LYDIA WILSON IN LONDON, JULY 2016. PHOTOS: MATT HOLYOAK/KAYTE ELLIS AGENCY. STYLING: NATALIE BREWSTER. HAIR: MAKI TANAKA USING BUMBLE AND BUMBLE. MAKEUP: AKGUN MANISALI/THE LONDON STYLE AGENCY USING CHANEL. PHOTO ASSISTANT: LUKE WELLER. RETOUCHING: THE SHOEMAKER’S ELVES.
“She’s a girl. She’s not necessarily human,” actor Lydia Wilson tells us, laughing, over the phone. It’s about as much as she, or we, can tell you about Kalara, her character in Star Trek Beyond—the latest installment in the Star Trek franchise reboot—without revealing the film’s storyline. Wilson knew equally little when she put herself on tape for the role. After Alyssa Weisberg, the film’s casting director, saw her on stage in King Charles III in London (in which the she played Kate Middleton), Wilson’s inbox pinged with a cryptic, time-sensitive proposal.
“She emailed me saying, ‘We’ve got this secret, kick-ass new role in the Star Trek film. Here are the sides. They’re not from the film, they’re from something else, but we’re going to use them. Please tape by tomorrow,'” Wilson recalls. “I went to my friend’s house and I just made a tape with him until midnight and emailed it out to her. I come from a theater background, and I’ve never taken a job where I haven’t met the director and read the script prior. For this, I was not meeting the director or getting the script. I didn’t have much to base the decision on until [director] Justin [Lin] called me,” she continues. “He told me everything about the character, all the top-secret stuff. He was incredibly open about it. That was exactly the stuff that was on the page when we got to shooting it.”
Wilson was on the set of Star Trek for three months in Canada—acting within alien prosthetics—and describes the film’s environment as “collegiate.” The cast is close, which has always (and continues to be) palpable in watching the franchise’s films unfold. It’s that fact that makes this particular Star Trek film at times quite painful to watch; the recent, sudden loss of actor Anton Yelchin is deeply felt throughout. He played Pavel Chekov, the beloved, unwittingly comic navigator on the U.S.S. Enterprise. Despite this sorrowful aura, Yelchin, expectedly, brings levity to the role.
When we caught up with Wilson over the phone, we did not speak much of Yelchin, but her admiration for him is clear. Now, she’s back in her native London, and she says she’s writing “love letters” to actors and directors she’d like to work with as well as reading scripts for plays and films, deciding what to work on next.
HALEY WEISS: Is it difficult to talk about the film abstractly so as to not give anything away?
LYDIA WILSON: Yes—I suppose the thing is that the whole experience was such a big, strange thing. Usually you’re desperate to talk about the character but I could talk about [the film] for days without even mentioning her. The whole experience was such a big and different one. Going to Canada for all that time, training with their amazing stunt team, being on a production of that scale, meeting actors who are so, so good at what they do. There’s a lot that I could go on about before I get to the plot of the film.
WEISS: What was Justin Lin’s style of directing like on set?
WILSON: Justin is one of the most impressive people I’ve met professionally. I don’t think he sleeps, or I think he sleeps 20 minutes every few hours during the night. Mostly, between shooting days, he was making rough cuts and other decisions with creative things on the film. He blew me away; in spite of working insane hours most days, his energy is incredibly generous and calm. Within the eye of storm, there was Justin there. If I emailed him at midnight about a line or something about the characters, he would make a decision for what could be an incredibly complicated juggernaut of a production and was so clear. You could ask him about any line or any moment and he would give you the most intelligent and clear answer as if he had just been thinking about it himself. He had clarity and heart. He was really, really generous. He had time for everybody, which I think really helped the whole set. It was no secret we were working long hours and trying to get this huge, ambitious thing done in a timeframe. He’s someone who takes the temperature down and makes you feel calm in the middle of that, which is the greatest asset a huge production could have.
