EXCLUSIVE: 'Star Trek: Discovery's' Jason Isaacs on Captain Lorca’s Debut and His 'Subtle' Shatner Tribute

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Photo: CBS All Access

Warning: Spoiler alert! Do not proceed if you haven’t watched Sunday’s episode of CBS All Access’Star Trek: Discovery. If you have, you may proceed.

Sometimes, people are not who they seem.

On the latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery, released Sunday on CBS All Access, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) settled into her new home with the crew and intimidating captain of the USS Discovery. Months after she was branded a mutineer for betraying the late Captain Philippa Gergiou, stripped of her Starfleet rank and imprisoned for the rest of her life, Michael found an unlikely ally in Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), the mysterious, menacing and steel-hearted leader at Discovery’s helm.

At first, Lorca’s interest in Michael was eyebrow-raising: Why does he want her aboard his ship when she’s been effectively blacklisted? Then it became clear. Operating at his own discretion (with Federation support), Lorca and his crew were refining advanced spore technology that could potentially change the game in the war against the Klingons -- and he needed Michael’s scientific prowess to help guide it through to fruition. 

But, that’s certainly not the whole story. As Isaacs reveals to ET in a candid conversation during a break from filming, there’s a lot more to Lorca and his rogue agenda than meets the eye -- including a breakdown of that intriguing final scene.

ET: We finally meet your character, USS Discovery Captain Gabriel Lorca, in this episode.

Jason Isaacs: I did feel bad doing all the publicity for the show and I didn’t want to spoil any of it. There’s no point in telling people what’s coming up, it just ruins the journey for them. But I did feel bad not being able to say to people who were looking out for me, particularly, that I wouldn’t be coming up until episode three. The vanity of thinking anyone was watching particularly for me was what stopped me.

Your introduction as Captain Lorca was quite memorable, as he seems to be exactly the opposite -- in demeanor, in motive, in how he views captaining -- from Captain Philippa Georgiou. What is your take on who Lorca is?

I never have a take on who anyone is, because if anyone asked you that about yourself, how accurately do you think you would set yourself up? One of the joys of this version of Star Trek is that people are free to be what they are in life, which is rich and surprising, change their minds or be set in their ways, and behave despite themselves and do all those unpredictable human things that make all of us three-dimensional. So I can’t sum up who he is, but what you find is a wartime leader. 

When I heard there was a Star Trek being made and I was asked to be one of the captains, there were a million reasons in my head not to do it. It was only once I started talking to the creators and reading this thing I realized that they were all ghosts in my head. Had there been any echoes of any of the other captains or of the storylines [from the past], I would’ve run a million miles in the opposite direction, because the original series is completely iconic and defined my childhood. In many ways, I learned everything about how to navigate the world and what a man was from William Shatner swaggering all over the screen. [Star Trek: Discovery] was a completely new story born of our times and informed [with] all the richness and surprise and texture and complicated moral decisions that we all find ourselves making everyday. But I thought I’d do it and it was easy to forget the legacy and the history of the thing. 

There’s a line in the episode where one of the Discovery crew members describes Lorca to Michael, and I’m paraphrasing, “He isn’t afraid of what normal people are afraid of.” Is that an accurate read on Lorca?

Do you think that’s true? Have you met anybody who’s fearless? I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the bravest soldiers in the world and they wouldn’t jump out of a helicopter unless they knew that person was sh**ing themselves. Being brave is about overcoming your fear, it’s not about being fearless. If you’re fearless and dangerous, you’re an idiot. What [Lorca] is is a great wartime leader. He’s seen a lot of slaughter and he’s been responsible for a lot of death, too. He understands the weight of it and he can make the right decisions in a crisis. But he’s not fearless, because that would make him a moron.

You still get the sense that Lorca will do anything, even if it’s off-book, to accomplish the ultimate goal against the Klingons -- and possibly other agendas.

He just wants to win the war. This is 10 years before the series that people fell in love with Kirk and Spock, before the Federation directive comes out, before people are exploring peacefully. This is a time when the Federation might not be there tomorrow morning. All of the high-minded ideals will go out the window once everyone around them is incinerated and Lorca thinks he sees that modern man. He thinks he’s going to win this war by any means necessary and they’ve kind of given him license to do it, because they’re terrified and they’re right to be terrified. So he’s on this science ship, which is not the ideal vessel, got some possible breakthrough technology, but there’s a lot of work to be done there, and he’s got a bunch of explorers crewing this thing who are really not battle-hardened at all and he’s going to try and do whatever he has to do to tip the tide of the war. It’s not going to be easy. Certainly, he’s not going to get there by being nice.

Lorca’s dynamic with Michael is fascinating, even from this one episode. 

Thank god you feel that. That’s the idea. The plan is to be interesting. (Laughs.)

Photo: CBS All Access

What does Lorca see in Michael, aside from her expertise and scientific acumen, that he can use to his advantage when it comes to the spore technology he’s working on?

