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Star Trek: Discovery’s Shazad Latif explains why Ash Tyler is more than an ‘outdated classic male action hero’

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In a candid interview, the actor discusses Ash Tyler’s big plot secrets, and why being emotional and vulnerable is more fun than being violent

Courtesy CBS All Access

Warning: major spoilers ahead for Ash Tyler’s plotlines in Star Trek: Discovery.

Shazad Latif can freakin’ cry.

Fans of Star Trek: Discovery know that already. In the first season alone, his character, tormented Lieutenant Ash Tyler, has suffered torture (and effectively, rape), been paralyzed by PTSD flashbacks, and had his body and mind overridden by a Klingon sleeper agent via an agonizing, obliterating “reassignment” surgery. At the same time, he’s been the sensitive love interest of hero Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), tenderly discussing his intimacy issues while sexually and emotionally yielding to her dominant role in their relationship. Such extreme plotlines have required some serious tears, but the show’s bosses say that’s exactly why they hired Latif.

“One of the most important things about Shazad is his eyes,” says Discovery co-showrunner Aaron Harberts, on a rare recess from planning the show’s second season. “They’re so soulful. They can sparkle, but they show a lot of pain.”

”I’ve always been interested in [being vulnerable on-screen], from watching movies growing up,” says the British actor, whose cinema projectionist father and obsessive movie-buff mother introduced him to classic films early on. “I love A Streetcar Named Desire because Brando shows emotions. All the best actors have a way of doing that, and showing some kind of weakness as well as just strength. I think maybe, at first, when you’re younger, you just start imitating that. Then there’s a lot of emotional memory. I’ve grown up with domestic violence, my father passing away. Just, you know, classic life things, which, I suppose, I’m absorbing and letting seep through. I don’t know how to analyze that.”

Courtesy of CBS All Access

Latif has used that obsession to carve out a place for himself in one of the biggest franchises in Hollywood’s history. As Tyler has risen as one of the most radically progressive male characters on TV, Latif seems like he’s out to upset Hollywood’s rigid, long-standing model of masculinity.

”There were takes of some scenes where [Sonequa and I] were crying our eyes out, and we’d get notes like, ‘Less emotion, guys. Less, less. Chill out,’” Latif recalls. “It probably made sense in the end, but we always wanted to push for that, and just make sure it was okay that we could cry like that. You know, that a man can cry. We wanted to make sure that, in those intimate scenes, that balance was there. Like in the sex scene, I’m initially on top, but then we flip around, or when I’m nestled in her chest, looking up to her. [Voq’s Klingon lover] L’Rell, too — Tyler keeps being cradled by these women! Those little things were really important for us.”

In track pants, T-shirt, backward cap, and several months’ worth of freestyle beard, the London native dresses more like a jock than you’d expect from a guy talking about being cradled by women and crying a lot. He’s in Los Angeles for a two-week media blitz following the mid-season reveal that Tyler has, indeed, been the outcast Klingon Voq all along. He was originally human, but his body and mind have been surgically overridden to implant the Klingon as a Manchurian Candidate-style spy on the Discovery, in the Klingon Empire’s war on the United Federation of Planets. There’s been a long-brewing fan theory that Latif also played the prosthetic-heavy Voq in the show’s early episodes, especially when it emerged that the actor credited with the role didn’t actually exist. But Latif and the rest of the show’s team danced around that reveal until the episode aired. (At one point, Latif even seemingly debunked the theory in a cleverly worded interview.)

Best Possible Screengrab / CBS

“Our publicity team was panicking for a year,” he says about the CBS lockdown, which was so strict that the studio initially barred his own mother from visiting the set. “They’d say, ‘Just say this,’ but in my head, none of [the explanations they told me to use] made sense. So I tried my best, but knowing that people know, when people are like, ‘Come on!’ makes it harder to [hide] it.

Now that the twist is out, though, he wants to talk about all of it, from how they kept the secret to Tyler’s plight as a whole.

