For Mary Wiseman, joining the cast of Star Trek: Discovery meant boldly going on a journey beyond the bounds of her comfort zone. For one thing, she'd always thought that Star Trek wasn't meant for people like her -- progressive, queer, and female.
"Star Trek always kind of felt like something outside of me," she says. "I think mainly because I had an uncle who was a pretty conservative guy, and he was the guy in my life who loved Star Trek. So, it was always kind of 'over there, for men'...with maybe a more conservative ideology."
When the role of theoretical engineer Sylvia Tilly (formerly an ensign, now a lieutenant) presented itself and Wiseman took a closer look at the franchise, however, she was shocked -- albeit pleasantly -- at how wrong she'd been about who Star Trek is for and what it's really all about. As longtime Trekkies know, the core ideology of the iconic sci-fi franchise has always preached accepting others as equals and expanding one's horizons. One of the ways it accomplishes this is by remaining at the forefront of social issues. It's also one of the many reasons why the franchise has been such a special place for many a queer individual going back to the 1960s.
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Discovery has stayed true to this spirit, but it's broken the mold to a degree too, in that it's eschewed much of the metaphorical discussion about "otherness" and made the subtext, well, text. Its original showrunner, Bryan Fuller, took that core agenda to the next level by populating the U.S.S. Discovery's bridge and decks with a truly diverse cast of characters -- and the actors portraying them -- something one of its current custodians, Michelle Paradise, has built upon. From the beginning, this approach was deeply meaningful to the out and proud Wiseman.
"This is our version of the world. This is our community," she says. "It's diverse people from all over...keeping with the mission statement that [Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry laid out very explicitly, which is that diversity is our greatest strength as a species. And the more voices we can include, the greater, smarter, more generous we will become."
While Wiseman was happy to learn that the show reflected her worldview, it didn't stop her from worrying she might not quite fit in. But again, her fears were quickly alleviated when she was "strongly encouraged" to forge her path as the character, something that helped her connect with Tilly.
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"We didn't have to be like anybody that had come before, and particularly that she didn't have to be slick or cool. Which I'm super grateful for, because it would have been a bit like a square peg in a round hole if I had had to play somebody as cool as, I don't know, like [lead character] Michael Burnham," she laughs.
That still didn't prevent Wiseman from being nervous about joining the Star Trek family, largely because its legacy and dedicated fan base meant she had a lot to live up to. "At first it was intimidating because we knew that any new iteration of Star Trek was going to be met with some skepticism. It's something people hold dear," she says. Her worries were assuaged by the fandom's warm welcome for Discovery and Wiseman herself. "We felt really embraced by the community as a whole. And that is clearly articulated when we go to these conventions and see how loving they are," says Wiseman, who explains how Star Trek's fandom often mirrors the ideals that the franchise itself espouses. "There's no hate, nobody there is a troll. It's not like an internet space, you know; it's a real, human space at these conventions. We have felt so embraced and loved."
Wiseman felt the outpouring of love from the fandom when she publicly confirmed she is "queer and proud" in early 2021. It wasn't a planned announcement, she says, but rather something that happened organically during an interview with StarTrek.com. "The reason that I chose that moment to share that information, I don't know if you know, that was like a little bit of a weird moment. It was just because it was the first time anybody had called me straight," she recalls. "And it was just incorrect, so I felt like I should correct them."
While Wiseman has long been out in her personal life, that was the first time she'd discussed it publicly -- and seeing it splashed across headlines everywhere was a surreal experience for the actor. "I've known I was queer for a very long time. This is very old news in my personal life...so it's a little weird for it to be kind of described as me 'coming out.' I'm, like, pretty old," laughs the 36-year-old. "That was the most surreal part of it. I felt a bit like, you know, 18 again."
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Star Trek: Discovery has been making history with its representation of queer people on-screen. The series introduced the franchise's first gay couple, Paul Stamets and Hugh Culber, played by out actors Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz. Season 2 welcomed Tig Notaro's Commander Jett Reno, who has referred to her late wife in the series. Season 3 saw another stride in queer representation when Adira Tal, a nonbinary teen genius played by trans and nonbinary actor Blu del Barrio, joined the crew along with their trans partner, Gray, played by transmasculine actor Ian Alexander. All of this has Wiseman hoping the franchise's LGBTQ+ audience feels more authentically represented on-screen in a way that they, particularly in the trans community, have had to wait so long for.
As for the mainstream audience, there's something she'd like for them to take away as well: a deeper understanding and empathy for queer and trans people. "My hope for the mainstream community is that they will experience the gestalt shift that all the rest of us have had to do for our entire lives of seeing yourself in different characters. And through that act, acknowledging the common humanity that links us all," she says. It's a very Trek-worthy mission, and one Discovery might be uniquely able to offer audiences.
Star Trek might have been a trailblazer with regards to inclusivity on TV, but Wiseman says she's fortunately seeing a larger sea change in Hollywood when it comes to televised diversity. "I think it's pretty evident the landscape is changing. New shows that are coming out are including more and more queer people, people of color... so I think we can feel the land shape-shifting," she says, but is quick to add that those gains in front of the camera are just the beginning. "There's all the nuanced work that still has to happen so that it's not just a visual or tokenized gain. It's still really important that, even if there are trans characters on the show, they feel really safe on set. And that everybody who's going to work on that set is under the same understanding of the tolerance, love, and acceptance that is expected of them," she says.
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For her own part, Wiseman has specific thoughts about the sexist ways women are still viewed and treated in Hollywood. "As a woman, I continue to hope to be seen for my soul and not my container. I think we still have great strides to make when it comes to just different shapes of bodies and different types of looking people, man," she adds with a sigh. "It's the freedom that straight white men have had for a long time, and I hope the rest of us get a little piece of that also."
The fatigue that momentarily becomes apparent in her voice when discussing being at the forefront of changing those perceptions is something Tilly could no doubt sympathize with. Specifically, the rewards and pain that come with doing her part to move representation forward, which involves making herself visible and vulnerable. It's why fans love Wiseman and Tilly, who are inspiring viewers to follow them to their respective final frontiers -- and beyond.
Season 4 of Star Trek: Discovery returns to Paramount+ on February 10.
Talent MARY WISEMAN @morywise
Creative Director & Location BEN WARD@_benjaminward_
Photographer BEN LAMBERTY@ben_lambertybenlamberty.com for defactoinc.com
Video JESUS BAEZ@baez_photoBaeznyc.com
Photo Assistant LUKE STOYCHOFF@luke_stoychoff
Styling MINDY SAAD @mindysaadstylist for celestineagency.com
Stylist Assistants SELAH ROMERO@selahromeroAJAI JOHNSON @ajailenae
Hair RIAD AZAR @riadazarhair for thewallgroup.com
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Location HUDSON YARDS LOFT New York, NY hudsonyardsloft.com@hudsonyardsloft
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Mary Wiseman is among the stars of Out's January/February 2022 issue, a special LGBTQ+ Star Trek edition appearing on newsstands February 22. Support queer media and subscribe -- or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.