There's a new captain on the bridge. Jason Isaacs and the USS Discovery finally made their debut in Star Trek: Discovery's third episode, now streaming on CBS All Access. Isaacs plays Captain Gabriel Lorca and, well, spoiler alert—something's up.
In the episode, Captain Lorca basically springs Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) from prison to serve on his ship. Yeah, so much for the lifetime imprisonment for mutiny deal sentence. Captain Lorca wants Burnham for one purpose: Win the war against the Klingons. He needs to win and will do so by any means necessary.
"Well, you know, he's brought this woman on board to be a crewmember because he's got to try and win a war slightly hamstrung. He's on a science vessel with a of peacetime explorer crew, not people who are trying to fight. The rules of engagement such as they are—remember these are not the ones from the original series, this is 10 years before—the Federation directives are different, and they're peacetime directives, but he's fighting an ruthless and immoral—not amoral—enemy who will do anything they need to do and take any measure necessary," Isaacs said.
"He's fighting on behalf of an organization for whom that's not true yet. They haven't taken on board that they're going to lose and everyone will die. He does understand that. He's seen death on a large scale before. He takes her, he redirects her from the fate she was facing because he needs someone by his side who's going to do what's necessary, when it's necessary and hopefully have loyalty to him because he's the one that gave her a second chance," he continued. "Although that's questionable because Burnham is so guilt-stricken by what she's done. Does he have a secret agenda? Yeah, to win the war. Unlike other captain's before…he's keeps a certain authoritative distance between him and the crew because he thinks that's how they respond to best to the chain of command. He carries his own burden of things he's done, things he hopes to do, doubts—his own insecurities and doubts."
Read on to hear more from Isaacs about his new role, love of Trek and what people can learn just by watching the Starfleet in action.
You've got big shoes to fill. Michelle Yeoh, Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, Kate Mulgrew…how does your captain compare?
He's barefoot. I'm not even beginning to play in that arena. You start to think like that, you might as well not go to work. I've got a war to win, I've got a crew to try and save and I've got a Federation to manipulate. It's hard to give even a nanosecond's thought to the genius that was [William Shatner], for instance, that I grew up in awe of, I wouldn't have gone to work. I wouldn't take the job if they didn't have an original story, a kind of single rich, layered, textured 15-hour story for me to jump in and be part of, I don't think I would've done it either because I absolutely worshiped the original series…it was a huge part of my childhood television viewing.
The idea of doing some kind of pale reboot of it, or kind of an echo of it, it would be an anathema to me. So, it's up to other people to decide in the future where I will live or not live in the pantheon of those greats. I'm just happy to strap a phaser on.
Is that what appealed to you about the role? The history of Star Trek and your own love of it?
No, no it was the opposite—the very, very opposite. That's the stuff that made me not want to do it. If someone said to me, ‘We're remaking The Godfather,' I'd sprint a million miles in the other direction across broken glass. Remaking something, I think is pointless, something that's been done so well before. So, the new story, for our times, reflective of stuff going on in the streets and the newspapers, that's told in a very—I thought—a very dynamic and interesting way with lots of twists and turns, I was able to forget entirely, when I read the story, that there had ever been a Star Trek before.
It's unlike any Star Trek I've seen before and it is very reflective of the times. What do you hope people learn from Star Trek: Discovery?
Oh my god, if they were going to learn something? I hope they'd read a couple of op/ed columns or maybe a bumper sticker and some fridge magnets. I hope they'll be entertained…The best way you can influence people and help them make good choices in their life…it's just by telling a great story and subliminally, whatever the message or affect you're going to have on people works under the surface. It's a cracking plot start to finish and it should have you kind of leaning forward off the chair and not wanting to miss it.
And then the same thing Gene Rodenberry set out to do in the ‘60s when there was such terrible strife and unrest in the streets, we're presenting, not at the center of our show as part of the message, but just as part of the almost by osmosis you take on the notion that there may be a time where we can work together across gender, race and even species in our show and certainly sexuality and all these other things—and work together in our collective best interests. Obviously this is coming at a time where there are people trying to make us work against each other and separate us from each other.
What was your first experience like on the bridge in that captain's chair?
I didn't sit in the chair. That was my first experience–I'm not going to sit in the chair. I've seen too many scenes with people sitting in the chair and we're at war and there are missiles being fired. I went right down to the front by the screen and I looked up at it, and I engaged with it like the missiles were instruments in my orchestra. I stood and I conducted the war. That became a template for me for a number of episodes because I felt like he's a very active guy. This guy doesn't like to stand still, he likes to be doing stuff, he'd like to be fighting hand-to-hand.
He's frustrated by the ship, which is a science vessel, it has some weapons, it has some shields, but it's not built for war. If I could will it forward, like The Flintstones, if I could give it an extra mile an hour by pushing it, I would do it. So I just stayed out of the chair for as long as I could and I finally had to sit in the chair because of a scene where it wasn't really active, nothing much was happening, so they tend to sit down. I felt like I'd earned it.
You come from a background of projects with loyal fan bases. Was there any hesitation in jumping into such a big one?
No, I mean, I like to use sports analogies and tennis is the sport I play: When I watch players walk onto center court in Wimbledon and there's no reason at all that they can't beat the other person and hold their own, and they collapse completely because the occasion is too much for them, and caring that weight and expectation on their shoulders. I've been along long enough to cast it all of and whilst I have the deepest respect for all the fans and I love the ones I've met so far and the amazing actors who have gone before, I deliberately concentrated on not giving a f—k and I came on and played.
I know there's a whole bunch of people back in Hollywood who are obsessed with canon and with detail about what you can and can't do, and wear and point and press, but I shrugged all that off and arrived as if this was the very first scene in the very first Star Trek ever filmed. That's the only way you can play anything.
Did you and Sonequa do anything special to get the vibe down between each other or was it all on the page?
Well, actually, there's a bunch of tension between us. I'm trying to earn her trust and she is filled with both guilt and fear and suspicion. What Sonequa and I had to do was work very hard not to show what we're like off screen because we're having a fantastic time off screen. We have a very good mutual friend who's in The Walking Dead, plus Sonequa organizes these game nights when the entire cast bond. I host them at the house. We adore each other's company and make each other laugh, whereas Burnham is very poker-faced and doesn't respond to any of Lorca's jokes and we have to be suspicious of each other. So acting sometimes is about trying to not like each other on screen.
Star Trek: Discovery drops new episodes on Sundays, 8:30 p.m. on CBS All Access.