Star Trek: Strange New Worlds‘ latest episode, “The Serene Squal,” was packed full of action and twists. As previously announced, the episode guest-starred Queer as Folk‘s Jesse James Keitel as the nonbinary character Dr. Aspen, except there was more to Keitel’s character than that. It turns out that Keitel wasn’t playing Aspen at all but rather Capt. Angel, a pirate operating on the fringes of Federation space. They’d been impersonating Aspen to draw the Enterprise out in an attempt to take Spock hostage and use him to blackmail T’Pring into securing the release of a surprising character from Spock’s past. While Angel’s plan didn’t have the desired result, they still managed to escape and left a lasting impression on the crew, Spock in particular.
Keitel also left an impression on fans, originating what may be Strange New Worlds‘ first recurring villain and Star Trek‘s first, as Keitel puts it in our interview, “badass trans supervillain.” ComicBook.com spoke to Keitel after the episode aired to talk about joining the Star Trek family, LGBTQ+ representation, and whether Capt. Angel will be back. Here’s what she had to say:
(Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Armani Beauty/Marni Grossman/Paramount+)
Something I always ask when we get these new actors joining Star Trek for the first time is what is your history with the franchise? Are you one of those who grew up watching it, or is this kind of a whole new thing to you?
Jesse James Keitel: I am a huge Trekkie. I feel like I’ve become even more of one since joining the Star Trek family. I didn’t grow up with Star Trek, but I’ve always been a fan of sci-fi. I’ve always admired it. And then once I got into acting, all I wanted to do was do an iconic sci-fi project like Star Trek, and more when I got into the actual history of the show. And what a pinch-me moment it was. When I actually stepped foot on the Enterprise it was mind-boggling. I’m still giddy about it, that we’re even having this conversation.
There’s this big reveal at the end about who you’re actually working for. That big reveal, that wasn’t lost on you then when you saw that?
No, that was not lost on me. I gasped because I actually didn’t get the full script until I was already in Canada doing my two-week quarantine getting ready to go do filming when I got the script and there were so many moments where I was like, “Ah, I get to go up in the Enterprise! Ah, I do this!” It was unreal how shook I was to be part of this, continually.
How was the character presented to you, considering that it’s almost two characters in this episode? What was the part that got you most excited or most hooked into the character when you saw the script and what they were presenting you with?
I wasn’t given much info at all, actually. It was like two little scenes of really, I was told just someone who really has an earnest, honest connection with Spock, who also might not have the best intentions and that was pretty much the extent of it. But what made me most excited was being a trans woman in Star Trek who was allowed to be bad. It was very exciting to be able to play a queer character who was given permission to be a little evil.
Speaking of that, the modern Star Trek franchise, particularly Star Trek: Discovery, has gotten a lot of attention for LGBTQ representation, GLAAD Media Awards recognition, and the like. You’re someone who is both in the Queer as Folk revival, which is very much about those lived experiences, but then here you’re also playing an LGBTQ character, but the story isn’t necessarily about that. I was wondering in your mind, is there a difference between those two forms of representation in storytelling? Is one more important than the other? Are they almost complementary?
I would say my role on Queer as Folk is very much informed by my character’s transness, not defined by it. And I would say the same goes for Angel. I’m given the freedom to be a messy bitch on Queer as Folk and frankly, that also tracks here. We give so much permission to straight and CIS characters in any project. We give them permission to fail, to be evil, to be good, to be heroes, to be antiheroes. We’re not quite at the place in media yet to give queer characters that same freedom. So my role on Queer as Folk, I am ecstatic that I get to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. And coupling that with my role on Star Trek, I think it’s high time we have a badass trans supervillain. I don’t think they are at odds with each other. I think they’re more than complementary. I think they’re two sides to the same coin.
You touched on Dr. Aspen/Capt. Angel’s back and forth with Spock over his dueling sides. The episode, in addition to being very action-packed, is thematically about Spock’s identity. Can you talk a little bit about working on those scenes with Ethan Peck, what building that relationship between those two characters was like?
Ethan is such a cool dude. He just welcomed me in with such a warm presence. I felt so taken care of as a guest on the Enterprise as Jesse, but then also as Dr. Aspen. It was so easy to have conversations with him because there’s something about Sock that Aspen understood. Aspen saw him really frustrated and saw him grappling with, “Do I, or don’t I? Who am I? Who am I not?” And I think what’s so cool about using Aspen/Angel’s queerness as a metaphor is the opportunities are limitless. I think my whole understanding of non-binary in my life, non-binary has played a very complicated role in my life and in my previous identities and whatnot, and it always came back to me: none of this is real, these rules don’t matter. I don’t have to ascribe to these rules. I can do what I want. These rules are limiting, and I have not found freedom within those boxes. And some people do. Some people find freedom in containment. That is not Angel. And I don’t think that’s Spock either.
You talked about how one of your big goals, one of the things you wanted to do in your career, was a big sci-fi franchise like this. Walking into that set, working on this, how did it compare to your expectations? Was there anything in particular that stood out as a real joy or a real challenge for you?
It blew my expectations out of the water. I think especially with higher-profile projects, there’s this fear of that pressure, but that pressure melted away once I got there and I was allowed to just have fun. I couldn’t believe how much pure fun I had doing it. It was hands down the most fun episode of TV I’ve ever done, hands down, but also just the quality of the set and the quality of the props and the quality of the costuming and the hair and makeup. The phasers are heavy! The phasers have weight to them, they feel real. Walking into engineering and working with that AR wall was unforgettable, truly was a mind-blowing experience, soo much of it, just the quality of everything. I was like, “Oh my God, we are really making premium TV.”
I’ll end this by asking what I think everybody will be asking at the end of this episode, and I know you can’t spoil anything, but should fans keep their fingers crossed at seeing more of your, as you described them earlier, “trans super villain” down the line?
If they know it’s good for them.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is streaming now on Paramount+