Interview: 'Star Trek: Discovery' Star Rainn Wilson Returns as Harry Mudd for 'Short Treks'

This Thursday, the final short film in the Star Trek: Short Treks series arrives. Titled “The Escape Artist,” the episode focuses on intergalactic con man Harry Mudd, played by Rainn Wilson.

Wilson is the second actor to play Mudd, following Roger C. Carmel in Star Trek: The Original Series. He also steps behind the camera to direct “The Escape Artist,” based on a script from Mike McMahan, the Rick & Morty writer who is also developing the animated comedy Star Trek: Lower Decks for CBS All Access. spoke to Wilson about directing his episode of Short Treks, taking over Harry Mudd from Carmel, and what Mudd’s future may look like.

Star Trek Short Treks The Escape Artist
(Photo: CBS) Your episode of Star Trek: Short Treks is unique in that you both star and direct. How did that come to be the case?

Rainn Wilson: Well, to be quite honest with you, it fell into my lap. Honestly, we had been talking about bringing back Mudd and the possibility of other Mudd episodes on Discovery. How Mudd could play a part in the future. Then, all of a sudden, I got sent this script. It was a brilliant script, really funny, some great twists and turns, wonderful surprise ending obviously. They were like, “You wanna direct it and star in it?” It was just an incredible opportunity 'cause I had directed three episodes of The Office, but The Office is, let's face it, it's pretty simple to direct. What side of the desk do you wanna have the two cameras on? You know? Essentially. This one was much more challenging.

What was that like, working on such a big budget, effect-heavy production?

I learned a ton. I really, truly did. We have all of those flashbacks to various Mudds and various places that needed to feel in the same world, but very different worlds, at the same time. The same universe, but very different worlds. They allowed me to hire a storyboard artist. It's the first time I ever worked with a storyboard artist. Which really helped me a lot figuring out, visually, how do I wanna tell this story? So much of this story is set on that Tellarite ship. How do I make it not get boring? To have so much talking on that Tellarite ship, but visually mix up each scene. Finding different angles and different ways of shooting it, but making it all feel like a piece, at the same time.

I learned a ton about visual effects and special effects. I don't know what the budget was they spent on this short, or they had allotted for it. They didn't show me any of the numbers. But, because there's this giant Star Trek mechanism up there in Toronto -- they have the visual effects house, and the composer, and their costume wardrobe department, and props department can build anything you want. It immediately made this short feel like a giant production. That was an incredible opportunity to have it feel like such a large sci-fi production.

Based on your performances in the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, some fans feel like your take on Harry Mudd is a bit more, for lack of a better term, homicidal than Roger C. Carmel’s original. Do you think that’s a fair observation? Do you have a sort of headcanon about how your Mudd develops into Carmel’s?

Yeah. I think that's an interesting discussion to have, because first of all, it's balancing tone. In The Original Series, the second episode of Mudd. “I, Mudd,” It seems like a comedic episode, but he's gonna trap the crew of the Enterprise on that planet with those androids and take their ship. I mean, he's homicidal. We only remember the more comedic aspects of the episode like the Stella android coming out and the fun hijinks of it, but he really is... Even in the first episode, “Mudd's Women,” he's buying and selling sex slaves, prostitutes, you know? And toying with human lives and tricking people into buying these intergalactic sex workers. It's pretty dark stuff, but all we remember is Roger C. Carmel's amazing comedic performance. But, there's a lot more to it than that.

We talked about that early on with Discovery. First of all, we all knew the show Discovery was going to be darker. It's going to be during war. It's going to kinda mirror our contemporary times. It wasn't time for a light-hearted Star Trek show. It was time for something a little more grounded. Frankly, I didn't want to just play a comedic character. I didn't want to play comic relief.

So, it's balancing that tone between the comedic Mudd and the dastardly Mudd. That's what makes him so much fun is you'll laugh at him, and then he'll stab you in the gut with a knife. But then, he'll apologize and stitch you up. There's a lot of twists and turns to the character.

One of the things that fascinates me about Mudd is that he seems to be out to make a buck, but he comes from a society where money is no longer used and scarcity has been eliminated. In The Original Series, you just kind of accepted Carmel at face value because it fits into the Western part of Gene Roddenberry’s original concept of Star Trek as space western. What do you think motivates Mudd to live the life he leads? Is it just an anti-establishment streak?

I think he's an anti-establishment kind of guy. I don't know that it's necessarily the Federation that he has the gripe with. But, he's a con man and a smuggler and a shyster, so he doesn't want the long arm of the law coming down on him. If he's in the Western, he's the snake oil salesman with the wagon, coming to town. As soon as the sheriffs and the laws -- that's what ended the Old West, if you use the Western analogy, were kind of law and order and prisons and executions and more sheriffs and more army. That's what he's against. It gets in the way of business, I think, for me. I don't think there's much more to it than that.

After “The Escape Artist,” fans are likely to be wondering if and when we can expect to see more of Harry Mudd.

I certainly hope there's more Mudd in store, but I really don't know at this point. But, I would definitely be open to playing him again. It's a thrill to play the character. I love it. I love being part of the world. The Star Trek universe was so important to me growing up. Such an important part of my childhood and my young adulthood. I'm thrilled to be a part of it, and hope to be again.



"The Escape Artist" episode of Star Trek: Short Treks will be available to stream on CBS All Access at 9:30 p.m. ET on January 3rd.