After making an impact as Sasha on The Walking Dead, Sonequa Martin-Green strapped into a spacesuit this year to play Specialist Michael Burnham on Star Trek: Discovery, the first Trek series to premiere since 2001’s Star Trek: Enterprise. But the firsts didn’t stop there: Martin-Green was also the first black woman to lead a Star Trek show. As she readies to shoot Season 2, Martin-Green reflects on the responsibility she felt stepping onto the bridge of the Discovery, and shares her passion for the inclusive message of Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi utopia.
The fans seem to have embraced Star Trek: Discovery over the course of this first season. How much has that meant to you?
It means a lot, because it was quite an arduous journey, Season 1. We’ve been met with such fierce love and support. At the same time, we’ve been met with quite a bit of vitriol, because people are innately uncomfortable with change.
From the very beginning, from the moment we announced what our show was going to be and who was going to be telling the story, there were lots of people who were rubbed the wrong way by that. There was a conversation that was being had for a long while at the beginning about how that response was completely antithetical to the legacy of Star Trek itself. There was a period where we were dealing with that.
What I think I learned, or at least it was reaffirmed for me, is that people are comfortable with innovation to a point. It’s hard for them to grab ahold of diversity and change, and what they consider to be ‘other’.
Certainly antithetical to the utopian idea of Star Trek. That not only can we get along as a planet, but we can get along as a universe.
Yes. It’s the epitome of hope. There is nothing to be afraid of with the ‘other’. There is only gain. We are only greater than the sum of our parts; we only expand. The only thing you have to look forward to is expansion.
I talk a lot about acculturation, and how ideally speaking, acculturation should be a two-way exchange. I have taken in your culture, while you have also taken in mine. Now we are greater, and bigger, and grander than we were before. I definitely don’t want to isolate those people who have trouble leaning in. I’ve always tried to be encouraging with that and say, “How about you just come on board—pun intended—and see how it changes you, and see what it does. See if it opens you up. Because we all truly believe it will.”
It’s an issue; it’s a plague of humanity, and it’s something that we all deal with. We are comfortable with change to a point, but it’s a barrier within us all that we have to burst through.
I can’t think of another Star Trek show that has as strong a first season as Discovery—and it’s not until the finale that we see just how clever it all is.
We had a lot of confines. First, you know, the canon is our central nervous system. We were also purposing to establish our own identity. We wanted to get into the hyper-serialized storytelling space, which is quite different than any other iteration. There’s certainly been serialization in Voyager, there was serialization in Deep Space Nine, but never before has that been essential; the foundation. We are going to tell this story as a novel in chapters. Already, it’s such a new space, and it’s one that we have defined, and reached for, and pressed into. Because we have canon, we have this sort of outline and we have to find ways to jump off of it, and find ways for people to feel that this is familiar, yet unfamiliar in the most exciting way. I do think that there were certain points that we explored in Season 1 that made people question the spirit of Star Trek and our show, but it’s only because we were servicing serialization.
What was your understanding of Star Trek before all of this? Did you watch the show growing up?
Yeah, my parents used to watch Star Trek from time to time. I remember specifically seeing episodes of the original series, and Next Gen, and Voyager, and Deep Space Nine on the television. I never sat down and actually watched it, but I remember it being there. I remember knowing what it was, and then I certainly learned what it meant. I learned what a pillar it was in entertainment history; I knew its monumental impact.
When I had the opportunity to come on board, I set out to watch everything that there ever was, because so much that I had seen was bits and pieces from different shows. I hadn’t seen any of the original movies. I had only seen the J.J. Abrams franchise. I knew what it was; I knew that it was an heirloom. I knew that it’s a very, very prodigious endowment. I said, “I’m going to watch everything that there is. Watch every single episode of every single show and every single movie.” I didn’t realize exactly how long it was going to take me to do that.
Is that still a work in progress?
It’s still going [laughs]. We’ll see how long it takes me. I started with TOS, which was actually my favorite. As I was going, I was sort of splicing it with Enterprise, because Enterprise and TOS were the most pertinent to me when I was creating my Michael Burnham, diving into our story, because everything else happens well after us. That’s where I dedicated most of my time. I also really enjoyed watching bits of Deep Space Nine and Voyager, because there you have a black man, or you have a woman, and you also have the serialization.
It seems like Star Trek has always been fairly progressive, and about breaking down barriers.
Yes, always about universality. I think when you have that at your core, and one of the tenets of your story is universality, then you now have a responsibility to innovate, and you have a responsibility to press forward, because every Star Trek reflects the society it’s in at that time. If universality is going to be one of the tenets, then of course we have to keep moving. We have to keep making this picture of the future that people can look to. It’s always to make people look ahead so that they can bring that future into their lives in the present.
I have so much respect and love for our entire company, for our screenwriters, our producers and directors, because they have such a firm understanding of that, and such a passion for that. We have to keep being not just a reflection of today, but a picture of tomorrow.
