When most people get offered an interview with Mary Chieffo, they probably begin their research with her role as L’Rell, High Chancellor of the Klingon Empire, on Star Trek: Discovery. Not me. One of my two moms attended the School of American Ballet at Lincoln Center, which also houses Juilliard, and I had learned Chieffo (Group 44) was the first child of a drama alumnus to attend the school.
Coincidentally, with my other mom, I grew up watching Chieffo’s father, Roswell actor Michael Chieffo (Group 6), who also attended the prestigious performing arts school, meaning the Klingon All-Mother is the first legacy to graduate from Juilliard.
Excitingly, by attending Juilliard, this also meant Mary would be the first person I’ve met who knows one of my favorite mind-body programs, Alexander Technique. This modality trains the body to remove inefficient movement patterns and release unnecessary tension in the body, and it’s more relevant to Star Trek than you might realize. So, read on! Don’t worry, Klingons, Ash Tylers, and acting is all discussed too! Oh my!
This interview is edited for clarity and length.
Good Queen L’Rell, Stay Awhile and Teach Me to Curse Mine Enemies!
In 2018, Duolingo created a Klingon-constructed language for the Star Trek Universe. After watching Chieffo’s music video for Star Trek: Online (more on that below) and getting a little confused about who’s voice was on the DuoLingo app (thinking it was Chieffo herself), this expeditious but ADHD Trekkie culture writer (me) decided it would be fun to learn Klingon for the interview. It didn’t happen.
I told Chieffo about my Klingon language misadventures before the interview got started. She told me it takes a lot of commitment to speak the Star Trek conlang, “Like those big capital ‘Q’ words, you have to spit on people if you say it to the full extent you should, and sometimes I don’t wanna do that,” leading to my first question official question of the night.
Rebecca Kaplan: How’s the experience of speaking Klingon on set?
Mary Chieffo: You have to prepare before the day, like working the language and drilling the lines. Whether you’re speaking English or Klingon or anything in between, you do that no matter what. Once I was covered in prosthetics and costumes and on set, it was easy to forget them.
You can say lines a million times, but once the teeth are in and your lip is sitting a certain way, you have to go with the flow. You find out what will happen that particular day and how L’Rell’s going to sound based on that.
RK: How did your Star Trek: Online role come to be?
MC: A couple of years ago, Al Rivera approached me at a convention asking, “In about two years, could you record this voice-over? Would you be into that? We have this great idea for a Klingon plotline.” At the time, he said in 2020. Little did we know what that would mean when he reached out in 2021. I went to the recording booth, sanitized and isolated, but it was great to record something during that time.
I think it’s such a tremendous Klingon plot. Like going to Gre’thor and having to get L’Rell’s soul, it’s epic. I think if there would ever be a more Klingon-heavy storyline on a show, [the game] is in line with what fans love, the Game of Thrones corner of the Star Trek Universe.
Watch the epic Klingon anthem, “Steel and Flame,” describing L’Rell’s return and rise to power within the Klingon empire, performed by L’Rell and written by Jason Charles Miller, below:
RK: Have you always enjoyed singing?
MC: I’ve always loved singing. However, I became a middle-school musical theater kid when taking lessons. Then, in high school, doing musicals. In my high school production of The Boyfriend, I unlocked a legit sound because it was required for the role, which made me realize singing is a strength.
On Instagram and Facebook, I posted a segment of my senior musical, The Boyfriend, where I was Madame Dubonnet, which was fun. That’s more where my voice naturally lives. If I’m singing in the hallway or to myself, it’s more of a legit “Golden Age of Broadway” sound, but with my spin. Part of my old soul is a Golden Age diva in a past life.
My voice is very different from L’Rell’s rock song. But I think it’s similar to the theme of a ballet bar; it’s a great core [and builds a great foundation]. I can learn what’s asked of me and shift my voice to work with what is needed.
RK: How did the experience of playing L’Rell compare with and without the hair?
MC: One of the funny things with the [hair], I think the [hair and makeup department] hoped the change would help with application time, but as it turned out, it took the same amount of time. The wig department would sew the wig into my fake scalp and then take it out at the end of the day. On a technical level, that was how that was the shift.
For me, the way the hair sat didn’t get in the way when I was acting. But in the third episode of the second season, when Kol-Sha (Kenneth Mitchell) and Ash Tyler(Shazad Latif) were filming the curfuffle involving their faces, Kol-Sha’s hair kept getting in his face. We called him “Creepy Klingon Santa.”
For “Point of Light,” there were so many takes where they’d ask, “Shazad, could you move Ken’s hair?” Right before action, you would see Shazad delicately moving Ken’s hair out of his face and then go into character and be intense.
