Published Jun 29, 2020
Being Michael Burnham
Travel back to Discovery season one with an interview with Sonequa Martin-Green.
By Ian Spelling
Season 1 of Star Trek: Discovery put Michael Burnham through the wringer, propelling the Vulcan-raised first officer from the depths of despair and disgrace to a redemptive triumph by season’s end. But as actor Sonequa Martin-Green reveals, Burnham’s journey of redemption is far from over, as she tries to find a balance between logic and emotion, complicated by the arrival on Discovery of her adoptive brother, Spock.
It was arguably the finest first-season moment for both Star Trek: Discovery and its leading lady, Sonequa Martin-Green. In the closing few minutes of the season finale, “Will You Take My Hand?”, Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham delivered a remarkable speech, realized on screen in part as a voiceover and in part with Burnham at a ceremony, standing before her fellow U.S.S. Discovery crew sporting their Starfleet Medals of Honor, and a contingent of applauding Starfleet officers.
Among Burnham’s most stirring lines were these examples:
“The only way to defeat fear is to tell it ‘No.’ No, we will not take shortcuts on the path to righteousness. No, we will not break the rules that protect us from our basest instincts. No, we will not allow desperation to destroy moral authority.”
Burnham’s oration served to close out much of her unique arc. She began her journey as a figure torn between her human nature and a Vulcan upbringing, enduring a fraught relationship with her father, Sarek (James Frain), whose own choices were revealed to have haunted him and his relationship with his daughter. Burnham stepped aboard Discovery riddled with guilt over her actions that led to the death of her mentor, Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), and her reputation preceded her: the crew didn’t trust her, especially at first. Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs), however, gave her a shot at redemption, even though that gesture proved to be part of a devious long game.
Ultimately, though, Burnham helped save the day and end the war with the Klingons. She came to make peace with Saru (Doug Jones) and Sarek, forged a friendship with Tilly (Mary Wiseman), and found love with Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif). And she found herself looking forward – with a tear in her eye and a smile on her face – to a future full of promise and hope.
“That speech, it’s the end of the journey in Season 1, but it will resonate in Season 2, because it’s not over,” the always-warm, emotional, and talkative Martin-Green notes over the course of two separate conversations. “It’s just the beginning of it, actually, because the redemption arc that we explored in Season 1 continues.
“There was certainly some professional redemption. There was the reinstatement into Starfleet. There was the interpersonal redemption. A lot of the people on the ship stopped looking at me like they wanted to kill me, and forgave me, and obviously my loved ones and whatnot. But what is most important is that Burnham forgives herself, because as Burnham, I carry a tremendous amount of guilt and shame. That’s a foundation in my heart, unfortunately, because of the tragic event of my parents being murdered, and me essentially being responsible for that.
“So, that then factors into your very identity as a child, and you carry that for the rest of your life,” the actress says. “It’s going to be very important that I forgive myself and realize that it is not about me denying my emotions because of my logic training and upbringing, but it is also not about denying my logic so that I can fulfill my emotions.
“There’s been a sort of waterfall happening, right? A sort of a bursting of the dam, if you will, because for so long it was so shut down and closed off, and then it just sort of opened up at the end of Episode 6 [“Lethe”] in Season 1, and now it’s just bursting and bursting and bursting. We’re still there in that place, and at this point, now, I have to understand. I say to Sarek in the pilot that my emotions inform my logic. But now what I need to learn as Burnham is how my logic informs my emotions.”
We Are Family
Martin-Green beams brightly when asked what she considered the biggest surprises during Season 1, so far as shooting Discovery and portraying Burnham. “I would say I think what was surprising to me was just how much it continued to unfold,” she replies. “And how deep it went, and how inclusive this entire experience and community was going to be. And also just how close we as a company, with Discovery, became a family. That was also very surprising.
“Character-wise, I think I wouldn’t say that anything was surprising in the sense that it shocked me or I disagreed with it, or I thought, ‘Ooh, why is this happening this way?’ Everything definitely made sense and tracked, and I think it was an organic progression. But it was definitely thrilling to go through the ups and downs and twists and turns.”
Second Season Secrets
Season 2 of Discovery is underway now, having launched on January 17 in the US and Canada, and on January 18 elsewhere around the world. Even so, Martin-Green chooses her words carefully when addressing the details of the show’s sophomore year.
“Well, I think people expect the fallout from everything that happened last year,” she says. “There’s so many things that happened. So many decisions were made. So many changes happened. There was evolution in Season 1, but we weren’t able to dig into it because we were at war. So, you will see all of that. You will see people dealing with what’s left. Dealing with the residual [effects], dealing with, ‘Okay, what do I have now? What have I done? What does that mean? Who am I? Who are we?’ You’ll see people asking those questions and seeking to answer them in Season 2.
