‘Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ Actor Babs Olusanmokun Talks Classic Throwback Episode and Those Emotional Father-Daughter Moments

·7 min read

[This story contains spoilers for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds episode “The Elysian Kingdom.”]

There was a moment when Babs Olusanmokun found himself slightly perplexed about his involvement in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds after he read the first two scripts for the Paramount+ series. But the feeling immediately evaporated when he dug into the third.

More from The Hollywood Reporter

The film and TV actor was thrilled when he landed the role of Chief Medical Officer Dr. Joseph M’Benga, a character previously played (albeit briefly) by the late Booker Bradshaw on The Original Series.

Olusanmokun’s wise, forthright and stoic Dr. M’Benga had a small introduction in the series premiere and then was absent in the next episode. But in the series’ third episode, “Ghosts of Illyria,” the character made his mark with a heartbreaking revelation. In “Ghosts,” it is learned Dr. M’Benga is using an outdated transporter to house his terminally ill daughter, Rukiya (Sage Arrindell), as he desperately tries to find a cure for her cygnokemia.

In this week’s episode, “The Elysian Kingdom,” the arc is further explored when an alien presence (hilariously) takes over the Enterprise and befriends Rukiya in a classic Star Trek throwback of delightful absurdity. However, the end proves to be perhaps the most emotional moment of the series thus far.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Olusanmokun discusses the beauty and complexity of M’Benga in those heart-wrenching scenes with his daughter. The actor also recalls how much fun the crew had making “Elysian Kingdom,” during which several takes were ruined by outbursts of laughter.

How did you become cast in the show?

My team told me they were getting in touch directly with casting because it was secretive. I put two sides on tape and a few weeks later, I was told the showrunners wanted to Zoom. We had a meeting, and I did the scenes again along with a lovely conversation. It was all very nice. And a few weeks after, I got a call saying I had the job. And of course, it was a wonderful piece of news.

How did you develop your reserved, but insightful and often profound, Dr. M’Benga? Did you look to Booker Bradshaw’s work on TOS as a point of reference? 

Knowing that he had been played before by Booker Bradshaw, I did look up the two episodes that he was in. Unfortunately, Booker was not given a lot back then. So, it was a matter of crafting something anew. It was setting this guy on a new journey and making sure I gave life to something Booker could smile down upon. The unearthing of the character is ongoing.

I always feel the weight of the responsibility of trying to convey a message through the vessel of the character. It is always a wonderful challenge for an actor. It is a show that carries messages of inclusion and optimism. It is a good thing to be playing a character who gets to speak to some of that. You do your best to make sure it is all coming from a truthful and honest place.

Babs Olusanmokun as M’Benga of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS - Credit: Courtesy of Marni Grossman/Paramount+
Babs Olusanmokun as M’Benga of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS - Credit: Courtesy of Marni Grossman/Paramount+

Courtesy of Marni Grossman/Paramount+

I absolutely loved this week’s episode, “The Elysian Kingdom.” It’s such a wonderful Star Trek throwback episode. Please tell me everything. What were those epic costumes like? How did you all ever get through a take with all the hilarious performances?

(Laughs.) Those costumes were amazing. We had been hearing about the costumes for months before we shot that particular episode. When I finally started doing fittings, it was just amazing, the robe and even the undergarments and beads. It was just magnificent. It’s why I do the job, to play. It was a real thrill and blessing. I am the type of actor who, when I read material that is strong and asks something of me, I am just flooded and very grateful. And I approached it with that sense.

There were two days when it was non-stop laughter on the bridge. It was crazy — which is kind of unusual for me. I can be quite a serious guy. (Laughs.) But there were a few destroyed takes. It was just too much. I don’t think words can do it justice. I was squeezing my face to get the words out — and then I would burst out laughing. I was like, “Oh, my God. I am a professional. What is going on?” (Laughs.) We had a lot of fun, and I am glad it came across.

As a dad, I get super emotional when I see M’Benga interact with his daughter, Rukiya, especially in “Ghosts of Illyria” and this week’s episode. Can you tell me about delivering two such powerful performances that run the emotional gamut, especially for us parents?

I remember doing episode one when we were in Toronto, which was an introduction, and then I wasn’t in episode two. And as an actor, insecurities start bothering you, like, “Am I really in this thing?” (Laughs.) So, when I saw the script for “Ghosts of Illyria,” it touched me greatly. I felt the weight of it. I thought it was beautifully written. There are certain monologues that you read again and again and again because every time you do, it becomes truer and truer. When the writing is that strong, it never gets to a place where you’re like, “OK. I am tired of saying these words.” You can’t help but approach it with an open heart. It can’t become boring. It is so true and heartbreaking. And I really connected to that. So, it was beautiful to have that experience for “Ghosts of Illyria.”

What then takes place in “Elysian Kingdom” is a massive continuation of that arc.  I embrace the fragility of it all; there is the vulnerability that he has to have as he is staying as strong as he can through it all. He is brave as he goes throughout the universe to try and find something to heal her. Underneath, he is carrying that horrible sense of “What will be of my child, and how can this be?” So, that was the work, the emotional work of staying in touch with that vulnerability that is deep within him.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds - Credit: Courtesy of Paramount+
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds - Credit: Courtesy of Paramount+

Courtesy of Paramount+

I am not assuming anything about what will occur in the future of the series, but did you feel that story arc arrived rather quickly? I ask because I assumed the search for the cure would be a major component of M’Benga’s story, so we got there kind of fast.

I don’t know if I would disagree with you, but the other thing you said is the reason I have not been strident about it in any kind of way. I know it’s a show where we can swing in different directions quite credibly. So, what we think is resolved, I wouldn’t say is resolved. It is an ongoing and living situation. He carries that. And in season two, he is carrying that. Even if it is not present on the surface, it is present within. So, I guess what I am trying to say is I can’t tell you that we wouldn’t come back to it in some fashion.

I think I copy. Well, on that same topic, I have to ask about Sage Arrindell. She is just wonderful and you two appear to have such a strong rapport. What has that relationship been like?

Sage has a wonderful presence and was great to work with. She is really on top of it. She is a beautiful little actor. She responds, she looks you in the eyes. She has her work down. It was fantastic interacting with her. We were doing this at the height of COVID, and we had masks. So, I tried to form a bond beyond the mask that would serve us within the scenes. It was beautiful to work with her.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds streams new episodes Thursday on Paramount+.

Best of The Hollywood Reporter

Click here to read the full article.