Sonequa Martin-Green Talks Discovery
The moment is nearly up on us… and her. In just a few short weeks, Sonequa Martin-Green will stand alongside William Shatner, Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, Kate Mulgrew and Scott Bakula as the lead of a Star Trek series. Martin-Green, coming to Star Trek: Discovery fresh off The Walking Dead, will also have the distinction of being not only the first African American female lead, but also the first series star to not play a captain. Her Discovery character, Michael Burnham, is a first officer. During a Discovery press event in Toronto last month, StarTrek.com joined several other journalists for a wide-ranging roundtable interview with the excited, charming Martin-Green. Here’s what she had to say:
How ready are you to lift the lid on Discovery? It's been so secretive for so long.
Oh my gosh. So long. I am! When you have something like this, you want to talk about it. You want to talk about it. It's hard not to be able to talk about it. So, it's fun, now that we can.
What do you want to tell us?
I want to tell you everything, honestly, because I'm really, truly excited about it. I think it's going to be extremely provoking. And I think it's going to really touch people, at least I hope so. So... I'm going to tell you whatever you want to know.
What is the provoking part?
I think it's provoking because it's challenging. I think that the stakes of the show are embedded in the personal challenges. I think the adversity is something that is very poignant and relatable. I think the adversity that you see each character go through, an adversity that we're going through as a collective… it's violent and it's haunting and it's exposing, and I think it's very courageous, because we go really deep. We go really far, and we touch on a lot of that ugly stuff that is usually sort of skimmed over.
You mean social issues?
Oh gosh, yes! Yes! And the ugliness within each of us. We really go there, and so it's that kind of thing that makes you twitch in your seat: "Oh, oh!" You know?
Star Trek always been a show about optimism. Is the hope there above all that in Discovery?
Oh gosh, yes. Well, that's also the beauty of it. And I think that's also what is provoking about it, is that it does not mean that the hope and the optimism isn't there, it is the striving for that. In the midst of the struggle, striving for the optimism. And striving to keep the hope alive. That's what each and every person is doing on this show. And what we're trying to do as an organization, as Starfleet, is keep that hope alive and be optimistic about how we see each other and how we see life. Right? But it's hard. And we certainly don't spare the pain.
Do you think using a serial plot, rather than an episodic format allows you to go deeper with this show?
I do think that the format that we're on, the digital streaming platform, I think it does allow us to go further and deeper than any iteration has gone before. I've been talking about it a lot, but I think it bears repeating, that longform storytelling offers tremendous opportunity. The fact that we're like a novel told in chapters, we get to build on what we introduce. Everything is established. When it happens, it is going to reverberate. That's part of the stakes of it all. So, I think that, yes, we absolutely are going further and deeper, because of the format, because of hyper-serialized storytelling, for sure.
To clarify, where you were talking about the issues and the show, and how we are struggling right now in our time with the political situation and race issues, will that be explored on Discovery?
Yep. Oh man, yeah. I think that we're providing a mirror in that way. I think that with how absolutely horrendous things are right now in our political, and social, and racial climate, there has never been a time... Or, let me not say that. I'll just say that this show is perfect for a time such as this. And I think that something that I've been saying, and something that I've come to champion about the show is that it is a picture of the solution, because we see the problem everywhere around us right now. Especially with what's happening right at this moment that we speak. And I think that it's important for people to see the antithesis of that, and to see the solution of that.
And that is the optimism and hope of Star Trek, because that's what you show people, is what we can achieve if we aspire to it, and if we work together to get there, we can get to a future where people are valued equally. People, species, no matter what you are, no matter what the differences are on the surface, we value each other equally and we can build that kind of future if we really try.
Tell us a little bit about the journey Michael Burnham is taking…
Well, it is quite a journey, and I think that part of what is going to allow for more engagement than shows in the past is that you are entering this world through the eyes of a first officer who has this aspiration to be greater, and to be more, and to be captain, of course. And so, you get to see me on that journey, but you get to see all of the pitfalls, and you get to see the turmoil, and you get to see the failures. You get to see the mistakes. You get to see the triumphs. I think that it is an incredible journey, and I think the writing is truly courageous in that way. It certainly knocks me off my feet quite often, seeing how far we go! I think it's going to be something to see. So, the journey never ends, you know? It continues on, and I think it's going to be quite exhilarating.
How Vulcan does Burnham come across? How Vulcan does she want to be? And quickly following up on that, I'm sure you have a lifted eyebrow and wouldn't be shocked if you’ve already said, "Fascinating."
Oh my gosh, I tell you! The idea of how Vulcan I am versus how human I am is one facet we're exploring. Because there is this dichotomy of Vulcan indoctrination versus human emotion and human DNA, versus Starfleet ideology. And so, it's really about all of these things, all of these tenets of my being, and how they are relating to each other, and how they're opposing each other, right? So, I was born into a human family, and a human life, and then was sort of forced into Vulcan culture. So, there's the acculturation that has happened, and there was certainly the assimilation that I fought to achieve. And then you have Starfleet. And so almost, I feel as if Starfleet has provided a bridge for me between my humanity and my Vulcan upbringing.
