Star Trek: Discovery actor on that surprising death
Warning: This episode contains spoilers from Sunday’s episode of Star Trek: Discovery, “What’s Past Is Prologue.”
Star Trek: Discovery killed off a major character Sunday night that will forever change the bridge of the USS Discovery.
In the final moments of the action-filled episode “What’s Past Is Prologue,” the Mirror universe’s Emperor Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) stabbed the rebel leader Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) through the heart with a sword, then dumped him into a reactor core to disintegrate. The move marks the end of Isaacs’ regular involvement with the show — the Harry Potter actor only signed on for season 1, as he eventually reveals near the end of the interview below — but could we see him again at some point anyway? Isaacs spoke to EW about his role, his send-off, and his future prospects in the Trek universe.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Okay, so in terms of Mirror universe Lorca — who as it turned out was the Lorca we knew all along — he’s really, truly dead, right?
JASON ISAACS: Here’s the context: I’ve lied to all of the press constantly since the very first day I got this job. So why would you believe anything I say now?
Well, because there is some seeming finality to his story, at least to this version of the character?
I would say, yeah, the prognosis is not good for him given he was dissolved into a million pieces on camera. There are not many homeopathic cures that can help that.
When did you know Lorca’s secret backstory?
I knew before I took the job. It was pitched to me that he was from the Mirror world. I said, “What’s he doing here? How did he get here? What does he want? And how’s he going to go about achieving those things?” And at first they went, “We’re not really sure, it could be one of 20 different things.” And I blinked slightly and I said, “I’m not sure I want to do the job if I don’t know exactly what he’s after, because then I won’t be able to act!” Then we had a bunch of discussions and came up with a plan which we pretty much stuck to all the way through. Then it was not just easy, but a joy, because I had that lovely thing that actors always love, and the camera likes, and that’s that I had secrets. I knew what I was after, why I was doing stuff, and I knew when I would reel Michael Burnham [Sonequa Martin-Green] in, what I wanted her for. It was deliciously ambiguous for viewers but if you watch it a second time you’ll see it was always crystal clear.
Is there anything in particular we should go back and look for in your performance?
Well, there’s the giant bold story points: Why the hell would I get some prisoner, some mutineer, re-route her ship, and promote her way beyond her capacity, in defiance of everybody else in Starfleet? If not to engender loyalty because I had a long-term plan for her. She’s great, but nobody is that great. There’s a number of little things. The fact that [Admiral Katrina Cornwell] and I, that I can’t remember instances that she’s referring to. And I sleep with a phaser in a paranoid way. And when it looks like she might take the ship from me, I consign her to a trap that I must have seen coming or set up. And then there’s forcing Stamets to do a bunch of jumps that were unnecessary, and the mapping I was doing privately. I was prepared to break Starfleet rules and directives. And even when I’m back in the Mirror world pretending to be Prime Lorca who’s pretending to be Mirror Lorca — if you can follow that twisted logic — and when Burnham comes to be and says they’re asking me to kill the people down on the planet and I say, “Just do it.” I’m not sure Kirk or Picard would have done that. This is a guy who’s had his eye on the prize for a very long time, and he gets very close.
What was his biggest mistake?
In the end, he hadn’t read Burnham correctly. He thought of her as practical, pragmatic, having made out-of-the-box decisions earlier on, that she’d see the best option for her is to stay and help him rule this empire and maybe she might buy into the racist philosophy he adheres to — the lack of assimilation and that the world is healthier and better when those who are powerful and strong rule it and the weak are kept down. He’s blinded by that kind of bigotry, and it’s never going to fly for her.
It’s never quite made clear, I don’t think, exactly what was going on with Prime Lorca, who we assume he switched places with …
There was a Prime Locra, he was captain of the Buran in the Prime world. He swapped with him and found himself captain of the Buran. This never came out, this backstory detail we never put in the dialogue: Lorca spins this story having had to sacrifice the men on Buran and had to blow them up to save them from Klingon torture. Actually, if I remember correctly, there was some kind of DNA identification that would have exposed Lorca as not being Prime Lorca, and so he blew up the ship and killed everyone on it.
But what happened to Prime Lorca is now an open question …
Do you know the answer to that?
If I did, you’d have to stand behind my wife, friends, and professional collaborators to find out the answer. I’ve kept this one big secret for six months — I am certainly going to keep any others.
Well, are you signed on for season 2?
I’m sorry, is that not a related question?
It’s my tricky way of asking if we’re going to meet Prime universe Lorca.
Oh God, that totally would have worked on me if I had the IQ of a sock. If I do do another season, I know I won’t have to wear that leather coat anymore. It turns out I had to revoice every voice I made during those scenes because [the jacket] squeaked like a rusty bedpost in a brothel.
Okay, hypothetically, if we did meet a Prime universe Lorca, what would you want him to be like?
