Emmys 2018: The Quiet Brilliance of Sonequa Martin-Green on ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ (Exclusive)

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Sonequa Martin-Green delivered one of ET's Standout Performances of the 2017-18 season.
 

Sonequa Martin-Green made history when she became the first woman of color to ever lead a Star Trek franchise, landing the coveted role of Specialist Michael Burnham on CBS All Access’ Star Trek: Discovery. Because of her history-making place in Trek lore, the past year and a half -- to put it simply -- has been both exhilarating and overwhelming for the sci-fi actress.

“It’s kind of inexplicable,” Martin-Green, 33, marvels during a phone interview with ET in May, as she reflects on the audience’s immediate embrace of the streaming series. “It’s hard to put into words just how much it moved me and it touched my heart to see the response. It’s something that you can’t quite wrap your words around. Sometimes, you can’t even wrap your brain around it. That was a big desire of ours: to pay homage to what had come before and establish ourselves as something different as well. The fact that people took to that is astounding.”

One major reason for Discovery’s acclaim is Martin-Green’s superbly understated performance. As Michael, the actress -- previously known for playing the dearly departed Sasha Williams on The Walking Dead-- embodies the quiet confidence and nuanced vulnerability necessary to bring the Vulcan-raised USS Discovery science expert to life. Part of the draw for Martin-Green was the unique task at hand: getting to peel back the layers of an imperfect, morally centered woman usually relegated to the sidelines on any other television drama, and gradually adding depth to her core in measured doses.

“You get to witness her evolution. You meet this person who is still evolving and changing and falling and growing and stretching and straining,” she thoughtfully explains. “The evolution continues in season two, of course, and it was such a road to redemption [for Michael] in season one. It was about fighting for absolution from those deep moral mistakes that have been made, and finding it in small and major ways. You’re going to see the next step in that path of redemption. Self-forgiveness is a big one. You’re going to see Michael grapple and contend with that.”

With one season under her belt, Martin-Green’s comfort level with her character has increased tenfold. So much so that when she speaks about the senior Discovery officer, it’s easy to tell how deeply she admires her. “I really appreciate how principled Michael Burnham is, just having that standard to live by that is greater than you. That is something that really, really speaks to me,” Martin-Green reveals, adding that Michael’s perseverance “against all odds” also stands out.

“I certainly would hope that I’m persevering and principled in my own life, but it definitely makes me want to reach even farther and reach even higher,” she muses, turning a mirror onto her personal life for a brief moment. “As Michael Burnham, I stand by a very strict moral code and I’m certainly making my mistakes, but I appreciate the writers for allowing me to do that -- to fall and keep getting back up in the pursuit of who I really am as Michael Burnham.”

As the first black woman to take the helm of a Star Trek property, Martin-Green understands that she’s become a de facto spokesperson for diversity in storytelling -- and she’s more than willing to take up the mantle. “I certainly appreciate and am humbled by being able to be a part of the conversation, being able to be in these enlightening conversations that we’re having right now as the tide is turning,” she acknowledges. Though she was a crucial part of The Walking Dead for five seasons, it’s this role that has been life-changing and career-affirming. “I have been ignited in a brand-new way. I’m no stranger to the sci-fi genre, but being able to be a part of the conversation now and being able to be a part of the solution while you’re surrounded by the problem, it’s a dream come true and I take it as a responsibility,” she adds, emphasizing the importance of the show’s success during current cultural and political shifts. “What I hope, and what I’m striving for now and willcontinue to strive for, is that these things are reflected in my own life.”

Star Trek: Discovery continues the legacy of the Trek franchise, examining provocative, timely issues such as universality, equality, indivisibility, evolution and the acceptance of others. But as Martin-Green notes, Discovery alsorewrites the narrative in which women are portrayed, leaning into “what women are capable of, especially in positions of leadership, power and authority,” she observes -- as well as championing diversity. “Because we celebrate each other’s differences, we’re able to expand as a whole.”

It’ll be at least a few more months before the new installment launches, but Martin-Green “can hardly wait to share” what she and her co-stars, whom she lovingly refers to as her “company” (a la a theater troupe), have been working on since filming for season two kicked back up in April. “We are all just like, ‘Ahhh!’” she says with a laugh.

But Martin-Green, who’s become adept at offering just enough of a tease to keep viewers guessing, is well aware of the speculation floating around about what lies ahead following the key addition of Anson Mount as the USS Enterprise’s Captain Christopher Pike. “There are a lot out there,” she coyly says of fan theories. While she may not keep up with all of them, don’t stop on her account: “We love the theories. We love them.”

With season one now behind them, a calm has taken over her and the Discovery team. “We’re just as excited [as we were for season one], but there is a blanket of peace in this sense of preparedness because we’re familiar with it and because we have our experiential knowledge from last year,” Martin-Green says. “Now, we have a little bit more hold on what it is that we’re doing, the universe we’re in, the story that we’re telling, the roles that each of us have within the story. We’re hopefully very boldly, if I may say, going higher and deeper.”

 

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