PHOTOGRAPHER: Colin Gaudet STYLING: Aliecia Brissett MAKEUP: Jasmin Winnie Stephen
Broadway star Celia Rose Gooding made her television debut the way any bold actor does: by taking on one of science fiction’s most iconic roles. On Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Gooding portrays Uhura, who is widely known as one of the first Black characters to be portrayed in a non-menial role on an American television series. In this prequel to The Original Series, Uhura is learning to gain her footing on the USS Enterprise just as Gooding is expanding her presence across entertainment. As the Paramount Plus show approaches its season 1 finale, they opened up to LA Confidential about being part of sci-fi’s most infamous franchise.
Star Trek Strange New Worlds is in the middle of its first season. How has it been seeing fans' reactions to the show?
It's been really, really wonderful. They're all so incredibly receptive and they've been accepting the show with welcome arms. And I'm really happy about it because we're trying a bunch of different stuff where, for Uhura specifically as a character, we're trying a lot of different and new things and exciting things for her.
What is the most exciting change you’ve been able to implement with Uhura?
It's incredibly exciting to play a level of maturity and trepidation when it comes to this role. Uhura, in the original series, was very sure of herself, very confident, a very knowingly capable officer. And this cadet, we see her as someone who's not really sure of herself. We show her place on the Enterprise. And I think as an actor, that's where a lot of the richness is. The moments when you get to defy expectation.
We get to finally see her humble beginnings and they're very, very humble, but to play a version of a character that is so beloved as someone who's quite meek— she’s still as capable as she's always been, but she's just a bit more unsure. And I think it's very interesting. And it's been received very well, so I'm glad people are excited to see this version of Uhura because I believe that if she were to be the same exact person that's in the original series, there's really no sign of growth. And I think growth is what makes us human.
On Twitter, you said that episode 8 is your favorite of the whole season. Why is that?
I love this episode. This episode is my favorite for many reasons, but it's my favorite because it's a fantasy episode. It’s an episode where the Enterprise we all are beyond possessed. We are altered by this nebula we are in and we all turn into these storybook characters.
The costumes themselves are enough of a reason for this to be my favorite episode. The costumes are gorgeous. But the character that I play, Queen Neb, the evil queen, she's very different from the incredibly sweet, incredibly kind and charming Uhula that I normally play. And so it was fun to do a bunch of wacky, silly stuff in gorgeous costumes and we got to flex different muscles as actors.
Speaking of fantasy, fantasy and science fiction stories—whether for books, film or TV— always have such passionate followings. Why do you think the genre is so inspiring?
I think people turn to sci-fi, people fall in love with sci-fi because it has all the aspects of reality that we find entertaining, but it also feeds into the imagination of everyone. I think, specifically Star Trek, we have found a way to really play in this perfect utopia where everyone within the Federation, we all get along, we all move towards a common goal, we are all following toward the same mission and we've done so by working together and by forming a community. And I think in these really trying times and in the real world 2022, I think people are actively searching for community and actively searching for a place of belonging and actively searching for a group of support and just the reassurance that everything is going to be OK.
I think the sci-fi franchise provides that reassurance that there is peace coming and there's logic behind it. And that, I think, provides confidence to those who may not feel so confident in the future. In the pilot of the season, we see a world in turmoil that looks eerily similar to the world we're living in now. And the fact that Captain Pike beamed down and is like, “Hey, you have an opportunity to do right by one another if you just choose community instead of selfishness and individualism.” And I think that really speaks to a lot of real-life people today who are plagued by the world that we have built today.
What has been the biggest surprise about joining Star Trek?
What's been most surprising is how much of the sets and backgrounds and planets that we travel to, how much of it isn’t blue screen. A lot of the work that we do in other planets or in other locations, in these extravagant locations, is done at an augmented reality wall, which is 270 degrees of screens. Our incredible FX team, they build these worlds and our set designers, they dress the sets and it looks like an actual place, but it's not. We're not just in harnesses on blue screens pretending that the stuff is there. It's actually there. It's tangible and it's physical and you can see it. And as an actor, that is so helpful. It allows us to really drop into the reality of what we're doing, instead of forcing ourselves to make it up.
What are you looking forward to about the second season?
I'm looking forward to fans getting to know the characters better. I think in the first season, of course, each episode centers a specific character, but I think any opportunity for the fans to really get to know these characters as people and who they are and less of what they do— I think this season, we really tap into the hearts of each of our characters and what really drives us as people in the Federation and working on the Enterprise. That's the stuff that makes me gleeful as an actor. Yes, we get to do incredibly fun action stuff and there's a lot of science, stuff but I think the really down-to-earth moments and the heartfelt moments and the moments where we see the vulnerability of these characters behind the mask and the veneer of their jobs, that's what's most interesting to me. And so I hope the fans really enjoy that because there's going to be a lot of that in the second season.
To go back to season one, how would you sum up the finale in three words?
Oh my gosh. Unexpected, heartfelt and fascinating.
You have credits under your belt all across the industry from Broadway to TV and film. When you were first getting into the industry and knowing this is what you wanted to do with your life, do you remember being pulled toward the craft because of the storytelling aspect or was it more about being an entertainer?
I fell in love with performing probably sooner than I can recall. I've always been a very dramatic person. I always was that kid playing with dolls much later than they probably should have and just really interested in other people's lives and interested in how other people exist in the world. I'm a serial escapist. And so, sci fi specifically, but entertaining and performing allows me a level of escapism in an incredibly safe space that I really enjoy as someone who is constantly looking outward. I'm not much of an inward person. The funny thing about the job that I have: being an actor requires me to do a lot more inward thinking than I do when I'm not on the clock. I am a serial escapist and having an opportunity to do that with my job is why I love it so much.
As an actor, you are tasked to rationalize the world around you through the eyes of another person and through someone who's had very different lived experiences than your own. And you have to humanize it or rationalize it and make a home for it within yourself. And that requires a level of empathy that I think is really, really important these days. I think the world that we live in could use a lot more empathy for others.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photography by: Colin Gaudet