There wasn't a dry eye in the house last night during Star Trek: Discovery's "Project Daedalus;" first as Airiam pleaded with Michael Burnham to eject her from the airlock, and then as Airiam succumed to the nothingness of space. Canadian actress Hannah Cheesman nailed the performance, delivering menace as the corrupted Airiam and heartbreak as the augmented human's storyline and life approached their respective ends. StarTrek.com spoke with the effusive Cheesman, who assumed the role of Airiam from Sara Mitich and played her throughout season two, about her character's demise, working with director Jonathan Frakes, and more.
StarTrek.com: How well did you know Star Trek before getting involved with Discovery?
Hannah Cheesman: I knew it pretty well because I'd grown up watching The Next Generation with my family, and Jonathan Frakes was my first... well, I should say Number One, because I didn't know his name at the time, but he was my first onscreen crush. He was the first crush I had when I was watching television as a kid. My sister and I would also watch The Original Series on weekends, the reruns, and I watched some Deep Space Nine. Seven of Nine was always super-cool from Voyager. So, definitely, Trek has been a part of my life since I was young, which is wonderful because it means I didn't have to do homework from the word "Go." I was already well acquainted with many of the characters, especially on Next Gen, and knowing Airiam was some sort of precursor to Data was unendingly exciting.
Every actor in Canada seems to have auditioned for Discovery. Had you been up for anything else prior to landing Airiam?
HC: I had once before, but to be perfectly honest I have no recollection of [who] that character was, and because security is so tight. They’re pretty tight-lipped even when you go into the casting room about [who] that character is and exactly what will happen. You have to sign a... I think it's some version of a non-disclosure agreement. So, I did once, but I didn't even get a callback. When I got the audition, of course, I did some homework (about Discovery)... but as we moved along in that audition process, I gained a better understanding of what I'd be doing, which was unorthodox in and of itself — stepping into a role that was already predetermined and preexisting, joining the team.
Sara Mitich originated the role. How did you go about retaining the essence and physical elements she'd introduced while still making Airiam your own?
HC: A few days before starting, Sara and I had a phone call where she talked me through her process and her understanding of the character's backstory. Then, we spent a half day together on set. We went onto the bridge, and she literally, piece by piece, showed me, "This is where the spore drive is. These are the buttons..." She'd created her own language, so she said, "When this command gets asked, I press these buttons and I imagine they do this."
After that, we went through the physical process. How does she stand? How does she move? Where are her arms? What's cool about Sara is she grew up [as] a semi-professional ballerina, until an injury in her late teens, so she's very in command of herself physically. I also, fortunately, have a decade plus, maybe two decades, of dance training, so we were able to speak the same language when she was imparting that information to me. I felt quite supported, but she also was wonderful in saying, "This is your role now, take it and do what you want with it. I'm excited to see what you do."
As I went through the season, just through doing it every day on set, I found Airiam. I didn't come in with a predetermined understanding of her because I had to get comfortable with what was already there. Through the season, I was able to isolate a lot of the movements to my head and my neck. Sara's trunk was quite solid and she moved in one piece. So, I think I brought a little fluidity to her, but more strictness to her neck and head. Honestly, it felt like I had a lot of authorship and ownership for the character by the time I was leaving, certainly. And it felt like I knew what I was returning to every time I'd step into the mask.
You'd done makeup-heavy roles before, including Lev on Defiance and your role in Mama. How different an experience was it being transformed into Airiam?
HC: Very. We're dealing with something made so specifically to my face. It was two hours-plus every morning, pre-call, before I'd step onto set, and it was very involved. What's great is you end up really getting to know your prosthetics team. It's a nice hang in the morning, a nice way to ease into the role. I have a bald cap. I have a cowl that goes down to my chest and over my shoulders. Lips that are added on, as well as ears and a helmet. You get to set and suddenly you're putting in 18mm contacts that are larger than your own corneas. The most surprising part is that it was in some ways very physical. It's a physical experience to have that on your face and to make sure you're emoting through it. Doug (Jones) is a master because you read so many emotions despite all of this on his face, and that was quite a steep learning curve for me.
The other aspect is [that the prosthetics] change the way everybody you work with interacts with you. They look at you, they see something alien, something different. Even with my castmates who embraced me from day one, there was a literal barrier, where I couldn't show them wholly who Hannah was. It was this weird cognitive dissonance between who I think myself to be, what I know acting to be, and this other layer of, not only is it this different character, but a totally different way the world interacts with me. It was really quite something to experience.
We saw glimpses of Airiam's personality building toward "Project Daedalus." What did you learn about her from your swan song?
HC: Previous to 209, I was always wondering where is this dance, this balance between being a human and an android, because she wasn't wholly android. She was part-human. She was an augmented human. So [figuring] out where I was human, how I was human, [and] how I was not human, was probably the most interesting part. And, in 209, the biggest learning curve was just how, indeed, human she was underneath it all. When we saw more of her, we were able to see she had an emotional response to her history, to this struggle that was going on internally. "I have to essentially sacrifice myself for the betterment of my team and the entirety of Discovery." Learning that she had that much humanity in her was a big piece of that episode for me.
You had quite the death scene. How emotional for everyone were those moments to shoot, first the airlock sequence, and then you floating in space?
HC: The airlock sequence, that was quite something because Sonequa [Martin-Green] is such a deft actress. Feeling her emotion is what got me to a place of matching her there. There was an austere silence shooting that, and applause afterwards, after we got one of the full takes done, because it was so huge and heavy. Their friendship came to the forefront, [along with] the importance of Airiam to her team came to the fore. For me, it was a powerful and beautiful piece to be a part of, and Michelle Paradise's script rose to the occasion. The last scene of me floating in space was the most unusual because it was my last day on set. It was just me on a little podium, on my hips, using core muscles on a big old green screen. It was weird to enact your last gasps in space because that's not something I can ever really imagine happening. And ... you've got your crew's kindness and openness, but you're playing this heavy moment. It was weird matching those emotions on that day.
How did you enjoy working with Jonathan Frakes again, and did you tell him about your childhood crush?
HC: He directed an episode earlier in the season, and I was on set in my full Airiam drag. He walked by and right away I introduced myself. "I'm Hannah Cheesman, the new Airiam. By the way, you were my first crush ever onscreen when I was a kid." He laughed and said, "It'd be great to be greeted like that every day." Or something like that. He's a big joker, such a fun guy to work with. So, he knew about it. It was the first thing out of my mouth to him, and definitely I was excited to tell him that.
We also got to see Airiam in human form. How important was that for you and the character?
HC: That was really important for me as the actor because I felt like I had taken real ownership of this character. For me to get to put my stamp on it by also [showing], "She was this person before," was not only important for the storyline, but also emotionally important for me because I guess I feel protective about, "That's mine. That's her. That was her before and this is her now." It was a wonderful way to marry the things we didn't know about Airiam to what we learned in that episode.
How much will you miss the cast and crew?
HC: A lot. This episode is thrilling, but at the same time it's laced with some sadness because it's a goodbye. There's a sense of loss, that I won't get to return to that set. It does make me sad, but I'm also super honored not only that I got to be a part of it, but that I got to go out with such a bang. If there's a way to go, that's the way to do it.
What's next for you?
HC: A web series I made five years ago, called Whatever, Linda, I'm currently in development to turn it into an hour-long show with Bell Media in Canada. My executive producer is the showrunner of Snowpiercer, and was the creator and showrunner of Orphan Black. I'm pairing up with him to turn Whatever, Linda into an hour-long. In fact, I'm going to go continue writing my script, third draft, after I get off the phone with you.
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.