How Star Trek: Discovery’s Shazad Latif Became Both Tyler And Voq

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After seven months as a POW aboard a Klingon prison ship, Lieutenant Ash Tyler escaped with Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), captain of the starship Discovery. Tyler became chief of security and started a relationship with Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), but trauma from the psychological torture and sexual assault he experienced as a prisoner sometimes paralyzed him.

But hints throughout the first half of the season pointed to an alternate biography. Instead of a human POW, could Tyler be the Klingon torchbearer Voq, his body and mind altered to infiltrate Starfleet? After a two month break, Star Trek: Discovery returned in January with “Despite Yourself” and revealed what we’d long suspected — Tyler’s entire psyche is an elaborate cover, with Voq buried beneath. With Voq exposed, Star Trek: Discovery cast member Shazad Latif can finally discuss the entirety of his character.

“I think the core person is Voq. He’s the essence. It’s just the love of Burnham is overpowering in keeping Tyler there; those influences and those memories,” Latif told Player.One. “The core element is still Voq.”

The psychic divide between Voq and Tyler dissolved entirely in Sunday’s episode, “The Wolf Inside.” Latif’s character was prompted by the sight of his Mirror Universe self: a proud Klingon leading an alliance of Andorians, Vulcans and Tellarites in rebellion against the xenophobic humans of the Terran Empire. This Voq couldn’t be more different than the cultish Klingon supremacist hiding inside Tyler. Mirror Universe Voq even speaks English.

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Ash Tyler and Michael Burnham confront Mirror Universe Voq. Photo: CBS All Access

“I end up fighting myself,” Latif said. Voq overcomes Tyler’s humanity, but he can’t defeat his mirror, who embodies both Klingon honor and Federation values; a Voq united in himself instead of divided. “It’s three characters basically. It’s madness, I’ve never played anything like it.”

Though Voq was credited to a nonexistent actor named Javid Iqbal (who happened to share a name with Latif's father), it was Latif beneath the Klingon makeup. And the role gets even stranger now that Latif is not only Voq and Tyler, but this new synthesis of the two, a Klingon trapped in a human body, wracked by human sympathies. Latif’s new character joins a long tradition of Star Trek outsiders who are torn between two worlds, like Odo, Seven of Nine, Worf and Spock.

“I want to give credit to the writers, because what they’ve done is amazing,” Latif said.

Though the general character, including the eventual revelation of Voq’s deception, was explained to Latif soon after he was cast, the exact parameters of the complex psychic interplay between Voq and Tyler evolved throughout filming.

“Everyone had different ideas of how the consciousness had been layered,” Latif said. “Even every day on set, everything changes.”

Despite speaking an alien language, Latif found surprising affinities with the human-hating Voq. “Mask work always fre ezes you up in a weird way. You know how when your underwater or you've got headphones on, you actually feel like you're inside your head and it feels like no one else is there? It really gives you a chance to relax. You're so far away from yourself, there's a freedom. You really feel like a spiritual side to it all,” Latif said. “And I think it's easier to channel into that than just being a human. That sounds weird, you really should be able to just do that, but we're so blocked up.”

Latif found a similar freedom in the day-to-day process of uncovering his own character’s true nature. “You’ve just got to play the truth from when they say action to cut. That’s all you can do. That’s all my power is. The rest is not up to me,” Latif said. “There’s that great Marcus Aurelius quote, ‘Once you realize you can’t control outside events, you’ll find great power.’ You can only play the truth of the scene.”

But exposing Tyler as Voq, a revelation built up over months, needed to be much more than just a TV twist. It also had to resonate for the other characters aboard the Discovery, especially Burnham, a Starfleet outsider with traumatic wartime experiences of her own. Their identities rocked by war, Burnham and Tyler together are the emotional foundation of a shipwide ensemble.

“It’s all about energy exchange,” Latif said of his approach to acting. “That’s what excites me: trying to feel some sort of electricity between two people, or three people, in a scene.”

Latif pulls from hyper-contrasting emotional experiences. He describes two very different types of scene, each with their own contribution toward the emotional landscape between Tyler and Burnham.

“It’s nice to have those big on deck scenes because there are a lot of people there and you can bond, have a lot of camaraderie,” Latif said, before describing a scene that yields a more sensitive Tyler. “I like Med Bay scenes, because you’re very vulnerable, in a little dressing gown. It’s sort of listening into a very vulnerable place. Tyler can stand on deck and be very certain, but it’s more interesting when you see the other side. All those things help so that when you get to the intense emotion scenes, you're ready for it, you can just open up and listen.”

At the end of “The Wolf Inside,” Voq was unmasked and imprisoned aboard the Discovery after he attacked Burnham. But Voq still wears Tyler’s face. And his expression isn’t resolve or Voq’s zealotry, but anguish, maybe even remorse. Star Trek: Discovery has already accomplished more than a clever character arc for a villain, instead depicting emotional transformation and turmoil that will come to define a new character who may bear Voq’s name, but who will be forever changed by Tyler’s humanity.

Can Voq and Burnham rediscover the emotional intimacy she had with Tyler? And what about L’Rell, Tyler’s Klingon captor, now revealed to be Voq’s lover? “There’s a double love story and they’re each justifiable,” Latif said. “It just happens to be in one dude’s body. That’s the thing about love, it overpowers stuff.”

In the best Star Trek tradition, there’s still so much more to explore.

New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery stream Sundays at 8:30 p.m. on CBS All Access.

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