Oh, I’m not even going there. Part of what’s interesting about having a Mirror universe at all is to examine something much more subtle and nuanced than the Mirror world we’ve seen before it. If you listen to the Klingons earlier on, and then you hear the Terrans talk about their national identity and fear of assimilation, and then Lorca’s stance that there are certain races that should be in charge, it reflects the hideous divisive racism we hear all around us now. One of the values of having the Mirror world is to say, “These people who think these things, they’re not people from another planet, they’re us but allowing the prejudice and bias to creep in and believe some of hateful things we hear.” So Mirror universe Lorca is not that different from Prime Lorca, in the same way that none of us are that different from the Mirror version of ourselves. We all have to watch we don’t buy into those divisive myths.
That Mirror Lorca was lovers with Mirror Burnham was certainly an interesting twist, one that fans have feelings about. What was your reaction to that part of it?
I was absolutely thrilled, who wouldn’t be? You’ll have to ask Sonequa if she felt the same way. I’m in character there, so I’m just hoping I can persuade her to stay with me and we’ll be emperor and empress in the Terran Empire for a long time to come, until someone stabs us in our sleep. So I thought it was a great idea, and it meant that when I’m in the Prime universe, I’ve got designs on her that she doesn’t even know about. She doesn’t feel that way about me at all. She feels a certain way about Tyler, that becomes clear, but that’s okay for [Lorca] because Tyler is going to be gone. Particularly when it turns out he’s now a Klingon, and she’s heartbroken, inside I’m thrilled because I hope that I’ll be the shoulder that she cries on.
I half-expected Lorca to tell Burnham he loved her as he was dying, instead of more “We could rule the universe together”-style villain banter.
That’s interesting you say that! He said, “We could have —” and then he died. It’s interesting that you think he was going to say, “We could have ruled the universe.” Other people will fill in the sentence for themselves. It’s a nice bit of ambiguous writing.
That’s interesting, you’re right. Your character certainly went out with a strong episode. What was it like filming that final fight sequence with Michelle Yeoh?
The fight was epic and shot in a day. It should have been a month, but it’s TV, so what are you going to do? Michelle is a brilliant fighter and can fight at six times the speed that my eyelids work at, so it was tough to keep up with her and look like I was fighting her and not just being beaten up by her. Plus she’s also very delicate, so when I hamfistedly swing my big legs and arms around, I was being careful not to break this exquisite creature. She ended up very bruised.
The one that was a surprise was Sonequa because I hadn’t seen her fight; obviously, we’ve all seen Michelle fight. I mistook Sonequa a couple times for her stunt double across the room because she moves with such clean lines and dynamic energy. She looks like a Nintendo version of herself. The toughest thing at all is to find moments in the fight to engage emotionally with each other. I don’t want to kill [Burnham], that’s the last thing I want; I’ve had this plan in my head for a very long time. And it’s that pause that gets me killed because I don’t take the opportunity to break her neck or whatever.
That’s how it was physically. But how it was emotionally for me, Jason, was a nightmare. I’ve never done this before; I’ve never left a job with a bunch of people I like so much who are going to carry on doing extraordinary work for years and I won’t be any part of it. I knew that going in — that I was doing one season — which is lovely that I’m [now] available for other things. But it’s a huge downside that I miss them all and they will go on to do fabulous things that I’ll be glued to. I’ll be a stranger if I visit.
What was the favorite scene you shot for this show?
Anytime you’re on the bridge, and you’re there with all your chums, and you’re pretending you’re being hit by torpedos, and you’re laughing secretly because one of you went left instead of right, or somebody fell over … this series is very intense and serious, so in between takes we were laughing. It was mostly hanging out with other people, and sucking our stomaches in trying to squeeze into these uniforms made for American Girl dolls. We played a lot of table tennis in between, and we went out and ate a lot, came over to my house and played games. It was a very collegiate lot. The stuff on camera was almost irrelevant; I liked hanging out with them. I think you’re going to see extraordinary work from them. I liked the politics of it as well, that in the last episode I could make the Mirror world clearly a parallel about today’s world and the dangers of extremism.
What’s next for you?
I’ve just started shooting the second season of The OA. They’re crazily inventive people unshackled by traditional storytelling tropes. I’m utterly in awe of them.
What’s the second season like compared to the first?
I’m not telling you.
Figured, but I had to try!
It’s not often that I’m in things that are so often about secrets. I just got back from Sundance, where I was promoting The Death of Stalin and I could talk you through every frame of it. In particular, these two streaming seasons [of Discovery and The OA], an enormous amount of their power and joy they give to people are in the secrets and not knowing where the story is going. But trust me when I say that for the second season of The OA they’re not resting on their laurels and repeating the first season — at all. It’s taking on the story in the boldest way.