INTERVIEW: Alan van Sprang Breaks Down Leland's Dark Turn

The man who brings Captain Leland to life talks to us about what it's like to fight with Michelle Yeoh and himself.

Captain Leland is the character Star Trek: Discovery fans love to hate. As the duplicitous face of Section 31, he recruited Georgiou and then Tyler, while his allegiances continued to shift over season two. The character took an even darker turn, first in “The Red Angel,” when the AI jabbed him in the eye, and then in “Perpetual Infinity,” as the AI completely subsumed Leland.

Canadian actor Alan van Sprang has breathed life into Leland since the character’s unusual introduction in a deleted season one scene that helped tease the second at WonderCon last year. Following the climactic events of “Perpetual Infinity,” we spoke with van Sprang about Leland's evolution, fighting Michelle Yeoh, and whether or not the character will return.

StarTrek.com: Rumor is you were a major Star Trek: The Next Generation fan back in high school.

Alan van Sprang: I've watched every single episode. By that I mean, I watched The Original Series as well a lot, but TNG really, really hooked me. Then, through watching Deep Space Nine, Enterprise [as well], I've always been a massive fan of the show. Being called to become part of the family of Discovery? It just kind of blew my mind.

Leland really divides people, shipmates and viewers alike, because he’s so wily. How much fun has that been to play?

AvS: A lot of times I play the antagonist , which is fine. I've got that ingredient. It's ingrained in my body, I guess. But with [Discovery], I didn't know what was happening next in the show. We went script-to-script-to-script on a weekly basis. I thought I was going to be on the show for [just] a few episodes. I was playing him as the protagonist. [But,] each week, I got a new script and [the character] just grew in a certain way in terms of my relationship with Georgiou. So, I took it slightly in a different direction — that Leland may be a bit more manipulative in terms of what he's trying to do each episode. But I've never played him as the antagonist. I always said he's got his own agenda, he going to move forward, he’s going to try to get as high up in the ranks as possible because that's just the type of person he is.

In the writing that was given to me, I tried to portray his humanity. Him being a fallible human being made [for] a better antagonist, because he seemed to have too much of an agenda going on. Georgiou, she was reading into that, and so was Chris Pike. So, it just allowed that humanity to become a natural antagonist. I didn't really have to do too much to portray an antagonist at all. It was just there on the page.

At what point did Alex Kurtzman or the writing staff tell you the endgame, so that you could lay bread crumbs building to that? Or was it all a surprise to you?

AvS: They didn't tell me anything. Anything... I mean it. It went from script to script and I wasn't allowed to know anything. Nobody was. At one point, Alex was on set in Toronto and he said to me, "Leland's going in a direction that you might be a little surprised by," and this was before episode 11. This was around, I think, episode seven or eight or nine. That's when they approached me and said, "Yeah, he might become a bit of an AI."

There were a lot of directions that they thought about going in, in terms of what I might look like as an AI. In the end, it was just a more human-looking Leland because I think the AI was smart enough, Control was smart enough to realize that once Leland became that, that it wanted to fool the rest of the crew, Section 31 and Discovery.

Many viewers thought Leland died in “The Red Angel.” That jab in the eye was all CGI, right?

AvS: Yeah, that was all CGI. I had my eye in there. They had cameras there. They said, “Okay, needle comes out, hits you in the eye.” I threw myself back, landed on the ground and my eye was normal, but they put some CGI into my eye to make it look red. It was amazing. I cringed as well.

Can you tell us about fighting with Michelle Yeoh?

AvS: At the end of the script, when I found out that Michelle and I were going to be going head to head, I just thought, “Wow, this is going above and beyond the call of duty. This is going to be a great episode to do.” Michelle was fantastic; it was like a ballet dance. I was [supposed to be] a robot, which was difficult because I wasn't really allowed to breathe and move naturally like I have in other fight scenes I’ve done. 

And take us through the act of tormenting yourself.

AvS: On the day when I was [shooting that scene], they hired this stand-in guy. So, it was weird, but it was really helpful because he really looked like me. He was there and as I was speaking to myself he was reacting in a way that I had in the previous takes, where he was being strapped up. That was extremely helpful, and it was amazing because what was shown on the screen was exactly how I thought it was going to look. I tried to be as vulnerable as possible as Leland and as menacing as possible as Control in the AI, in terms of talking to myself.

A lot of the chatter online compared what happened to Leland to someone being assimilated by the Borg. The line, “Struggle is pointless” certainly echoes “Resistance is futile.” Some fans are surmising that Leland might be the first Borg. What's your take?

AvS: I think it's very intriguing. When I first read the script I thought, "Oh, is this the making of the Borg? Is that how it happens?" We're as much in the dark as anybody else, but as soon as I saw that, I thought, "This is like The Borg.” The Next Generation's Borg episode just blew my mind [when I watched it originally], let alone when Picard became Locutus. That's the first thing I thought of, which kind of tickled me to no end. “Wow, I'm just going to milk this for all it’s worth.”

What are the odds we'll see you a little more of you before the season is over?

AVS: That's open to later discussion.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


Star Trek: Discovery streams exclusively on CBS All Access in the United States and is distributed concurrently by CBS Studios International on Netflix in 188 countries and in Canada on Bell Media’s Space Channel and OTT service Crave.

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