Smart, sensitive, at once fearful and brave, not to mention ambitious, Saru emerged as one of Star Trek: Discovery’s breakout characters during the show’s first season. And, of course, Doug Jones, an old hat at makeup-heavy roles, imbued Saru with tremendous heart and breathed life into everyone’s favorite Kelpien, making every moment of terror, doubt, pride and warmth feel thoroughly genuine. Fans wanted more, particularly of the character’s backstory. Who is Saru? What are his people like? Why does he seem to be the sole Kelpien in the galaxy, excepting the Mirror Universe, where they’re… a delicacy? Well, the Discovery producers and writers are clearly paying attention to the fans, as the third Star Trek: Short Treks installment – “The Brightest Star,” premieres tonight on CBS All Access (in the U.S.) and on Space (in Canada) digs deep into Saru’s background and youth on his home planet of Kaminar. StarTrek.com caught up with Jones by telephone last week for a conversation in which he looked back at Season One of Discovery, previewed “The Brightest Star,” teased Season Two and talked about his upcoming film, Nosferatu.
Heading into Season One, what kind of expectations did you have, and how different or similar was the reality?
Just looking at Season One, the writers room gave us an option: "How much do you want to know ahead?" I'm one of those types that I want to get the new script for the next episode and be surprised. I love a story to unfold as it unfolds, without knowing too much ahead. Now, I do need to know certain things, like what is a backstory to me that will be revealed later that I need to play now? That's the only thing I really needed to know. But as far as plot twists, and where we're all headed, when I came into the series as third in command, as the Chief Science Officer on the Starship Shenzhou, I really didn't know much about what happened beyond that. I knew that the Shenzhou would last for those first two episodes and that we would make the transition to the starship Discovery. But as far as me being promoted to First Officer, and what journey was ahead with Discovery, I really didn't know too much about that. So, I've been surprised every episode as I read it, kind of like watching the show as a fan would.
Speaking of the fans, how pleased were you with how the fans embraced Saru?
This has been an absolute dream for me, just a delight. You never know. In a 32-year career, every role that I take on, you hope that this is the one that's going to hit. And over those 32 years, I've had several hit, but I've also had several that kind of fell off and were never remembered again. So, you just never know. I will say that the Star Trek conventions, specifically the ones in Las Vegas and Birmingham, the two that I've been to now, that's when you can have face time with these fans who are devoted to not just our series, but the entire franchise, and have been for their lifetime. The comment that I hear the most, that I just love hearing, is "Welcome to the family." That is something that I didn't expect. I didn't even know about. I did not know what a family feeling the Star Trek fandom had. So, to be embraced, and to have my character embraced, and to have so many people tell me "Saru is my favorite character on the show,” it’s wonderful. I also hear, "I really like Saru because I'm dealing with fear issues of my own. I have anxiety. I actually am in therapy now for my fears and my anxieties, and Saru really does help inspire and help motivate me to make it through the next day." Hearing comments like that really warms my heart and makes me feel like I'm doing more than just an acting gig. It's actually something helpful for all of us.
And I deal with fear issues of my own. I always have. Even when I get a new script for the next episode, I'm always terrified that I'm going to fail while playing it. So, I can learn from watching Saru and from being him that you can push your threat ganglia back in. You can forge ahead. And whatever we're afraid of, if we can step back from it and look at it, we might realize that there was nothing to be afraid of in the first place. And we learn that through Season Two even more so with Saru.
What character beats in Season One were you personally most satisfied with?
Saru is a fear-based being, and he was without a captain when we realized that Captain Lorca had gone off the rails and wasn't who he purported to be. Someone had to step into the captain's chair, and lo and behold, I'm first officer. It's my job to step into the captain’s chair. So, I think taking on that leadership and exerting the authority that I've earned and was given, that was the most-satisfying moment for me. Part of that, along with sitting in the chair, was getting to give the stirring speech to the crew, to say, "Listen, our captain is not our captain. He was a deceiver that wasn't who he said he was, but we are going to give a new birth to the starship Discovery as of today. It's our maiden voyage." That was a beautiful moment for me to play, and I loved seeing Saru find his sense of confidence, which was something that he'd never had before.
And that brings us to "The Brightest Star." Give us a preview of your Short Treks installment…
Throughout Season One, you see and hear Saru give many hints of his backstory, and where he comes from, that his home planet and his people are a prey species, and that we were herded and maybe farmed. There was kind of a cattle reference, almost, it seemed. Your curiosities of where I come from will be satisfied now with “The Brightest Star.” We get to go back and look at that, and find out what our relationship is with that predator species, and you'll see that it's not quite like cattle. It's almost a religious, ritualistic thing that happens when it's time for certain members of the Kelpien society to be culled, and taken away for their death. It really is slaughter, but it's played and it's sold to us Kelpiens as our fulfilling of the great balance, whatever that means. It's our place, our duty, almost, and we can take pride that we're doing something very good for the balance of nature on our planet of Kaminar.
It brings up the question: Is it really, or are we being sold a lie? Is that a great way to make dinner for the predator species, and they're selling it to us like, "Just go along with us and don't fight us because it's best for all of us?" Or is there a better way? Saru is the one Kelpien who looks out to the sky, looks at his surroundings and thinks, "There's got to be more out there. Is that all there is, what I’m experiencing here? Do we just survive the day until our death? Is that all we're here for?" I think that fulfills all our curiosities as people. We all look at where we grow up and our family situation and think, "What's out there for me? What's the purpose of life? Is there more than what I'm experiencing right now?"
