Actress Hannah Cheesman breaks down the memorable episode “Project Daedalus.”
Full spoilers follow for the Star Trek: Discovery episode “Project Daedalus.”
Disco’s resident augmented human Airiam finally got her own story in the most recent episode, “Project Daedalus,” and boy was it something. While Airiam, played this season by Hannah Cheesman, has largely been a background character — albeit one who had many fans quite intrigued by her mysterious, robotic nature — this episode gave her a ton to do with the character, finally building out Airiam’s back story while also… gulp… killing her off. (Read IGN’s review of “Project Daedalus” here.)
But Airiam’s death is our gain, as the character went out on such a high note and in the process gave us a truly memorable episode. I spoke to Cheesman this week about taking on the role of Airiam, how she prepared for the character’s demise, what it was like working with “Project Daedalus” director and Trek legend Jonathan Frakes, and more. Read on for highlights from our chat…
Human, Robot or Robit?
Prior to this episode, it has never been clear what Airiam was exactly. Even the show’s producers seemed confused about it, with the character being described at different times as a synthetic human, an augmented alien, and an augmented human. Obviously the latter is what she ultimately wound up being, but Cheesman recalls that when she took over the role in Season 2 (replacing actress Sara Mitich) she wasn’t totally clear on Airiam’s back story either.
“It’s an interesting thing with Star Trek because they have such sensitive information, they really do understandably have to keep their cards close to their chest,” she said. “It’s a big franchise and I respect and get that, but the wonderful thing that that means is they come with offerings, the writers and creators and producers — ‘We think this about your character.’ But it actually means there’s room for you as the person embodying it to kind of figure out for yourself, ‘O.K., well if I don’t have answers to that, what do I think?’ So there was actually some interesting room to kind of create my own thoughts about what her backstory would be before receiving the information about exactly what had happened and why… what event had been the trigger for her turning into something other than just human. Did I know she was human beforehand? Yes, I had been told that, but I hadn’t been told much else besides that.”
We learn in this episode that Airiam was a human who at some point in the past was gravely injured in a shuttle crash and kept alive through cybernetic augmentation. She’s basically half robot (or as Tilly would say, “robit”), and this knowledge led Cheesman to an interesting line of thought for her character.
“I like to think that Airiam had gone through this trauma of some kind and that it was her decision, that she could have just let go of, you know, life. That she was offered, ‘But you can stay alive but you’ll never be the same, you’re changed forever.” And is it better to just lose what was or is it harder to come back as something entirely different? We see that with Wilson Cruz’s character [Dr. Culber] too, this idea of coming back as a changed being. And even with Shazad Latif’s character [Tyler], this was a Klingon, now a human. So I was kind of riffing on those themes for what was going on internally with Airiam.”
Getting THAT E-Mail
As lovely and touching as Airiam’s swan song is, it does mean that Cheesman just lost a job (assuming Discovery doesn’t figure out a way to bring the character back… which of course could very well happen). The actress recalled getting the word from showrunner Alex Kurtzman that her character’s days were numbered.
“I was told by the showrunner in a lovely message he sent me that this was going to happen and that it was them not me, but they weren’t going to let me go out with a whisper, you know, I was going to go out with a roar,” she said. “So having seen the talent of the writers, [I] trusted what he was telling me, but it was also wonderful to know three episodes out that that was going to happen. … It also meant that I could start to lay in some of those little Easter eggs that we see in the preceding episodes with the red dots in my eye, and we know something is afoot but we’re not sure exactly what might be.”
Those red dots — a symptom of the computer virus Airiam picked up and which eventually led to her doom — inevitably birthed lots of fan theories in recent weeks.
“It’s interesting because a lot of the feed on Twitter and stuff is like, ‘She’s the Red Angel!’” laughed Cheesman. “It’s really cool to see what the audience sort of picked up on and thought it was going to be, but for me I definitely had some time to be able to explore what that ending was going to look like and how I might maneuver getting there. You don’t know what it’s actually going to look like until you do your table read, right? Until you get the script in hand or you read it the day before. … So I knew it was coming but definitely the specifics and the beauty of this episode were not known to any of us until we sat down to read it together.”
In the end, it’s Airiam’s humanity that makes the story work so well. This is Star Trek, after all.
“I feel like the theme in the airlock with Airiam contending with this part of her that’s human and that knows she’s not powerful enough to stop what’s going on [is] such a beautiful struggle, and I think it’s kind of the material that as an actor, whether you’re a barefaced human or a robot-faced augmented human, is wonderful to grapple with and to try and fit in,” she said.
The Frakes of it All
The once (and future?) Commander Riker, Jonathan Frakes, returned to Disco for his third outing as a director on “Project Daedalus,” and for Cheesman she couldn’t have asked for a better helmer to help her with Airiam’s exit.
“Jonathan is so good at rallying people, getting them on board, getting them excited,” said Cheesman. “He’s such a people person; he so clearly was an actor before and has stepped so deftly into directing now and understanding this franchise and the twists and the turns and the tone. He always inspires full confidence in cast and crew first and foremost and also with this, he has a real sensitivity to things. He’s a fairly empathic and also emotional person from the little that I do know of him from working on two episodes, and you know, if I had to choose like a Star Trek hero from TNG, he was Number One for me! I think that he was able to just approach it with such a kindness and such specific notes, such a gentle touch but also very tailored to each actor.”
That also involved shooting an intense, Hong Kong action movie-inspired fight sequence with Frakes.
“I’m a pretty athletic person, I grew up doing volleyball and dance and I’ve stayed very active in my life, so I felt walking into this, ‘I can do this, this is fine,’” laughed the actress. “But the difference between learning [the fight choreography] when you’re just yourself and [in] like workout clothes, and then stepping into an away mission uniform that is actually a wetsuit, first of all, with lights, with a full prosthetic glued to your face, 18mm contacts, and a helmet as well as all this protective gear on your hands, your arms, your chest, your legs… So the extra weight, the heat, and the also the way that it held your movement, because wetsuits are meant to suck around you… I would do one [take], going through it once, and I would just have to drop to a knee out of sheer exhaustion.”
It was a shock to Cheesman how hard it was to execute that fight sequence.
“You still want to give the best performance you possibly can and in fact you’re super motivated to because you know it’s going to be so kick ass,” she said. “It was incredibly challenging to also be able to with this context to look in the right place, because your depth perception has changed, and you also don’t want to make contact with this wonderful person you’re fighting with. But you want to make it look really real. So it was very challenging and I have to say, certainly not that I didn’t have it before, but a [I have] newfound respect for all those stunt people because they do this on a daily and it’s not to be trifled with.”
And indeed, it was kick ass and it was so very worth it. Read IGN’s review of “Project Daedalus” for more on that fight and more.
Star Trek: Discovery Season 2 is currently available on CBS All Access in the U.S., on Space in Canada, and on Netflix in many international territories.
Talk to Executive Editor Scott Collura on Twitter at @ScottCollura, or listen to his Star Trek podcast, Transporter Room 3. Or do both!