I liked the hair on a character level too. I felt L’Rell was like many women in power, subscribing to a certain aesthetic to maintain her control. I looked a lot at Queen Elizabeth I as an archetypal visual. I also looked at how female Klingons were previously portrayed.
I certainly tried to embody how L’Rell was struggling internally, at least with the type of leader she was supposed to be. Ultimately, she takes Captain Philippa Georgiou’s (Michelle Yeoh) advice for better or worse to rescind confident femininity or take it on in a different way. One of my favorite outfits was the “Mother Speech,” with that fabulous headpiece with silver leaves and a black dress.
RK: So was it intentionally like Elizabethan lace?
MC: I can’t speak for all the designers, but certainly on the costume level. Gersha Phillips is incredible and thoughtful. She showed me all the imagery boards. It was not only looking at these kinds of historical figures but also contemporary, cutting-edge designers.
We went for a more conservative look for the “Mother Speech.” Little rocks were already within the material with the black dress we decided on for the speech. It’s a Queen Elizabeth, aka the Virgin Queen moment, or even a Queen Elizabeth II, aka the Queen Mother, moment, where the queen’s like, “I am now the All-Mother,” and it felt right she would be in something all-cloaking.
I think Klingon culture innately harkens back to medieval times too. Also, a lot of the samurai honor system, known as the Bushidō. Klingon culture is derived from it. It’s a little bit of everything, but it looks at historical figures and aesthetics.
RK: You previously mentioned you looked to other female Klingons. Who inspired you?
MC: My favorite forever will be Grilka, hands down. I didn’t write my L’Rell plot, but her journey inspired me. It was a moment of, “Oh, it’s still a patriarchal society.” If she struggles to get her husband’s house like that, she still has to marry Quark to keep her property.
It did feel like a symbiotic or chicken or the egg situation. L’Rell had to rise to power, ultimately to Chancellor, which is far more than Grilka got to do, but I’m glad I got to reap some of the benefits of the path she paved.
Mary Chieffo on Star Trek’s Queer Fam
During 2021’s Star Trek Day, Chieffo publically came out as queer, or as the actress clarified in a follow-up email about how she self-identifies, “If we’re getting into the weeds, I’d say I’m panromantic demisexual, and proudly in a lesbian relationship.” Several hours later, I got another email saying, “My sexuality is Madi Goff.”
Discovery has earned a GLAAD Media Award nomination for Outstanding Drama Series for the fourth year in a row. Chieffo said, “the show inspires everyone to aspire” to its level of queer representation, mainly because it has capable, incredible actors, “starting with Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz, who are both iconic gay actors getting to speak to this experience.”
Chieffo opened up about her experiences stepping into the rainbow-colored kinky boots of trailblazers like Cruz and Rapp. Speaking about the influence both Rapp and Cruz had on her coming out journey, she said, “They’re both so articulate about all things, including representation, and that made an impact on me and allowed me to investigate further. I’m a perfectionist, which is a massive part of this for me. I wanted to be sure.”
Here’s a fun fact before jumping into interview questions, Chieffo has known Cruz since she was eight years old! The actor was at the first openly gay wedding she ever attended (for Todd Holland and Scotch Ellis Loring), so she has known Cruz for a long time and says, “It’s been lovely and moving for both of us to celebrate.”
RK: Can you tell me about appearing with your queer family for 2021’s Star Trek Day?
MC: I came in rainbow boots. It didn’t feel like I was making an announcement. I was articulating what is already true. It was so great, and I’m glad it happened. Then, I think part of me wanted to look at Wilson Cruz, Blu del Barrio and Ian Alexander and tell them how grateful I am. I’m thankful I can look to these actors who currently represent the [queer community] on the screen. I celebrate what they are doing on the show because it inspired me.
On Star Trek Day, there was this funny moment that happened on Livestream where Wilson was like, “Oh, I didn’t realize Mary was more clearly out.” It was like I got to come out on Star Trek Day officially.
I would also like to mention Mary Wiseman, who was at Juilliard with me. Now she’s with her husband Noah Averbach-Katz, but I’ve always known Mary as a queer woman. Knowing her from the intense four years together at Juilliard and then suddenly being on a show together was such a unique experience, developing our relationship as friends through the process.
It’s been moving to celebrate with her too. I would be remiss not to mention that, mainly because I played her mother multiple times in school. However, she is more like my older sister, who’s rooting for me to figure myself out.
RK: Why has the franchise endured?
MC: My immediate answer is the themes are so strong and have always been at a certain level, and they keep finding new ones. As we continue to understand the impact of these themes, we get to see them from more perspectives.
