“The Best Klingon Speaker in Canada”
The birth of Klingon as an actual language came when Paramount Pictures hired linguist Marc Okrand to develop it for 1984’s “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.” In 1985, Okrand’s “The Klingon Dictionary” was published, establishing Klingon as an actual, speakable language, one which could be learned just like German or Japanese. As a result, a whole new sort of fandom was created.
Robyn Stewart is about six months younger than “Star Trek” itself, and watched reruns as a kid, inspired by the message that “they’re telling you that humans can be better.” In 1987, in college, she was minoring in Russian language, and a friend with whom she shared a love of odd foreign words introduced her to to Marc Okrand’s dictionary. “I was like, maybe I’m the only one who saw that you could actually learn Klingon from this book and that it’s not a joke,” she said. “But maybe five, 10 years later, I think I discovered the Klingon Language Institute. It’s been Klingon all the time since then.”
It’s thanks to the Klingon Language Institute, a non-profit organization which “exists to facilitate the scholarly exploration of the Klingon language and culture,” that Stewart was brought onto “Discovery.” The producers went to the KLI specifically asking for a person who spoke Klingon and also lived in Canada: “There’s another expert Klingon speaker who is Canadian, but he was in Switzerland, so I’m really the best Klingon speaker in Canada,” she said.
Speaking Klingon is not Stewart’s full-time livelihood, for the record: She’s actually the chief pilot for the aerial survey company KÎSIK in Vancouver. (Minutes before IndieWire spoke with her, she had been in the air.) But she made time for “Discovery” all through post-production, not only translating the dialogue phonetically on the page, but also recording herself speaking each line at different speeds: slow, medium, and regular.
Stewart then coordinated with dialect coaches Rea Nolan and Jeffrey Simlett. “I spent a weekend with them. It was like the best Klingon weekend ever. We were paid to sit in a hotel room for 16 hours, and it was me teaching these people the Klingon sounds and the rhythm of Klingon, so that they can take the tapes, hear them, and instruct the actors on what to do. They’re professionals, and this is what they do, in all different languages.”
Her one warning for them was to be careful in working with the actors on “ooo” and “ohh” sounds — because Stewart speaks Klingon with a slight Canadian accent.
“You Know You’re a Klingon, Right?”
Stewart was impressed by the cast, calling them “all amazing people. We kept sort of waiting for when the asshole was going to show up, and there wasn’t one.”
Each actor brought their own approach to learning the language, like Mary Chieffo, who plays Battle Deck Commander L’Rell. “She walked into that room with a Klingon dictionary that was so beat up and highlighted and had post-its and everything — it was like meeting with a Klingon student at one of the Klingon Institute meetings,” Stewart said.
When actor Kenneth Mitchell auditioned for the role of House Leader Kol, he didn’t really know who or what he was auditioning for. “Everything was secret, for security purposes. Even the title of the show, it wasn’t called ‘Star Trek.’ All the characters in the sides that we were given were all changed,” he said to IndieWire. “When I screen-tested for the part in front of Bryan Fuller and Aaron [Harberts] and Gretchen [Berg], I didn’t even know I was auditioning to be a Klingon.
“So I’m in there, I’m in the room with them, and I present my material,” Mitchell continued. “And Bryan Fuller, at the time, didn’t know that all the names of things had been changed in the sides. So he stops me in the middle of the scene, and he’s like, ‘What was that that you were saying? Remain…?’ They had changed the name from Klingon to– I can’t remember, but let’s say, like, Chinley. ‘Remain Chinley.’ [Fuller] says, ‘You know you’re a Klingon, right?’ And inside, I’m like, ‘Holy shit, this is so cool.'”
Of course, the journey to actually becoming a Klingon meant a lot of work. “It was the most time-consuming and challenging thing I’ve ever done,” Mitchell said. “The whole experience has been fascinating. With the added angle of the language and just constantly trying to memorize this stuff and have it in your head. Because the language is just so complex, and you’re actually just memorizing these beats. It’s like memorizing a sequence of 1000 numbers.”
Initially, in order to enable that memorization, Mitchell literally papered the walls of his house with pages of dialogue. “Any room I went to at home, my script was on the wall, and I could go over the lines,” he said. “My family thought I was crazy by the end.”
It did get easier, though, after Mitchell learned to read the script phonetically. “So I can now look at the Klingon in front of me and make the sounds just from what I’m looking at,” he said.
Plus, shooting in general was no picnic, with 16-hour days involving prosthetics. “They’re just so hot and itchy, and you’re tired, you’ve got your eye contacts in, and your teeth. You’re shivering in the corner, just balled up, and it’s dark, and you’re just trying to stay sane and keep focused to deliver this material,” he said.
And there’s an actual physical toll to speaking Klingon. “When you’re running these lines over and over again, you start to get a little scratchy in the back of your throat,” Mitchell said. “There’s a lot of sounds that are coming from the back of your throat, and so it kind of feels like you have a sore throat.”
Mitchell is fairly convinced that many of the people with whom he’s worked have no idea what he looks like underneath his Klingon make-up, including the directors. He and his fellow Klingons were often the first cast members to arrive each day for the three-and-a-half hour prosthetics process. “I realized that ‘I gotta stop this. I gotta meet the directors before I get into my prosthetics, because this is just too weird,'” he said. “And I still am meeting crew members or certain cast members who have never seen me before, outside of my makeup. It’s kind of funny.”
Meanwhile, his “Discovery” compatriots were having a very different experience on set. “One time I went over to visit the Federation side, and there they were: All the cast are in their chairs. It’s bright, they’re laughing, they’re on their cell phones, they’re telling stories,” he said. “And it’s not like that in the Klingon world. We’re all just trying to stay sane. We can’t even use our phones because we have prosthetic hands. It’s a totally different atmosphere.”