On girls & dads’ legacies: Sonequa Martin-Green leads Star Trek where it has never gone before
We have to say it again — Sonequa Martin-Green is boldly going where no woman has gone before.
She’s the first woman of colour to ever lead a show of the Star Trek franchise, in the role of Michael Burnham, which instantly places her among a rarefied, divine pantheon of inspiring cultural figures for millennials, and the older generations as well.
Sonequa has quite a legacy to carry forward — that of Nichelle Nichols’ Lieutenant Uhura of the USS Enterprise, from the original Star Trek TV series of the late-1960s, one of the first powerful African American female characters on TV.
At a recent media interaction, the veteran yet glowing actor Nichols spoke of how the late Martin Luther King, Jr had in fact convinced her to stick to the role, at a time when she wanted to quit.
Nichols also praised Sonequa and urged her to ‘Enjoy this moment — this is yours now.’ It certainly was an emotional moment, as the young star hailed Nichols as ‘a queen’ in return.
And thus, she steers the Star Trek franchise to strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilisations. Along the journey, she also has a thing about carrying forward a very personal legacy — that of her father’s.
Tell us first, how does it feel to be the first black female lead in Star Trek history? How empowering does that feel?
It’s hard to put into words, how it feels. I stand on the shoulders of Nichelle Nichols (now aged 87, who played Nyota Uhura in the original Star Trek TV series from 1966-’69), and I stand on the shoulders of Kate Mulgrew (now aged 64, who played Captain Kathryn Janeway from 1995-2001 on Star Trek: Voyager, the first series in the franchise with a female lead). It means a lot to me that the franchise has placed the faith in me, at this time right now.
We now get to see so many more women of colour on television and in films. That’s a huge thing for me as well — it’s not just that I’m a black woman, but it’s also that my character is a genius in the arts and sciences and technology. That is something that is truly powerful for young people to see.
We were all overwhelmed by all the liberties we have on our show, and I guess there were times when we had to return to the first-most things. For me, it was that we have so many different colours, we have an openly gay couple, and we’re continuing that diversity, and pushing that envelope to a degree.
But I actually made a conscious effort to return to the fact that there is a black woman helming the franchise. I’m very grateful to God and humbled and honoured to be in this position that it makes me live out the truth in my life, that I can live up to the story.
Were you a big fan of Nichelle Nichols as Uhura? How much did she influence you as an actor?
Oh, my goodness, always... Nichelle Nichols has so much grace and power at the same time — she’s a bundle of great power and kindness, all at once. I’ve learned so much from her, and yes, I was a huge fan when I was growing up. You know, she was one of the only women of colour in that world, whom I saw — I’m sure there were others, but she’s the one I saw on my TV screen.
And being able to work alongside her, and being able to be close to her — we were very close, very quickly... It was easy between her and I, and I was just so inspired by her personality. You know, the show wouldn’t be what it is without her, it just wouldn’t. And I’m a better actor, and a better woman and a better artiste, certainly a better fighter, from being able to work with her.
Who were your all-time favourite Star Trek characters, and who do you try to emulate the most?
I actually didn’t grow up as a Trekkie, and I didn't really watch much Star Trek while growing up. My parents watched it, and it would always be on the television — and I would just run by and say, ‘Oh, there’s Star Trek!’ and not really sit down and watch. And even though I didn’t watch it much, it was a part of my home and my upbringing.
But once I dove in after I dropped the role, I really learned the original Star Trek series, and I cooled a lot of my expeditions of creating memories, and sort of creating Vulcan for myself — I used a lot of Enterprise and the original series, which is essential in the Star Trek canon.
Among my favourite characters, I love Uhura, and I love Spock. And I’m biased, of course, because he’s my surrogate brother. I do have to say, I think Leonard Nimoy is ‘creative art’ as Spock. And I must say, Ethan Peck did an amazing job playing the role as well, on Star Trek: Discovery. So yes, Spock is my favourite character.
Could you shed some light on the rather masculine name of your character, Michael Burnham? Is there a story behind that?
Yes, there is actually a story behind that, and I love talking about it. From the very beginning, well before we even started shooting or treating the character, there was some talk of the character being named Michael.
Bryan Fuller, who’s the co-creator of the show, he made a stylistic choice, which he has done before, which is to give his female character a male name. So they went with that.
When I got my hands on it, I decided that I would be named after my father, who is also a Michael Burnham. And I love the idea because to me, it’s a picture of the future — where a girl can possibly be named after her dad or a son named after his mother.
Were you involved in the making of your backstory, of being an orphan and a foster sister to Spock?
Yes, absolutely! It’s a very collaborative environment, and I’m always adding to Michael Burnham —
I love that we all created this character together. I’m always in competition with the writers and producers about that — about what I’ve added, and as we go on, I add more and more.
Of course, I was involved in the story of me being raised in the Vulcan homeworld, being raised by Sarek (James Frain) and his human wife Amanda (Mia Kirshner), and of being one of Spock’s surrogate sisters — though that had been decided before I came on board. But once that happened, yes, what I was bringing to the character influenced it greatly, for sure.
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— Jaideep Sen