Nichelle Nichols is, as always, lovely and chatty and full of positive energy. And, given the opportunity to answer questions from you, the readers of StarTrek.com, Nichols turns on the charm and answers questions in great, entertaining detail, often venturing into side conversations that are even more entertaining and detailed. She talked about the new film, discussed passing the Uhura baton to Zoe Saldana and recounted the story of how Martin Luther King convinced her to stay on TOS. Here then, is part one of our two-part interview with Nichols. Look for the second half tomorrow.
What did you think of the new film and the recasting of Uhura? And did you ever think, “My Uhura wouldn’t do that?”
Nichols: First, I loved the film. I loved the fact that J.J. made great use out of the technology we didn’t have, that everybody thought we had. As a film, I loved it because I’m actually just crazy about J.J. and about Zoe. “Uhura wouldn’t do that…” You have to understand and allow for the fact that this is a prequel. Let me tell you a story and I’ll try to keep it short. J.J. invited me to lunch. We had a wonderful time. It was after the usual lunch time, so we had the commissary to ourselves and could have a glass of wine and lean back and talk – without everybody looking and wondering, “What are they saying?” We talked about the character and the recasting and the movie, and I thought it was so wonderful of him to take the time to talk to several of the (TOS) actors before he went forward. He didn’t have to do that.
He picked my brain here and there, and we talked about he would have loved for me to be in the film and what would have taken place. I said “I’d love to play her mother or her grandmother.” And he said, “You look too young to even play her mother, much less her grandmother.” I said that’s what women will look like 300 years from today, and they’ll probably live to be 150 and maybe more. He looked at me and said, “Well… Hmm.” I said, “Good health and longevity will be simple.” We finished lunch and it was around the time of the writers’ strike and around that one was coming the actors’ strike. So there was a concern there and he had to get finished. Everything that was already written could be done. They couldn’t stop that. But they could stop anything new.
Ultimately, the strike threat prevented even the possibility of you being in the film. But that story about your lunch with Abrams has more to it. Please continue…
Nichols: J.J. and his right-hand man, who was with us, were walking me to my car. Actually, they were driving me to my car. It started to rain and he said, “Hey, Nichelle, have you got time? Why don’t you come on the set?” He said that Zoe wasn’t on set, unfortunately, but that just about everyone else was, and he wanted me to see the set. I said, “Oh, I’d love to,” and we went across the lot to the set. I walked in and there was the command level set and my heart stopped. As I was coming in someone said, “Be careful, ma’am, there are cords and things down here.” I said, “Well, I’m used to them.” He looked up at me and said, “Oh my God, that voice. Of course you know. Hello, Ms. Nichols. How are you?” And he shook my hand and said, “How good to see you.” We went on deeper to the sets and I met a few of the actors, and then J.J., who’d disappeared for a few minutes, came back around.
Everything calmed down and the next thing you know they were bringing out J.J.’s director’s chairs. They brought out three, one for him, one for his assistant and one for the script gal. They seated me in the one that said J.J. Abrams and he said, “I’ll be right back. Take care of Nichelle.” I’m sitting there and they’re rearranging and getting the cameras up because he wants this shot right. I’m making small talk with the people there and I look up and, from about 10 feet away, in walks this beautiful young woman with a ponytail and pulling up the zipper on the back of her uniform. And she said, “Are we shooting now? They just called me in…” She’s looking around, looking to see what the setup is.
Well, it’s Zoe, who wasn’t supposed to be working that day. J.J. had her called in, supposedly for some scenes he didn’t get, that he wanted to do. She didn’t get an answer from the assistant and she looks in my direction and says, “Well, how soon does he… AAAAHHHH!” When she saw me nothing else came out of her mouth except “AAAAHHHH! and “No way!” Now she knew that she was brought in to meet me. And he’d set me up, too, to meet her. Isn’t that cool? And there’s a great photo of us on the set. Then they brought out her director’s chair and put it next to me, and for the next two hours we had the greatest time, the greatest conversation, and I just fell in love with her. She’s so gorgeous and so good and so funny, and you would have thought we knew each other all our lives, or at least all her life.
What did you make of the Uhura-Spock relationship in the movie?
Nichols: The only way I could explain it was that she was a recruit and this was her first trip out. It was the five-mission where no man or woman had gone before. So J.J. had the right, as the director of the prequel, to show the characters as young people. NASA recruits train for a year, sometimes two, before they go out on their first mission. As young people, they’re excited and they’re new and they’re going to go on this mission, and there’s romance and so forth that’s going to go on. Kirk was hitting on her a couple of times and he was hitting on everybody else because he was cute – and knew it. She shined him off, but Spock fascinated her, her serious side. Now, this is me making my story on what happened, but he saw in her his human side and she touched a side of him that they were supposedly discreet about.
Now, go back to my participation in Star Trek as Uhura and Leonard (Nimoy) as Spock. There was always a connection between Uhura and Spock. It was the early 60’s, so you couldn’t do what you can do now, but if you will remember, Uhura related to Spock. When she saw the captain lost in space out there in her mirror, it was Spock who consoled her when she went screaming out of her room. When Spock needed an expert to help save the ship, you remember that Uhura put something together and related back to him the famous words, “I don’t know if I can do this. I’m afraid.” And Uhura was the only one who could do a spoof on Spock. Remember the song (in “Charlie X”)? Those were the hints, as far as I’m concerned.
Saldana is playing Uhura now and into the future. Do you see her building to your interpretation?
Nichols: OK, let me tell you another little story about Zoe and her approach to it. Zoe played it just like I was saying, a young recruit. They’re having fun. It’s exciting. They’re serious about their training, but when they’re off duty they’re like young people (typically are). I didn’t meet Zoe until halfway through her filming. As we sat there for two hours, she picked my brain. She said, “How did you approach Uhura? I’m so excited to meet you, and tell me about it.” So I told her. I said, “I created her as a serious person, but not that serious.” I told her that Uhura was as serious as cancer when we were on duty, but that when we were off duty she could be in the rec room singing, and teasing Spock with that song about him.
So I’m going on, talking, talking, talking, not knowing what Zoe has shot yet, not knowing how she has approached the character. She asked me about my background, my parents, and I told her about that. I told her I created Uhura’s parents and that they were rather like my parents, that they would have expected the highest from me. Blah, blah, blah. Blah, blah, blah. And Zoe got very serious. She said, “Oh, my God, I wish I’d met you, talked to you before I started shooting.’ I said, “I’m sure that you’re bringing something fresh and beautiful.” She just looked at me and said, “Yeah, but I see Uhura in a whole new light.”
All right, that part of the story ends. I kept a good relationship with J.J. and everyone. I go to a premiere in Catalina Island, which was shortly after the premiere here in L.A. I couldn’t go to the L.A. premiere because I was at a big, big, big convention in Germany. When it was over I understood what the young lady was talking about when she said, “I wish I had spoken to you before I started,” because she was playing it light and flirty at the beginning. The time I spoke to her was the time they were then going on the ship. Do you remember the scene where she says, “No, I’m going! I was promised this, and I’m going,” and they had to take her on? She was destined to go on. She kissed Spock in a different way and said, “I’ll see you on board.” When she walked on board she was a full-blown Uhura in every manner and way that I had created the character.