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Star Trek: Discovery’s Sonequa Martin-Green on Why Michael Burnham Is Ready for the Captain’s Chair

Photo: Patrick Lewis/Starpix for The Paleey Center for Media/Shutterstock

Editor’s Note: This interview contains spoilers for the season finale of Star Trek: Discovery

By the time Michael Burnham sat in the U.S.S. Discovery’s captain’s chair at the end of this week’s season finale and said, “Let’s fly,” she had traveled one hell of a long way to get there. The xenoanthropologist at the center of Star Trek: Discovery arrived in the 32nd century all alone back in October, with no hint as to when — or if — her ship and crewmates would ever join her. She was freelancing as a courier in the hope of finding clues about the Burn, a mysterious galactic disaster that scattered the United Federation of Planets to the winds and left countless worlds vulnerable to exploitation by a massive crime syndicate. When the Discovery finally does arrive, Burnham has been on her own for a full year, free of the crushing responsibilities she has struggled with for the past two seasons and completely unsure of how she fits into the organization she’s been working so tirelessly to reunite. It takes the whole season — and a lot of bad calls — for her to come back around.

While that journey didn’t take Sonequa Martin-Green 930 years, her character’s moment was definitely a long time coming, capping off a season that aired in one of the most politically urgent eras of Star Trek’s 50-plus-year history — a season that arrived several months later than anticipated thanks to a global pandemic, in the midst of a critical turning point for the Black Lives Matter movement and racial justice, and mere weeks before a presidential election that would ultimately deliver the United States its first woman of color in the vice-presidency. On top of all that, Martin-Green herself welcomed a second child in July. The star hopped on the phone with Vulture to help us decode her character’s journey to the top.

When Discovery premiered in 2017, it was the first Star Trek show in which the main character wasn’t a captain, and now Michael’s in the captain’s chair at last. When and how did you learn you would end up there?
From the very beginning — even with our original showrunners, Aaron Harberts and Gretchen Berg, up to our current showrunners, Alex Kurtzman and Michelle Paradise — that has always been in the ether, that this was something we were headed toward, that Burnham would be on this journey of self-actualization that would also be the journey to the chair. It’s something we’ve believed in very firmly. It was important to me that Burnham overcome all of the necessary challenges to be the person that would be ready to accept that call. I think it makes [being a captain] that much more impactful. And it meant so much to me as a Black woman to have that moment right now at this point in time.

I have to admit, I was surprised by how Michael ended up there. She spends a year alone, living by totally different rules, then she has a hard time reintegrating into Starfleet and taking orders from anyone. Can you give us a little insight into her journey this season? Why is she ready to accept the call now?
Well, one of the things I love and appreciate the most about being able to play this character is how I’ve been written, and there always seem to be these dualities with Michael Burnham. In season one, you see a very Vulcan Burnham; you see someone who has been dealing with the duality of Vulcanism versus humanity, logic versus emotion, and leaning way more toward Vulcanism. Then in season two, you see this outpouring of emotion because the pendulum has swung all the way over to the emotional side, the side of humanity.

Now, the new duality of season three could be categorized as “duty versus joy,” which is how Burnham’s mother puts it. [Before this season,] she’s acting purely out of guilt and shame and a deep yearning to rewrite history. She suffered a lot of loss and felt responsible for it, even the loss of her parents, which she had nothing to do with. But [this season, she finally] understands the destructive nature of doing that, of looking at authority in that way. This woman has a distorted [way of] thinking that is needed for the moment, that is the mark of a leader, but many people are resistant to it because there is a rebellious tone to it, because it goes against the grain.

This season essentially kicks off with an entire year of Burnham’s life that we don’t get to see: She touches down in 3188 and then we skip straight to the Discovery and its crew arriving in 3189. Did you do any character-building work to fill in that big blank? 
Oh, absolutely. I wouldn’t be able to tell this story if I didn’t do that work for every single conversation I have as Burnham. I charted out that year nearly to the day: 365 days of the experiences that I had as Burnham, with Book, as a courier, searching for answers to the mystery of the Burn, deciding who I want to be and what I want.

I love that I was given this opportunity to expand in this way as a character, because these were questions that Burnham never had the opportunity to ask. There was never time — it went mission, mission, mission, survival, survival, survival, mission, mission, mission. So she got to stop and really look at herself in the mirror and ask who she really wanted to be. Book’s perspective into this new future had a lot of influence on Burnham, seeing someone be self-driven in that way with all that passion and heart. And then with the reunion with the crew and all the challenges that came from that, what was ultimately decided was that there’s room for all of it. There is freedom and joy in it.

You say you charted out every day — can you share specifics?
Oh, it was purely me building out [what was already there]. One thing was, I say to Saru [in “People of Earth”] that I sent out a transmission to Terralysium, where we were supposed to land, but they had never heard of my mom. So I decided that had happened three months into this new future, at which point I realized, Okay, I’ve got to move forward somehow.

And then [in the premiere], the character Aditya [Sahil, the uncommissioned Starfleet liaison,] says that because of the laws of temporal mechanics, [my crew] could arrive tomorrow or 1,000 years from now. So I decided that I waited up all [that first] night for them to come out and then they never did. And so after that night, and especially after hearing that Terralysium had never heard of my mom, I thought, Okay, then maybe it’ll be 1,000 years from now. At this point, I’m completely on my own, and I need to figure out how I’m going to move forward.

