I’ve known about Steffi Hochriegl’s artwork for some time, and we became Twitter friends quickly. As I followed her adventures bonding with the Star Trek: Discovery cast — particularly Mary Chieffo, Ken Mitchell, and Jason Isaacs — I was intrigued by the deep, personal friendship Steffi was forming with Mary. Their close bond was visible not just in the videos they posted of themselves together at conventions, but in Steffi’s artwork, whether Steffi was drawing Mary herself or her character, L’Rell.
After they did an Instagram Live to talk about Steffi’s art, I was inspired to interview them together about their connection to each other and to Star Trek, and the way they so uniquely inspire each other to new artistic heights. Their energy was infectious.
StarTrek.com: You two have completely transcended the fan/actress dynamic and became actual friends. How did that happen?
Mary Chieffo: I had seen some of Steffi’s drawings before the one that Steffi did of L’Rell for the fourth episode [“The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry”], but when I saw the one Steffi did of L’Rell, I felt she really captured L’Rell’s soul in a way that I hadn't quite seen. And so that was my initial fangirly moment. I remember reposting it, and that was our first connection. And then from that point, we would message, and Steffi very generously sent me some of her original drawings and copies of some other ones, and —
Steffi Hochriegl: And they arrived on your birthday!
SH: That was the fun part. I was in a theater in New York and, and you texted me: “Oh my God, look what came, look what came!”
MC: There's a certain sort of cosmic energy around our whole relationship. The time between [conventions in] Dortmund and Birmingham, Steffi and I would have exchanges on various messaging platforms. Steffi was creating so much art and posting it. And I felt Steffi tapping into my self-portrait series, like Steffi was really seeing what I was conveying in those images. The essence of what I'm trying to convey in them was clear to her. So I think part of the deepening of the relationship was the fact that we were connected on this deep artistic level.
Steffi, what inspired you (before you met Mary, and were interacting with her) that made you draw her so much?
SH: I like to think of it as I don't choose the pictures. I think the pictures choose me. Does that make sense? Or the people, they choose me, they come into my life.
MC: I think a really strong example of that is this one picture of me that Steffi drew, it was when Steffi was just starting to work more on digitally drawing. It was actually a picture of me and my best friend Justin. We had been playing around in the car with the above-head lighting and we did this dramatic shot and Steffi really spotted something in my pose and ended up creating a single portrait out of it. It caught her eye and her heart.
SH: It just spoke to me. It’s only certain pictures that just click, and then I know I have to draw. Sometimes you post a new one and it's especially gripping and I save it, but I know it's not the right time to draw it yet. But at some later point I scroll through my iPad and I see it again. It's all about timing.
Mary had been doing a self-portrait series on Instagram, which caught Steffi’s artistic eye.
MC: The portrait series overall came out of a lot of different things. It was soon after I had graduated from college and was feeling frustrated with the industry, and as a transformative actor, feeling like I was supposed to convey all that I was in ONE headshot, and try and fit some sort of mold. And I'm like, no, when I pitch myself, I want to be like, ‘Tell me to be the most extreme thing and I'll do it.’ I was going through some old boxes and cleaning out my childhood room, and I found some old wigs and an old dress that was like a dress-ups dress. I [thought] why don't I just take some weird pictures in this? I titled one of those photos 'We used to play dress up.' I was inspired by Cindy Sherman's work, particularly her initial black and white series that really put her on the map. I started doing those and then shortly thereafter I was involved with Trek and I was traveling a lot. I was either in Toronto, a lot in hotel rooms, or then conventions. And it became this exploration of isolation and the moments where I'm alone.
SH: Those are the ones that fascinate me the most. Whenever you’re at a convention or when you're actually at the same place as I am. And then you take a picture in the hotel — or like the lipstick one. That's my favorite, actually.
MC: No surprise there, there's a strong feminist statement throughout. And that was definitely one night where I was feeling annoyed with larger issues when it came to being a woman. I literally just covered myself in lipstick.
SH: That's one of those that really hit me hard and I had to draw it immediately.
MC: Steffi then put the red in. So you get this even starker contrast in her version, because the red just popped all the more, which it was exactly how I felt. To me, it was playing with the fact that it was lipstick, but also kind of looked like blood and pain and suffering. That’s a really strong example. I think Steffi really picks up on ones where I've had like an intense experience that day and it's me decompressing from it.
So it almost sounds like you two are already collaborating in some way. Does it feel like that sometimes, like a true collaboration?
SH: Yeah, it does. It's a funny thing, even if we're not really talking about it, but I see the picture and I feel connected. It’s as if we would be talking, but we aren’t.
You're speaking through the art.
MC: Definitely. Obviously, I'm always so thrilled and complimented with the images that Steffi creates that I'm involved with. But I love looking at her art overall, I love seeing the different way Steffi's continued to explore and how much the community loves and respects her work. It's always fun for me to support her when I'm not involved directly. But I definitely like what Steffi does with my face.
