‘Star Trek: Discovery’: Jason Isaacs on His Character’s Origins and What He Wants From Burnham

"Context Is for Kings" -- Episode #103 -- Episodic coverage the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Pictured (l-r): Jason Isaacs as Captain Gabriel Lorca; Sonequa Martin-Green as First Officer Michael Burnham. Photo Cr: Jan Thijs/CBS  © 2017 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.
Jan Thijs

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched “Star Trek: Discovery” episode 3, “Context Is for Kings.”

With Sunday night’s episode, “Star Trek: Discovery” viewers got their first look at the ship from which the show’s title is taken — and at her captain. As Gabriel Lorca, Jason Isaacs plays a Star Fleet captain unlike any in “Star Trek” history. An officer on a wartime mission, Lorca is calculating, secretive, and more than willing to break whatever rules he needs to to help the Federation win its war against the Klingon Empire.

Isaacs spoke with Variety about the character’s history, his plans for Sonequa Martin-Green’s court-martialed Michael Burnham, and how his work more than a decade and a half ago on the military drama “Black Hawk Down” helped him prepare for “Discovery.”

What’s Lorca’s worldview?
He’s focused on the thing right in front of him, and it’s for other people to analyze what’s going on in the bigger picture. He’s got a war to win. He’s been given a science ship. He’s been given people who are explorers, not warriors. And he needs the staff and crew around him to be people who are going to do what needs to be done, because he thinks, slightly arrogantly or possibly correctly, that the Federation has the wrong mindset, that they’re up against enemies who are way more capable than they are, and that he is going to have to somehow make a breakthrough in technology and suspend the normal rules of engagement and Federation directives, if he’s going to save not just the people who are on the ship, but an infinite number of planets from slaughter and invasion. He’s got an enormous amount on his mind.

What does he see in Burnham that looks useful?
She’s someone that has already made a decision to do what needs to be done practically and smartly in a crisis situation, and she gets who the enemy are and how you need to treat them. That’s pretty rare. She’s also very capable. She has a computer brain — she was raised on Vulcan and did particularly well at the academy. And she will be invested in him, because he’s saving her — and that’s not nothing, either, when you’re trying to build a chain of command. She’s capable and she’s willing, and to an extent, her loyalty is up for grabs.

Stamets calls Lorca a warmonger. Is he right?
Stamets is a f—ing idiot. [Laughs] They can all say what they want, and in peace time they can sit around and examine their nasal hairs. But right now, there’s people firing on us and trying to kill us, and Stamets would like to run double-blind tests on everything for a couple years and do control groups, and I need technology that will give us an edge in a war that we’re probably going to lose otherwise. So there’s a necessary, hopefully dramatic, and enjoyable tension between them.

When we see the Shenzhou in the pilot, it is presented as this sort of quaint relic. What is the Discovery in comparison?
The Discovery is ostensibly a science vessel, but a long way away from everybody’s attention, we are trying to perfect a technology that will allow us to gain the upper hand. And I’ve also been given license by the Federation, who are at a loss for what to do, to do whatever is necessary. So I can hire anyone I want, I can conduct myself in ways that break the rule book, and no one can really call me on it.

What is Lorca’s background and what makes him so different from what we typically think of a Star Fleet officer being?
You don’t want to be asking about things that get revealed during the show. But he’s a guy who’s seen a lot of action. He’s seen a lot of war. He’s been affected by it. Does it make him cold or does it make him efficient? Does it make him unsentimentally brilliant at strategy or does it make him inhuman? He’s seen what death can do, and he’s seen what happens when the enemy wins, and that has affected all of his decisions.

Was his Southern accent something you brought to him?
Yes. I had no interest in being English and being a very pale shadow of the brilliant Patrick Stewart [Capt. Jean-Luc Picard on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”]. I just wanted to do something that would make it interesting for the audience, and new and fresh. I hadn’t heard a captain who sounded like this. And he’s a military man, but he can be immensely charming. I’ve been privileged enough to work with the [U.S. Army] Rangers at Fort Benning, and no matter where you come from in America, if you train down South where most of the bases are, you pick up some form of a Southern accent. And I wanted something that had subliminal hints at the military.

He is obviously very different than the character who we believe at the outset of the show will be Burnham’s captain. How would you contrast Lorca and Georgiou?
Georgiou is a mother figure, and I am unsentimental and don’t see my job as protecting [Burnham] emotionally or any other way. I see her as a very, very useful asset in this war.