The actor dishes to ET about joining the CBS All Access series and (briefly) putting on the Starfleet uniform.
Star Trek: Discovery newcomer David Ajala is one of the latest additions to join CBS All Access' Star Trek series. As Cleveland "Book" Booker, a smart and capable yet mischievous new ally, Ajala's character gets off on the wrong foot with Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) when they bump into each other, literally. But though their relationship begins on a contentious note, the pair become friends and partners during the year that has since elapsed as Burnham's mission to reunite with her USS Discovery crew is successfully accomplished.
"Cleveland Booker is someone who is self-sufficient and who very comfortably and effectively operates as one man," Ajala tells ET, adding that Book finds himself having to "overcome" his desires to be a lone wolf rather than a team player -- a journey that he goes on all season. Having been raised in a family of killers and severing ties from that life, there's a lot left to uncover about Book, which Ajala promises is worth the wait.
"That's something that I found really special about this character, was the fact that he is someone who has been shaped by his circumstances that should have affected Cleveland Booker be the kind of guy that he is. He has been able to turn lemons into lemonade and that's been his thing," he says. "It's a joy to be able to play a character who is so selfless and so hard-working and committed to a course that is greater than himself. I found that really, really inspiring."
With the third episode of the season now available to stream on CBS All Access, ET spoke with Ajala about joining Star Trek: Discovery, working alongside Martin-Green, Book's cat companion Grudge, putting on the Starfleet uniform and more.
ET: Book makes has a memorable entrance on Star Trek: Discovery, and your first episode is essentially a two-hander with Sonequa Martin-Green. What connected you to the character of Book? What does he bring to this world that adds another layer of intrigue?
David Ajala: For the character of Book, what's going to be really cool is to see how the character develops through the season. Cleveland Booker is someone who is self-sufficient and who very comfortably and effectively operates as one man. So, his timing is not going to be about understanding of the power and the effectiveness of working in a team. But for Cleveland Booker, another thing that he has to overcome is to be able to understand the benefit of working with a team. That's something that I found really special about this character, was the fact that he is someone who has been shaped by his circumstances that should have affected Cleveland Booker be the kind of guy that he is. He has been able to turn lemons into lemonade and that's been his thing. It's a joy to be able to play a character who is so selfless and so hard-working and committed to a course that is greater than himself. I found that really, really inspiring. It allowed me to not really focus too much on myself and to focus on other people. For an actor, I think that's what it's about. We're here on this planet not to serve ourselves but to serve others. And maybe that's where I was in my mindset and spiritually.
Book and Burnham form a unique bond. Can you talk about working with Sonequa and trying to figure out how the dynamics of their relationship, which starts off contentious but then they seem to warm to each other?
Sonequa is wonderful to work with and we are blessed to have her on the show. Something really cool about the dynamic between Michael Burnham and Cleveland Booker, just going back a little with the whole process of me getting cast on the show. Usually, we would have chemistry reads together or a screen test together, and we didn't have that. We didn't meet until maybe 10 days before we started filming? I flew into Toronto, we had a costume fitting and that's where I first met her. We come from a background of being really dedicated with the work and making sure that we are telling the stories the best. Sonequa's got a great work ethic, so it made it so much easier to really dive in to this two-hander, as you said, to this episode because we knew that we were carrying it on our shoulders. It was an absolute pleasure to do so.
There's a scene in the end of the first episode where Burnham is swallowed by the trans worm. Can you talk about filming that particular scene?
That was so much fun. You know what was so special about that scene? That scene was filmed at the end of a very long day and we were really tight for time. We didn't have time to rehearse it so we literally had to do this scene, get it done and be out. That whole scene was hilarious because Sonequa and myself were looking at each other, thinking, "This is is insane." We only had like two minutes to film the scene. There was something very cathartic about that scene. I used the word cathartic because it became a little bonding moment between Cleveland Booker and Michael Burnham. She didn't know how this day was going to turn out, but she's so thankful that she is alive. I see Booker was thinking, "I'm in this to save your life and I'm thankful for it because you are on a mission and a purpose and it makes me feel good to know that I was able to save you somehow so that you can fulfill your purpose 'cause that's important to you." It was a really wonderful moment that happened that wasn't on the page.
As an audience member watching it, it was hard not to laugh because the visual was so ridiculous in a good way.
It is wild. It is absolutely bizarre. A freaking shield alien worm gobbled out this woman and then I've spoken to in my language, saying, "Yo, please. I know you're a little hungry and you have a little temper at the moment but I need you to just give that one back. Let's see her back." It's hilarious.
