Admiral Katrina Cornwell went out with a bang. And that’s because, in last week’s Star Trek: Discovery episode, “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum,” L’Rell (Mary Chieffo) bashed Cornwell’s head into a panel, sending sparks everywhere and a lethal electrical shock through Cornwell’s body. Viewers later saw L’Rell drag Cornwell into a chamber aboard the Sarcophagus ship, only to be startled by the sight of corpses: Klingons from House T’Kuvma, their bodies unceremoniously dumped and disrespected. Jayne Brook played Cornwell not just in “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum,” but also in “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry,” “Choose Your Pain” and “Lethe.” The character made a mark, as she clearly had a past with Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) and was on the verge of removing him from the U.S.S. Discovery’s captain’s chair -- "I can't leave Starfleet's most powerful weapon in the hands of a broken man" -- when he suggested she replace Sarek (James Frain) at the ill-fated negotiations on Cancri IV.
Brook is a familiar screen presence to moviegoers and television viewers, as her credits span from Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter Is Dead, Gattaca, Chicago Hope and John Doe to Boston Legal, Private Practice, Revenge, Rizzoli & Isles and The Sweet Life. StarTrek.com chatted with her the other day about her arc as Cornwell on Discovery, and here’s what she had to say:
How on your radar was Star Trek? Did you know the shows or the movies at all -- and had you ever auditioned for one
No, I had never auditioned for one. And, to tell you the truth, Star Trek is something that's in everybody's psyche from their childhood, but I was not someone who had followed it very closely. I saw the show probably when I was a kid. They’d do repeats of the original show and then the more recent movies, but Discovery has been just a really fun, unexpected thing to do. Now, I'm catching up.
How did the opportunity to do Discovery come along?
I knew Aaron (Harberts) and Gretchen (Berg) from working with them before, and they just called and asked would I play this admiral role. They said, “We have this part, and she's a really cool character, and will you play it?” Originally, I think they had the idea that she would die after the three episodes. They said, "You're gonna come in, and she's really cool," and then they thought she would die in that massacre. But, writers always use what they have and are very creative, and they were like, "Hmm, maybe we'll have them be taken prisoner instead."
What's your take on Cornwell? What drives her?
She is such an interesting character to me because she's obviously a very good admiral. She's obviously jumped through the ranks and, as we saw her the other night, she's tough as well. Nobody puts up with the Klingon torture and interrogation, but she fought real. I think the thing that drives her is her faith in the Federation and what it stands for. She really is a strong center for what they stand for and would die for it if she had to. She's much smarter than someone who just simply won't bend the rules.
How would you describe her relationship with Lorca?
That is a fraught relationship. The way I've likened it, I see there's something more... They went to college together, and they're really, really fond of each other. I see them as two young people in the academy who were standouts, really liked each other, obviously have a past that's romantic, but not the typical boyfriend-girlfriend thing. They joked with that on After Trek, like is this friends with benefits? I said I don't think it's that. I think they really have been fond of each other in the past and have followed each other’s career, and I think she really means it when she's says, "I've come to check in on a friend. What the hell's going on?" So, clearly, they have an understanding friendship.
How did you enjoy working with Jason Isaacs?
I thought he was great, and our scenes went well together. It seemed to build. When I first came in, I was just pretty much the admiral, giving him a hard time, and then the whole thing developed. But it was fun.
Let’s talk about the scene in which Lorca sends you off to wage peace and bids you farewell with the “May fortune favor the bold" line. Many fans feel that Lorca clearly and knowingly sent Cornwell into a deathtrap. What are your thoughts? And did you and Jason discuss Lorca’s motivation?
It's interesting because that's true, but I think it's a little bit more complicated than that because Sarek was going go on this mission and the Federation knew about it, and was going to allow him to go. So, I think there was hope it’d work. It is a deathtrap because it's Klingons and he's just been with the Klingons, Lorca, but on the other hand, there is some hope within the Federation that since it's on neutral ground, something might come of it. But, certainly, Lorca was happy to ship me off and, at least for a short time, delay my ability to take his ship until he can get some help. You asked if he knew he was sending me into a deathtrap. I think, in suggesting that I go, he was buying himself time. I think that moment with Saru (Doug Jones), when Lorca decides not to go after me (after her capture), is more dastardly.
Lorca even spits your own line back at Saru…
Right, that's right! So, he's doing everything by the book there.
Cornwell and L'Rell had some great moments together, the conversational bits, the screaming sequence, and then the fight scene. How did you enjoy playing those scenes with Mary Chieffo?
I enjoyed it so much. There's something about L'Rell and Cornwell together. It's something really stark, and what the audience didn't get to see, we had much more together happening when she came to interrogate me. There was a great moment, that got edited out, where she's circling me to interrogate me and I use my psychology background. She's trying to threaten me, and I say to her, basically, “You don't have markings of House Kor. You don't speak the language. And you would've killed me already. So, I don't buy any of these threats. Who are you?” That kind of propels L’Rell into saying, “I want to defect.” In the end, they didn't really need the full scene and they just kept the wanting to defect part. And it worked. There was a nice chemistry between those two characters. They really respect each other, these two very different species. And I had a lot of fun with Mary.
How often have you died on screen before, and what was this particular scene like to do?
I've died from diseases several times, like a young mother who has leukemia. Another time, I was a drug addict who had cancer. I'm trying to think of how many times I've died. I died on stage in King Lear. But I don't think I've ever had a physical combat death like Cornwell. She really fights her way to the end, doesn't she? That was different for me, and fun.
Some people do not believe that Cornwell is actually dead. How much do you enjoy that element? That fans want more, and also that in science, dead doesn't always mean dead.
I think that's fun. I'm delighted that people like the character enough that they're like, "She's not really dead! We don't want her dead!" So, that's great. It's fun to play with ideas of what might happen.
Once an actor does anything on Trek, they're part of the larger Trek family. How cool is that, and what are the odds that we'll see you at a Star Trek convention? Would that be of any interest?
I feel so privileged and honored to be invited into this world. I have a good friend who is very good friends with Bob Picardo. So, we've been at their house for Thanksgiving, my friends, and he'd be there. That's where I learned a lot about these conventions. And my friend, Megan Gallagher, accompanied Bob (to conventions) because she did a few Star Treks and they’re friends. She’s said that it was a fun thing to do. So, yeah, maybe that is in my future. I feel very honored to be a part of the whole thing.
Star Trek: Discovery airs Sunday nights on CBS All Access in the U.S. and Space Channel in Canada. The series airs on Mondays on Netflix in the rest of the world.