The third season premiere of Star Trek: Discovery introduced us to Cleveland “Book” Booker, played by David Ajala. When he first met Burnham, he seemed to be a charming rogue, but the first episode proved there was more to Book than met the eye. He can speak to animals, for one, and rather than serve as a mercenary he works to protect endangered species. With every passing episode, more is revealed about Book, and he’s become even more of a fan favorite.
StarTrek.com sat down with Ajala to discuss Book and Burnham, Book’s mysterious past, and, of course, what it’s like to work with Grudge.
StarTrek.com: What was your first contact with Star Trek, and were you a fan before being cast?
David Ajala: I just remembered my first initial contact with Star Trek was actually when I was watching a movie called Boomerang with Eddie Murphy and Halle Berry. There's a scene where Eddie Murphy and Halle Berry are watching Star Trek, and they're both talking about their love for Star Trek. Eddie Murphy goes, "I'm a Trekkie," and Halle Berry's like, "Shut up, I'm a Trekkie." I remember watching it and then seeing bits of Star Trek which were featured in the film. And then cut to a few years later, seeing it on TV, just in the background, being aware of it but not really paying attention to it.
Jump to —and it sounds very, very fancy, but it is what it is — working with the Royal Shakespeare company and with Patrick Stewart. I'll never forget when he was having a conversation with a few of the actors, [and] Patrick is so open and kind, and he was talking about his time on Star Trek and how much he loved working on the show and enjoying it. Then off the back of that, I got into watching The Next Generation.
Cut to getting a phone call from my team, telling me that the producers of Star Trek: Discovery had this new character in mind and they want to speak to me. Of course I was more than happy to have that conversation, but I just didn't understand how I would fit in the franchise, and what the role would be. But then once they pitched the idea for the character that they did, I thought, "I have to say yes to this. And I have do it. Because if I don't, I'm going to feel it." So I was so happy that my answer is yes, because I feel like I'm in the right place at the right time.
How much influence did you as an actor have in helping create Book's backstory and his character?
DA: I have to say the wonderful thing about Michelle Paradise and Alex Kurtzman, who are the two showrunners of Star Trek: Discovery season three, is how collaborative they are in their storytelling, and how in a really good way, [they are] reliant on the actor to bring as much of themselves into the role as possible. They created a character that was definitely very fleshed out, and you get a strong sense of that on the page. And then also they left a lot of room for exploring the spontaneity for me to try to figure out the different facets and layers of this character. As much as it was a bit nerve wracking to be given that much freedom and liberty, it was also very, very empowering, because it just allows me to have a lot of ownership over bringing this character to life, which I'm very thankful for.
Book and Burnham formed a close relationship in the year between Burnham's arrival in the future and the arrival of the rest of the Discovery crew. Did you and Sonequa come up with a backstory for that year to inform your performances?
DA: We did, which was cool, because [Michael and Book are] always going to be referencing that year together. I'll call it the transitional year. I think it was very important for Sonequa Martin-Green and myself to just have a good sense of the different adventures we went on. The adventures that were so much fun, the adventures that weren't fun. The adventures that were boring. The adventures that were really scary. The adventures where we almost died. The adventures where one of us had embarrassing moments, or one had to rescue the other. We had to have as much of this world as possible, because I really do feel that informs the relationship and how the characters respond and react to each other. We also have to get a sense of two people who have spent the majority of a year of their lives together in close proximity. I think that's just the shorthand way of communication that develops, and we just kept open to having those options available to us as actors.
Book is not really a true believer in the Federation, but he embodies the Federation's ideals in his own way. Will Book ultimately join the Federation? And do you think that the Federation as it stands now needs people like Book?
DA: I think it's such an interesting dichotomy because it's a push and pull, because he naturally aligns with what the Federation stands for. He does, but I think Cleveland Booker has his own perception of what the Federation means. I think he's someone who operates by themself very effectively and efficiently as a one man ship. The idea of having to be reliant on other people isn't something that Cleveland Booker has much experience with, and the experience he does have of that isn't positive. He equates it to his family but he's ostracized from his family. So he's had to [teach] himself to be as self-sufficient as possible.
You mentioned Grudge, so I have to ask, what is it like working with Grudge, the fandom’s favorite cat?
DA: I know, right. Pretty impressive. What is it like working with Grudge? No one day is alike. Constantly kept on your toes, which is fun. But I don't know — there's something to be said about having animals on the set. Of course they say that you shouldn't work with animals or children, but it's been fun.
Fortunately, we have two cats. So if the main cat Grudge, played by Leeu is [acting] up, then we will substitute her — him actually — and bring in his brother, Durban. Durban is a lot more chilled, and relaxed, and easy going. But Leeu, who we see more of on screen is definitely my favorite cat. Absolutely, even though he has scratched me before in the middle of the scene, and wrecked my costume, and given me a scratch where I had to get a medic to sort it out for me. My heart has been opened and I still love my on-screen co-star Leeu the cat.
In the premiere it seemed like Book had this ability to communicate with other species and other animals — can you tell us a little bit more about that gift that he has?
DA: It's a gift that I'm very happy was revealed in the first episode, because the first episode was in essence, a two-hander. Not only were we a thousand years into the future where there's a lot of things that are very unfamiliar, we're also meeting another character who's from the future and [new] to Michael Burnham. As much as there is a lot of exposition, we also wanted to be able to get as much sense of character as possible. So I'm really looking forward to seeing how that very specific story develops throughout the season, because it's a very important part of Book's identity.
Even though he's lost so much, Book remains a deeply empathetic and kind character who still strives to do what's right. Do you think viewers can draw hope and inspiration from the character's journey?
DA: Yeah. It's pretty amazing. I think you do come across people who are similar to Book in life. I just think these people are cut from a different cloth; no matter what they've been through they still have such a great capacity of empathy and of love. I think even the willingness to draw inspiration, to be the better version of yourself (which just happens to align with someone like Cleveland Booker) is only going to be a beneficial thing for each individual.
I think someone like Cleveland Booker without knowing it, he operates from a place of abundance. And I don't think it's what you have in your hand, I think it's what you have in your heart. And I just, I really love the character for that. And It really inspires me to always remind myself to operate from a place of abundance. Because as long as you can feel genuinely in your heart that you have something to offer, then you'll never be poor in spirit.
Have you had any cool or memorable fan interactions yet with the Star Trek fan base?
DA: It's only really been online. Obviously us being [in] lockdown, and just not maneuvering as much as we have done, because it's just safer for a lot of people to stay indoors for us to play our part.
I have to say that the fans have just been really kind. And it's wonderful to see how they responded to this new season and the development of the characters. It's very, very humbling. Very humbling. I think probably some of the coolest things I've come across online has been fan art. Apparently, there are so many talented artists out there who just happen to be Star Trek fans. The fan art that I've received has been really, really cool. And I've taken photos of as many of the pieces as I could and I've kept them in my phone, because I'm mushy like that.
Star Trek: Discovery streams on CBS All Access 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.