[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “Star Trek: Discovery” Season 1 Episode 14, “The War Without, The War Within.”]
When “Star Trek: Discovery” star Michelle Yeoh was told that the character of Captain Philippa Georgiou would die in the opening episodes of the CBS All Access series, it was nearly a dealbreaker for her. “I said [to the producers], ‘If you’re gonna kill me off, I don’t want to be in it. I don’t want to just die and disappear.'”
Fortunately, showrunners Aaron Harberts and Gretchen Berg assured her that she’d be coming back — which made Yeoh happy, but led to months of secrecy. “The fans, they’ve been so sweet. They stop me on the street to say, ‘Why did you get killed off? Why did they let them kill you off? Come back.’ So, I am glad I am back,” she said. “But it’s been very difficult trying to keep the secret from everyone. It’s been the hardest thing to do, I think, in recent years, to not spill the beans.”
Of course, when Yeoh returned to “Discovery,” it wasn’t as the Captain Georgiou who had become a mentor to Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) — instead, we were introduced to Georgiou’s Mirror Universe equivalent, the ruthless Emperor of the Terrans.
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“She’s scary. I love the music, the costumes, the makeup, and hair. And you’re not quite sure when she’s going to attack and what she’s going to do next, so you’re always on your guard,” she said. “Can you imagine having a role like that to play? It was like the most delicious meal. You’re savoring it from savory to spicy. Oh, yeah, I was having a great time.”
Added Yeoh, “It was more sensual, it was dark, and eerie, and creepy at the same time, so it was interesting. I mean, it really made you sort of like succumb to another side of you, which is nice.”
Getting to play in the Mirror Universe this season meant a lot of action sequences, including a climactic confrontation between Georgiou and Lorca (Jason Isaacs) in Episode 13, “What’s Past Is Prologue.” And, just for the record, Yeoh thinks Jason Isaacs was being “way too modest” when he told IndieWire a few weeks ago that doing fight scenes with her made him feel like “a clumsy, drunken hippo.”
“Jason has done many action stunts, and he does everything himself,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Are you sure you want to do that roll, Jason? You don’t really have to.’ He was like, ‘No, no, no, no. I can do it.’ And so he’s falling on his… It’s Jason all the way.”
Added Yeoh, “He’s pretending, okay? He’s doing the Jason thing. He’s a gentleman.”
Yeoh said that the fight sequences in Episode 13 were the longest of the season, which she felt was necessary because “Jason’s character was so pivotal and important since Episode 3, and this was his send-off.”
The day they filmed the ultimate confrontation, Yeoh said, was a great deal of fun — and they had an audience. “Anthony Rapp was there, and a couple of our other actors. We all go, ‘What are you guys doing? It’s your day off.’ They’re like, ‘Oh, no. We came to watch you guys fight.'”
Having survived that epic battle, Georgiou has now crossed over to the Prime Universe, and heading into this Sunday’s season finale it’s impossible to predict what her fate may be — or if there’s any chance of redemption for the character, who wears her darkness on her sleeve.
“This was something that we all talked about right at the beginning,” she said. “It’s like, yes, you see her being very tough and all that, but… there is hope, there is humanity, and it reflects in all the little things that Emperor Georgiou has done, even when she was in the Terran world. That scene between her and Michael Burnham when they talk about their betrayal, their love — if someone can feel that much pain by losing someone you love, there is redemption, there must be redemption, but it doesn’t happen overnight.”
For Yeoh, the dynamic between Burnham and Georgiou at the end of Season 1 is an interesting twist on their relationship at the beginning of the series. “I think I see it almost like a role reversal right now, with Captain Phillipa Georgiou to Michael Burnham at the beginning where she was trying to instill humanity with Michael Burnham, and help her to think and believe that it is okay to feel emotions and be human,” she said. “Captain Phillipa was the one who was teaching Michael Burnham. But now, it seems that Michael Burnham is the one who needs to help Emperor Georgiou find her humanity.”
And the groundwork for that, Yeoh believes, has already been laid for in previous episodes. “You see her softening when she was fighting next to Michael Burnham — she feels like her daughter was there,” she said. “So, I think this bond is never gonna go away from the two of them, and it will be interesting if in the future journeys, they can help each other find that again.”
What’s interesting to Yeoh is the way in which people have been reacting to this new version of Georgiou. “People are actually loving this new character. They don’t go, ‘Oh, she’s evil. Why would you want to play an evil character?’ You know, your hero is only as good as your antagonist, and sometimes you need someone to, you know, rough up things a little. What I love about this character is she will help you, as long as she helps herself as well,” she said.
“That’s what ‘Star Trek’ is — it’s always very reflective of what’s happening around today,” she said. “Let me put it this way — these are interesting times, and I think our series has been very reflective of that. And I think people have been very excited, especially when they see so many woman roles, and this is something that we are fighting for right now is gender equality, so it seems right. It is right, that in the future, which is what ‘Star Trek’ always represents. You know? This is our future, and it’s so inspiring, especially for young girls to turn around and go, ‘Hey, I can be an admiral, I can be a captain.'”
Noted IndieWire: “She could be an emperor.”
“Yes, as well as an emperor,” she agreed.
“I really, really am so grateful for this chance to be part of the ‘Star Trek’ family because there’s so much love and passion that goes into it, the details, everything,” Yeoh said. “From the stories, the costumes, the special effects. Isn’t it just amazing when the mycelium is reborn again? I mean, it’s like poetry in motion. So, I’m really very grateful for this opportunity.”
The Season 1 finale of “Star Trek: Discovery” streams this Sunday at 8:30 p.m. on CBS All Access.