Let’s fast-forward a little bit to last week’s penultimate episode. We hear some harsh truths about the Federation coming from Osyraa at the negotiating table. But this week, in the finale, Michael kills her. Does Osyraa’s death really mean the Emerald Chain and its influence will no longer be a problem for the Federation?
Well, I love that [the consequences] you see playing out from us jumping to this future are multilayered. It’s not just that we all decided we would just jump 930 years into the future, away from everything we’ve ever known or loved, and everything’s gonna be great. We were ready to sacrifice. That’s who we are; these are honorable people. You see how difficult of a transition it is for everyone and how hard it is for them to grapple with the fact that they’ve left everything behind, the pain and the stress and the burden of being out of time in a place they were never meant to be in. So with that in mind, nothing is easy. You see the fight that it takes. It was very hard for me and this crew to introduce those original ideals of the Federation, hope and connection, to this future. So it’s not going to be just, you know, boom, boom, pow. It’s going to be a difficult journey ahead, but it is a worthy fight.

So you’re saying that Michael killing Osyraa is basically the beginning of that reunification?
I think the death of Osyraa, everything that happened, including Burnham sitting in that chair, is the beginning, yes. The finale is very much the beginning. We are not done at all.

On top of rolling out a brand-new season, on top of everything else going on in the world in the past year, you’ve had this side gig working on and promoting Star Trek: Fleet Command, the mobile RPG game that has been around for a minute but just added Discovery and its characters to its universe. I’m curious about your involvement. Star Trek is relatively unique in the sense that engaging the Trek community beyond the shows themselves is kind of part of the deal. How did you end up working on this?
Well, it’s very much what you just said. It’s about connection. It’s very much the spirit of this franchise, why it’s lasted the test of time: that people get to see themselves. So anything that can connect [people] in this way, that feeds into that connection, is a win. It was very easy and exciting to be a part of it, because it’s just another way for [fans] to come on this journey right with us. It excites me to think they can fit into the story, to experience it in a new way.

For lots of Star Trek actors, these shows are career-defining projects. Has this role changed your outlook on how you’d like your career to move forward?
You know, I really feel that I’ve been very blessed in my career, [but] I certainly have not been a part of anything bigger than Trek. I’ve talked about this before, but you want to do things that have impact. Yeah, I want to do things that touch people, that make people feel better, that are positive, that do good, and that is not something you can predict. You can’t predict impact. But something like Star Trek, it already has impact. It was such a blessing to be able to come into something that already had an influence, with [prescient themes], especially right now in this politicized time on the heels of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. I’m thinking about all of these things, about hope, and diversity and inclusion, and connection in my own life, and how as a Black woman I can champion [these causes]. And that’s why sitting in the captain’s chair at the end is just so powerful and brings tears to my eyes when I think about what it represents.

I will always be driven by what inspires me. I have no idea what’s to come; I trust God that what is coming is what’s meant to be. But I do certainly always want to look for, you know, what carbonates my heart.

I really like that turn of phrase, “What carbonates my heart.”
Thank you. But yeah, I have to do what inspires me because I personally believe that, as much as I bring to the role, the role brings to me. Burnham, I would hope, impacts me as much as I impact Burnham.

Let’s get a little speculative. A genie grants you, Sonequa, one wish for Michael’s future, plotwise. Maybe it’s a one-off episode, a plot arc — the sky’s the limit. If you could pick one thing for her to experience, what would it be?
Oh my. The first thing that comes to mind is more of Burnham’s life on Earth before Vulcan. And then I forget what episode it is, but Patrick Kwok-Choon, who plays Rhys, says he wants a vacation in Hawaii, so that would be dope if we could go to the tropics on the show.

And there’s so much precedent for that — so many episodes of past series where they’re on vacation and something goes down in paradise.
Exactly. It would also be really cool to see [more] worlds colliding. I don’t know the logic or the science, but it’d be really cool to have characters from our universe interacting with characters from others — maybe pull in our beloved Karl Urban [who plays Bones in J.J. Abrams’s Kelvin timeline], who I got to do this game with. He would be a riot.

We’ve seen captains go rogue before, obviously, but Michael has sort of redefined what it means to be insubordinate, to do what she wants regardless of orders. How do you think that’s going to influence what kind of captain she becomes?
Well, that’s a big question of season four and beyond: How is Burnham going to take everything she has learned and apply it to her captaincy? In the beginning, the insubordination comes from Burnham believing that she is serving the needs of the many. She’s willing to give it all up — her career, her freedom — because she thinks she’s saving everyone. She learns that’s not the way to do it; you’re not supposed to operate as an island. But there is still this sense of leadership, this forward thinking that Burnham has, that does compel her to go against the grain and suffer this sort of necessary resistance to that, to learn the lessons that have to come with that thinking.

I really appreciated that look she gets from Stamets at the end of this finale when he’s reuniting with Culber and Adira. She realizes that the choice to betray him will have consequences.
Yeah, we don’t leave stones unturned. If it’s introduced, it’s going to be dealt with. Who knows how long it’ll take, but one of the things I’m grateful for with this show and this character is that you see this well-rounded woman make these deep moral mistakes and miss the mark. She is strong and honorable and beautiful and all of those things, but she is also human and makes mistakes and has to grapple with them. And all of these things are being dealt with right before your very eyes. It means a lot to me that this woman’s vulnerabilities are so exposed, because as a viewer, I need to see those things. Because like everyone, I’m going through those struggles in my own life.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.