A lot of our faves on Star Trek: Discovery have been through some weird, weird stuff in three seasons, but few have had quite the journey Lieutenant—now Captain—Saru has had. But this week’s episode, “Su’Kal,” throws one hell of a curveball to our Kelpien friend…and to Doug Jones, the actor behind the makeup who found himself in an altogether more alien challenge than usual.
“Su’Kal” sees Saru, Dr. Culber, and Michael on an away mission to the planet that Discovery believes might be the source of the Burn—the mystery Michael has chased all season, a cataclysmic event that detonated the Dilithium at the heart of every active warp core in a starship 100 years before the events of season three. And it might be the show’s strangest away mission yet. Not only was the planet they were beaming to unlike anything they’d expected, it had been radically altered by powerful holographic simulations to create new environments for its equally mysterious inhabitant.
It did more than that: the holo-programs also radically altered the appearances of our Away Team. Michael became a Trill. Hugh became a Bajoran. And Saru, the only alien among them? Well..suddenly he became a very human-looking Doug Jones. To find out more about how Jones approached a completely different vibe to Saru, io9 spoke with the actor—check out part of our interview below!
James Whitbrook, io9: What was it like for you when you received the script for this episode, and you realized that suddenly, you’re not in a large amount of Kelpien makeup, you’re…human!
Doug Jones: When I saw that in the script for the first time, I had two reactions at the same time. One was, ‘Oh, good!’ The other one was, ‘Oh, noooo!’ You can imagine! The good part was, ‘I don’t have to wear silicone rubber glued to my face. I can get my own snacks from the craft service table. I can undo my own pants when it’s bathroom time.’ There’s so many plusses, right? Then the ‘Oh no’ part was, I played humans many a time in my 35-year career, but I have never played Saru as a human. This is terrifying. Can I pull this off? Will fans buy it?
All those questions and fears were right there with me. And the other thing too, in this age of social media…I didn’t want to face an onslaught of… [Jones adopts a shrill, dramatic voice] ‘Ew, that’s what he looks like?! Ewwwwww! He’s much scarier without the make-up!’ You know? All that, that you get. But I thought, ‘OK, OK, how do we?’ How do we…[sighs] I just had to buckle down and forge ahead with this human version of Saru.
io9: There is so much physicality to your performance as Saru on the show. What was it like those first few days, when you were just trying to get into the mood of how to modulate that performance, realizing you don’t have that sort of mask you usually have on the show to work with?
Jones: Well, what was working in my favor was that I was living and breathing as Saru for many years, already. Saru is a part of me. I know him really well. So, without the look, I still can channel his insides—his heart, his soul, his intention, and his voice. The speech pattern was the first starting place. That could stay pretty much the same. What the biggest change was, was OK…how I stand, how I walk, how I hold myself, how I gesture—not quite all the way human like I am when I’m Saru. The biggest change being the footwear. Those hoof boots as Saru change my posture, it puts my hips a bit forward and my arms a bit back. And my walk: it changes everything! So with my heels on the ground, I had to splice together Kelpien and human to make a walk that was still a hint Saru’s in there somewhere. Heels on the ground, you have to be somewhat human already. I wanted to glide like a supermodel down a runway if I could…but, I had to think to myself ‘Make it usable for a guy in regular boots.’
io9: We get this rare chance to really see quite an emotional side of Saru he doesn’t let out very often—he’s confronting the idea there’s a member of his species in grave danger and needs to reach out to this child figure in Su’Kal. What was it like to tap into this very vulnerable side of him, when he realizes who Sa’Kal is and what the situation is with him?
Jones: I turned 60 this year, in my real life. The older I get, the more nostalgic I get for home, for family…Saru is kind of on that same journey. He’s left home twice now, in his life— firstly, going to Starfleet at the very beginning, to being told he can never go back again. We do get back there [in season two] when they’re ready to bring us back, so I can liberate the Kelpiens and battle the Ba’ul and live in harmony and get my planet of Kaminar fixed. Then at the end of season two, we say goodbye again, we’re going to jump to the future. So, he suffered emotional loss and tried to keep it dignified all this time. So many times.
Now that he has not seen another Kelpien face, and the chance to see one again, and to be of help to them…and to maybe get back to the homeworld of Kaminar—‘Is there a potential for me to go to Kaminar?’ All this is tugging at his heart so, so much. There’s no way for him to [deal with it]…so, Michael Burnham says [to Saru this episode], ‘Are you emotionally compromised?’ She knows him really well, better than anybody else in the crew does. And she can see that yes, he is absolutely going through massive amounts of nostalgia and heart tugs to his homeworld. So that does affect his decision-making right now.
Star Trek: Discovery’s third season is currently airing on CBS All Access. Stay tuned for more from our chat with the wonderful Doug Jones soon!
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