Note: For fans who have not yet seen this week’s episode of Star Trek: Discovery, there are spoilers ahead.
“I don’t think it’s a secret, I’ve been a nerd,” said actor Anthony Rapp. “I’ve been very outspoken about that.”
He has. but don’t just take his word for it. Check out the Star Trek: Discovery star’s Twitter feed: Rapp tweets ratings for science fiction and fantasy novels, and most recently: Dungeons and Dragons games with stars of the show and their friends.
That’s of course in addition to Rapp’s tweets promoting social justice, LGBTQ equality and his pro-mask pandemic posts. The Illinois native engages with his fans on a daily basis, and interacts with them about everything from civil rights to politics and theater, and when appropriate, he gets personal.
But when it comes right down to it, Rapp is a nerd. And he’s not alone:
That’s a parody of perhaps the most well-known song from Rent. Rapp starred in the original production on Broadway in 1996 as Mark Cohen, alongside his current co-star Wilson Cruz, who played the part of Angel in the touring production. Together, they play the science fiction franchise’s first regularly appearing gay couple aboard the U.S.S. Discovery, serving aboard a 23rd century starship that in this third season has flown 930 years into the future.
In our present day, the veteran actor of stage and screen — known also for roles in the films A Beautiful Mind and Adventures in Babysitting — is in Toronto, Canada, where he is filming season four of the CBS All Access streamed series. He took a break Wednesday evening to talk about being a nerd, his castmates, his thoughts on acting and LGBTQ representation in Star Trek.
This interview was edited for clarity and space limitations. Scroll down to watch the video of the full interview. Note: if you have not yet viewed this week’s episode of Star Trek: Discovery, Terra Firma Part 1, there are spoilers aplenty ahead!
Dawn Ennis: The mirror universe is back!
Anthony Rapp: Yes!
Ennis: How long ago was it you filmed this?
Rapp: Oh, my goodness. Sometime, maybe about a year ago? I want to say, -ish, give or take.
Ennis: The wonders of Hollywood. Your character, Stamets, in the alternate universe, in the Mirror Universe, has a devious plot. Do you remember anything about the idea that you would have what every actor lives for, a glorious death scene?
Rapp: Well, it’s not just a glorious death scene, but it’s a glorious death scene at the hands of Michelle Yeoh. You know, when I was first cast in this show, about three and a half, four years ago, one of the first things that was shared with me was that Michelle Yeoh was going to be a part of it. And my jaw just dropped because, I mean, she’s a legend. And you always hear that you shouldn’t meet your heroes because they’ll so often disappoint you. And it’s the exact opposite with Michelle. She is a consummate human being, in every way.
I didn’t get a lot of chances to work opposite her with her directly as part of the show, but we hung out and our cast is very close. We do social things together. And she was always fantastic to talk to and be with.
But to finally get to play opposite her a couple of times over the last season and a half, and then to get killed by her, that’s the sort of “pinch-me” moment that if you’d asked me, when I first saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I would have looked at you like you were speaking in tongues, because it would have seemed so unlikely that anything like that would ever come my way.
I don’t remember exactly how many times we did the shot. There were a couple of different shots, but one of the main shots was me creeping up behind her, and then she quickly turns and stabs me in the throat. She did that perfectly every time; the knife was incredibly, perfectly situated exactly at the right angle to my throat.
She has an otherworldly gift at such things. We are so lucky to be graced by her.
Ennis: You have a theatrical background which plays into this particular episode in which you are the the narrator of a big production. And I imagine that you must weekly call upon your theatrical skills, because acting on the small screen is not small.
Rapp: I think other actors have said something like this, that acting on a show like Star Trek is in some ways at times like acting in Shakespeare or a period piece, where the language can be really heightened. Like when you’re in Hamlet, you’re talking to a ghost; When you’re in Star Trek, you’re talking to an alien.
Some of our training comes from inhabiting any kind of fantastical realm or world, or you’re doing Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the Scottish play, and then also having the heavy lift of of technical language, or language that I would never utter in my normal life.
I think a lot of actors who grow up only doing film and television sometimes can feel a little nervous about taking big risks, because there’s this notion that when you’re on film, things have to be small, quiet. I think in Trek, people like Patrick Stewart, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, they had tremendous theatrical backgrounds. Brent Spiner, too, and that that absolutely served them incredibly well.
Ennis: You stand on the shoulders of giants, that’s for sure. Now, you and Wilson Cruz, you play partners on the show, and now you each have a death scene that you can compare notes. And of course, they’ll be fans who say, ‘”Oh, they’re killing off the gays again!” Any thoughts on those two things?
Rapp: Well, I think A., in the Mirror Universe, who knows what anyone is? I think everyone’s a little bit pansexual, probably. And B., Yeah, not to give any more spoilers away, but you know this version of the Mirror Universe we’re seeing is also in some ways a mirror of the mirror.
So it’s not canon in quite the same way as what we saw in season one. It’s another peeling back of the curtain, and the layers of of these mirrors. But back in season one, Stamets was a part of the plot to overthrow Georgiou. So this is just the natural extension of that.