So, it's interesting because it's not the same journey as Spock. He, in his DNA, is Vulcan and human. But for me, it's really about someone who attempted to become someone they were not born to be. Under tremendous pressure. Against insurmountable odds. (She’s) someone who's succeeded in that to a point, and possibly to a fault. So, there's certainly that inner conflict, and a lot of the inner conflict has to do with that, because obviously there's an identity crisis there, that, "Who am I? Who do I want to be? Who am I becoming, based on these decisions I'm making? Is it Vulcan logic, or is it human emotion that caused me to make that decision? I actually don't know!" So, these are things we touch on.
And doing and saying all the Vulcan-isms (as she’s flashed the Vulcan greeting gesture)...
Oh, I love that stuff (as she flashes the greeting back). I love that! I love that. I am very grateful for what Leonard (Nimoy) did. And that's one of the things that I'm most grateful for, is that salute. I have seen people who can't do it! I watch their fingers not do it. And I'm like, "Wow, you really can't do it!" It just comes very naturally to me.
Is the story accurate that you were in Buenos Aires when you learned you’d landed your role?
I was, I was! We were at a restaurant. I forget what street we were on. And my team called, and they said, "It's happening." My husband actually recorded it. And so, I cried, and everything, and it's forever captured. So, it was just... surreal. It was completely surreal. Like, "Is this happening?!" My husband and I kept looking at each other, and we wouldn't say anything. We would just look at each other and go (she opened her mouth, and kept it open).
You cried at Comic-Con when discussing this, but what does it mean to you to be a woman of color in this particular role, at this particular time? For kids who are going to see this, for men, women, boys, girls, black, white?
I am going to try not to cry again, but it means everything. I feel so blessed to be here, to be at the sort of center of the conversation. I feel that I am at the center of the conversation because of this show and this show's legacy, and because of what the show represents to so many people, and what it did, what it dared to do. I think that we are following in that tradition, and continuing to dare to go boldly and represent a world, a picture of universality, to show that not only can it be done, but it can be inherent, and it can be common. I feel that right now, things are divided. A lot of things have been behind closed doors, for a long time. I think it's been easy to avoid the problems that are systemic, and it's been easy to deny them, even. I think now there is no avoiding or denying it. It’s even worse, literally in this last week. I felt pierced in the heart from the things that have happened, just in this last week. And that's coming from someone who was raised in the South, in America where... There's a lot of hatred in the South, in that way. So, coming from that kind of upbringing, it was ripping open an old wound.
So, I think right now, like I said before, people need to see themselves. People need to see themselves represented in positions of leadership. They need to see themselves as champions, and they need to see themselves as unified. I think they see themselves, and then they see themselves unifying with others. And that's really important to see, because I think it feeds the imagination. What you can visualize, you can achieve. I couldn't be more grateful to God for putting me and everyone else here, all of us here, right now... To be talking about this, and to be using this as a platform to talk about these issues that are so hurtful and are so... perverse. And need to be changed.
The conversation that you said you were in the center of, it's taken more than half a century. Star Trek, in 1966, was already forward-thinking. So, Discovery isn’t really breaking new ground in terms of Star Trek, but rather you're repeating/updating the message. And it's been half a century…
Right. We're repeating the message, but we're also furthering it because we're taking it to... We're exploring new forms of diversity. Every show has explored a new form of diversity for its time. TOS certainly did. And all the iterations have explored new forms of diversity, and now so have we. We've never seen a black woman lead the show. We've never seen an openly gay officer in Starfleet. We're just continuing it. So, it is... You're absolutely right. It's the same legacy. We're just continuing it, and trying to further it as well. And by furthering it, we're really staying true to it, essentially.
There’s been some backlash about the diversity, about the gay characters. It’s been along the lines of, “This isn’t my Star Trek.” What’s your reaction to that?
Well, I think progression is a difficult road. I think being unified is easy to say, but nearly impossible to do. I think that the hypocrisy that was displayed and that continues to be displayed by people who say they are long-term lovers of the legacy of Star Trek and its diversity, but then are upset about the diversity of our show… I think that hypocrisy is a picture of where we are. I know that it's not everybody. My goodness, of course it's not, right? Thank God for that. But for those people who do feel that way... There are some of them, there are a good number of them, and I think it's such an example of how we say one thing and do another. I think it's an example of how we ideally want to be unified, but only to a point where we're comfortable. I think that, honestly, we can learn from it, because we need to push past that comfort level. And we need to push... Love is not convenient. Right?
True love is inconveniencing yourself. Right? In a lot of ways. So, I think that we have to be willing to be inconvenienced in order to truly love each other, and accept each other, and go to the next level. Where we can even think that we are equal, you know? So, I think that for those people, it's just a product of their paradigms, a product of their beliefs, a product of their conditioning. I certainly hope they get swept up by the rest of us, they get swept up in the journey – and change.