To portray Lt. Saru on Star Trek: Discovery, actor Doug Jones had to learn a lot on the hoof — literally. That’s because the fan-favorite character is a Kelpien, an alien species with hooves, which means Jones must navigate the show’s Toronto set while wearing specially designed boots that add a good five inches to the actor’s 6-foot-3 frame and give him the uptight gait of an upright antelope.
It’s a peculiar acting challenge (especially while also wearing a molded-silicone disguise that covers his face) but Jones has made a career out of those. The actor is a specialist in genre film and TV roles that require major make-up and otherworldly performances.
Jones played the amphibian man in last year’s Oscar-winning The Shape of Water as well as the equally fishy Abe Sapien in two Hellboy films. His credits include ghosts (Crimson Peak), fairy-tale creatures (Pan’s Labyrinth), a zombie (Hocus Pocus) and a piano-playing, crescent-shaped moon (in the 1987 McDonald’s Mac Tonight commercial).
This week Jones gets a special spotlight when he stars in a Star Trek short film called The Brightest Star, which depicts Saru’s home-world for the first time. The short is the third installment in Star Trek: Short Treks, a quartet of mini-movies produced for CBS All-Access to fill the offseason lull before Star Trek: Discovery returns with Season 2 on January 17.
DEADLINE: It’s a little surprising that the Saru role on Star Trek: Discovery is your first foray into Federation space. Your career would seem to make you a natural for any of the many Trek iterations over the years.
JONES: “It does surprise people, yes, and at conventions fans come up to my table to meet me and they say, “Welcome to the family.” That tells you that they have been a life-long fan, they have a sense of ownership of this franchise and when you start playing a character in their world you are then part of the family. That’s a different experience than I’ve had in anything else I’ve worked with before.
DEADLINE: Saru is an intriguing character who can detect danger with his “threat ganglia” and is part of an alien “prey” race used as food-on-the-hoof by a predator species. That opens up a lot of story possibilities for this short film…
JONES: Throughout Season 1, I was dropping bread crumbs of my history: where I come from, what my people are like — with their “threat ganglia” and having a life based in fear. My people are prey on our planet and I think that denotes that there must be a predator species. How does that play out? What’s that relationship? Well, this short film will answer those questions, you’ll get to see all that. This is going back in time to see my roots and my start. So you’ll get to see a younger Saru, maybe in my teenage years. I look very much the same because Kelpien’s live a long time. You’ll see the beauty of my home planet. It looks like a vacation spot. But there’s the dichotomy of this whole situation and it’s slightly disturbing. There’s the beautiful brochure-looking place but at the same time there’s the horrific thing of the culling of our people. When a certain time comes along ever so often, our predator species will collect a few of us. That’s where it’s our time. They take us away to our death. So that’s very disturbing and why does that happen? And does it need to happen? Why is it necessary?
DEADLINE: Food for thought, to say the least. Is Saru an outsider among his race? He becomes the first of his species to join Starfleet. Does that outsider odyssey start in his youth?
JONES: Saru as a teenager is the only Kelpien that seems to have a curiosity that goes beyond everyone else in his village. He’s the one who wants to ask, “Why?” and wants to look at the sky and wonder what else is beyond out there. And ask the question: “There has to be a purpose that’s more than just this? Just farming kelp from the sea and surviving and waiting for our time to die?” There has to be more. So I think that type of question is one that’s relevant to everybody. Whether it’s young teenagers out there that’s wondering what’s ahead for them in this world, we’ve all been through that.
DEADLINE: It falls into the grand Star Trek tradition, too, of presenting ethical quandaries that may take place in distant galaxies and in the distant future but still speak to contemporary moral, social and cultural topics.
JONES: That’s what’s beautiful about this show is that any parallels you want to draw between society and politics and social issues you certainly can. Nothing is blatant or preached in this show and that’s what I love about it, you can take the piece of art you’re watching and make it apply to you wherever you’re watching at, and I like that part.
DEADLINE: Saru has a distinctive way of moving and holding himself. Do you play him different in the short film as a youthful Keplian?
JONES: I think it’s never been said out loud, really, but the Kelpien lifespan is in question. Humans maybe live 70-something years but the Kelpiens have a much longer life span. So my teenage years don’t look that much different from where you see me [as a crew member]. So, physically, he was a bit more, uh, humble, I’m going to say is the word. As a Starfleet officer I have a sense of pride and a sense of proving myself. When you look back at me in my village, as a teenager, maybe I didn’t own all of that yet. I was still under the very strong thumb of my father. Dad is played by a wonderful actor, Robert Villacki, and my sister is played by Hannah Spear, who is a very tall, lanky supermodel-type actress who did a fantastic job. So there’s a family dynamic there that you’ll see. A father/son relationship and a brother/sister relationship that kind of carries over as to why I’ve connected with Sonequa Martin-Green’s character, Michael Burnham, on the regular series as a sister figure because of the world I left behind and how she represents family to me from the starship.
DEADLINE: As you were describing Saru in his village as an inquisitive and restless soul who looks to the skies it reminded me of a different alien who enlisted for deep-space duty. Do you see any parallels between Saru and the Silver Surfer?
JONES: Good gosh, that is brilliant. I never thought about it until just now when you asked. That is just a beautiful parallel to draw and, yes, I had the pleasure of playing the Silver Surfer in the Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and I did explore the comic books and his origins and I love connecting with characters like that. The ones that do sacrifice something, leave something behind for a greater cause and Saru was doing that exact thing, as you’ll find that out in the short film and you’ll see Saru’s curiosity looking to the sky wondering what else is out there and finding a way to break away from his people. But it comes at a cost and he has to leave the world he knows and leave the people he loves behind. Much like the Silver Surfer. With Saru he wants to be a part of keeping the universe safe and keeping the galaxy running smoothly so there is a certain heroic act there. Wow, that’s a great parallel, thank you!”
DEADLINE:After the great success of The Shape of Water what do you see as your biggest challenge these days, either from a craft and career standpoint? Or on a personal level?
JONES: Great question. The challenge for me being 32 years into a career that’s mostly under rubber-beds and playing lots of creatures and characters is when I’m presented with a new one and I have to figure out how to make it different than the rest. So you really do want to find nuances and a life and a DNA in this new character that you haven’t played before and it’s there. It’s there if I take the time to look for it and to experience it to then let it into me. I also have the challenge now, I’m 58 years old now, I’m scratching my head thinking, “How much more rubber glued on to me am I going to want in my lifetime?” I’m happy to play Saru out for as long as he lives or for as long as the show lives, as long as they’ll have me. Then I think, if you’re looking at the big picture of a career, I love to explore my human characters as well. I’ve played many of them over the years and not many people know about those because they’ve been in lesser-known projects or things that aren’t publicized as well but a lot of indie films, a lot of TV guest-starring roles. I’d love to explore more of that in the future.