Ennis: Those you follow you and Wilson on social media have seen that people are starting to call Wilson the Space Papi and you the Space Dad to Blu del Barrio’s character, to Adira. Not being a parent yourself, is that a stretch?
Rapp: Well, I’ve been a parent to pets and animals my whole life. I’m not equating Blu with a pet or an animal. But, you know, from the first day of meeting Blu, I was there for their very first day that they ever set foot on a professional film or television set. Jonathan Frakes was directing the episode, their first scene on camera, when I confront them at the foot of the ladder: “What are you doing up there?”
Ennis: No pressure or anything.
Rapp: And, you know, but Jonathan and I would be watching them work. They’re so incredible, already and with no experience in this arena, in training and acting experience.
Having been on a set for the first time when I was 15: It’s a little weird. And then there’s all kinds of strange things happening. It’s easily intimidating and strange and bizarre, and you have to absorb a lot. They just hit it right out of the park right away. and came at it with such incredible grounded and human energy. So I fell in love with Blu right then and there. Then I just naturally gravitated toward being a kind of, I don’t know, mentor, protective big older brother, dad, kind of thing. That felt very natural to me, personally. That was something that was very easy to “live into,” because I felt that so naturally anyway.
Ennis: As a pioneer in Star Trek, in terms of being an out gay man, playing a gay character, in a relationship with another man, do you see that the unfolding of having non-binary characters like Adira and a trans character, even in a ghostly version, how does that make you feel in terms of the craft and and our community?
Rapp: I think it’s long overdue. I’ve said things like this with you before, probably as we’ve talked over the years: There were times when people within the world of creating Trek were agitating for these kinds of characters to be a part of the fabric, off screen and on screen, but there was resistance from networks or whatever. So, it just took too long, frankly.
But the fact that it has come about makes it feel earned. I just feel incredibly lucky and proud that Wilson and I first were entrusted with carrying that mantle. Then, Tig Notaro coming on board, now, of course, Blu and Ian [Alexander].
Blu and Ian are quintessential Gen Z kids, and I am going to say “kids” with total affection and respect. They’re really young, but they’re so much a part of this younger generation which truly is willing to break down all kinds of barriers, and just shake things up in the most grounded way.
Recognizing that all of these different facets of identity and expression and being deserved to be seen, and all light needs to be shining everywhere, at all times. I’m sure that there are aspects of it that sometimes might be a little overwhelming or intimidating, but they are so up for it, and so ready to to carry that that mantle.
Ennis: When I spoke to Tig, she reminded me that her character had lost her wife in the battle of the binary stars. And she addressed a question from a fan about whether the knocking of heads between your characters was carried through into real life. And she said, “I certainly hope not!” She said, “I think that we get along just great.”
Rapp: Yes, I love Tig. I was first was introduced to her with the piece that she’d done when she was first diagnosed with cancer.
I wasn’t warned what it was about. And my mom passed away from cancer, but just like immediately, I was just so taken by it. And some of the things I was so taken by was her honesty, authenticity, and also humor in the face of it, but just her willingness to be totally authentically herself, and share every aspect of it.
That’s something that I really strive to do with my life. So when I heard that she would be part of the show, I crossed my fingers, this is one of my heroes: “I hope she’s as cool as she seems!” And she absolutely was. We’ve had we’ve got a complete blast. And I really love when she’s on set, and I wish she could be on set more often.
Ennis: What’s next for you? I know you’re so busy shooting the next season of Discovery, but what other projects do you have going on? Anything on the horizon?
Rapp: There’s a sort of small scale thing. I got invited by Swapna Krishna, who’s a writer. She’s written for my SyFy Wire, I believe, and other outlets. She invited me to contribute a story to an anthology that she’s editing called Sword Stone Table, in which writers are taking the Arthurian legends and doing spins on them. That would make them multicultural, LGBTQ, finding ways to adapt some aspect of the legend. Any aspect. That was the only brief: the Arthurian legends, find some way to adapt it to a story you want to tell. I’m incredibly honored to do that and I worked really hard on a story that I’m proud of. It turned out pretty well, I think. And so that’s going to be coming out sometime in the spring or summer.
But not now. We’re very much in the thick of season four production right now in Toronto.
Ennis: Thank you for taking time away from that. Please extend to everybody in the Star Trek: Discovery family, our eternal thanks. I know this seems like I’m blowing gas up your tailpipe, but y’all have brought back Star Trek, real Star Trek, and made us all excited again.
Rapp: Thank you. It’s an honor.
Watch a video of the full interview with Anthony Rapp, in which he discusses playing Dungeons and Dragons, the real Paul Stamets, more thoughts on acting and advice for beginners as well as those hoping to do so professionally.
12/11 Wilson Cruz was inaccurately listed as starring in the original production of Rent on Broadway, but first appeared in a touring company production. Wilson Jermaine Heredia originated the role of Angel and won a Tony Award for his portrayal.