Sonequa beams up

Af­ter bat­tling the walk­ing dead, US ac­tress is the first fe­male Star Trek lead, writes Sarah Rod­man.

Sunday News - - ETC -

Sonequa Martin-Green is strug­gling to ex­press her feel­ings. It takes lit­tle time to re­alise that this is far from nor­mal.

The Alabama-born ac­tress gen­er­ally speaks in long, thought­ful streams of sparkling mu­si­cal­ity that oc­ca­sion­ally erupt into tor­rents of words, fre­quently punc­tu­ated by laugh­ter and de­lib­er­ate pauses in which she gath­ers her thoughts.

But at this mo­ment, Mart­inGreen – who bat­tled The Walk­ing Dead as the ul­ti­mately doomed Sasha, courted laughs as Win­ston’s prank junkie wife, Rhonda, on New Girl and threat­ened the very ex­is­tence of Sto­ry­brooke as vil­lain­ous Ta­mara in Once Upon a Time – is stumped and a lit­tle teary-eyed.

Sit­ting in a bor­rowed dress­ing room on the CBS Stu­dio Cen­ter lot in Stu­dio City, Martin-Green tried to process that she was about to boldly go where no black woman has gone be­fore: to the cen­tre of one of TV’s most beloved fran­chises as the lead in the new se­ries Star Trek: Dis­cov­ery.

‘‘ Walk­ing Dead was such a big phe­nom­e­non in my life, and then to come from that phe­nom­e­non to this even big­ger phe­nom­e­non – be­cause of the length of time that it’s been so im­por­tant to our so­ci­ety,’’ she says be­fore trail­ing off, her eyes start­ing to well.

‘‘I al­ways hope that I can com­pletely en­cap­su­late the way that I feel in words, and I can never quite get it, be­cause it does mean so much.’’

Set 10 years be­fore the orig­i­nal se­ries, Star Trek: Dis­cov­ery re­volves around Martin-Green’s char­ac­ter, First Of­fi­cer Michael Burn­ham, who moves from the USS Shen­zhou, helmed by Cap­tain Philippa Ge­or­giou (Michelle Yeoh), to theUSS Dis­cov­ery, com­manded by Cap­tain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), in a man­ner yet to be di­vulged. Al­though she is hu­man, Burn­ham was raised on Vul­can by Sarek (James Frain), a.k.a. Spock’s fa­ther.

To Star Trek fans won­der­ing why they have never heard of Spock (played by the late Leonard Ni­moy) hav­ing a foster sis­ter, Martin-Green of­fers as­sur­ance that it will be ad­dressed. Some­how.

‘‘[Ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer] Alex Kurtz­man ac­tu­ally spoke on that at Comic-Con, and he said, ‘For those of you that are won­der­ing, like, why was it never men­tioned be­fore? Give us a sec­ond. We’re work­ing on it’,’’ she says with a laugh.

More im­por­tant is the na­ture ver­sus nur­ture el­e­ment to Burn­ham’s jour­ney. ‘‘It isn’t just that there is the Vul­can way of think­ing in [her], it is that [she] was com­pletely in­doc­tri­nated with the Vul­can way of life,’’ Martin-Green says of her char­ac­ter, the first hu­man to at­tend the Vul­can Learn­ing Cen­tre.

‘‘It’s about ac­cul­tur­a­tion ver­sus as­sim­i­la­tion,’’ she says of Burn­ham, a xenoan­thro­pol­o­gist who stud­ies ex­trater­res­trial life forms and ex­pe­ri­enced the cul­ture shock of go­ing from her hu­man home to Vul­can.

‘‘[Burn­ham’s] en­tire up­bring­ing was a fight to as­sim­i­late. No one can re­ally ver­balise how dif­fi­cult of a jour­ney that is,’’ she says. ‘‘I hope that peo­ple who have had that jour­ney in their lives, in what­ever way, can re­late and see truth in it and can be maybe even com­forted by it.’’

While that sounds a bit lofty for a space ad­ven­ture, those con­cepts have al­ways been em­bed­ded in the DNA of the Gene Rod­den­berry se­ries. And Mart­inGreen be­lieves the fran­chise has served as a pow­er­ful en­try point for view­ers to pon­der many big is­sues, from the tan­gi­ble – war and dis­crim­i­na­tion – to the ex­is­ten­tial – the qual­i­ties of be­ing hu­man and the na­ture of ex­is­tence.

‘‘The fan­tasy opens them up for the so­ci­etal themes and the in­ter­per­sonal themes to get in,’’ she says. ‘‘Be­cause some­times when a story is on the ground, peo­ple are sort of closed off to it au­to­mat­i­cally when it’s too close to their own lives. But when some­thing is so far-reach­ing, it ac­ti­vates the imag­i­na­tion and then lit­tle by lit­tle, the door­way of the heart is opened up.’’

And the 32-year-old can re­late to her char­ac­ter’s cul­ture shock. ‘‘I feel it more than any­thing in my up­bring­ing in the South as a black woman,’’ she says. Grad­u­at­ing from the Uni­ver­sity

'I feel it more than any­thing in my up­bring­ing in the South as a black woman.'

of Alabama, she trav­elled to New York, los­ing her ac­cent but keep­ing her unique first name, to be­gin her ca­reer on the stage.

There, she met her hus­band, fel­low actor Ken­ric Green, with whom she now has a tod­dler son. The cou­ple even­tu­ally headed west to break into in­de­pen­dent film and TV; she had guest and re­cur­ring parts on Army Wives and The Good Wife be­fore land­ing her break­through role on The Walk­ing Dead in 2012.

‘‘It was not a baby step, it was an adult step,’’ she says of her time on the wildly pop­u­larAMC se­ries. ‘‘I al­most see it as my post­grad­u­ate de­gree. It was roughly four years, five sea­sons. It was noth­ing but learn­ing and ed­u­ca­tion and prepa­ra­tion.’’

Her com­mit­ment to bat­tling walk­ers al­most kept her from board­ing the USS Dis­cov­ery. Orig­i­nally, Star Trek: Dis­cov­ery was to have been cast while Martin-Green was un­der con­tract to The Walk­ing Dead. But in a twist of fate, the tur­bu­lence be­hind the scenes of Dis­cov­ery – which led to the de­par­ture of orig­i­nal showrun­ner Bryan Fuller – meant that pro­duc­tion was de­layed just long enough for her to take the role.

‘‘We were stoked,’’ re­calls Gretchen J Berg, who, along­side her writ­ing-pro­duc­ing part­ner Aaron Har­berts, was handed the Dis­cov­ery show-run­ning reins; Martin-Green had been on their wish list.

‘‘That doesn’t of­ten hap­pen where you’re like, ‘You know who’d be great? OK, now let’s turn the page’. We saw so many peo­ple who were so great in so many ways and brought that char­ac­ter to life in cer­tain ways, but not all ways. It wasn’t un­til Sonequa walked in that we were like, ‘Well, there she is. Thank God. There is Michael Burn­ham’. Things work out for a rea­son.’’ – Los An­ge­les Times ● Star Trek: Dis­cov­ery is now stream­ing on Net­flix. New episodes de­but each Mon­day.

The Walk­ing Dead’s Sonequa Martin-Green has traded the un­dead for aliens on Star Trek: Dis­cov­ery.

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