We also learn about Book's backstory, that his family is full of killers and he didn't want to follow in their footsteps. Is there kind of more that we'll be learning about your character?
Yeah, absolutely. The season is about identity and it's about people finding their identity or re-establishing understanding their identity in unfamiliar territory. Booker is someone who is having to reassess certain things about his own identity, and that only comes about because of the first meeting with Michael Burnham. Throughout the season, we will see more of his backstory being unraveled. And there are specific episodes where it's fully Book's world, going into where he came from, which I am really excited about. There's one specific episode where take him home.
By Thursday's episode, which skips ahead a year later, Book and Burnham have become friends and partners in her mission to reunite with the Discovery crew. What did you make of their friendship at this point in their journey?
When we see moments like that, moments like that resonate deeper and vibrate a little more inside of us because we know how that journey began. We were witnesses as audience members to how Michael Burnham and Book [first met]; I was thinking of the way we look at their relationship as it develops. To be in new territory where these two have a trust and respect for each other, it's such a wonderful dynamic to be able to play onscreen because you literally, from moment to moment, enjoy the joy of two characters knowing each other and being comfortable in each other's presence. There's something very special about that.
You also get to wear the Starfleet uniform for the first time.
Yeah. That was horrible, only because it was so tight. And I'm convinced -- because when I did my costume fitting it was okay. I thought, "This looks pretty cool. I like it." And on the day of filming, I am convinced the costume department took in a half-inch or a lot of the seams on my costume. So when I'm wearing that costume in the scene and I'm complaining, it was freaking tight. I'm convinced that's what they did, absolutely convinced.
At the end of episode 3, when Burnham and Book part ways for the time being, it seems like there was a bit of a spark that's more than friendly...
I don't know what you are talking about. It's absolutely platonic. Absolutely, absolutely platonic. No idea what you are talking about. Sorry, nope. (Laughs.)
Is that the direction those two characters are going in? What can you tease?
Those two characters definitely have an undeniable connection, which is special, and that connection, the foundation of that connection is literally the two of them on many occasions have trust the other person with their life. Literally, in very precarious situations. But in terms of a romantic relationship, I don't know. We're going to phase out because it feels very platonic to me, but stranger things have happened.
Book also has a furry companion, Grudge. Can you talk about working with the two cats who play your sidekick?
It's been so much fun. We are blessed to have two cats and the 2 cats are played by brothers, Leeu and Durban. In terms of the dynamic and as an actor, it's so much fun because animals don't adhere to etiquette, but we have to hit it on set, animals do their thing. They act at the mercy of their feelings. There's not so much a director can do to try and get that animal to give the best possible performance. They're very reliable in creating a good atmosphere so that Leeu or Durban can do their thing. Both Leeu and Durban are still very big divas. Absolutely ridiculous. (Laughs.) Leeu and Durban have a bigger trailer than me. That hurt my heart a little bit. I had a single tear.
And Grudge has a thyroid condition.
It's sweet, isn't it? I really love that between Book and Grudge. Grudge is family to him. He doesn't have family and he spends most of his time with Grudge and he does speak to Grudge. And I just think there's something very lovely and pure about their relationship and it clearly opens room for levity, which I'm really excited about.
Is there anything you're excited for fans to see this season?
I'm excited for some of the adventures that we embark on. A group of individuals who are just turning lemons into lemonades, literally. It's the same thing that's happening in this world. If we look around and we see there so much uncertainty where it's absolutely unprecedented times. And yet, that's just the courage within us as human beings that is displayed when people are showing more kindness towards each other, more empathy towards each other and it's healing and it really restored my faith in humanity. I'm looking forward to sharing that same sentiment, which will definitely be on display in the season.
There is something else I would like to add. I think you'll probably be the first to notice. Someone asked me the other day, "How did the name Cleveland Booker come around?" Booker, it's a little secret that will be revealed in the season. However, an acting friend of mine called Aaron, him and his partner had a nickname for myself. I've known them for a few years. And the nickname for me, this was years ago, was Booker. They never told me about it, but it was a name that they had for me amongst themselves. They said the reason why they call me Booker is because "David will book acting gigs in America." So when on Discovery, they revealed the character's name, we spoke and he told me that that was the name he gave me years before. That was such a wonderful moment and it reminded me of the power of manifestation when you speak things into existence. So my character's name, Cleveland Booker, I spoke into the universe.
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