Come Reign, Come Shine
The first woman of color to play the lead in a Star Trek series is shining as season two of Discovery unfolds.
Star Trek: Discovery could hardly be a more apt title for Sonequa Martin-Green's first vehicle as a leading actor. Her trek to stardom has been an ongoing process of discovery.
"I've discovered I have such a great capacity to carry the weight of this show," Alabama native Martin-Green says, radiating equal parts down-to-Earth warmth and star power at a Manhattan hotel after appearing alongside her fellow cast members at New York Comic Con.
"What I've learned is there's your capacity, and then you're stretched beyond it, you know? That's how you grow — you have to break the muscle to build it." But Martin-Green isn't just breaking muscles on the CBS All Access series, which launched its second season on January 17.
She's breaking barriers as the first woman of color to play the central character in a Star Trek series: xenoanthropologist Michael Burnham. "It's such a blessing," she says. "But what's more important to me is my own personal character. I feel a tremendous responsibility to uphold these virtues and values in my own life."
Her colleagues say she's doing a great job. "Sonequa is grace personified," raves costar Mary Wiseman, the recent acting-school grad who plays Sylvia Tilly; Martin-Green has taken her under her wing. "She does everything with love, and she practices what she preaches. So she's just the perfect person to be the lead of a Star Trek series, because she is all those values we talk about."
Executive producer Alex Kurtzman (Alias, Fringe) agrees that Martin-Green's aura permeates her character. "Her instincts are second to none — she's so emotionally driven and so intuitive that she always excavates layers under the dialogue," he says. "It's very natural. I don't think she has to think about it very often. She just does it."
Her performance may be very natural, but her craft derives from discipline.
"I'm constantly trying to create more energy," says the actress, who is married to fellow actor Kenric Green; their son, Kenric II, is three.
"What you give your attention to, hopefully you get more energy from, if it's something you're passionate about. I certainly want to give the most I have to my husband and my son. But I want to be giving to my cast and my friends as well. So you have to be regimented, sort of like a drill sergeant, with your own time. I'll push 'me time' away so I can do something else."
Her "something else" wasn't always acting. Growing up in Alabama, she had her sights set on a career as a psychologist.
"I was fascinated with human behavior and why people do what they do," she says. "I didn't know acting was my calling at the time." But an ah-ha moment arrived in 10th grade, during a rehearsal for a school play. In 2007, she graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in theater and, a year later, made her TV debut on NBC's Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
A recurring role followed on Lifetime's Army Wives, then on CBS's The Good Wife. In 2012 she was cast as Sasha Williams on The Walking Dead (her husband, whom she met when they appeared together on stage in Princeton, New Jersey, plays Scott in the AMC series).
"I definitely feel like all my paths have led me here," she observes, "all the twists and turns of my path. That's the case with everything I've done. Everything leads to the next step we find ourselves on."
Indeed, she was well prepared to enter the Trek universe after her five-year run on The Walking Dead, another sci-fi/fantasy franchise about a diverse but closely bonded community.
"On both series, you have people who come together for different reasons," she says. "For Star Trek, people came together on purpose, and in The Walking Dead, people were thrown together, yet you still have these people who are inherently different fighting for a common goal: a better future."
When casting the show in 2017, Discovery's producers didn't think Martin-Green would be available, owing to her commitment to The Walking Dead.
"Then we started to hear little whispers" that her character was being killed off, executive producer Heather Kadin recalls. "So we brought her in to read, and we all loved her." (Exec-producing Discovery with Kurtzman and Kadin are James Duff, Frank Siracusa, John Weber, Olatunde Osunsanmi, Rod Roddenberry and Trevor Roth.)
Martin-Green soon proved herself a natural leader. "She's kind, she's prepared, and while being asked to do very emotional and physical things that can be exhausting, she maintains the sunniest disposition and always does what you ask her," Kurtzman says. "That's hard. There are not a lot of actors who can bring it like that."
It's often said that the person listed first on the call sheet sets the tone for the entire production, and that's true of the indefatigably cheerful Martin-Green.
"She keeps us all smiling, happy and jokey," Doug Jones says. Recently seen as the river monster/deity in The Shape of Water, he dons heavy prosthetics again to play alien crewmember Saru. "She runs around before each scene starts and gives everybody a fist bump: the cast, the extras. It's a nice little subtle connector that's like, 'Hey, we're here together, and everybody's important.'"
Her energy doesn't flag when she leaves the set. "This woman should be in bed with her feet up when she's not working, but instead she has us all over to her house," Wiseman says. "She feeds us and plays games with us. She'll organize us to go out to dinner or do play readings or say, 'Let's go to the beach.' She's just such a matriarch, it's amazing.
"She made a choice for us all to be a family, and then she actualized it."
Jones is equally awed. "She's the queen of multitasking," he says, "and not only because she is the mother to a three-year-old, which could be a job unto itself. She does that proficiently, and she's also a team leader and a kickass actress. She finds character moments that other people would not dream of finding because she puts so much work and study into every role she plays."
Still, personnel changes on both sides of the camera made much of Discovery a work in progress through its first season. "Sonequa and I were the only two cast members who made it past the pilot," Jones says. "We went into it terrified, but she carried all that concern on her shoulders, and she still does that to this day."
