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Star Trek: Discovery’s Shazad Latif on Lieutenant Ash Tyler’s Vulnerability, Sexual Assault, and That Twist

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Star Trek: Discovery has been a fascinating study in importing the progressive ethos of its forebears in the franchise with the more sleek, heavy overarching story lines of modern television. Chief among its pleasures is watching the story line of Lieutenant Ash Tyler, played by Shazad Latif, unfold. Tyler began as a Starfleet captain in terrible condition until he’s rescued from endless torture on a Klingon ship by Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs), who brings him back to the Discovery and installs him into his crew. He’s formed a tender relationship with protagonist Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) while also grappling with PTSD from his repeated sexual assault at the hands of Klingon L’Rell.

Tyler’s character is complicated by his role in killing Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz), who discovered what many fans suspected all along: Lieutenant Tyler is actually a heavily modified Klingon named Voq, surgically altered to appear human. Through conditioning and a personality overlay of sorts, he’s ingratiated himself into the crew of Discovery. I spoke with Latif about Tyler’s vulnerability and what to expect in the finale.

One of Star Trek’s greatest strengths is how each show is a family in and of itself, and watching how they work together, which on Discovery is just very different because of some very interesting twists and turns. I read that you knew from the beginning that your character was actually the altered Klingon Voq from the beginning. Is that correct?
Yeah, yeah. We knew it was going to a double character.

As an actor, how do you find the humanity and the through line in a character like that, considering all the turns you know he’s gonna make?
You’ve got to learn the arc, find the arc, but you start up from Voq, you start from his story and believe everything he’s doing is right. It’s really that. Following his line into Tyler, and then I had time off with Voq, so I could focus on Tyler’s own memories, Tyler’s own arc, and then joining them together. It’s a very fun thing to do. Trying to put together a puzzle. Creating a sort of spire of two characters. Following Voq’s story from being this outcast manifests in everything he does. Following that through to the ultimate sacrifice is very high-concept, extreme stuff, which can sometimes be overplayed or it could have been melodramatic. The style of the Klingons is very operatic, classical acting in a way, so I wanted to bring in a quietness and calm to that role rather than it just being a loud, shouty Klingon.

I agree, this sort of character could easily get lost in the bigger moments, but I thought you really portray Tyler’s vulnerability well. I think my favorite aspect of Tyler’s story line was something we rarely get to see on TV, which is witnessing a man dealing with both PTSD and the aftermath of sexual assault due to his torture by L’Rell, although now, the reality of that is kind of up in the air. You also had some very beautiful scenes with Sonequa, and a heart-to-heart in the episode “Into the Forest I Go” concerning this aspect of Tyler’s story. Could you discuss that aspect of Tyler’s story line and crafting the vulnerability in the character?
That was an amazing draw for me because I knew [about it] from the start. I just wanted to make sure he wasn’t a classic rogue American action hero. Which is fun to do, run around, shooting guns and all that kind of stuff, but you know, that’s the play aspect of it. The main heart of it for me is just to portray a man who can be seen as weak and vulnerable. That’s a strength. Me and Sonequa wanted to make sure that every time we did a scene, we were thinking about that very much. Even in the sex scene we had, at first I was gonna be on top, the classic thing where a man lays a woman down, and we wanted to go the complete opposite. She ends up cradling me. Just making sure we sort of reversed those [expectations] every time. In those scenes, Tyler is usually very weak. He’s either in the med bay suffering or with L’Rell, and she cradles him when he falls into her arms. He’s around these very strong female characters, so it was okay for a man to be seen like this because we do see him as very strong. He’s a very skilled security officer. We see that side of him, the classic American action hero and I wanted to get away from that. Every chance I could with him, and you’ll see it more importantly in [episode] 15 as well. You know, just wrestling with emotions, which is more exciting to watch, I think.

I definitely agree. Since you mentioned the dynamic between you and Sonequa, can you talk a little bit about crafting the relationship between Michael and Tyler?
That was sort of the joy of it. Every time we got together and got these scenes, we didn’t just want to make them classic, male and female [dynamic]. It’s a very strange romance ’cause we’ve both got our own separate things going on, but we just wanted to get that balance of male and female energies right, and we can be weak around each other. Because they’re the outcasts. They need each other. They were each other’s tethers. Then again, it also is very complicated because really Voq’s got this whole L’Rell love story going on as well. [Chuckles.] And both are equally justifiable, so you know, it’s tragic that one has to give.

Do you have a favorite scene you did with Sonequa that focuses on her relationship with Tyler?
Yeah, I loved the big reveal. That was an intense one to film. That was very hard. I like the scene where we’re both in the café, when she’s quite light at first and she’s smiling, and I’m saying, “Give me one more chance.” There was something nice about that scene because they’re still trying to keep up appearances. There’s a scene coming up in the last episode that I really enjoyed. It was one of our last scenes and I thought it was very beautiful. Hopefully, it plays out like that. I want to see it, find out how I did. [Chuckles.] It was fun to film.

