Gabriel Lorca was full of surprises in season one of Star Trek: Discovery, and Jason Isaacs played the character to perfection. Lorca was so un-Starfleet for a good reason: he hailed from the Mirror Universe. Isaacs, with complementary assists from the show’s writers, producers and directors, created a compelling, complex and dark figure, dropping sly hints along the way to Lorca’s true identity and intentions. The character became the guy you loved to hate, and the one we hated to see go, even though his comeuppance proved fitting.
StarTrek.com met up with Isaacs in August, at Star Trek Las Vegas, to chat about his season on Star Trek: Discovery. As always, he was exuberant, revealing and passionate. Here’s what Isaacs had to say in this, the latest in our series of StarTrek.com interviews building toward the November 13 release of Star Trek: Discovery: Season One on Blu-ray and DVD...
You seemed quite at home on stage during your STLV panel, which you did without a moderator. What was that experience like for you, to talk on stage for the first time to Star Trek fans?
Most people's biggest terror before death is public speaking, and I share that with most actors because ordinary people aren't used to having a script, so going script-free is terrifying for actors. But when you got a home crowd like this, and they start laughing and clapping at everything you say, it has a dizzying effect. I used to entertain at children's parties when I was in drama school to get my equity card.
Stop there. You entertained at birthday parties?
(Laughs). Yes, and the worst person was always the birthday boy or girl that had too much sugar, and they felt like they were kings of the universe.
OK, back to your STLV panel...
I had a kind of strange narcissistic blackout onstage because there was so much love coming from the audience, and they were so receptive. For about an hour, I felt like I was the Star Trek version of Richard Pryor. But it's a great place to be because they get it. The people sitting out there understand the things that it took me some time to understand, which is what Star Trek means out in the world beyond it being a great story and entertaining. There’s such social significance and political significance in it, and it's doing things with value as much as stories ever can. There'll never be a room where people understand that more than there was yesterday.
What was the fan question that resonated most with you?
Oh… They all asked smart questions. I'm pretty good on my feet, so I was comfortable chatting, and probably making cheap gags about most things. Then, someone asked me what has surprised me most doing Star Trek, and I hadn't expected that question. I only really think when I talk, as my friends and family will tell you. So, as I blabbered on, I realized that I’d gone into it looking forward to being part of a fabulous sci-fi yarn, and it had slowly dawned on me that it was a series born out of the civil rights movement and Cold War, and that our season of Discovery was genuinely but subtlety addressing the increased racism and tribalism and divisiveness of the political world, and the debate around immigration and assimilation that's happening, certainly in Europe and in America. The whole message of a diversity and inclusion, all these things that might seem like they have no place in entertainment, are a huge part of the Star Trek legacy. I hadn't realized that stuff. We paid lip service to it in some of the press early on, because I read it and I regurgitated it. And then I experienced it.
You had a remarkable arc as Lorca in season one…
It was f--king awesome. All actors ever want is to have a secret to play, and I had the biggest secret ever. I had a huge hidden agenda, and acting is all about the things you're holding back from the camera and not the things you're doing. There’s nothing worse than saying what you mean because then there's nothing to play, and there wasn't a single moment until right at the end where you got to see what was really going on for Lorca was apparent. And only when people watch it a second time, as many people I’ve met here have, do they fully understand what I was getting to do.
How much in the way of bread crumbs where you purposefully dropping for people?
It’s like when people watch The Sixth Sense a second time, they go, "Of course they were all dead. How was I so dumb?" It's all there from the beginning. It's there in some of the more obvious physical things, like the eyes narrowing. Actually, that's not obvious because who knows what happens when you go through a tear in the universe. But just the things that I don't remember. The fact that I'm clearly in breach of every part of Starfleet's ethical universe, and I'm pushing Stamets to jump. And, with Burnham, there's no reason at all why I should have singled out this woman and brought her to the ship, and given her a pass, and got her out of jail. All of the interaction with Jayne (Brook), with the Admiral. They’re not just breadcrumbs; I left huge baguettes.
But mostly in hindsight, at least for the fans.
True, and I did that at every opportunity I had. I had discussions with the writers. There was a lot of communication back and forth, because sometimes I read the script and I’d go, "Why would mirror Lorca do this?" The writers are on the set all the time, and it was enormously good fun working things out. We’d get to, "Let's not do that. Let's do this instead." And you’d do that just to engender loyalty in the crew, because he was planting seeds, particularly with Burnham, so that she’d trust him blind, because in the end he's got a fully worked-out plan in his head, and he was going to need her to take leaps of faith where they got to the Terran Universe. So, he earned her trust by doing what sometimes seemed like un-Mirror Lorca things.
How did you enjoy working with this group? Rumor is you were the weekend barbecue guy until pretty much everyone went vegan…
It mostly came from Sonequa. She did the extraordinary thing of helping us bond very early on and continually. We had game nights. We'd have them at my house, and we had just a place where the hierarchy of the film set was entirely forgotten. We became like a traveling theater troupe. We just knew each other, knew each other’s partners. We got each other's jokes, and it was a continuum inside and outside work. Plus, you're working on roughly the same set every day. It's not like you're traveling to different locations.
We're all in the same place, eating in the same place, playing table tennis, basketball, and playing music with each other. It makes a big difference. It might seem slightly pretentious, but acting is a lot about trusting and relying on other people, and helping other people, wanting the other people be the best they can possibly be, doing the most off-camera for them that you can. We became as close as you can. It’s that terrible cliché, but we became a family.
And wasn’t much of that family on set to watch you die? How tough was it to say goodbye?
Yes, I had to come in and do the fall into the big pit, which I insisted on doing. The (stunt team) thought I shouldn't do it. I'm falling onto a mat. “Right, I can handle it.” I jump out of planes and stuff; I can do this. And I really wanted to do my last shot. I came and all of the cast, and the ones who weren't working as well, had come in and they were waving, "Find Prime Lorca" banners, and chanting "Find Prime Lorca." And I was a mess. I adore them all. I always knew that this was the storyline. It was a storyline we discussed before I took the job. I wanted to know fully what my secret agenda would be, so I could play it properly. It felt like a fully satisfying, perfectly structured thing to do, but on that last day I felt terrible regret as I looked at them.
That wasn’t because I wouldn't get to be Lorca anymore, but because I looked at the younger actors who haven't done that much, who I admire so much, who are so talented, and I wanted to see them flower. I've seen them do great stuff, but I want to see all the characters, the ones that the audience have barely seen anything of yet, do their stuff. I want to see them show their full glory. We’ve got some Juilliard students. We've got people who've been around a while, and not had a chance, and they're all going to get a chance to show the audience what they're capable of -- and they're capable of a lot.
You just mentioned Prime Lorca…
He’s out there. I’m just saying.
Star Trek: Discovery on Blu-ray
Fans in the U.S. and Canada can pre-order on Amazon.com now.
Star Trek: Discovery's second season will premiere on Thursday, January 17, 2019, in the U.S. and Canada, and in the rest of the world on Friday, January 18, 2019.