How the Captain of the Star Trek Discovery Keeps Grounded – A Conversation with SONEQUA MARTIN-GREEN
By Anna Harrison, FN alum '21
Attendees of the 2022 FUTURE NOW Media and Entertainment Conference had the privilege to listen to Star Trek: Discovery star Sonequa Martin-Green share her experiences in the industry as she discussed playing the first Black woman to captain a ship in the Star Trek universe. Martin-Green’s character, Captain Michael Burnham, seems worlds away from her small-town Alabaman childhood, but Martin-Green’s faith and perseverance have kept her grounded as she has worked her way to success.
Initially, Martin-Green wanted to be a psychologist, and while that may seem very different from her current vocation, Martin-Green sees the two as connected: “I was fascinated with human behavior, and of course that feeds directly into my craft as an actor.” It was in tenth grade after auditioning for a play when Martin-Green found her calling. “I felt this warmth that came from the top of my head down through my body. Like, ‘Woah. This is what I’m supposed to do with my life.’ …This is what makes my soul happy,” she said.
Following the advice of her director, Martin-Green applied for a theater scholarship at the University of Alabama. She thought she completely bombed the audition and that her career was over before it even started, but she got the scholarship. “It was all about potential,” she explained. “The story is never done. Never.” The rest, as they say, is history—though Martin-Green credits much of her success to her strong faith.
“[God] is what keeps me grounded. That is what keeps me balanced,” she said. For Martin-Green, her professional life has its roots in faith, too: “All of us would be remiss to say that we don’t struggle with the idea of fame and fortune,” but Martin-Green has realized that “the pursuit of [fame and fortune] pales in comparison to the pursuit of art…. There’s such a divinity in artistry.” By framing her work as something spiritual rather than a means to fame and fortune—Martin-Green remains true to her values, though it’s not always been smooth sailing.
“I went through the phase of wanting so desperately to be good… I spent so much time trying to be good [and] it was for the approval of other people. It was still self-centered.” Now, Martin-Green strives to be “moment-centric” and focus on the present rather than what accolades her work may bring, linking everything back to the power of storytelling. “If you’re called to this industry, no matter where you are in this industry, I believe it’s a high calling because storytelling is one of the major spheres of influence in our society and it can change people’s lives, it can change what they believe, it can change the world for the better.”
When asked about how she chooses parts, Martin-Green mused, “I have to be moved by it in my spirit. I have to agree with the prevailing message,” and that message should be one with the capacity for positive change. It’s not always an obvious choice, though, and requires no small amount of reflection on Martin-Green’s part. “Everything in art, I now know, requires stillness… Sometimes it’s a word from somebody else, it could be a song or a billboard—it could be anything that comes to you, or it could just be a sort of knowing, deep down.”
Of course, not everything works out all the time, but Martin-Green puts a positive spin on failure and rejection: “It’s important to experience [rejection]… and be honest about it and feel the pain, but then, redefine it because it really isn’t rejection. It’s strategy. That means the position truly was not meant for you.”
Her perspective on failure comes from a grab them by the horns mentality: “Any piece of life that you can take in, take it in, whether it’s art or history or your community…. Take it in, so that your imagination grows, and then your perspective… is now wholly different than anybody else’s… so the way you approach your artistry is now different than anybody else.”
“In an industry dedicated to telling the lives and stories of others, having a wide variety of perspectives to inform your own is key—“it gives you a competitive advantage,” Martin-Green said. “You have to understand that you have nothing to prove, only something to offer… Straining and stressing to prove yourself only makes you smaller. You really want to be as big as you possibly can [and] come in with a generous heart, with a heart of service, because that’s what we’re doing in this industry. We are serving. It is an industry of service. We are allowing people the opportunity to see themselves… at their highest potential, to see themselves struggle.”
To wrap up, Martin-Green emphasized the importance of training. “You’re always a student,” she said. “I will be a student for the rest of my life. It’s really about getting involved with workshops, getting involved with classes, introducing yourself to people in this industry…. You need to find a community.” And if you attended the FUTURE NOW Media and Entertainment Conference, you’re off to a good start.