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.
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.
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
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.
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