Star Trek: Discovery — Crafting the CornRell Relationship

We talked to Jayne Brook and Mary Chieffo about the dynamic between Cornwell and L'Rell, and what's next for their characters in Season 2.

One of the most rewarding, and ultimately important dynamics in Star Trek: Discovery Season 1 came out of nowhere. When Starfleet Admiral Kat Cornwell is captured by the Klingon ship Sarcophagus, it seems like her arc is over. Then, she finds an unlikely ally in Klingon outsider L’Rell, who tells the admiral of her plans to defect to the Federation. The two women work out a plan to escape the Sarcophagus together.

Den of Geek talked to actors Jayne Brooks, who plays Cornwell, and Mary Chieffo, who plays L’Rell, about crafting the characters and relationship that would be the foundation for peace in Discovery’s season finale.

“That first scene where you see Cornwell and L’Rell together was [originally] much, much longer scene. I used my knowledge of psychology on her,” explains Brook. “[L’Rell] comes in and she tries to be real tough. They cut it down for time, but they still were able to maintain what we had achieved in that. There was an interesting bond. I looked are her and said, ‘What are you really up to? You don’t speak the same language? You don’t have the same markings as these people?’ … I don’t get scared of her.” 

Chieffo and Brook didn’t know each other before flying to Toronto to do work on Episode 8.

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“Literally, we get there and the next day we’re doing out fight choreography,” said Chieffo. “She also was in the room next to me where we were staying, and so we ran our scene and she’s so lovely as a person. And then we had one full day when we did all of our stuff in [Episode] 8.”

One of the best moments of Cornwell and L’Rell relationship comes in their first scene together. L’Rell comes into a haggard Cornwell’s cell, torture devices in hand. She asks her to scream, but Cornwell refuses to… at least not on someone else’s terms. When L’Rell yells into Cornwell’s face, Cornwell scream right back at her. As far as character dynamic introductions go, it’s a pretty great one.

“I think that was part of the bonding moment between Mary and I,” said Brook. “We had to decide to trust each other as actors and not be self-conscious. We had to just go to this raw place … I think [Cornwell] thought, ‘You are not gonna scare me. You are not gonna diminish me. And, if you’re gonna scream at me, I’m gonna scream right back for all human kind.’ I think that she thought that she wasn’t gonna walk out of that room alive.”

“[Jayne] was like, ‘I really want to come back at you. I’m not scared,'” said Chieffo. “And I was like, ‘Yes!'”

For Chieffo, the trust that developed between herself and Brook in crafting this scene paralleled the trust these two characters began to find in one another. “As our characters were getting to know each other, so were we,” said Chieffo. “I think, beyond that, we both naturally gravitated towards this becoming a mutual respect between these two characters.”

Though L’Rell and Cornwell’s plan to escape the Klingon ship ultimately fails, it lays the foundation for a fragile trust, or at least respect, that would lead to Cornwell asking for L’Rell’s insight into how to end the Federation-Klingon war in Episode 14, as well as (presumably) Starfleet’s decision to give L’Rell command of the entire Klingon Empire in the season finale. Not too shabby for a relationship between a Klingon revolutionary and a character who was supposed to die in her third episode.

“Their original plan for Cornwell,” said Brook, “when they called me last May and said, ‘Will you please play this Admiral?’, the idea at the moment is that she dies really heroically in her third episode.” When Brook found out Cornwell would be back, the actress was overjoyed.

“I remember calling my husband and I’m like, ‘I don’t die!’ … They had come up with something new, which was wonderful. They came up with more and more and more for Cornwell.”

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That “something new” was an arc that would take Cornwell from the character who was threatening Lorca’s plan to a character whose role extends far beyond that. By the end of the season, Cornwell appears to be the highest-ranking member of Starfleet, making decisions about the fate of the entire organization. Cornwell is the character through whom we see the toll of those nine months when the Discovery was away and the Klingons were picking off Starfleet ships and outposts one by one. When the Discovery gets to Starbase 1 only to find it gone in Episode 14, Cornwell has her very own Admiral-Leia-in-The-Last-Jedi moment, mourning the loss of life this war has caused.

“We had that moment where she’s so devastated by that it took her a moment to pull herself together and go to L’Rell,” recalls Brook. It’s presumably the first time these two characters have been reunited since they first met and failed to escape together on the Sarcophagus.

For Chieffo, the scene that sees Cornwell momentarily unable to command because she is overcome by the loss of Starbase 1 is an emotional high point for the season. It also is integral to the interaction that follows, which sees Cornwell asking L’Rell for advice about how to end the war. When Chieffo watched the scene in preparation for recording ADR, it hit her hard.

“I just started crying in the ADR room,” Chieffo said, “and I was like, ‘Sorry, guys. It’s these two women talking about loss and the cost of war.’ I think [Cornwell’s] willingness to express that, L’Rell sees that and feels that and [I think that is] the reason that they’re able to have a conversation and the reason why L’Rell expresses what she does.”

The Episode 14 reunion was one of Chieffo’s favorite moments to play in the season.

It’s switched. I’m the captive, which, in itself, anytime you get that kind of parallel, I always get really excited. But also in the sense that, now, L’Rell is at her lowest point she’s ever been, at least that’s where I was, because I think I’ve just lost everything, particularly because she’s not someone who doesn’t sees herself in isolation. She’s always working behind someone else. Now she’s literally lost everyone, and she feels guilty, of course. She promised Voq that she would do everything in her power to make the plan work and here she is… 

This scene isn’t just a turning point for the Federation-Klingon war, but a turning point for L’Rell in her understanding of the Federation, the Klingon, and what she must do to ensure the united future of her people.

“[L’Rell] keeps getting evidence that maybe what she’s been taught [by T’Kuvma], isn’t true,” said Chieffo. “And no matter what, no matter how strong you are, when you have to come to terms with something that you’ve believed your entire life is not true, that’s hard.”

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It’s a revelation on which the end of the Federation-Klingon war rests.

“If I didn’t have that interaction with Cornwell in that moment,” said Chieffo, “I don’t think I’d be in a place to be able to receive Burnham’s empathy in the season finale.”

Where might the #CornRell dynamic go in Season 2? Well, with both women in the leadership positions for their respective peoples, their dynamic seems poised for continued exploration in the show’s second season, which both actors confirm they are returning for.

Can their respect for one another lead to a respect between their two peoples? What role will their dynamic play in getting the Klingon-Federation dynamic from where it is in Discovery to where it is in The Next Generation? And what wisdom might seasoned leader Cornwell be able to share with L’Rell when it comes to the uphill battle that will surely be ruling a newly-united Klingon Empire?

Whatever the form the future interactions between these two characters take, the actors are on board. “I hope they can find ways for us to be together,” said Brook of the Cornwell/L’Rell dynamic. Same.