‘Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ actors talk about the fun and demands of tackling beloved characters

Rebecca Romijn as Una Chin-Riley, a.k.a. Number One, Anson Mount as Captain Christopher Pike and Ethan Peck as Spock in "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds."

Celia Rose Gooding didn’t know what role she was auditioning for when she tried out for “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” — let alone that it was one of television’s most influential Black characters.

But her mother, Broadway star and Tony Award winner LaChanze, set Gooding straight when the 22-year-old learned the name of the woman she’d be playing in the latest spinoff of the venerable sci-fi franchise.

“My mom is a huge Trekkie,” said Gooding on a Zoom call. When she told her mother she was playing somebody named Uhura, “she goes, ‘Sorry, like Nichelle Nichols Uhura?’ I was like, ‘I guess.’ And she was like, ‘OK, cool. Put on some comfy socks. We’re watching all of TOS,’” Gooding said, using the acronym for “Star Trek: The Original Series.”

Nichols, like Gooding, a Tony nominee at age 20 for the musical “Jagged Little Pill,” began her career onstage as a singer and dancer. When she got the part of Lieutenant Uhura, communications officer on the 23rd-century starship Enterprise, she was one of the first Black characters in a non-menial role on American TV.

Celia Rose Gooding as Nyota Uhura

If Gooding is daunted by the weight of taking on Uhura, she isn’t showing it.

“It’s every actor’s dream to to be able to lend their personal style and personal flair to an already well loved and well received character,” she said when asked what it was like to portray such an iconic individual.

“My job was to sort of study and do my homework … but also then throw all of that away and understand that we meet Uhura at a point in which she isn’t yet the person who she grows up to be. And so a lot of her is a bit, dare I say, unrecognizable.”

Indeed, the Uhura we meet in the new show is still a cadet and not certain that Starfleet is the place for her.

“Strange New Worlds” itself straddles a line between familiarity and novelty.

Ethan Peck as Spock, Rebecca Romijn as Una Chin-Riley, a.k.a. Number One, and Anson Mount as Captain Christopher Pike in "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds."

Of all the modern-day “Trek” spinoffs, it’s the most like the original series in tone and format. Like William Shatner’s Captain Kirk, Captain Pike (Anson Mount) and his Enterprise crew travel to different parts of the galaxy in each episode, interacting with new species, attempting to uphold the peacemaking principles of the United Federation of Planets while doing so.

But while “Strange New Worlds” is set before the events of the original series — which first aired between 1966 and 1969 — it has leaped ahead of its predecessor in one respect: its bridge crew is mostly female. In the first “Star Trek,” Uhura, Nurse Chapel and, to a lesser extent, Yeoman Rand were the only regularly recurring female characters.

For Jess Bush, the Australian actor who plays a younger Christine Chapel in “Strange New Worlds,” that “five of the eight series regulars are women in positions of power is awesome and it feels really great to be part of that.”

Jess Bush as Nurse Christine Chapel

Bush also called it an honour and a challenge to be only the second actor to play Chapel.

Majel Barrett, who was married to “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, played nurse — later doctor — Chapel in the original series and the movies “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.”

“From Majel’s performance, I was able to distil the essence of her,” Bush said. “She’s sarcastic and she’s dry and she’s witty and very good at her job. And so (you) just kind of use it as a launching point and be like, ‘Who can I imagine is the early 20s version of this person?’”

Barrett also originated the role being played by “X-Men” star Rebecca Romijn in “Strange New Worlds.”

In the 1965 pilot for “Star Trek” — which was rejected by NBC but later incorporated into a two-part Season 1 episode — the Enterprise is captained not by Kirk but by Pike, played by Jeffrey Hunter, and his first officer is a woman known only as Number One (Barrett). In “Strange New Worlds” she finally gets a name: Una Chin-Riley.

Rebecca Romijn as Una Chin-Riley, a.k.a. Number One, in "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds."

“She only had 14 minutes of screen time. We didn’t know anything about her character,” Romijn, 49, said in another Zoom interview. “So the writers have had this incredible opportunity to flesh out this character and given me a certain amount of artistic liberty to bring her to life … It’s been really fun but also, you know, a little bit of pressure from the ‘Star Trek’ fans who are so protective of these familiar characters.”

Mount, 49, who previously starred in the period drama “Hell on Wheels,” understands the paradox of a character about whom not much is known also being “revered in ‘Trek’ canon. But for me, the fewer footprints that I’d have to fill the better,” he said. “I really wanted to come in and make my own Pike, which was not that difficult because we’re clearly in a different era of the man’s life than what we saw with Jeffrey Hunter … I wanted to bring on second act Pike, who the writers felt was more established in his sense of himself and who he wanted to be as a captain.”

Mount and Ethan Peck, 36, at least have the benefit of having played their characters in another show, the spinoff “Star Trek: Discovery,” which like “Strange New Worlds” is shot in Toronto. And characters don’t get more revered than the one Peck plays: half-human, half-Vulcan science officer Spock.

When it was suggested he had the hardest job in the cast, given how beloved Leonard Nimoy was as Spock in the original series, Peck replied, “I think we all have really challenging jobs because ‘Star Trek’ is such a beloved franchise.”

“So much has been laid out for me in terms of this character,” Peck added. “But the opportunity that ‘Strange New Worlds’ presents to me as an actor and a custodian of this character is that we get to see much more deeply into his inner world and into his life.”

Mount and Romijn both recalled being introduced to the original series by their mothers when they were eight but, even for the actors who weren’t “Star Trek” fans initially, there was a sense they feel honoured to be entrusted with these characters.

“I didn’t really feel worthy of it in the beginning,” Peck said, although the “discomfort of it” has been smoothed over after playing Spock on “Discovery.”

For his part, Mount is grateful for the “Discovery” fans who pushed for Pike to get his own spinoff.

“Being the captain of the Enterprise every day, it’s surreal to me,” he said. “I mean, I just think ‘Me? What?’ But I hope that feeling lasts because it’s what drives me to not just phone it in … because you are reminded that this show is more than a show to a lot of people.”

William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols in "Star Trek: The Original Series."

It comes down to Roddenberry’s original vision, which Peck said is well executed in “Strange New Worlds.”

“His vision is a harmonious one where people of different worlds, of different concepts, ideas, beliefs come together and they see one another and they embrace their differences … And so I hope people come away being more curious about themselves, being more curious about their world, (and) have more love and appreciation for the things that they find scary or strange, because I think that’s the best way forward.”

“Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” debuts May 5 at 9 p.m. on CTV Sci-Fi Channel.

Debra Yeo is a deputy editor and a contributor to the Star’s Entertainment section. She is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @realityeo

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