Interview: Jess Bush & Babs Olusanmokun On New Chapel & M’Benga In ‘Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’

TrekMovie joined a group press interview with Jess Bush and Babs Olusanmokun who have taken on the classic Star Trek roles of Nurse Christine Chapel and Dr. M’Benga for the upcoming series Strange New Worlds. The show’s medical team talks about a whole new dynamic in Enterprise’s sickbay.

Note: The interview contains some minor spoilers and has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Jess, did you study up for the role, including the Spock/Chapel flirtation?

Yeah, definitely read into it. I read as much as I could on Majel [Barrett Roddenberry] and Chapel. And obviously, the Spock relationship is a major part of her portrayal in TOS. So yeah, I watched a bunch of TOS. I did a lot of reading.

Jess, one of the surprises is how Chapel feels a bit like a whole new character. How how do you see the Strange New Worlds Chapel in comparison to the TOS character, both what is the same, and different?

When I watched Majel’s performance, what I distilled most from that and what I took from that was her candor, her humor, and her wit. But those things were just little seedlings. In the 2021 rebirth of her, there’s so much more to her. I think that Chapel in TOS; her whole plotline was quite connected to who she was pining after. That was a big feature of who she was.

And I think that’s different this time. I think she’s got this lust for life and this mischief mischievous nature that I love to embody. And she’s been through some stuff, actually. Akiva [Goldsman] and Henry [Alonso Meyer] were great in the sense of when before the start of season one, we sat down and we chatted about who is she going to be? They had some points and they also gave me license to kind of really explore. And we talked about what her backstory might be. Her life outside of Starfleet wasn’t really explored. Yeah, I think she’s fallible and she’s rough and tumble and she is really curious about other people and what their honest expression is and bringing that out, which I think is a really cool, thoughtful, and kind aspect to her that I think his new.

Star Trek has been a show that families can watch together, including having children look up to your characters. What is the most exciting part about getting to see how these characters are going to help younger generations find what they want to like in Trek?

Jess Bush: I think that it’s an enormous privilege as an artist to be able to contribute to Star Trek. I think that it has always had such a strong cultural impact. It’s evident and everything and it means so much to so many people. And I think the people who make Star Trek have always been really mindful to be intentional about that power that they hold. So to be invited into that and to be able to use your voice and your heart and your passion to positively influence, to reach the younger generation, is the goal, as an artist. For me personally, you couldn’t ask for more. It’s an enormous responsibility and enormous privilege.

Jess Bush as Chapel as Nurse Christine Chapel in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

We can see how M’Benga and Chapel start off knowing each other and even he calls her his “favorite.” What kind of backstory were you given on their relationship?

Babs Olusanmokun: We have known each other for a while. And they’ve been on some adventures together. But I don’t want to specify what those adventures may be as you know, as that might be a spoiler. But there’s definitely a backstory of respect for each other’s work, for engagement, for having spent time together in more adverse circumstances. And I think that informs their relationship. So it’s from a deeper familial point of view when he says, “You’re my favorite.”

Star Trek has a lot of specific medical jargon and unique medical tools. Did you watch other Star Trek doctors to prepare for working in sickbay?

Babs Olusanmokun: I watched, of course, TOS. And I think I watched one other show and I left it at that. Because you don’t want to be doing what everybody else has been doing. You don’t want to get too many influences, so to speak. I just tried to craft something new and something different and something that I can bring my qualities, whatever they may be, to it.

Babs, you’ve been in character now for a while now. How much of you the actor is in M’Benga?

I would say his warmth is something that comes from me. I’m probably a little sharper with my language at times, but I’m working on it. I think he’s a wonderful guy and I think I am too. All we really have is the self we can bring ourselves to it. Of course, we’re not exactly our characters. But our qualities and how we use our qualities to engage what the character is on paper is what the character then becomes. That’s the performance. Whether he is strong, or he’s vulnerable, or the fragility that he might bring, or nobility that he might bring to certain moments. And those choices when he decides to bring it or not bring it. I think those are qualities that the actor must have. And the engagement of them with a written word is what gives you what you then see on the screen.

Babs Olusanmokun as Dr. M’Benga of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

One of the things that Chapel and M’Benga deal with is coming up against Federation rules and guidelines. The question for both of you: do you feel that rules are sometimes a necessity in order to protect humanity from doing danger to itself?

Jess Bush: I think as a character, Chapel believes that rules are guidelines, and people come first. You have to pay attention to the circumstances of a situation and not be blinded by the rules. So I think there’s definitely a respect for the rules and the regulations and that they’re there for a reason, but it’s a framework from which to then make decisions.