“I just wanted to do something that, one, wasn’t boring, and two, that’s progressive and of its time,” he says of developing Tyler’s vulnerability. “With all this going on right now, especially, any character who adheres to the classic male action hero just seems outdated. It needs to be deeper than that. Otherwise, it’s just going to fall by the wayside when you’re watching it, and I just become another boring male character running around shooting stuff.”

Naturally, Discovery’s creators — the showrunners, producers, and writers — determine where the show’s characters go. But the vulnerability Latif brings to the table has come to define Tyler both on-screen and in the script.

Courtesy CBS All Access

“I know they definitely started liking that softer side [of Tyler’s character] because it seemed more of those scenes [were being written] in,” Latif says. “You’re always afraid you’re just going to be fighting for a lot of the time. [As] the security officer, you’re just like, ‘Ah, okay, he’s just going to punch someone, and then the episode’s just going to be that.’ That was a big fear of mine. So I was very happy when more and more softer scenes came in, just talking scenes. I prefer those, just two people communicating.”

Harberts confirms that Latif’s performance has driven most of those writing decisions. He says many of the character choices made about Tyler were made after Shazad came on board.

“I think the beauty of Shazad’s performance is that it’s fearless: he’s not afraid to show his vulnerability, his sensitivity. He’s not afraid to well up,” he says. “A lot of male actors of this new generation want to be dark, edgy. One sign that an actor is going to be really tough to work with is that he always has to ‘win the scene.’ But Tyler — though he has some very victorious moments — does a lot of losing. And Shazad comes at it from a place of character, not ego. He comes from a place of, ‘I, Shazad Latif, don’t need to win this.’”

That became especially important when the episodes in which Tyler started experiencing PTSD flashbacks — which initially appeared to be of his torture and repeated rape by the Klingon L’Rell — aired as the #MeToo movement was growing in strength.

“We didn’t see that coming. That storyline had been shot, edited, and in the can when all this stuff started coming out,” says Harberts. “But when [#MeToo] started happening, we realized there was going to be a lot to unpack for the audience. Tyler is able to find someone to confide in and have her not judge him. There’s feeling in that [performance]. How incredible that Shazad, unlike a lot of actors who are scared to look weak, could have performed it in a way that could carry the flag for any man who’s experienced that.”

Discovery isn’t the first time Latif has played an emotionally sensitive role. His last major American project, Showtime’s gothic horror series Penny Dreadful, saw him in the iconic role of Dr. Henry Jekyll. Instead of wrestling with a monstrous, chemically induced id, however, Latif’s soft-spoken Jekyll struggled with his rage from a lifetime of personal and professional derision on account of his “half-caste” identity. He only “transformed” at last upon inheriting his estranged white father’s title as “Lord Hyde.” And in Profile, the forthcoming film from Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov, Latif, whose family is Pakistani, will play Abu Bilel Al-Britani, an Islamic State recruiter in love with an undercover French journalist. He stresses that he only took the part because the computer-screen film’s screenplay is pulled directly from the non-fiction book on which it’s based.

“We saw the actual Skype conversations they had, verbatim,” he says. “I liked it because it’s more of a love story about their relationship. And it wasn’t a writer going, ‘I think this is what a terrorist might say.’” Given his ethnicity — Latif repeatedly describes himself as “a brown dude” as he explains this dynamic — he’s often asked to play terrorist characters. “Those roles still come in,” he says. “I think I got one the other day. It’s tempting to take those kinds of roles when people are like, ‘It’s a different kind of terrorist, we really want you to do it.’ But unless you can really see what they’re saying, I’m done with them. That’s it.”

Latif has no idea what’s going to happen with Tyler in season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery. Even staying in Harberts’ guest house hasn’t given him an inside track. “I’m trying to like, soften him up,” he jokes. “Like, ‘I brought you some tea! in the morning!’ But nothing.”

“Ash Tyler is still caught between two worlds,” is all Harberts will say. “He’s had to put a lot of that aside, because there was a war to win. He’s going to have a lot to unpack when this conflict is over. As writers, we find his story super-compelling, and it would be a shame, just when we’re getting started, to stop now.”