Rainn Wilson wanted to get in on Star Trek: Discovery. He let it be known and, lo and behold, along came the opportunity for him to play the role of the dangerous, rascally Harry Mudd. Wilson, stepping into the part originated by the late, great Roger C. Carmel, portrayed Mudd in the first-season episodes “Choose Your Pain” and “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad.” It’s been confirmed that the former The Office star will play Mudd and direct a Mudd-centric installment of Star Trek: Short Treks. StarTrek.com chatted with Wilson about all of the above and more moments after he completed his day of panels, photo ops and autographs at the recent Star Trek Las Vegas event. Here’s what he had to say…
You’re about to race to the airport to fly back home to Los Angeles, but how did you enjoy your time at STLV? How Galaxy Quest-ish was it?
I've done Comic-Cons before, so I've been around sci-fi fans. We even had a big Office convention when The Office wrapped, and a parade, and stuff like that, which was pretty amazing. Yeah, it's great. I will say that this experience is basically like Galaxy Quest. It's like Galaxy Quest come to life, and it's fantastic. But the thing that I didn't really realize is how amazing these Trek fans are. They're really like... Of course, they're nerdy. I'm nerdy. We're all nerdy. But they're sweet and kind and thoughtful, and really passionate about Star Trek and science fiction. It's like they're a family, like they've made a family, and even the actors from the various shows, the way they interact. They're these big families as well. And so, it becomes this great community, really. It's a terrific community, and it's just got a lot of heart. And it's been a real pleasure interacting with the fans.
How much of a sci-fi fan were you, and where did Star Trek fit into that?
I'm about the biggest sci-fi fan that you could imagine, because my dad was a science-fiction writer.
Robert G. Wilson…
So, I grew up with it. We read science-fiction all the time. I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey when, I think I was maybe four years old, and that blew my mind.
Gary Lockwood is here at STLV, actually…
Oh, man, I didn't know that. Oh, fantastic. I would come home from school and I would watch Star Trek reruns. They would be on weekends all the time in the '70s. I'm talking starting in like '70, maybe as early as '71, '72, '73, definitely. So, it had just gone off the air. And it's an odd thing, because… I was just thinking about this, like, now, because of the Internet, and because of conventions like this, you can find your tribe. I remember there was a while I was really into the band R.E.M. I just love R.E.M. and I have all their albums, and I memorized their lyrics, and I just thought they were amazing. Then, I was in a record shop once, and I found an R.E.M. fanzine. I picked it up, and it said something like “This is for R.E.M. fans.” It was hand-printed, mimeographed, or something like that, by some fans in Georgia. I paid $3.50 for it, or something. And it was incredible, because it was like, "Oh, there's other people that feel the way that I do. There's people dissecting the lyrics, and people talking about what their favorite albums are, and drawing artwork inspired by R.E.M.” It was so touching to me.
You couldn't find a message board. You couldn't find that community. So now, there's this community, but even back then I went to Norwescon, which is a science-fiction convention, several times. My dad had written a book that was published, I think, in 1975 or 1976, called Tentacles of Dawn. And I would go play Dungeons & Dragons there, and I would go to the panels. They had a 24-hour movie room, movie marathons playing constant sc- fi movies, and horror and stuff like that. I still have my science-fiction book collection from the '70s, which numbers about 3,400 science-fiction books. So, I was – I am -- a huge, huge fan.
Let’s talk Mudd. How much did your great costume help you get into the character?
Gersha Phillips, she's brilliant. She's phenomenal. These costumes are next level Star Trek stuff, and I'm not just saying that. I really think they're exquisite and her designs are immaculate. Yeah, the costumes always help you find your character. Dwight Schrute has a polyester suit, has got a calculator wristwatch. He wears a beeper, even though beepers are defunct, because he didn't want to give up his beeper. He's wearing one as late as 2015, or 2014, whenever the show ended. Harry Mudd, he's almost part pirate. It's a little operatic. Leather boots, a lot of buckles and straps and rings. It feels very ornate. He's kind of conman, smuggler, raconteur, roustabout, and it is really informed by his wardrobe.
What elements of “Choose Your Pain” worked best for you?
A lot. I love the way that it's set up at the end, Mudd's betrayal by Lorca. Obviously, Mudd was the big betrayer there and the spy for the Klingons, trying to weasel his way out. But to really get just left there, especially by a starship captain, who has a responsibility to the Federation and to the citizens of the Federation… We got a glimpse of the dark side of Lorca with that. I thought that was really cool. So, I thought the way it set the stage for the next one was really great, and the setup of the Stella backstory was great.
How much of a nod did you want to give to Roger C. Carmel with your performance?
Everything that I’d done is really a testament to his performance. He cracked this character. He has the comedy, charm, loquaciousness, kind of the dark edge. He's willing to sell people out. That mercenary streak that you... Because so much of the Federation, let's face it, it's goodie-goodie two-shoes. Like, "Oh, the Federation, we can't do this, and we're so law-abiding." It's refreshing sometimes seeing someone playing with the rules. Carmel nailed all those elements. So, I wanted to make him my own and take it to the next level and modernize what he did.
How big a kick did you get out of “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad,” with the time loop and killing people, especially Lorca, again and again?
It was a blast. Don't get me wrong, it was a tough episode. It's really, really hard to write a time-travel episode with a time loop. If you've ever thought about writing a time-travel screenplay, or anything like that, it makes your head start to hurt. It's really, really difficult. They struggled with how to make him come back. What are the rules of the time travel? But, ultimately, at the end of the day, they figured it out brilliantly. And David Barrett, the director, did a fantastic job. He's a very visual director, and that helped it a ton. The flashback replay of shooting Lorca over and over again, killing Lorca in all these different ways, was fun. The cast was game, fun, collaborative. They let me improvise a bunch of lines and have creative input. It was a dream job.
And you got to fire a phaser.
I got to fire a phaser. My inner Trekkie went crazy. I got to fire phasers. I got to be beamed up, beamed down.
I got to sit in the captain's chair. I got to be captain for a while. He controlled the ship. When you have the poster of all the Star Trek captains, I want Harry Mudd on that.
You’ll be acting in and directing one of the Short Treks installments…
There's going to be that 10, 15% of fans that go, "Oh, no way. I'm not going to watch a short film about Star Trek. This isn't how it works." But I love that they're breaking molds and breaking new ground, and it's a terrific mini Harry Mudd adventure. It goes to a lot of different places, from different aliens to a lot of fun situations, with some great twists and turns, and I get to direct it and star in it. It's like a dream come true. It's like, “Write me a dream job.”
Is this a stepping stone to directing more?
Possibly, yeah. This is a great way to cut my teeth as a director. I directed three episodes of The Office, and I directed some short films and digital shorts, but this is special effects and visual effects. I've got my work cut out for me.
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