Meet the newcomer behind Star Trek: Discovery’s excitable cadet
Beam aboard Star Trek: Discovery with Starfleet cadet Tilly. “I felt like Inspector Gadget!” she tells us. Still waiting for the telescoping robo-arms, miss.
one thing we’re appreciating about the latest iteration of Star Trek is that the characters aren’t all super-capable stuffed shirts, but people with human frailties and foibles. Take Sylvia Tilly, a cadet serving on her first deep-space mission, whose endearing nervousness and breathless babbling are providing an audience identification figure. As Discovery producer Ted Sullivan told SFX, “For me, who grew up dressing like Sulu and going to cons, she represents the viewer who wants to be in the show.” We rather fear Tilly’s optimism may be crushed by war. But early on, she’s added some lighter notes in the midst of Discovery’s darkness.
It’s a breakthrough role for Mary Wiseman, who was performing in off-Broadway theatre before she snagged the part. In the flesh, Wiseman’s not quite as wet-behind-the-ears as Tilly, but does prove every bit as charming. A blizzard of red curls and giggles, she’s still pinching herself that she’s part of this universe – and clearly loving every minute of it. What’s been your approach to playing Tilly?
Well, she’s in her fourth year at Starfleet Academy, and I like to think she’s on Discovery as an unpaid intern – like, that’s her internship for the final credit. But this is the best internship she could ever get. Her dream is to rise in the ranks of Starfleet, so she’s exactly where she wants to be. How much did you know about your character arc when you got the part?
Nothing – I didn’t know if I was an alien or not until I got here! The script they gave us to audition selfdestructed after 48 hours, so I felt like Inspector Gadget! Wait… the script self-destructed?!
Digitally! It sounds like my iPad exploded, but it’s not that cool. It just all went away. I tried to take a screenshot and it self-destructed. But based on the script that I read, I knew this character was gonna be right in the sweet spot. This is your first time as a regular in a TV series. Does that mean you can really relate to Tilly, as the newbie in an experienced crew?
Yeah! It’s very easy for me to do it. When we had a readthrough of my first episode I was shaking with nerves to do a readthrough with all these people I’d seen in so many different things. For Tilly it was perfect, because she was so nervous to meet Michael [Burnham] and start working on the ship. I know exactly how she feels all the time, because I’m going through it! I’m learning things every day, and I quietly ask people questions all the time. Were you a Star Trek fan before you got the part?
I grew up watching a bit of The Next Generation with my uncle, but my boyfriend and his parents are hardcore dress-up, go-to-conventions Trekkies. When I got this job, my boyfriend’s mom cried! I took a little video of Jonathan Frakes [Commander Riker in The Next Generation; now a director on Discovery] for her and I did not play it cool. I was like, “Argghh, hello!” and then forced him to take a video with me! Does the fact that they’re fans change the way you view the series?
It put me in touch with how important this is to people. I kinda watched Star Trek as a kid, but rewatching it in preparation I saw so much more in it than I was able to when I was younger, because I have these people who it means a lot to. It gives me a sense of responsibility for the kind of story that I’m part of bringing forward. What do you think it is about Star Trek that people respond to so strongly?
Well, my boyfriend’s mom told my mom that everything she could ever want to teach her son was in Star Trek; that there are lessons about life and how you treat people, and how a big group of people treats a big group of other people. And watching episodes, I see that. I think we do it a little differently, but I notice things like that all the time – little lessons about how to move through the world. When did it really hit you that you were starring in Star Trek, and all that that meant?
On my third or fourth day we had to run through a hallway really fast. I read the script and it was, “They run through a hallway.” Then we did it and it was six hours of sprinting! I’ve never been a fast runner, and Sonequa [Martin-Green] kept going, “Do you need us to go faster? I could go faster.” I was like, “No, please god, don’t go faster!” I don’t think I could walk the next day! That’s when I was like, “Oh my God… I’m in an action show! This is cool stuff! I get to hold a phaser, run through a hallway, switch it to kill!” I never imagined it for myself. I’m just totally overwhelmed and delighted.
Star Trek: Discovery is on Netflix in the UK.