WEISS: When you’re going into a franchise like this, do you have any nerves about joining something with such a devout fan base and name recognition?
WILSON: In the abstract it does seem mad. Sometimes I’d wake up and go, “What? We just did Star Trek?” It has such a human face, ironically, for an alien film. Alyssa, the casting director who was my contact, she was super personable. She made it sound like a kind of collegiate atmosphere with a bunch of actors enjoying working together and a gorgeous, new director. Justin himself was like, “This is the biggest independent film that’s ever been made.” We’re still kind of working on it as we’re going, so everyone is communicating. It didn’t feel like this huge juggernaut of a production. It felt like a bunch of really kind, clever people working together, like Justin and with Simon [Pegg] and Doug [Jung] writing it. They’re so approachable. It took a lot of the pressure off the fact of it being this huge franchise.
WEISS: If it was a collegiate atmosphere I imagine that everyone who had been in the prior films was quite welcoming.
WILSON: It was beyond my wildest dreams. The first day I was there, dear Anton [Yelchin] texted me, “Come out for dinner.” I was sitting next to Chris [Pine] and Chris said, “How’s it going?” And I said, “It’s kind of hard being away from home.” Chris said, “Here’s my number. If you need to go for a coffee or if you need to offload, because being on location can be really tough, here it is.” Every single member of the cast—Zach [Quinto] let me stay in his apartment when I went to do a play in New York after the shoot. They were just insanely welcoming. There was zero hierarchy or ego. It really took me aback.
WEISS: Did you watch any of the original Star Trek TV series or films when you were younger?
WILSON: It was always on when I was in school—The Next Generation, the Patrick Stewart one. I kind of grew up with it like it was a dream. I didn’t always sit there and concentrate on it; it was like this moving background that was on TV for years while I was growing up. It felt very familiar and gets into your subconscious, just because its always on TV. I was never a Trekkie. I never sat down with it until I got this opportunity. I’m really glad since it’s given me appreciation for the Star Trek philosophy and the community and the fans. I had this dream that Zach was explaining to me how important the fans were and how we wouldn’t be there without them when I first got to Canada. I think it’s completely true; it’s kept alive by its fan base. I’m just learning about that now really. It’s not something I identified with before.
WEISS: I wonder what you have to say about sci-fi as a genre because I know you also had a role in an episode of Black Mirror. There seems to be a unique capability within that genre to mirror the social circumstances of the time.
WILSON: Completely—analogy and allegory always seem to be a much more expressive way of reflecting reality. I just read Philip K. Dick, who wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. I grew up reading Ray Bradbury; I loved his short stories in The Illustrated Man. I used to write some short stories too. I remember writing one about a man who lifts off in a spaceship and gets lost in space and everything that was going through his head. As a kid, it really captured my imagination for some reason. I think it’s exactly what you said; they have this ability to represent through analogy and extending things to the scientific extreme. They comment on things that are very present in a really powerful way.
I’ve actually found that most of my jobs have been in sci-fi. I did this film called About Time , which was about time travel and then I’ve done this show called Dirk Gently where I play a computer. I realized it because sci-fi has the biggest fan following. Every time I do a play in London all these sci-fi fans come out. They ask me to sign things from all these little projects that I did. I hadn’t even made the connection. Of course [those projects] belong in the sci-fi world because it’s so diverse. It doesn’t always have a spaceship and guns; sci-fi has been projected on in someway. I did Never Let Me Go, which is sort of Star Trek-y. It’s about the future and training humans. It’s sci-fi too. It’s such a broad umbrella.
WEISS: How early on did you know you wanted to be in acting?
WILSON: I wanted to be an actor ever since I was five. My grandparents—my mom’s parents in New York—were stage actors. After I did art school [at Chelsea College of Art and Design] I went to [the University of Cambridge] and I did English. Then I started to train as an actor. I didn’t start working professionally until I was 25.
