Star Trek: Discovery is a tale of two warring parties, the Starfleet Federation and the Klingons, but behind the scenes there's a tale of two women, friends from acting school, who are now on the journey of a lifetime together. They may be on opposing sides on screen, but Discovery's two Marys—Mary Chieffo, who plays the Klingon L'Rell, and Mary Wiseman, Starfleet Cadet Sylvia Tilly on the series—are friends and classmates from Juilliard who have been catapulted to the final frontier, hand-in-hand.
The Star Trek franchise holds a special place in the hearts of millions of fans worldwide. Everyone has their own Star Trek experience in some form or another. For Chieffo, it was the 2009 reboot movie that ignited her desire to check out the original flicks and experience the TV ensembles. Wiseman grew up with the show on her periphery.
"I wasn't a Trekkie. I kind of saw some of [Star Trek: The Next Generation] growing up. I have an uncle who is very devoted, he reads all the softcover novels and all of that. As a kid, our tree was covered in spaceships from the Federation and elsewhere, but I personally wasn't super indoctrinated until I started dating my boyfriend, he and his family are very enthusiastic Trekkies," Wiseman told E! News. "They go to conventions, and they love that whole lifestyle so, so much."
Star Trek is a lifestyle for many, so the casting and subsequent premiere of Star Trek: Discovery had more eyeballs than your typical new TV show launch. While Wiseman was aware of how much the show meant to people through firsthand experience, Chieffo, an admitted geek, said she wasn't fully aware of the world she was stepping into while auditioning.
"It's one of those things—Star Trek, Star Wars—you get a sense that it's a global phenomenon and it's so culturally referenced in so many things. So, I had this sense…It wasn't until we did the Las Vegas convention this summer that I really started to realize how global it is. And then as the show has aired—you can't quite comprehend it," Chieffo said with a laugh. "Just how it's in so many different countries and so many different people are just affected by it and inspired by it...If I had fully understood, I probably would've been a lot more nervous with the whole process. In the same way, with Juilliard, I felt like I couldn't look at the statistics of getting in fully, or fully think about all of that until after the fact."
Both Chieffo and Wiseman did not take joining the Star Trek universe for granted.
"There's just a massive amount of material to sift through. It would just take days and days and days to get through it all. I definitely felt pressure to be well versed. My approach was just to do my best and watch the shows that are recommended and points of interest for me and try to be acclimated that way," Wiseman said. "But yeah, there's this huge world. It means so much to people, so you really want to feel like you've done your due diligence to understand and honor the material."
"I don't take it lightly because I am a geek," Chieffo said. "I didn't grow up with Star Trek like other people did, but I have things that I don't want people to mess with. So I think that letting them know I am an overly enthusiastic geek who wants to do them justice was a big part of my thing."
Juilliard didn't necessarily teach the young actors how to handle the attention that would come with joining a series with such a sprawling fandom, but once aboard the starship Discovery (and the Klingon sarcophagus ship), Wiseman and Chieffo had the guidance of their new peers, both off the show, like American Gods star Yetide Badaki, and their costars on the series, including Sonequa Martin-Green, Jason Isaacs and Anthony Rapp.
"The people who took care of me for this Star Trek universe were the other people on the show who are already part of franchises that have deeply committed fans. So Sonequa's experience with The Walking Dead, and Jason's experience with Harry Potter, Anthony's experience with Rent," Wiseman said. "They were really helpful in trying to prepare me for what this world would look like after the show came out."
Advice came in the form of "don't read the comments," Wiseman said with a laugh. They also told her, "That it can be really moving to meet people who are touched by your work. That can be fuel for the work that you do."
"One thing Sonequa said was, ‘Now you're a spokesperson for yourself in a way,' and that's sort of a paradigm shift from being a private citizen to having to stand behind your work in front of hundreds of thousands of people," Wiseman added.
Chieffo, whose parents are actors Beth Grant and Michael Chieffo, said in addition to her costars, she picked the brains of her family friends. "I felt like everyone who had experience with it was very open and willing to talk. I also found there were some friends of my parents who had been part of Trek in various forms, and they were more than willing to give their two cents and just kind of acknowledge that it's this large family," she said. "I mean, I ran into some of them at the Las Vegas convention, so it is just like one big crazy family."
And Chieffo and Wiseman had each other.
The two actors were both part of Group 44 at Juilliard. The pair graduated two years ago after appearing in productions where they portrayed sisters and mother and daughter. Neither had any idea the other was cast in Star Trek: Discovery until it was announced by CBS, but once reunited, their shared experience has become a defining one. Chieffo said they were able to decompress about their shared experience at school and grow closer as a result.
"It really has got us together in a such a beautiful new way...And then because it's such a specific experience with this, with the fandom, with the franchise, and being able to—it's great to be able to text someone and be like, ‘My outfit [for an event] looks terrible!'...I played Mrs. Webb, I played her mom, in Our Town, we played sisters…I think what's cool is there's a sisterly, motherly thing on both sides," Chieffo said. "I think we're able to take care of each other at the right time, like when the other person needs it. All of that, which had kind of happened in small moments at school, has just happened more and more here."
"To get to do something so big and so new with someone who was a friend and someone who I feel like I knew so well, it was just a gift," Wiseman said. "How often do you get to go through big, scary, exciting experiences in your life with someone who you love and trust like that? It was just incredibly helpful and incredibly grounding. We were able to process our big overwhelming feelings with each other. We haven't had a scene together, but I feel like we were hand-in-hand through this the whole time, which was so cool. We get to see each other's journeys in a way that's meaningful to us."
Chieffo said watching Wiseman develop the character of Tilly, with the "groundedness and intelligence she brings to what on the page could be perceived as a one-dimensional goofy character," and the writers get to know Wiseman and writing for her has been "very beautiful" and empowered her to embrace the archetype she's been given.
"I've been really proud of the fact that we're holding our own in separate camps—Federation, Klingon—we're getting to build our own relationships on set," Chieefo said, "and yet we have each other to hold each other's hands when you need to."
Star Trek: Discovery's fall finale airs Sunday, Nov. 12 at 8:30 p.m. on CBS All Access. New episodes resume on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018.