Going into the second season, the tone has changed considerably. "In season one, we were in the middle of the Klingon War, and season two is the aftermath," says Martin-Green, whose human character was raised by Vulcans. "We had a lot of mess that was left in its wake, and we don't shy away from any of that."
The Discovery's crewmembers continue to evolve as well.
"Our characters are not complete yet," Martin-Green says. "They're still figuring out who they are. There's so much more to learn." In Michael's case, she's still struggling to find her identity. "When we first met her, she was definitely more Vulcan," Kadin says. "Now she's more human, maybe because Sonequa is so infectious with emotion as a person."
Discovery marks the first time a Trek series has unfolded through the eyes of a character who isn't a captain. "That makes for great, raw storytelling because you don't see polished professionalism all the time," Martin-Green says. "You see emotionality and pain — what my character is fighting against and what she's trying to overcome so she can be the sort of person she needs to be in Starfleet."
Season two welcomes a new captain, although for fans of the franchise, Christopher Pike is a familiar figure: he helmed the Enterprise before James T. Kirk.
Played by Anson Mount (Hell on Wheels), Pike is a refreshing change from last year's villainous Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs). "The crew is suffering from a little bit of post-traumatic stress," Martin-Green says. "And Pike comes in with all his kindness, humility and levity and really steers us back on course."
He's not the only iconic character returning in a new guise: Spock is also back. Since Discovery takes place more than a decade before the original series, we meet a younger version of the Vulcan, played by Ethan Peck. As Gregory Peck's grandson, the young actor is no stranger to stepping into oversize shoes.
"The privilege I've been given, coming from my grandfather's lineage, is a built-in delusion that I'm capable of something like this," says Peck, who met with the late Leonard Nimoy's children, Adam and Julie, after he landed the role. "They were so gracious, warm and welcoming — I was very lucky to have that experience."
The Spock and Pike characters deeply connect Discovery's cast and crew to the spirit of the franchise's creator, the late Gene Roddenberry. "We feel the responsibility to keep the torch lit for Gene," Kurtzman says. "Star Trek is an essentially optimistic vision of the future, in which our best selves will emerge, and diversity and gender parity are assumptions.
"Those are beautiful things that cannot be violated."
As Discovery's shining star, Martin-Green embodies that ethic gorgeously. "It takes me back to the type of person I want to be and the type of life I want to lead," she says. "For me, it feels like a call to arms to get onto the battlefield of love."
Martin-Green isn't the only one pushing boundaries. As CBS All Access continues to develop original programming, it is boldly going where no broadcast network's streaming service has gone before. "CBS is in every home, but now we can say, 'Oh, you want more? You want exclusive content across all devices?' That's what we offer," says Marc DeBevoise, head of CBS Interactive.
The service's first original offerings were spinoffs of established brands: Star Trek: Discovery and The Good Fight. The Good Wife was the 10th-highest-rated show on the broadcast network in its final season, but it was second-or third-ranked on CBS All Access, so doing a sequel was a no-brainer," DeBevoise says.
Now CBS All Access is devising companion shows to its own hits. With the infidelity-themed Why Women Kill, a dark comedy from Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry, the streamer hopes to tap into The Good Fight's female-centric audience.
Star Trek: Short Treks, which launched last October as a monthly companion series to Discovery, presents series characters in their own brief stories.
The Trek universe will expand again soon with three new as-yet-unscheduled series. In one, Patrick Stewart will reprise his iconic Next Generation role as Jean-Luc Picard." Discovery takes place in the middle of the Star Trek canon, and the Picard series will have a different flavor because it will show him in the later stages of his career and life," DeBevoise says.
Then there's the half-hour adult animated comedy Star Trek: Lower Decks, from Rick and Morty writer Mike McMahan. "Lower Decks is an entirely different take on Star Trek," Debevoise explains. "It follows the supporting characters, and we think it'll be great and funny." Also coming: a series starring Michelle Yeoh, expanding on her Discovery role.
CBS All Access has also ordered a new version of The Twilight Zone, produced by host Jordan Peele (Get Out) and Simon Kinberg (The Martian). "Star Trek and The Twilight Zone are both classic science-fiction shows that dealt in really sly ways with politics," Kinberg says. "This will be a more diverse take on The Twilight Zone than we've seen in the past — it resembles the world we live in."
As original host Rod Serling did, Peele will serve as the series' narrator. "It's like the show in general — there's an element of an homage, yet it's obviously different as well," Kinberg says. "It'll be a tip of the hat to Rod in many ways, but it will also be someone who doesn't look like Rod and has his own voice."
Several of the episodes will be based on classic Twilight Zone stories. Big Little Lies and Parks & Recreation vet Adam Scott will star in "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet," a riff on the 1963 episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" that starred William Shatner and later inspired a segment in the 1983 Twilight Zone movie.
"The majority of our shows will be pure originals," Kinberg says. "Some are based on sci-fi or horror short stories, which is where Rod got a lot of his material."
Other guest stars will include Sanaa Lathan (The Affair) and Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley).
Sonequa Martin-Green, for one, is psyched. "I was on cloud nine when I heard we were doing a new Twilight Zone," she says. "It allows you to suspend your disbelief with fantastic situations and realities so you can get in these themes of injustice and inequality subconsciously. We've never needed sci-fi this much!"
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2019