This is an unbelievably able woman who, at the right moment, saw what war required. She might have been punished for it, she might have been a mutineer, there might have been tears and the war was started, but she made a really smart and sound decision. She understood the enemy and she knew what needed to be done and, in fact, she’s prepared to break all the rules and do it. If I’m getting ready to get this thing done, if I’m in any way going to give ourselves the competitive advantage in this war and try to kill our enemies before they kill us, I need people around me who are likely to be able to make those kinds of decision and who will be loyal to me, more than the Federation, should it ever come to it. She’s a good call on my part, I need to recruit someone like her and more people like her. The only thing is, once I meet her, she’s so obviously crippled with guilt with what she’s done with the loss of her original captain, it’s going to take a lot of work to get her back to the formidable, ruthless fighting force that she was some time ago. 

Let’s talk about the “possible breakthrough technology” that Lorca and the Discovery crew are working on. The spore technology they’ve been researching and evolving seems like it could be a game-changer in the war against the Klingons, but there’s also other potential uses. What is Lorca’s ultimate goal for this new tech he’s been working on?

So far, it’s a long way from being ready to use in any controlled way, but it looks like there’s potential there. The technology will, if it’s ever harnessed correctly, allow you to transport yourself anywhere in the universe. Anywhere in the universe in a blink of an eye. That changes everything, if you can get it working. It’s an idea at the moment and I don’t know how we’re going to get there. If we get there, I don’t know if there will be a Federation left, if there will be anyone left alive to try and use it. We’re stumbling in the dark and we’re trying to find the way to use this thing. If we can use it, it obviously gives you a big advantage in a battle. You can appear and disappear in battle. Once the war is over, being able to travel anywhere in the universe in a blink of an eye opens up exploration to infinite possibilities. There’s no hidden agenda. He’s pretty explicit about it.

Lorca seems to be one of the very few who has moves plotted out five or six ahead of everyone else.

He’s likely to be in battle again. He’s on the outer fringes of the battle at the moment. He’s been sent off to refine this technology, but he’s also been given license to do things at his own discretion outside the rulebook. Things are not going to go that well sometimes, and sometimes they are. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. In this version of Star Trek, it’s only interesting insofar as it puts characters of crisis and stress and you see who they are and how they are because all TV shows are about family, some version of the human dynamics that we recognize that shows something about ourselves and how we behave with each other. What we’re really going to see, which I don’t think you’ve seen before on Star Trek, is relationships change and really dive deeply into how people are with each other as they discover their own potential. 

At the end of the episode, Lorca has the creature from the USS Glenn -- the one that was terrorizing Michael and company -- secretly beamed aboard the Discovery into one of his secret rooms with other contraband objects and creatures. What is he doing with all those things that he’s, presumably, illegally accumulated?

He’s got a room, a study room in which he studies war because they’re at war. In different times, he might have books of poetry, he might have an easel in there. He’s an exercise man, so at one point in time he might have been doing interplanetary yoga. Right now, he needs to work out how to defeat enemies and he’s got forbidden material in there. He’s got weapons, he’s got poisons, he’s got creatures. He’s looking for an edge in a war with a superior opponent and he’ll take anything he can get, anywhere he can get it. Sometimes he takes risks to get it.

What is Lorca’s relationship with the women on the Discovery crew, because it seemed like there was something a little extra between the captain and Commander Landry, his head of security?

I think in this tradition of Star Trek captains and these alpha males who rise to the top, he’s got a taste for the good life and he’s got an eye for his female officers. I don’t know that that’s going to work with Burnham very well, frankly. She doesn’t look like she’s up for that kind of thing, but him and Landry certainly have a relationship that goes beyond, I would think, work. But that’s how I played my scenes with all the women on board, whether or not the writers were on board with that. By the way, that’s my tribute to Shatner. I always thought, as much as the original series was born out of the civil rights struggle and the birth of feminism, some of that was [infused with a feeling of] James Bond. It was clear Captain Kirk had his way with any member of the micro-skirted crew members he wanted, so that was my subtle tribute to him. I’m playing that, even if it’s inside my head. (Laughs.)

In your mind, what do the Klingons represent in Star Trek: Discovery

People are trying to draw very clear parallels from the Klingons and how they are with each other, and how we are with them. If there was a simple political message to be made, then that’s what we’d do. We’d be producing bumper stickers and fridge magnets. Instead, we’ve got a 15-hour story and nothing is too on the nose. Good storytelling allows people from different walks of life to go, “Ah, they’re talking about me,” or “They’re talking about this situation.” I think what you definitely get are characters who were relatively one-dimensional enemies before in Star Trek and you see them fleshed out and you see they themselves have their own struggles and are trying to navigate their own ethical universe, as different as it is. In keeping with all of the rest of the sophisticated storytelling that audiences respond to so well on television today and charts how things have changed over the years, even our enemies and even the people who think in war-like, aggressive fashion are explored so we understand their point of view. They're definitely about domination and they’re definitely about aggression. Some of the language does echo language that you hear in modern-day politics, but none of is meant to be too on-the-nose or direct parallels.

Star Trek: Discovery premieres new episodes every Sunday after 8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT on CBS All Access. The After Trek aftershow launches live Sundays at 9:30 p.m. ET/6:30 p.m. PT.