“And there is a lot more… there’s a little more joy just because we aren’t at war,” she continues. “We’re able to smile a little bit more. There’s a sense of levity that’s there simply because we’re not fighting for our lives. There’s certainly a heaviness that is present with me as Burnham, just because of everything that is driving me and because there are deep-seated problems there. So, those are still at play, for sure. But yes, you see the smile, and you see the chuckles that we allow ourselves to have, including Burnham, because we’re not fighting.”
Martin-Green goes on to tease how Burnham’s relationships will continue to evolve. Chief among them is Tyler, the physically and emotionally broken man with whom she fell in love. They’d amicably moved on from each other at the end of Season 1, but their feelings clearly lingered. The same, though, could be said of Tyler-Voq’s bond with the formidable Klingon, L’Rell (Mary Chieffo), perhaps setting the stage for a love triangle.
“That was a unique experience for Burnham,” Martin-Green says. “I had never been in love before, as Michael Burnham. That was the very first love situation, a very new thing to go to a loving relationship from the upbringing that I had. And yes, this concept of love, I’m still learning about it, and still understanding, especially because the self-love is something I’m still trying to learn. And Burnham actually may not be even completely conscious, may not even be completely aware of that self-love and how hard it really is to do it. And that is the key. I’m just saying. I just need to know as Sonequa, that that’s what needs to happen.”
Husband on Board
Speaking of love, Discovery’s second season will feature a particularly unique guest star: Kenric Green, Martin-Green’s husband and the father of her son, Kenric Justin Green II. Grinning happily and proudly, Martin-Green shares her enthusiasm about working with her spouse, but keeps mum about his role and the number of episodes in which he’ll appear.
“I cannot say anything at all about that,” she explains. “I can say that he will play a very memorable role, but he’s just a brilliant actor, and caught the eye of the producers and casting directors. There came the perfect role for him, and he won it and he got it, and here we are. It’s amazing. I’m very excited for everyone to see what he can do, and to see his soul and his spirit because he’s such a powerful person, and such a beautiful person, and is that as well as an artist.”
Have the two of them ever worked together before?
“We actually did,” Martin-Green responds. “We worked together, sort of, on The Walking Dead. We were only in one scene together. We didn’t speak to each other, but we were in the scene together. But then, before that, we were in a play together [Fetch Clay, Make Man], in Princeton, New Jersey, of all places, at the McCarter Theatre, and that is actually where we met.”
(New) Captain on the Bridge
Moving on to other second-season developments and relationships, there’s Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) to consider. His entrance sets in motion all manner of on-board drama. Remember, Saru was last seen settling into the captain’s chair as acting captain. Burnham is no doubt on the fast track to that same seat. And the last guy in the chair, Lorca, he of the Mirror Universe, wreaked tremendous havoc and deceived and betrayed his entire crew for far too long.
“A crew is almost defined by the essence of the captain,” Martin-Green observes. “We went through the wringer with Lorca, and so there’s a little bit of PTSD there. There’s a little bit of distrust there because of what we’ve gone through and because we had someone who manipulated us and sought to kill us for his own gain. And so, Pike being the deeply rooted good guy he is, he is going to have an effect on us. He’s soothing in that way. He’s comforting in that way. Hopefully, you will see us sort of galvanize because of that.
“And I love Anson,” the actress adds. “I just think he’s awesome, and he’s such an amazing actor. I feel like we really lose ourselves in the story together, which is amazing. Chemistry is something that is hard to know, as an actor, when you’re in the middle of it; it’s hard to say, ‘Do we have chemistry?’ I can feel what I feel, but other people are the ones to tell you if there’s chemistry there. And so, we were very delighted to hear that people see chemistry between us, and I think that it’s a great relationship because he’s a great guy and we love having him.”
Finally, the other major new relationship that will be explored this season is the one between Burnham and Spock (Ethan Peck). Not surprisingly, Martin-Green offers just a few words on the subject. “It is a difficult relationship,” she says. “I can tell you that. It is a difficult, complicated relationship, and we dig into it very deeply. I really love it, and I’m very excited for you to see it.”
Sonequa Martin-Green Opens Up at The Paley Center
Star Trek: Discovery streams on Paramount+ in the United States, airs on Bell Media’s CTV Sci-Fi Channel and streams on Crave in Canada, and on Netflix in 190 countries.