What about Star Trek inspires you? What drew you in, in the first place?
SH: I think it was the whole promise of a future where everyone's equal and everything's possible and they aren't limited by money. It's this whole idea of freedom, and yeah, I know that's probably the typical answer because everyone says that. Well, it's completely legitimate.
MC: The thing that keeps coming up is that Star Trek is this utopian, hopeful future, but it is not perfect. Federation included, it's not just the other species. You see how much it's still a society that's striving for its ideals.
SH: It keeps showing that it's dangerous to think of yourself as perfect. Whenever they show Starfleet as the perfect institution, there's an episode where they show that it actually isn't.
MC: Totally. And it's funny: There's a lot on Twitter that we joke about where it's, 'Oh yeah, because Star Trek isn't political.’ And what you were saying, that Starfleet never makes mistakes, then there's always that thread of, ‘Here's an example of a time when an Admiral didn't behave so great.’
If everything was perfect, then there wouldn't be this many episodes of a show, you have to have some level of tension. And obviously everyone's striving for a greater good—and I don't want to make that large of a statement, but I think oftentimes the most compelling episodes with a “villainous” character give empathy and compassion to at least why that character is behaving the way they are.
SH: And it knows that life is always complex. There's not the textbook way to go, as much as some perfect Starfleet officer wants to think there is. That's what I love about it. You have a whole textbook full of rules and stuff and regulations you have to follow, but when it comes down to a specific situation, you have to judge how the situation is, and you have to find your own way. Life is complex, and Star Trek shows that.
MC: I think I'm in season two [of Deep Space Nine] and now I don't remember the name of the episode [“Cardassians”], but it's [about] the Cardassian boy who was left behind and raised by Bajorans, and how he has complete and utter self-loathing. He hates Cardassians even though he is one. I was watching it last night, and that conflict, that's what Trek can illuminate so clearly and beautifully. By putting it in an alien realm, we're able to see these archetypes so clearly and recognize, ‘Hey, how, how sad that this kid completely hates his genetic makeup and heritage and own species, due to the fact that that's how he was raised.’ And it's also — talk about duality, how he can hold those two mentalities simultaneously to recognize that he is a Cardassian, but to also completely hate Cardassians. That's such an interesting exploration of a conflict that unfortunately I think a lot of people struggle with.
SH: I'm struggling with that right now, about where I'm born and what family I'm born [into], when none of them ever believed in my talents. But I'm discovering now that I can actually be an inspiration to other people with what I do and that I have talent and that I have a voice and that I am important. And, I'm trying not to be bound by what I'm born into. I'm trying to break out of that. I can't completely, because it's where I'm born, it's my blood, but I can choose wherever I want to go with my life. I can choose to live it the way I want to live it. Absolutely. I relate to that kid.
MC: it really does resonate. And thank you for speaking on that because I do think that's part of our journey, as humans and as artists.
What do you feel you've gained from your unique friendship with each other?
SH: I want to say freedom because it's not just the connection with Mary, but also the connection with Jason [Isaacs] and then this whole Star Trek community and the fellow fans and everything. I started posting my art about five years ago and ever since, I've learned that I matter, that I have a story to tell, that I have something to show the world and that there's actually people out there that are inspired by me and by something I create. It’s giving me something I've never had. I've been craving all my life to have an artistic exchange with someone else, with another artistic mind. And to have this opportunity now, that means so much to me. I have no words for it. It gives me a feeling of, of being worth it, of being, you know, seeing the way I am for the first time in my life.
MC: Steffi's answer is a huge part of mine, which is that I feel so grateful and humbled that by simply being my own authentic, enthusiastic self and making this connection, that that has been a contributing factor in Steffi feeling empowered to continue to put her art out there. And that we can build this relationship and make an impact on each other's lives. It’s very moving to me to see the images that do inspire Steffi. I feel, as an artist, recognized and seen by her. I keep talking about the self-portrait series, but it is something that's intimate and vulnerable and personal, and to feel that it resonates on that level with her is very moving and empowering, that by having my own little kooky creative project, I've been able to inspire some art.
But beyond that, the fact that we're nine hours apart and, and yet we're still able to maintain a connection and that I have been able to meet Steffi in person, that we've traveled the world together in many ways as a consequence of all of this. I can't imagine a world where we hadn't made this connection, as people and as artists. I call it the serendipity highway.
SH: I love that it’s not a ‘I want something from you or you want something from me,’ it's really a genuine, just inspiring connection, inspiring the other to go out of their way, to try something new, to see something new in yourself, through the eyes of the other.
Watch the Instagram Live with Mary & Steffi:
Laurie Ulster (she/her) is a freelance writer and a TV producer who somehow survived her very confusing adolescence as the lone female Star Trek fan in middle school. She's a writer/editor and was the Supervising Producer on After Trek.
Star Trek: Discovery streams on Paramount+ in the United States, airs on Bell Media’s CTV Sci-Fi Channel and streams on Crave in Canada, and on Netflix in 190 countries.