I’ve become an advocate for representation behind the scenes as much as in front of the camera. Many of these shows did start to put people in front of the screen, but then you look at who’s writing it, and it’s still a specific demographic. I think the more we get behind the scenes, the better. It’s about bringing multiple perspectives to tell a great story.
Why would you want the same eight perspectives to tell one story? People have different opinions, and it creates excellent conflict. Plus, people are [always] going to have different views on the episode you make.
I’m a proponent of it in front of the camera because I want to represent it. Still, I have learned so much from the Trek experience about the importance of behind-the-scenes representation and how it makes a difference because someone’s going to understand your character in the writer’s room in a way that even you might not.
RK: How did Juilliard help you prepare for your role as L’Rell on Discovery?
MC: I got to have this concentrated four years of my life after high school, where I lived and breathed all things theater, bodywork and vocal work. It was an all-encompassing program, which was what drew me to it. Juilliard proved I could pull it off when I thought I couldn’t do something.
I’m a perfectionist. Very rarely will I genuinely walk away and be like, “Yep, that’s what I intended it to be.” But at least now, more often than not, I go, “Wow, that wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, but I like it.” It’s a mental shift.
Juilliard is nine in the morning till 10 at night, with courses until around five or six, then dinner, then rehearsal until the evening. I became an expert in power napping anywhere. If I had three minutes, I’d just sprawl out on the bench, outside the class or anywhere when I could. My classmates started taking pictures of me.
But it’s practical things too, like getting to work on Shakespeare to the extent that I did, a direct tie to what I had to apply when learning Klingon. Even though Shakespeare is English, there’s so much you have to look up. In the beginning, just the language alone, knowing that I could break down sentences. I made a choice with Rea Nolan, our dialect coach, to break down each sentence, and that’s how I learned as if it was Shakespeare.
Alexander Technique saved me in that Klingon stuff; it was 18-hour days, and near the beginning, the armor was very tight.
RK: You were the first legacy student at Juilliard.
MC: What’s cool about Juilliard’s program is it’s a mixture of students. I didn’t love high school. I had drama division, and I was into academics. But I wasn’t in the “popular crowd.” I was a theater kid who was also a geek and a nerd.
I’ve always been mature for my age. At Juilliard, it wasn’t about our ages. Where are our souls? Where are our spirits? Where are work ethics? And that was fun.
My dad was also there many years ago. The school’s head Jim Houghton changed some more traumatizing aspects of the program, and he tried to create more of a community with the alumni base. My dad was an active proponent because he could say, “Hey, it’s still intense, but my daughter’s loving it.” It was a beautiful experience, and I’m very grateful it came to be on so many levels.
What’s Next for Mary Chieffo?
RK: What’s next?
MC: A dream of mine is in 10 years, I want to run a production company. I want to be championing voices like mine and unlike my own. But I am focusing on minoritized voices because the patriarchy diminishes them.
I produced this VR Othello adaptation, Operation Othello, which included my interpretation of Iago as a woman. There’s more to come in that realm. I’ve continued to find that’s a place I like to be.
However, I want to perform in the stuff I produce, but they’re always exceptions. If I can have creative control in a project where I’m also performing, that’s exciting because I’m helping the end product.
The Othello project was with JuVee Productions and Viola Davis and her husband Julius Tennon, so they created theirs. I’ve been fortunate to witness what that means and feel so grateful to be an empowered voice and tell my version of the story.
I love performing, and I want to keep doing it, but using that platform to expand and allow others to express themselves makes my heart sing.
RK: How did you meet your girlfriend, Madi Goff?
MC: It’s the “Serendipity Highway,” as I call it. If I hadn’t been on Star Trek, I wouldn’t have met Madi because there’s a long journey of how I started going to Impro Studio. The company attached to the school, Impro Theatre, has “Improvised Generation,” a TNG-inspired long-form improv. Madi’s in the company at Impro Theatre, and I took a class from her.
Until I fell in love, I wasn’t ready to be clear about my sexuality. I put it in a box in the corner and made excuses. Like, I was working and had other things to do. I felt for a long time I didn’t know what their gender would be or anything. I knew there were many possibilities for me, and there wasn’t something I knew I wanted or needed.
The pandemic brought Madi and me together. I joked early on when we got together that now I get why people write poetry. I’ve never had something make sense in the way this does, certainly not romantically. You don’t know until you know. That’s been one of my many pandemic journeys during the year of production.
RK: How do you feel about Jojo Siwa?
