After reading the script for the season 2 finale of Star Trek: Discovery, Emily Coutts -- the actor who portrays Keyla Detmer, a bridge officer and pilot aboard U.S.S. Discovery -- burst into tears in her car. In the storyline, crew members of the Starfleet ship decide to join Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) in traveling to the future. In doing so, they chose to leave the life they knew in order to advance the greater good.
In that moment, Coutts recalls thinking, "This is where I'm at in my life right now. I can stay where things are comfortable. Or I can go and grow into my full self, and really come out, and tell everyone, and celebrate that, and go to the future, whatever that holds."
"It wasn't so much that reading [the script] made me realize I was queer," clarifies the 32-year-old. "I had been discovering that for many years prior. It was more that when I read it, I was inspired to be brave enough to finally come out, and tell people that I was gay, and trust that my future would be a beautiful thing if I was living openly and freely. I'm really grateful for that experience and proud of myself for taking the leap."
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Star Trek: Discovery broke the rainbow ceiling in the Star Trek universe, introducing a host of heroic LGBTQ+ characters portrayed by out actors. The Paramount+ show not only inspired queer viewers to more boldly live their lives, but behind the scenes, it also helped Coutts in her coming-out journey; she was "welcomed with loving arms" by Discovery's cast and crew. By 2019, when season 2 debuted, she had come out to her friends, family, and the world.
"I think being surrounded by so many queer castmates and having [out writer] Michelle Paradise be [co-]showrunner -- it felt very accepting and loving," Coutts says. "To be able to go to your work and tell everyone that you're coming out is a gift and a privilege that I got to have."
The experience was a game-changing moment for Coutts, who is now an out actor but does not closely identify with a particular label. "I use a lot of them interchangeably," she says, including gay, queer, and bi. While she never had a formal "coming-out" statement or tweet, Coutts now feels free to share her queer life in public and on social media. Notably, an August 2020 Instagram post announced she was "marrying a real-life mermaid," producer Lexy Altman, whom she met on the dating app Hinge.
"It was like the easiest...thing that I've ever done," Coutts said of popping the question, which she did while overlooking Altman's favorite Malibu beach two summers ago. "I proposed and I was so excited." (Altman said yes, and the two are tentatively making wedding plans in the midst of an unpredictable pandemic.) In the meantime, Coutts's feed (@couttsemily) is full of scenes of the loving couple enjoying outdoor adventures, including driving a 25-foot RV to Yosemite last year.
Moreover, Coutts now relishes the public appearances she makes at conventions. She recalls a recent LGBTQ+ panel in Europe that was "full of people, and full of energy, and full of emotion" for the diversity Discovery has birthed into the cosmos. "It was like, holy crap. Every time I do one of those things, I realize what impact it's having," she says. Once an outsider to the Star Trek universe herself, Coutts lauds how anyone on the "outskirts" of social norms can find family within the fan base.
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"I think that one of the most beautiful parts of our fan base and Trek family -- that I experience firsthand at conventions -- is that no matter who you are, what you look like, who you love, how you fit in to the outside world, when you are a part of Trek, you are fully accepted for who you are," she expounds. "When I am there, it really inspires me because the fans create this loving environment where differences are celebrated."
Before coming out, Coutts briefly considered the impact on her acting career, but she quickly pushed any concerns aside. "I wasn't really that afraid of being typecast or being boxed in by it," she says, noting the progress Hollywood has made in recent years, in part due to inclusive shows like Discovery. "I felt like it was something that could be celebrated, and actually bring me more interesting work, and work that feels closer to my heart."
In addition to her Star Trek family, her Discovery character, Detmer, helped her find her voice -- particularly as the overworked pilot struggled with PTSD following the ship's jump through time. Like Detmer, "I grieved my old life. And then I moved on into celebration," she says.
Coutts has a sense that Detmer may be on a queer journey of her own; the character's trauma led her to be "vulnerable enough" to acknowledge that there were aspects "not quite right" in her life, she observes. "I feel like she maybe is starting to accept herself in her own queerness, whatever that means...whatever the writers want to do romantically or not."
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And just by being a woman in the pilot's chair, Detmer is doing subconscious work in breaking the binary for viewers. "A lot of times men will drive their wives around. And so, I feel like to put a female there is beautiful and symbolic of most of the feminine and the masculine [roles] of that position -- both practically driving and keeping everyone safe."
"I love driving, and I'm a great parallel parker," Coutts shares with a laugh. "I'm just like, Yes, I can, I could drive this ship.... I grew up in a small town. I had to learn how to drive so that I could get out and go."
Indeed, Coutts was raised in Canada, where initially she was more of "an outdoors kid" than a consumer of film and television. "I grew up with three brothers in a big house, lots of opinions," she shares, and it was her brothers who usually chose the channel. But she still found characters that resonated with her, including the titular character of Anne of Green Gables, "a chatty redhead who was fearless, bold, and full of heart," she says. "I was also obsessed with Matilda and convinced myself that if I stared long enough at the Cheerios, I too could make the box move with my magic. They were both outsiders, so to speak, but they had these secret skills that helped them thrive in their environments; I always found that very inspiring."
Coutts was introduced to Matilda through a brother who came out as queer 10 years prior to her. At the time, "it was a lot for my family," she shares. "It was a lot for my mom. She had to face her religion and decide how she was going to still celebrate her faith and also still celebrate and accept my brother." The family chose acceptance and eventually embraced Coutts when she came out a decade later.
After high school, where she began performing in plays and even directed one, Coutts went on to study acting at York University in Toronto. There, she became enthralled with the work of Miranda July, known for Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), The Future (2011), and Kajillionaire (2020). "The first time I watched a Miranda July film, my head almost exploded," she says. "I had never seen something so quirky and unique, and it inspired me, as both an actor and filmmaker, to want to tell stories with authentic and fascinating characters."
So in addition to acting -- she has landed roles in The Bright Side of the Moon and Crimson Peak -- Coutts is a writer and filmmaker. She penned a 2020 short, Dear Jesus, a coming-of-age story of a girl wrestling with Catholic guilt. During her Discovery downtime, she is creating another short, "a horror film about a couple deciding whether to have a child or not."
Artistically, "I'm very interested in looking at children, especially women on the cusp of puberty...changing from girl to womanhood, and the trauma of that transition for a lot of us," she shares. The filmmaking process has sparked a degree of self-reflection for Coutts about her own girlhood.
"I really had to weed through that time to be able to heal and grow and trust myself," she says. "I really think little girls are told to do this and this and this, and they never like really get connected to their instincts and their impulses."
With these projects and Discovery, she hopes to push back against the forces that repress women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. "I just feel very lucky to be able to tell this story," Coutts concludes. "And I want to continue to tell queer stories and stories about women and girls and add to the conversation about equality. And I'm just happy to be included in this and to be able to represent queerness -- and represent queerness in space!"
Season 4 of Star Trek: Discovery returns to Paramount+ on February 10.
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Emily Coutts 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.