WEISS: Was your family encouraging?
WILSON: Yeah. I think indirectly I wanted to do it because of them. My grandfather would tell me stories about Tennessee Williams and [actors] he worked with in New York. He had such a respect for acting and such a love for storytelling about that world. I grew up hearing him tell tales of it. My mom is really passionate about theater. When she moved to London she started going to loads of theater. As we kids were growing up she’d take us along. They were never encouraging me or discouraging me to take part. They were always feeding me with theater. When I said I wanted to [pursue it] they were incredibly encouraging.
WEISS: Were you primarily attracted to stage acting? Or were film and television something you were interested in?
WILSON: Theater really is what I know and what I was exposed to the most. That’s really the main artistry that I love about acting. It’s what I’ve experienced the most and what I trained in. I’d say theater is my love.
WEISS: Do you remember what your first role was?
WILSON: Yeah. At school, I was nine, and the whole school was doing a production of Anne of Green Gables. I was too young to play one of the main parts. Then at the last minute the music teacher set me aside and she made me sing some of the songs with her. Then the head mistress came up to me and said, “We want you to play Anne.” I remember feeling very professional about and thinking, “I have to think about this very carefully. It’s a big commitment and I think I can handle it.” I said I’d let her know then the next day I said yes. [laughs] I had to dye my hair red. It was me doing it one night and an older gal doing it the next night. They did two performances and I felt like that was my big break.
WEISS: When you’re taking on a role—be it for film, television, or theater—is there something you find yourself looking for in scripts?
WILSON: Actually, no. I’m not really looking for anything. I don’t really have a dream role that I’d like to play. When I read a script—I guess it’s quite interesting, especially with theater—I get a sense [about it]. It’s in my body: I sweat when I read a play. I just read a play I really am amazed by and I realized my armpits were sweating! [both laugh] I really liked this play and I was half imagining being able to speak those words and imagining it on the stage. That’s kind of how I decide. With films it’s not usually that I have a particular character I’m looking for; I’ll read the character and my imagination will start spinning and I’ll go, “Yes, definitely.” I’m thinking it would be nice to keep challenging myself. I’ve done the same play now on and off for almost two years. I want to get better at acting so I want to do something I haven’t done before and work with brilliant directors.
WEISS: What was the most challenging experience on Star Trek?
WILSON: Oh, honestly every day had huge challenges. I remember one day coming home and running a bath and going, “You don’t know how to act, do you?” It was the most humbling experience ever. It was the first day I shot with prosthetics. It was one of the biggest scenes I had to do—she’s not the biggest part in the film by any stretch, I don’t want to jump too much—but it was a big scene for what I had to do. I was just in prosthetics and I could not—it was just really emotional. I wanted to shed a tear. The minute the prosthetics were cut off my face I couldn’t stop crying; it was like they got trapped behind the silicon. I was crying and I was laughing because I don’t know why I was crying. It was so paralyzing being behind all of that stuff. As the shoot went on I learned how to work with the prosthetics and I did so much more than I did that first day. So much gets projected without you realizing it.
WEISS: When you get home and go, “I don’t know how to act,” how do you get out of that mindset? Do you just file it away and go back to work the next day?
WILSON: Yeah! The weird thing was I was elated by it. I was like, “I’ve done this job for six years. I’ve trained and I think I love it.” It was almost thrilling when I realized I didn’t know anything. I remember the next day I got up and I went to set. I wasn’t shooting but I felt, “You have to go back and be near those people. You have to go back to set and back to work and get back on your horse immediately.” It wasn’t despair. It was this weird ecstasy. I remember I got home and I had this message from Bill Nighy who sends me pictures of the ocean randomly, about once a year. He sent me this beautiful movie of the ocean he made. There were no words. Of all the days to get this lovely message from this planet it was good timing on his part. It wasn’t negative; it was eye-opening.
STAR TREK BEYOND IS IN THEATERS NOW.