'Star Trek: Discovery': Blu del Barrio on Playing Franchise's First Non-Binary Character (Exclusive)
By Philiana Ng
Newcomer Blu del Barrio (pronouns: they/them) made their professional acting debut on Star Trek: Discovery as Adira, the franchise's first non-binary character, in the latest episode of the CBS All Access series. Joining a rich universe playing a character of historic significance wasn't lost on del Barrio, who, in the year prior to being cast in the role, was going through their own personal journey of discovering their identity.
"The whole year before I got this job, I was struggling a lot with trying to understand who I was and struggling a lot with my gender. I was questioning a lot of things and I started auditioning for non-binary roles because I knew I wasn't cisgender and I was trying to figure myself out. I kept getting drawn to wanting to play a non-binary role, probably because I wanted to be able to explore myself that way but I wasn't really telling anyone about it," del Barrio tells ET, sharing that playing Adira informed a lot of their own personal growth.
"Getting this job and getting to play Adira was really overwhelming at first, but overall a massive blessing because it allowed me to explore myself. I've grown alongside Adira," they add. "It's a really strange way for it to happen, but I'm so glad that it has."
Del Barrio credits Star Trek: Discovery stalwarts Wilson Cruz and Anthony Rapp, who themselves made history playing Star Trek's first openly gay characters, for their guidance throughout the process. "They helped me in more ways than I can describe," they praise. In a chat with ET, del Barrio discusses getting cast as Adira, why the character doesn't identity as non-binary right off the bat and being a part of the queer family on the Discovery set.
ET: Being cast in the Star Trek universe is a big deal and this was a secret you had to keep for a while. How did this come together for you? How exciting was it to finally get to speak freely about the fact that you're on Discovery?
Blu del Barrio: It was definitely really hard. It was such a huge deal for me and it's such a massive universe of things that I've wanted to talk about it. I think only two of my closest friends knew, and then I couldn't say anything else and it's been almost a whole year of having to wait since I got the job. So it was just awesome to finally be able to talk about it after so long.
This is also your first professional acting job. Is it sinking in?
Definitely still hasn't totally sunk in. It still feels really surreal. It hasn't really stopped feeling surreal since I got the job, it's insane. I feel incredibly lucky every time I get to walk back on set and grateful to be able to be a part of it. I just feel like I got really lucky in this life, and to be in a show like this with a cast this amazing and people this fantastic. I'm thrilled.
What initially drew you to the character of Adira, Star Trek's first non-binary character?
The whole year before I got this job, I was struggling a lot with trying to understand who I was and struggling a lot with my gender. I was questioning a lot of things and I started auditioning for non-binary roles because I knew I wasn't cisgender and I was trying to figure myself out. I kept getting drawn to wanting to play a non-binary role, probably because I wanted to be able to explore myself that way but I wasn't really telling anyone about it. So getting this job and getting to play Adira was really overwhelming at first, but overall a massive blessing because it allowed me to explore myself. I've grown alongside Adira. It's a really strange way for it to happen, but I'm so glad that it has. It's given me a community of people here who are incredibly supportive of me. Wilson and Anthony and Ian [Alexander, who plays the franchise's first transgender character, Gray,] are my rocks here and they've helped me through a lot of stuff that I couldn't go through myself alone.
How has playing them informed your own personal journey and your own personal growth?
It's helped me to be open about things and totally transparent about things. What helped a lot is they gave me a lot of freedom with Adira to go wherever I needed to go because I was still questioning myself at the beginning of the season. I didn't want to make Adira somebody who was a hundred percent confident in how they wanted to present themselves to the world because I wasn't there yet either. Because of that I got to sort of grow and become more comfortable with myself and allowed that to influence where Adira was and vice versa. It just went back and forth, but I'm really grateful that they let me go in that direction because I didn't want to play a character who was totally confident in themselves when I wasn't yet, especially surrounding something so sensitive. It helped me in a lot of ways and I think Adira is going to continue to grow and become more confident in the same way that I am doing.
What I love about your character's introduction is that we don't find out that Adira is non-binary right off the bat. It isn't even part of a conversation really. Was that important for you?
Yeah, that was really important for me. I care a lot about an accurate representation of Adira and trans representation, especially. Because I wasn't yet fully out to a lot of my family and some of my friends still, I didn't feel comfortable right off the bat having everyone use they/them pronouns for Adira because I wasn't out to everyone yet. So I wanted to wait until really I was, until I was in a place where I could talk to my family and my friends and tell them who I was. At that point I could then feel that this is now an accurate way for me to represent Adira onscreen as well because I'm there too. I didn't want to rush it. I didn't want to put pressure on myself. I just wanted it to be as honest as possible because there are so few trans characters onscreen and I wanted to make this character as transparent to my own experience as possible because we don't see a lot of trans characters onscreen who are questioning, who are maybe not completely out talking to everyone about how they're feeling about themselves. There's so much pressure in the media for us to be 100 percent confident and really sure about ourselves so that people watching the shows don't question us. But there are so many people who struggle with their identity and I wanted to at least have one character onscreen do that. Be able to see someone go from keeping everything inside to them sharing because that's what everyone has to do.
Wilson Cruz and Anthony Rapp broke barriers for LGBTQIA representation in the Star Trek franchise playing the franchise's first openly gay characters. How have they helped you as mentors or guides throughout this process?
They helped me in more ways than I can describe. Immediately when I got here and was new and didn't know anyone, they both reached out to me. Wilson took me out to have lunch and sat me down and talked about everything that was going on. Anthony was also incredibly wonderful and reached out to me to make sure I was OK. They both, right off the bat, were so supportive of me and whatever I needed they wanted to help me with and to be there for me. Like for Ian and myself, they have become our show dads. They do really feel like parental figures for us and also wonderful friends. They are really good examples for Ian and I to follow. I love them dearly, I really do.
Between the two of them and Ian, have you formed a de facto queer family on set? What does it mean to go on this adventure together?
It's exactly like that. It feels like we get to have a little queer family. Again, I feel lucky because I feel like that's so rare. Oftentimes there's maybe one queer character on a show or maybe two, but there's four of us and it's so awesome. There's four of us, all different ages and different backgrounds and we all get along really well. It does feel like a little family that I'm really grateful for.
What you can tease in terms of Adira's journey this season?
Adira is a very introverted person right off the bat. They don't share a lot very quickly, so the only way for them left to go forward is opening up. I think that's what can be expected. They put themselves in a situation on Discovery and now they're there and they're trying to do what they set out to do but in order to do that, they need to open up to the people around them. They can't just isolate themselves on the ship. They are there for a purpose and therefore they need to step out of their shell and put up and share their experience with other people. I think that is what's coming.
Lastly, what was it like to see the reaction to your casting news? Have you heard from young trans actors like Lachlan Watson or other non-binary, gender nonconforming actors within the industry since?
That I think was probably one of the most wonderful parts of this role being announced was that so many other trans actors my age who I've been looking up to sent me messages and emails and got in touch with me. Just to be in touch with another trans actor, since there are not many of us in the media, for me that was just the greatest thing on Earth because these are people that I've been looking up to and wanting to be like. So to have Lachlan and Theo [Germaine] and other actors message me and want to talk about our experiences was wonderful.