Babs Olusanmokun:  I would absolutely echo that. People write rules and of course, people are not infallible. Therefore, the times the rules that are created need to be sometimes taken down and stepped on in certain circumstances. So, yes, rules are not something that we should live and die by.

Playing medical professionals on the show, how meta did it feel to be producing a show during COVID?

Jess Bush: [laughs] Yeah, it was strange. It’s still strange.

Babs Olusanmokun: First of all, with all that was going on, we were really cocooned. It definitely gave it weight. And in at least one episode we touched upon something like that. It tells us we need to be respectful of what’s going on and just really button up and do what’s best for everybody around us, not just ourselves, but everybody else around us. We have to care. We’re carers, in the sickbay. It was definitely a factor, for me at least.

Star Trek shows can run as long as seven seasons. How exciting is that and how daunting is that for you?

Jess Bush: Oh, I think it’s so delicious. I think the prospect of that is amazing to be like, ‘Wow, I could be with this character for so long. I could be developing these relationships for a really significant portion of my life.’ I think that the prospect of that is really exciting to me, anyway. You, Babs?

Babs Olusanmokun: I think it’s a special thing, without a doubt, to be part of this endearing legacy. And so it’s a job as an actor, but very quickly you realize that means more than, because of how many people are so invested in this work and in this show and all the series through the years. So we have a challenge ahead of us. Seven seasons? Six seasons? Sounds wonderful, but we want to be able to give worthy episodes and worthy seasons. And keep it meaningful for people. We don’t want to just clock in every day. We want to make this as truthful and as meaningful and powerful as possible for those that engage with it.

More to come before May 5

TrekMovie will have interviews with more of the Strange New Worlds cast in the coming days, so stay tuned. Check out our earlier interviews with: Rebecca Romijn, Anson Mount, and Ethan Peck

The first season of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds will arrive on May 5 on Paramount+. Strange New Worlds will stream on May 5 exclusively on Paramount+ in the U.S., Latin America, Australia and the Nordics. The series will air on Bell Media’s CTV Sci-Fi Channel and stream on Crave in Canada. Additional international availability to be announced at a later date.

Strange New Worlds poster


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I loved his “freak out” scene in Dune. Good actor!

We learn in “What Are Little Girls Made Of” that Christine Chapel was a bio-researcher and gave that up to sign aboard a starship to go look for Roger Korby. So I’m puzzled as to how and why she is aboard a starship at this point in her history.

This.

I tried to comment this comment a few weeks ago, I think when they released the Nurse Chapel trailer, but I think I had too many links to Memory Alpha that my post never got approved. But I’m glad that someone else has remembered this about her. I puzzle about this as well.

This are the kind of details that get lost and make it feel as though the kids are playing dress up in their parents closet as opposed to professional writers researching the source material thoroughly before fleshing out the characters for a modern audience.

I think we should wait to see if there’s an explanation during one of the first couple of episodes before we jump to the conclusion that the writers are negligent. Maybe they’ve fleshed out her back story with some reason why she’s on a starship now. Her having prior experience would help to explain how she got a berth on a starship so easily during the Kirk era, since I’m guessing those are in demand and are competed for. :-)

Jesus Christ.

Perhaps it will be explained in one of the first few episodes. I hope so!

Corylea,

I offer this as purely my own speculation, but perhaps Nurse Chapel actually served on the Enterprise earlier in her career, and switched to bio-research(after having met a fellow researcher, Roger Korby…) Roger’s disappearance a mystery, she requests a transfer to return to the Enterprise, requesting that his final coordinates be further investigated during the 5-year mission? As I said, just my 2 cents.

Chapel took a class with Korby, and it makes sense that this class was part of her preparation for bio research. He’s been missing for five years during the first season of TOS, so prior to the first season of TOS, there have to be five years, then before THAT she has to take a course with Korby. Also before those five years, Chapel and Korby have to fall in love and get engaged … the writers can probably make it fit, but the scheduling will be a bit tight. It must have been a whirlwind courtship :-)

I guess we put it on the same shelf with “I lived through the 90’s, why wasn’t there a Eugenics War”

*laugh* Just as glad to see that aspect of canon disproved!