MC: Jojo Siwa is great, and I hope we all can feel that way about who we are and our authenticity. I was so delighted watching all of her excitement on Instagram with Dancing with the Stars when she had a female partner. I listened to Demi Lovato‘s new podcast when they had Jojo on and heard her gushing at Demi about how inspiring they were. Both inspire me.
RK: What projects are on your wishlist?
MC: Right now, a lot of overall goals. I’ve always felt there can be a great fusion of what I love about theater, television and film. Now, I am more versed in TV, at least the shooting process.
It’s a task because the camera set and lighting must be correct and conducive to moment-to-moment work. I love the rehearsal process so much. If I create a film, I want to build a rehearsal process, which is a more significant thing. I am excited about working with Madi and Erin with Bespoke Plays and creating spaces where new stories are getting told.
I’m inspired to keep reinventing Shakespeare or reinterpreting. I’ve been re-exploring many William Shakespeare works, and there’s stuff percolating in that realm. I’m excited about what’s to come.
Bespoke Plays Presents Lady Face
Bespoke Plays is the only bi-coastal production company dedicated to industry readings of plays. It creates opportunities for new voices and commits to telling writers’ stories with diverse perspectives.
Next for Bespoke, the new play development series will present Star Trek franchise actors Isa Briones, del Barrio and Chieffo, joining Justin Lawrence Barnes, Kari Coleman, Madi Goff and VonDexter Montegut II in the first staged readings of Goff’s Lady Face, directed by Ellie Pyle and stage-managed by Erin MacDonald.
Lady Face is a queer sci-fi backstage drama. Check out more details in the tweet below!
RK: What can you tell me about the upcoming Bespoke Play, Lady Face?
MC: Ellie Pyle and Christine Boylan are the co-founders of Bespoke Plays, an entirely volunteer-run organization and writer-based theater company where we do workshop readings of new works. I came to know them by doing a stage-reading of Christine’s play Analogue in 2019, a fun reversal of the engineer and sex robot tale. In it, I’m the engineer, Hyacinth, and Alan Smyth is the sex robot, Cleve, and it’s a “who’s manipulating who” play – it’s 80 minutes of fun!
Then, we did over 60 readings on Zoom within the company over the pandemic extravaganza. It’s a bi-coastal company, so New York and LA actors, for the most part, take part, with a scattering throughout the country, to workshop all sorts of stuff.
Along with my girlfriend, Madi, I’ve come on to work with Ellie on a more producorial level. We read Ellie’s play Heretics in New York in November. Next, we will be producing one of Madi’s plays, Lady Face, a dark sci-fi comedy.
— Madi Goff (she/her) (@msmadig) February 2, 2022
I’m playing a very comedic role. We’re both excited because it’s a side of me that we know. I’m a total goofball and love doing extreme things, so being that embodied comedically is something that excites me.
I’m excited by sci-fi genre theater. It’s fun examining sci-fi themes in a theater space. It’s the same themes in both mediums like, what is humanity? Why are we here? What is love? What is science? What is faith? All of these more prominent themes we see in practically every episode of Star Trek, you see in most plays. The convergence is incredible.
Madi’s done a fantastic job of putting it together and making it thoughtful and intelligent while hilarious. I love a play that takes you on a journey where you’re laughing one second and gasping the next and then crying.
To help with the producing side of things, it’s exciting to think of where this group is headed because there’s so much talent. I’m excited for the world to see more of the talent I got to witness on Zoom every Sunday for the past 60 Sundays of the pandemic, which was a lifesaver.
RK: Is this your first time producing?
MC: No. I’ve been on a producing journey for the past few years. My mother, the quintessential Cat Lady, character actress Beth Grant from Dollface, also known for Donnie Darko and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, was a producer earlier in her career too. I think that’s her energy, and that’s mine. We like to bring people together to create new stories.
If my mom were here, she would say the eighth-grade talent show. I decided I would do Wicked‘s “What Is This Feeling?” which involves Glenda and an entire cast of munchkins. I went full-throttle. I got five of my friends to play those parts and tried to choreograph it, but trying to get eighth-graders together was impossible.
Everyone was in the musical theater program, but we were busy — when do you find the time? I remember getting stressed, and there were moments when I was like, “Oh, I don’t know if it will come together.” My mom’s like, “Welcome to producing.”
Find out more information about Bespoke Plays at www.bespokeplays.com. Lady Face general admission tickets are $20, with some $10 tickets available for each performance. The readings are on February 16 and 17 at 7 pm at Los Angeles’ The Pico. The theater requires masks and proof of vaccination for admittance. As part of our commitment to accessibility, Bespoke Plays also offers virtual tickets for a limited time after the initial run. You can purchase tickets at Eventbrite.
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