I certainly think that that’s a responsibility of storytelling as a whole, because storytelling is just so powerful. Its potential is so limitless to change belief systems, and shape culture and shift paradigms as it always has. I would think that with something like Star Trek, we have to now take that upon ourselves and do the best that we can to uphold the legacy by taking it to the next level.
There was probably a moment where each one of us had that feeling of being overwhelmed by it. Then, we also had that moment where we focused that energy. We can’t tell this story from a place of anxiety or stress, or being overwhelmed or anything like that. We’re not going to do it justice if we do that. We have to lay that aside, and focus on what we’re doing. We have to lean into the story, lean into each other.
Did you relate to Michael Burnham on a personal level?
I think because our writers have done such a phenomenal job of making this such a deeply human story, I was able to grab ahold of it frequently. The way that I work is through imagination. You know, this is an imagined life, if I can quote Diana Castle, an amazing woman and a mentor to me of sorts. What a vast world, what a vast universe Star Trek is.
When you set on this path of creating this world, you go, “OK here we go. Federation. OK. Starfleet. OK. She knows anthropology. OK. Vulcan upbringing. Got it.” You just have to do it incrementally. That’s what I did. I created it incrementally within the parameters that the writers gave me. That was my sort of playground for my imagination to run free.
Since it’s coming from my own creation, it’s certainly coming from me. I don’t pull from my own life and my work anyway. I rely on the story and imagination. Here you have this black girl whose parents were murdered, essentially in front of her; she was in a cupboard. Then she moves to Vulcan, and the assimilation had to happen there.
Being ahead of her Vulcan peers; being a genius is something that has to be contended with. It seems like it’s great, but you speak to someone who has parented a genius and they will tell you that it’s actually very complicated. There’s the isolating effect that being a genius has on you.
Then entering into Starfleet and having Sarek and Amanda and Spock to pull from, learn from, and be affected by in your formative years. Then there’s the principles of Starfleet that allow you to have a tether. What happens when those are broken? Then, xeno-anthropology is another big one because that’s the study of alien cultures. There’s such a passion in Burnham to understand ‘other’, because she has always felt ‘other’.
If the show runs and runs, you want to know that there is going to be a journey for you to go on, not just as a character, but as an actor as well.
Absolutely. You know, I’m so moved by the character, and I’m moved by how tenacious Michael Burnham is. I’m moved by the strength that Burnham has to look herself in the face and be honest.
I was about to say, “Self-awareness is a beautiful thing,” but that’s actually something that I stole from Sasha on The Walking Dead. It’s one of my favorite quotes as Sasha: self-awareness is a beautiful thing; self-awareness is very difficult. A lot of people don’t want to deal with it because it is so difficult. That’s what I love about Michael Burnham, is that you have this person who’s made these mistakes, but who is willing to face them, who just keeps cresting and keeps clawing. As I say in Episode 13, I had to claw my way back to the light, back to myself. I appreciate that. That is uncomfortable to see sometimes, it’s uncomfortable to watch. It’s uncomfortable to see someone make the same mistake over and over and over again because they’re still trying to figure it out.
You’re already on set for Season 2.
I’m beyond excited. Thrilled. We’ve been talking a lot gearing up for Season 2, about that story we’re going to tell, and how we’re going to continue, and how we’re going to jump off, because the war chapter has come to a close. What happens now? What happens now that the war is over? Because a lot of what happened to Michael Burnham and all the characters wasn’t able to be delved into because there just wasn’t time, because we were dealing with this war. Wrestling with all of these things, it’s like you have to sort of put it aside because of the immediacy of the moment. I’m thrilled to see what happens when the chips fall and things are done now. Now what are we going to do? How are we going to look at ourselves in the mirror? How are we going to look at each other?
The war is over but the show still found a cliffhanger in that final shot. Is Michael about to meet her brother?
You know, Aaron Harberts, he said after the finale, on After Trek, that Season 2 was going to be about that line between science and faith. He also said that there’s going to be a lot of family dynamic. It is the Enterprise in that shot. We all know who is on the Enterprise. You see Sarek and Burnham look at each other, and there you have it.
What do you think of the fan speculation about why Spock has never mentioned his human sister?
Alex Kurtzman, who helped create the show with Bryan Fuller, who obviously worked very closely with J.J. for his franchise of Star Trek films, said, “I know a lot of people are asking why he didn’t ever mention her.” He was like, “Trust us. There will be an explanation.”
That’s what happens when you come into this time period where you’re couched between two iterations. There’s a lot of those things where you can only go so far, or you have to find loops or whatever, as it surfaces in the story. We are so canon-specific and canon-compliant, and the moments where we are not, there is a reason for it.
There are so many nuggets and Easter eggs. One that I actually didn’t know about when we were shooting, but I found out later, is that in Captain Georgiou’s ready room, in either the Pilot or Episode 2, she has a bottle of Chateau Picard wine. What Picard says in Next Gen is the he comes from a lineage of winemakers hundreds of years ago. There’s things like that everywhere.