Well, nothing in Picard so far actually says that the Eugenics Wars didn’t happen in the 90s, and TOS, Enterprise, and WoK all explicitly say that the Eugenics Wars were in the 20th century. Star Trek history just isn’t exactly the same as real history. We also don’t have sanctuary districts today. If the show goes on long enough, the differences will become even more pronounced when WWIII (hopefully) doesn’t happen in the next few decades and ultimately first contact (sadly) doesn’t happen in 2063.

…which it hasn’t been.

In the REAL WORLD, silly!

I always liked Chapel in TOS, but she was basically a tree stump. Other than one episode where she was reunited with her robot fiance there wasn’t a lot there other than having feelings for Spock. So I really like they are going to develop her and she clearly has a different and more independent attitude. I like she comes off a little more saucy and a badass. So can’t wait to see her and how she interacts with Spock in this one, which based on the trailers at least is a more modern perspective obviously than just a woman pining for someone she can’t have.

I think she was developed quite a bit more than being a tree stump – she was compassionate and competent. She was a tertiary character though, and as you say there is a great deal of space to develop her with. The same is true with all of the existing characters other than Spock, and we don’t even know that much about young Spock either.

Like I said I liked her but she really didn’t have any agency. She was basically there to follow orders and we never got to see her put her foot down, make many of her own decisions, etc. That’s what I mean.

I’m sure someone will quote an episode where we saw her questioning McCoy in a scene but that’s not saying much if you can only quote an episode or two.

This is a great change. She can “feel bad” later, or maybe only in a “small, Spock, part of her life.” Plenty of people, especially women, get along fine without “unfeeling men.”

All the set design that I’ve seen looks beautiful. Really looking forward to this show!

I’m extremely excited for this series. However as it draws closer, I’m becoming more cautiously excited, mainly for casting reasons. Uhura, according to Memory Alpha, was never part of the crew until Kirk’s command. Kelvin timeline however is different. So what timeline is this truly?

Chapel for the same reasons. It was already mentioned by someone else, but just to second the comment, she was never part of a starship crew until the search for Roger Kirby.

And then with what may be an unpopular opinion, the unnecessary (IMO) addition of a crew member that needs relation to Khan. I love Wrath of Khan just as much as the next Trekkie, but this is a massive stretch in my view.

Strange New Worlds- like every series since and including Discovery- takes place in the Prime Timeline. And as far as I can recall there is absolutely nothing established in canon about Uhura’s Starfleet service prior to TOS. For all of the fact that simply having Uhura on TV in the 1960s was groundbreaking- she really didn’t get much in the way of character development.

I mean you had to go to memory alpha to look for something to be cautious/complain about?

Didn’t complain anywhere. And yes I went there, just like plenty of others do, fan generated or not. What’s your point? I have my reservations while being excited about the show just like plenty of others.

The reality is canon is whatever the current set of writers deem it to be, not what Memory Alpha or anyone else says. My advice? Roll with it. Either enjoy it or not. Our opinions are irrelevant at this point.

Uhura, according to Memory Alpha, was never part of the crew until Kirk’s command.

Memory Alpha is incorrect on this point (it’s fan-generated, remember). Neither TOS nor any film has ever established the above.

They’ve got a good cast, please write good dialogue for them! Don’t waste the talent!

Similar to Picard, strong cast, don’t always get the best dialogue to say.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!

Very excited to see both in action! I like what I see so far. One really confusing bit though is why both appear to be wearing Commander rank stripes. Are we supposed to believe that Chapel was a full commander all the way from pre-Kirk days through to Star Trek IV? That part doesn’t make sense, especially given that McCoy was a Lieutenant Commander during all of TOS. Same with M’Benga… though they never showed his rank in TOS, and unless he was always ever visiting the Enterprise in his later appearances, why is he a full Commander?

New Trek is super generous with the promotions (Disco Lt. Cmdr.s everywhere now), so much so that now they are starting legacy characters at Commander? I don’t get it.

Maybe that they are taking a page out of The Cage, where the stripes meant… oh wait, two meant Captain there. lol

I’m super excited for this show, I hope we finally get some 23rd century exploration of the final frontier. I also can’t wait to learn more about Nurse Chapel and Doctor M’Benga. I have no idea why they weren’t in the Kelvinverse, totally their loss, but better late than never! Welcome to the party!!!
Also I hope the writers enjoyed playing with the exciting setup that is TOS to the point they stay relatively true to the source material.
Why a writer would not embrace this crew being out there that away on their own would be beyond me. The writers should be the types dying every-time playing TNG has 10 starships show up with comms from Earth telling everyone what to do vs. Pike being unable to call home and get instructions from Starfleet Command and having make the big calls on behalf of the entire Federation