To go back a little bit to the sexual-assault story line. The audience now knows that Tyler is really Voq in a heavily surgically transformed body, although it seems like with the surgery scene that happened with L’Rell in episode 13, maybe we can assume that Voq may not really exist anymore and the Tyler personality will dominate? But knowing that this was a personality grafted in Voq and not necessarily fully real, how do you feel that affects the sexual-assault story line?
It’s interesting because in reality Voq was just having sex. And they’re in love, and that’s what’s technically happening, but obviously in Tyler’s mind, because he is in my head, he was a real guy and his memories are real and he’s still a real person, he’s just coming through in someone else’s core being. In his mind, it’s sexual assault. So, to play it both is very weird and interesting because you don’t normally get to do that. But to explore adds another layer for an actor and for the story line. Especially in times like now, with what’s going on, it’s a very, very interesting thing to explore.

There’s a lot of talk within Star Trek fandom, and obviously in the lead up to Discovery, about how the show would continue the franchise’s interest in diversity and its progressive ethos, and I definitely think Tyler’s story line with sexual assault and PTSD is one of the more profound cases of that because we really just don’t get to see how men handle sexual assault and the aftermath. Beyond Tyler’s specific story line with sexual assault, how do you think Star Trek: Discovery is continuing the franchise’s interest in diversity and kind of questioning our culture?
I think it’s doing that in an amazing way, and it’s doing it in every episode. Gay story lines, powerful female figures, people of different races and creeds are always at the forefront. In episode 15, we did a scene with me, Mary Wiseman, who is representing a young ginger-haired woman; Michelle Yeoh, an Asian woman; Sonequa, a black woman; and me, a mixed-race guy. Three women, one man, which you rarely see. Which is way more than 50-50 casting, you know. It’s always at the forefront of these things. Again, for me, this is how I see the world, so for me, it’s normal. I was brought up by my mother, a single mother. A strong powerful woman. Loads of Asian aunties, and this is how I was brought up, how I see the world. I’m from London, which is a very multicultural place. For me, to be in a show that’s exploring that is very normal, and I’m just waiting for everyone else to catch up. Producers, directors, people who make shows. They need to catch up with how the world is for us, and it’s slowly happening. It will happen. It’s just that we have to keep banging on the door, but you know, I’d prefer it if we didn’t have to bang on the door and everything just trickled down from the top as it were.

The Klingon in Discovery is always sort of harsh sounding, but I think it’s a little bit different than what we’re used to hearing, and it seems like every Klingon on the show almost has a different style of communicating this language. Can you talk to me a little bit about your approach to the accents that you have to play with as Voq and Tyler?
Each actor had to bring their own thing, and each Klingon represents each actor. We wanted to make it very individual, so me, Kenneth [Mitchell], Mary [Chieffo], and Chris Obi, we’ve all got very different styles. Clare McConnell is just completely different because they’re from different heritages as well, and we wanted to make sure we did that as a starting point. We wanted to give Voq that same sort of vulnerability that bled through to Tyler, so we wanted to make them very relaxed within this very operatic, traditional, cultural thing where they’re lighting fires, doing all these rituals. I just practiced it and it came out of the back of the throat, because a lot of the “huh” sounds I wanted to soften, so even within that harsh language, there was a softness. That thing got stuck in the back of [his] throat because he’s always kept quiet and he’s an outcast. He hasn’t really spoken up until that point he says, “I’ll light the fire.” He has to push through the back, and I just wanted to get that. And Tyler has an aspect of that. I wanted to bleed that into his American accent.

There are only really a few episodes left this season. Obviously, I know you can’t spoil anything, but I’m wondering, what do you want the audience to take away from Tyler’s story at the end of this season?
I just want them to have emoted. I want to have made them feel something. [Also that] it’s okay to be weak, it’s okay to open up. It’s okay to speak and it’s okay to be around a strong woman. I think that’s really important, and I think that’s what Tyler represents, and also just enjoying this crazy, crazy story arc.

Beyond the last few episodes of Star Trek: Discovery this season, do you have any other work coming up that you’re especially excited about?
There’s a film called Profile, which is directed by Timur Bekmambetov, who directed Wanted with James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie, and he [did] Night Watch, Day Watch, which were a lot of art house-y Russian films, so he’s a Russian-Kazakhstani director. It’s a film that’s all set on Skype, and it’s a true story about a journalist who goes undercover to try and understand this world of jihadi recruiters online who get young girls to come over to Syria. It’s sort of like a strange love story.

I wouldn’t normally play a terrorist, but the only reason I did it was because it was a verbatim script. It’s from these Skype conversations, you can see the transcriptions. I felt like I had control of it, see where it was and wasn’t. Writers saying, “I think this is what might be a terrorist might say,” it wasn’t as dangerous and risky as that because I don’t want to play just someone’s idea of a terrorist.Timur allowed us to [write] a few scenes and we improvised 15 different takes, and it was just a very collaborative, brilliant project. It’s coming out at the Berlin Film Festival. We’re going to world premiere there on February 17. I’m quite excited about that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Star Trek’s Shazad Latif on Lt. Ash Tyler and That Twist