One of the best delights of the current season of “Star Trek: Discovery” is the unexpected presence of iconoclastic filmmaker David Cronenberg — as an actor. In this week’s episode of the CBS All Access series, the director of “The Fly,” “Dead Ringers,” and “A History of Violence” reprises his performance as the mysterious Federation official named Kovich, who takes a particular interest in Emperor Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and her origins in the cutthroat alternative Mirror Universe.
“He is an interrogator who’s also kind of an academic historian,” Cronenberg tells Variety about Kovich. “He plays his cards pretty close to his vest, as does the Emperor. And as he tries to pry open some secrets from her, she actually is doing the same to him.”
The 77-year-old Canadian filmmaker has been acting sporadically for as long as he’s been directing, but since his most recent feature as a director, 2014’s “Maps to the Stars,” Cronenberg’s output as an actor has ticked up a bit, most notably in the 2017 limited series “Alias Grace.”
While Cronenberg isn’t sure what his next directing project will be — he says he’s seeking to finance three projects he’s written, two features and one series — he does know what his next acting gig will be. Variety can exclusively report that along with appearing in more episodes in Season 3 of “Discovery,” Cronenberg will return to for Season 4.
Cronenberg spoke with Variety about why the original “Star Trek” series was such a big deal in his native Canada, what it’s been like acting on a massive sci-fi TV series, and whether he would ever consider directing an episode of “Discovery.”
So how much of a “Star Trek” fan are you?
Well, I was certainly a fan of the original “Star Trek,” and so that’s my main credential. I dipped into a couple of the series a bit and also, you know, JJ Abrams’ movie, but I hadn’t been following “Discovery.” And of course, in each case, it’s quite a complex universe with a lot of characters and in fact more than one universe, as it turns out. So I can’t say that I have untangled every possible knot in the show at all. [I’m] concentrating, like a good actor, mainly on my character and his particular role at the moment. Really, it’s a “be here now” kind of thing, because I still haven’t figured everything out.
How did this role come to you?
I’m cheap and I’m available. I live in Toronto, and it’s being shot in Toronto. I think that’s my main qualification. But I just got a note through people that I know, casting people, saying that [executive producer] Alex Kurtzman was really thinking of having me do a spot on the show. I said, of course, I’d be absolutely delighted. Who wouldn’t be, especially as an original Star Trek fan — and for Canadians, too. I mean, because William Shatner, one of the lead actors on the [original] show, he was a very well known Canadian actor. To have him be in a successful U.S. TV series was quite thrilling. So it’s kind of come full circle that “Star Trek” should be shooting in Toronto. And so of course I was delighted to be a part of the multiple universes of “Star Trek.”
Was it ever something that was dream of yours, to be a part of “Star Trek” in some fashion?
Never. No. Especially in the ’60s — when the original series was playing — I considered myself a potential novelist. I never thought that I would be in film at all. I had done some acting on stage as a student, but the production of something like “Star Trek” — it really did seem like a galaxy far, far away, to mix the franchises. [Chuckles] It never occurred to me in a million years that I would actually be on screen in a spaceship.
Your character, Kovich, is so obsessed with the mirror universe — was that something that you were remembered from when it was first introduced on the original show at all?
I think I dimly do remember that that was really spectacular, that there should be a mirror universe, but not really just a mirror — I mean it really is a sort of reversal universe. But not strongly enough, I must say, you know, it doesn’t really help you as an actor, to know certain things. It’s really as a kind of existential enterprise, really playing with the moment you know you cannot really incorporate all of those things all of those memories.
When I visited the “Discovery” set on the first season, I remember being so impressed with just how detailed those sets are. What was the experience like for you to be shooting the show?
They are fabulous sets. I don’t think I’ve ever built a set myself that was as complex and as inventive in that particular sci-fi way as they have here in Toronto. Very impressive. I mean, I’m really a kind of a dilettante dropping in the show which has been ongoing for years, as you know. They’re just so polished and everybody is so professional, and it’s a lovely experience. And, of course, I was interested in the handling of the visual effects and what was there on the show that was practical and what was obviously going to be done later in post-production. It was just kind of seamless, really, and some of it was surprisingly simple. I was very interested to see that, because of course I’ve dealt with visual effects myself, but I hadn’t done tons of CG — you know, computer graphics. The director part of me was very intrigued by that.
But in terms of what I was doing, I am an obedient actor, and [I’m] trying to bring the music out of the dialogue. It’s very interesting dialogue. It’s not easy, because not naturalistic, obviously. At times, my character in particular is going into a kind of a sci-fi technological monologue. It’s difficult to bring out the music in that and have some emotion in it, so it’s not just dry technological stuff. That’s quite an acting challenge, and quite a lot of fun.
You’ve been doing more acting lately. Is that something that you you’ve decided you want to be pursuing more?
If you look me up on IMDb, which I’m sure you have, you see I’ve done quite a few things over the years. I really started when we were doing underground films in Toronto, inspired by the New York underground. We had no money, but there was a group who were kind of inventing themselves as filmmakers, and we would act in each other’s little movies that we were making, or shorts, just to help each other out. So acting as part of moviemaking came very naturally to me. As things progressed, the first really seriously professional role that I played was John Landis’ film “Into the Night,” which also starred Jeff Goldblum and Michelle Pfeiffer. And that was a scary thing, because suddenly I was in L.A. shooting with a totally professional crew, big Hollywood crew, with some big up-and-coming stars. That was the beginning of it, a sort of new, no-longer-hungry kind of acting for me.
It comes sporadically enough. If I’m not directing, if I don’t have a project, and somebody offers me a role, then I’m more inclined to do it. I like being on set. To be in touch with moviemaking when I’m not actually making a movie myself is really nice. Even on the “Star Trek” set, there is a lot of the crew that I know, and, actually, the sons and daughters of lots of crew that I worked with. So it’s like an old home — just reconnecting.
And then of course acting is fun. It’s so different from directing. You really are responsible only for your character and his or her dialogue and so on. Your responsibilities are very, very specific, as opposed to when you’re directing, and everything is your fault. [Laughs]
Obviously, your first career has been as a director and as a writer of film. Would you ever want to write or direct an episode of “Star Trek”?
No, really not. It’s a very different kind of directing. It’s almost like another job entirely, you know, and that’s another thing that I was very interested to see. It’s more technical. Now I can’t say this for certain about “Discovery,” because I really don’t know, but I doubt that the directors are around for post-production, for all that CG, and for when you have to do additional recording. I did do some [ADR on my episode], and there was no director involved. It was just the sound people who were putting the soundtrack together. These are all things that when you’re directing a movie, you are totally involved in. And you are involved in choosing the cameraman, you are involved in casting, and so on. When you come to a series like “Star Trek,” a lot of that stuff has already been determined by the producers and the showrunner. So it’s quite a different kind of directing. If I do direct again, it wouldn’t be to direct an episode of a series.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.