The Philippa Georgiou actress talks her new Season 2 job, fleeing the Mirror Universe, Michael Burnham, and more.
Emperor Philippa Georgiou is back! Well, former emperor anyway, because in Star Trek: Discovery Season 2, Michelle Yeoh’s Mirror Universe character will now be serving as a member of Section 31, Starfleet’s black ops arm. With her long history of assassination, intrigue, and arrogance, she’s perfect for the job, don’t you think?
I caught up with Yeoh at New York Comic-Con, where she filled me in on Georgiou’s new gig, her ongoing relationship with Michael Burnham, how the character feels about being stuck in the Prime Universe, and more. Read on for the full chat…
Michelle Yeoh as Philippa Georgiou
A Tale of Two Georgious
Even though the OG Georgiou — Captain Georgiou — is long dead, the actress said that we should still expect to see a version of that character in addition to the Mirror one… from a certain point of view.
“We don’t want anybody else, apart from the selected few who already do know about the Mirror Universe [to know]. That has to be kept under wraps, or otherwise it would be just chaos in the Prime universe,” she said. “So Admiral Cornwell, Spock, Sarek, Tilly, the few — Saru — that know. So it’s like, when I come onto the Discovery, Captain Pike has no clue. So I play [the] Philippa Georgiou that he’s met before, the kind, compassionate one. But, you know, the problem with the Emperor Georgiou, she cannot help herself from being mischievous. So Captain Pike is almost like … no. She didn’t? I don’t think she was flirting with me… You know? So she loves to play all these little tricks on people’s minds, and she manipulates them, because she’s very smart.”
Yeoh points out that being that way is surely part of how Georgiou got as far as she did in the MU.
“I guess she’s had to live like that for her whole life,” she said. “So it was the kill or be killed thing, where you’re always watching the other people, so you know every single body language that’s going on, so you preempt it. So she fixes things that are going wrong, but at the same time, she can’t help but have fun with it. So it’s such a deliciously devilish character.”
Philippa and Michael: Mother, Daughter, Enemy, Friend…?
Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) was responsible for bringing Emperor Georgiou to the Prime Universe last season, seemingly saving her from certain death in so doing. Of course, there’s also a complicated relationship there where Captain Georgiou was a mother figure to Michael, and the Mirror Georgiou was the adopted mother to Mirror Michael! Now these two “family members” will be thrust together again, for better or worse.
“It’s always going to be complex between the two of them,” said Yeoh. “Michael is going around with so much guilt from Season 1, after the death of her beloved mentor [and] that mother-daughter relationship. And so when she saw the emperor, she can’t help to feel that that’s still the same Philippa Georgiou. And when she found how hard and ruthless she was, I think, in Michael, she wants to bring that humanity back. That’s Michael Burnham, right? And for Philippa Georgiou, she has a soft spot for Michael Burnham. So we’ll see, in the coming season, how that plays out. Who is going to bring who? Am I gonna bring her to the darker side, or is Michael…”
Yeoh sees the current dynamic between the two as a sort of (ahem) mirror to the first season relationship between Captain Georgiou and Michael.
“I think it’s almost like a full circle,” the actress said. “When it started, the journey in Season 1, it was Philippa Georgiou trying to bring some humanity, you know, like, loosen up, kid! You don’t have to be so uptight, right? You can have fun! And now it’s almost like Burnham doing the same thing for her, like, you don’t have to be mean all the time, you know? No one is trying to kill you here all the time, right? So it is interesting. But then, Michael’s biggest fear is, she’s joined one of the most scary … I mean, of all the places, Section 31, where they do things [outside] of the principles of Starfleet. They will do whatever it takes. They will kill, as long as they feel that they need to do that to protect Starfleet. So it’s nervous times for Burnham, because she doesn’t know which way Emperor Georgiou is going to go.”
The Perfection of Section 31
Section 31 is an interesting aspect of Starfleet in that it was first created for Deep Space Nine but has since been retconned into the earlier history of the Star Trek universe on Enterprise, in Star Trek Into Darkness, and now on Discovery. In a deleted scene released after the first season finished its run, Georgiou was indoctrinated into the service. And Yeoh thinks it’s the perfect place for her to be right now.
“In the whole universe, this is probably her best toy,” she said. “Because Section 31 has all the most updated gadgets, because they are the most informed, and she, as an engineer, she can hack into Section 31. And [the Section 31 member who recruited her] Leland thinks he’s in charge of the ship. But she finds out secrets. Because that’s what Section 31 does. It’s collected secrets all over the universe about certain people, and history, and things like that. And so, when you have [those] kind of secrets, it’s power. And for Philippa Georgiou, that’s perfect! So, if she has to be here, she wants to be in Section 31, and she wants to run it, right?”
Which isn’t to say that Emperor Georgiou wanted to depart her universe to come here. But there was the minor matter of her ship being taken over and her being overthrown…
“I think she never wanted to leave it in the first place, but Michael truly believed that she was going to die,” said Yeoh. “Because she wasn’t sacrificing herself for Michael Burnham, she was ready to fight … And with her skills, you never know which way it would have gone, right? But I think being here in this universe, she’s finding a lot more interesting flavors to what life is about. It’s not just about killing, it’s not just about taking over the next territory, and having to watch over your shoulder the whole time. Where you don’t have friends, where you don’t trust anyone. And that is a horrible way to live. You’re lonely. You’re single. You have no choice. But here in this world, she’s beginning to feel that humanity actually could be quite interesting. And there’s hope for her.”
So the question then arises: nature versus nurture. Are you evil just because you live in the Mirror Universe, or does it make you evil?
“I think it makes you who you are, because you have no choice,” concludes Yeoh. “You have to fight. And that’s the only way to survive, right? Because, if you didn’t… Michael Burnham? Dead, a long time ago. She would have never survived. It would be, okay, bye bye! And that’s the reality of what the Terran world was about. But not in this universe. In this universe, she’s beginning to realize, I don’t have to be like that. I don’t have to be killing just to get ahead. And I think that makes a big difference.”
Star Trek: Discovery Season 2 will debut on January 17, 2019, but in the meantime be sure to also check out our interview with Sonequa Martin-Green about Spock, Captain Pike, and more. Or, read our chat with Mary Wiseman about her character Ensign Tilly’s new Short Treks episode “Runaway,” or check out IGN’s full NYCC panel report.
Talk to Executive Editor Scott Collura on Twitter at @ScottCollura, or listen to his Star Trek podcast, Transporter Room 3. Or do both!