How important was it for you to have that background, to learn that detail about Saru?
Very important, because it shows how far he's come. He's come from a primitive village where it looks like we live in huts, and my main job is to gather kelp from the sea. Going from that simple lifestyle to being a first officer on a starship with all the science and technology that I know, the smarts that I have now, and being able to take any gadget and figure out how to work it, that's quite a jump to make. It was important to see, though, to go back and see that backstory of how he’s gone from primitive to first officer. It’s his curiosity and ingenuity that get him there. He takes the technology of our predator species, the Ba'ul. They control us with lots of technology, so we don't question it because we Kelpiens don't understand technology. So, when Ba'ul technology says it's time to be taken to your death, we just go along with that shuttle that lands and takes us away.
I have a young brother-in-law who, when he was nine years old, was taking apart radios and putting them together again. Self-taught. Now, he's one of the most-brilliant computer geniuses I've ever known. He never went to school for any of it. That's very much Saru. Saru took apart things he found and put them back together, and he found out a way to repurpose them into something new, to make contact with the outside world. That really was important to me to know, that, “OK, he had some innate smarts,” smarts that he innately or developed on his own.
Doug, did you give the writers any input? Did they ask you for your thoughts? Or did you get the script and play what was written on the page?
Oh, gosh. I would never want to ruin the writing by adding my opinion to it (Laughs). No, our writers are just the most-brilliant bunch of people I've ever known. We have PhDs in the writers' room, people who love science, who do science, and between that and people who just love story and storytelling, and are so gifted at doing it. I love hearing their thoughts and going along with what they say, but I've never questioned their intentions for Saru. I think they're spot-on. Every decision they make for Saru is gorgeous and brilliant, and lovely for me to play.
How did you enjoy working with Hannah Spear as your sister, Siranna, and Robert Verlaque as your father, Aradar?
Hannah and Robert, they're both consummate professionals. And, by the way, I also had a moment with them. We had a little meeting ahead of filming this short where I gave them some Kelpien classes. Since I'm the first one to ever play a Kelpien, I needed to show them, "OK, we need to all put our little hoof boots on and walk around this conference room, so we can get our balance and our posture." I’d day, "Here's how I swing my arms when I walk," and "Here's how I gesture with my hands," and "Here's how a tilt of the head plays for me, personally. Now, of course, personalize this for your character, but the Kelpien DNA starts about here." They were both very, very absorbing of all that information, but played their characters with their own personal twists. It was just so beautiful to watch. Our family dynamic did really come out.
It was great in the short film to go back in time and play Saru as a teenager with curiosities, with him questioning his dad, and having his dad do what my dad did when I was a kid, which was to say, "Because I said so," or "Stop asking stupid questions," or "Why are you trying to upset the way it's always been?" That was kind of a fun dynamic. It was also fun and nostalgic for me to have a sibling that I love. I'm the youngest of four boys in my real family, so to play a brother again with this beautiful sister was really heartwarming, and you could see how tight our relationship is. Hannah and I connected very much. This was her first time in prosthetic makeup, so there's some hand-holding that goes along with that. I remember my first time in prosthetic makeup, and thinking, "Oh, my gosh. Is this where I die? Do I die in this rubber suit?" She played it with courage and she got through it, and she realized it wasn't going to kill her. We all came out of it alive.
Season Two will start next month. What elements, thematically, do you feel will set it apart from Season One?
We're not at war anymore. That's the big difference this year, that we’d come to terms with the Klingons by the end of Season One. Season Two, I think, we're back to exploring again, which will bring some nostalgia to those Trek purists who love the old Trek, and the boldly going, and the exploration, and the "What's out there?" And you’ll see more of a peaceful dynamic among the crew. We had some turmoil on board last year, especially for me personally, with the dynamic between Michael Burnham and Saru. Our brother/sister relationship was really competitive last year, and once we lost our mother figure, Captain Georgiou, I didn't let her off the hook for that for quite some time. So now, in Season Two, you'll see us bond, and have each other's back way more than before. And it's really quite heartwarming to watch. I hope that will really resonate with the fans.
You’ve been tweeting quite a bit about Nosferatu. Tell us a bit about stepping into Max Schreck's iconic footsteps and makeup. It looks fascinating...
Thank you. That was a dream role for me. In fact, of all the rubber bits I've played and worn over the years, the one thing left on my bucket list was to play a classic vampire, and, hopefully, Nosferatu, hopefully Count Orlok. So, to get to do this, it’s a dream come true for me. You'll be seeing that sometime in 2019, and what's super-exciting about it is that I actually got to play Count Orlok in the world that Max Schreck played it in because every shot, every frame of our film, has a green screen element to it. That green screen element is filled in with footage and backdrop from the original film. So, I did actually get to play in the original movie, in a sense, which was really a super-dream come true.
"The Brightest Star" continues the rollout of Star Trek: Short Treks, four standalone stories building toward the early 2019 return of Star Trek: Discovery. Each short will run approximately 10-15 minutes and will be an opportunity for fans to dive deeper into key themes and characters – including Saru, Tilly (Mary Wiseman), Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson, who directs his segment as well) and Aldis Hodge's new "Calypso" character, Craft -- that fit into Discovery and the expanding Star Trek universe.
“The Brightest Star” premieres tonight in the U.S. on CBS All Access and in Canada on Space.