'Star Trek: Discovery': Rainn Wilson on playing the mischievous Harry Mudd

When he hosted the Star Trek: Discovery panel at San Diego Comic-Con this past summer, Rainn Wilson made it absolutely clear where he stood on the Star Trek vs. Star Wars debate. “Well, Star Trek is just better,” he told the assembled crowd. Granted, the former star of The Office is a bit biased considering the fact that he’s now officially part of the Star Trek universe. But as he tells Yahoo Entertainment, he earned his Trekkie cred well before being cast as a (slightly) younger version of Harry Mudd, the intergalactic rogue that Captain Kirk and the Enterprise crew originally encountered in two episodes of The Original Series. “My family would watch all the re-runs all the time in the ’70s, so I was probably 6 or 7 years old when I saw my first episode of Star Trek. And I probably saw Harry Mudd right around that time!”

Flash-forward to 2017 and Wilson is exploring the final frontier as Mudd in a pair of Discovery episodes. He made his debut in the fifth installment, encountering Discovery captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) in a Klingon prison. When Lorca staged a jailbreak, he rescued the mysterious Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), but pointedly left Harry behind due to the fact that his cellmate was spying on him. On this week’s episode, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad,” Mudd makes his grand re-entrance… and he’s none too happy about how Lorca treated him. We spoke with Wilson about how he devised his own take on a fan-favorite Star Trek character and when we’ll learn the origin of Harry Mudd’s fabulous mustache.

So this sounds like a dream role for you!
Absolutely. Actors are always like, “This is a dream role for me,” and that’s become kind of a cliché. They’re doing some dumb show no one watches and are like, “It’s a dream role for me to play the dishwasher on the new action-adventure show, Chicago Pizza, on NBC.” [Laughs.] But I grew up watching Star Trek, so when they were doing this new Star Trek show, I had my agents call them up and beg for a meeting. They didn’t have anything for me, but I asked them to keep me in mind and months later the phone rang and they talked to me about Harry Mudd. I thought the combination of the dastardly rapscallion and the theatrically comedic was a perfect fit for me. So it really was a dream come true.

How closely did you model your performance after your predecessor, Roger C. Carmel?
I had been lucky in that Dwight from The Office had the great Mackenzie Crook doing his version with Gareth, so I got to steal the best bits and make the other stuff my own. It’s the same with Roger Carmel, and his combination of the theatrical, the mischievous, and also the deadly. I wanted to accentuate that, and thought about how much fun I could have and how deadly I could be at the same time. That was really interesting, bumping up against the different colors of a character.

When I spoke with James Frain about playing Sarek, he talked about how he wanted to show how the character ends up becoming the one we remember from The Original Series. What was your mental image of a pre-TOS Mudd?
There’s not a whole lot about Harry from The Original Series. I went back and watched his episodes, as well as the episode of The Animated Series. I think the Discovery writers did a great job fleshing out his backstory. The idea that he’s pursuing Stella and purchased a moon for her, and that she’s got a powerful dad he can never please. Also the idea that he’s got resentment for the Federation; he thinks their whole mission is ridiculous, the idea of boldly going where no one has ever gone before. Of course you’re going to end up in war if you do that! You’re going to end up bumping into a species that doesn’t want you on their front lawn. Of course, you don’t know how much of it is true, because he could be making up the whole damn thing!

Did you want to suggest how this experience informs the Mudd we meet later on in “Mudd’s Women”?
You can’t link it completely because it doesn’t quite add up. When you look at “Mudd’s Women,” he’s had some interaction with the Federation before, but he’s a very low-level merchant trader. So it doesn’t quite add up exactly chronologically. But that’s OK — it’s the spirit of Mudd that’s the important thing. The Original Series had these really broad comedic episodes, so my larger mission was to be part of the great Star Trek tradition where these larger-than-life characters would be splattered into occasional episodes.

How do you feel about Discovery‘s darker tone in contrast to The Original Series?
I think it’s a bold move. In today’s TV environment, you can’t really make a Star Trek show without the action element that J.J. Abrams brought to the movies. You can’t have an episode where they’re like, “Look here’s a planet! I wonder if there are Dilithium Crystals on that planet? Let’s go down and see! Oh, there’s a talking tree and a bunch of children running around by a brook. That seems mysterious, I wonder what’s going on?” You can’t do that kind of Twilight Zone-esque Star Trek episode; it’s not going to sustain for the audience. You have to be true to the original Trek and Gene Roddenberry’s vision, but also modernize it. I think the idea of a war with the Klingons — the darkness of it, and the action sequences it allows — gives the series a propulsion it otherwise wouldn’t have. Personally, I’m a fan of the episodes where the crew lands on a planet and there’s a reading they get from a rock that unravels this whole mystery. But I don’t know if those episodes can work now.

Can you tease how Mudd will make his return on this week’s episode?
Well, at the end of the fifth episode, he was abandoned in the Klingon jail by Lorca, which I think was a pretty sh*tty move! Lorca absolutely should have taken Mudd with him; that goes completely against Starfleet protocol. He should’ve taken him with him and put him on trial for abetting an enemy or something like that. So Harry is pretty pissed off and he gets onboard the Discovery and sh*t is about to get cray-cray. I will say that I do get to fire a phaser, use the transporter, and sit in the captain’s chair. So talk about an actor’s dream coming true!

It sounds like we’ll be seeing a more vengeance-minded Harry than we’re accustomed to. Do you still bring some comic notes to it?
It’s definitely another color from Mudd than we’ve seen before. Though he was pretty dastardly in “I, Mudd” — wanting to trap the Enterprise crew on the planet with the androids. So we’ve seen him be dastardly, but this is much more of a straight-up revenge episode. I give all the credit to the writers for writing in most of the comedy. I do try to bring extra elements — physicality and other things. But I didn’t improvise so much on this show. It didn’t feel right to improvise on Star Trek!

When are we going to see the origin story of Mudd’s famous mustache?
I had the idea for the beard. I told them that if I let the mustache grow and be part of a beard, it would be a little less like Dwight from The Office [in space]. But Discovery has gotten picked up for a second season, so I think that’s what we need for Season 2, episode 7. It’s just called “Mustache” and it shows Harry Mudd shaving off the beard. We’ve gotta do that! It’s the origin story the world has been clamoring for. [Laughs.]

Star Trek: Discovery airs Sundays at 8:30 p.m. on CBS All Access.

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