, as I said was just such a thrill to me. As someone who grew up loving this type of storytelling, it’s just been incredible for me to be on the other side of it. I just acknowledge that and celebrate that. But when it comes to, things like Star Trek Online, upcoming shows, I am certainly more than willing. I’d be thrilled to embody L’Rell again, in any shape or form.

I do have to say that the next iteration of her, or however you want to call it, being in Star Trek Online, which is the first time we’ve seen her outside of Discovery, I couldn’t be more thrilled that this is the first time I’m going to get to see her again. Because in the few little clips I’ve seen of the animation, the way that they’ve beautifully studied my face, I guess, as L’Rell but also as a human. I could just…I was very moved by this one particular shot [I had seen], the choice that they made of something that wasn’t even a dialogue moment, it was a reaction moment, and I was like “that’s what I would have done!” I guess I’m pretty observable. I feel so respected and just moved by how much time and energy and effort has been put into celebrating L’Rell as a character — as this wonderful Klingon character. So, for me, this is incredible. If there are more opportunities where she gets that level of love and care — and I know there are incredible content creators out there who must have ideas for ways she can keep doing things, if that is something that inspires a writer, then I would love to be able to go on that path. But being involved in this world in any capacity would be a thrill.

Like I said, my training [as an actor] is so much voice and speech and physicality-based, part of my frustration and why this role was such a gift coming out of school was, in her fourth year, they’re saying “Oh, great, now you can just be yourself. And market yourself as — ” [and I’m like] “Hey hey hey…hey! I signed up because I’m a transformative actor, finding ways to find myself within these extreme characters.” And I always say my characters are…their heart and soul are akin to mine, but their exterior circumstances have shaped them differently. And L’Rell is obviously a very strong example of that.

Any opportunity to get to do that with any character would be a thrill. So, I’m definitely open to, “You want me to be a Jeffrey Combs-like actor?” Then I will happily do that. “You want to keep exploring L’Rell?” I’m happy to do that. It’s just such a beautiful fandom and, you know, now more than ever, the tenets of Star Trek and the core of it — infinite diversity and infinite combinations — the light in that, I think, needs to be celebrated more than ever. I’ll keep championing that no matter what, and to be able to do that in correlation to this franchise is obviously such a beautiful, beautiful gift.

Star Trek Online’s latest content update, House Reborn, hits PC January 26, before releasing on PS4 and Xbox One consoles at a later date.