‘Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ Star Celia Rose Gooding Wasn’t Told She Was Auditioning to Play Uhura

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With the May 5 premiere of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds on Paramount+, Celia Rose Gooding, who plays a young Uhura (a role originated by Nichelle Nichols), made her television debut. But the 22-year-old Westchester, New York-born actress and singer is far from a newcomer, having cut her teeth on Broadway as Frankie in the hit musical Jagged Little Pill, a performance that earned her a Tony nomination.

Already renewed for season two, Strange New Worlds is a prequel to Star Trek: The Original Series, but for Gooding, television is a new frontier — a next step toward her EGOT goal (she’s one-fourth of the way there, with a 2021 Grammy Award for best musical theater album already on her mantel). In his review of the new Star Trek series, THR‘s Daniel Fienberg said, “Gooding is just a general delight, funny and emotionally available, honoring the Nichelle Nichols original and making Uhura her own.” Gooding spoke about the “daunting” challenge of stepping into the iconic role of Uhura and the invaluable guidance she’s gotten from her mother, Tony Award winner LaChanze.

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What does Broadway represent to you?

Broadway has been a haven for me since I was a little girl. The opportunity to leave my troubles backstage and be whisked away to a completely different world was everything to me, especially growing up as a young Black person in predominantly white institutions. Of course, as I grew up, I learned that the things I was trying to escape are inescapable, but live theater still was a means of escape to me.

When you were auditioning for the role of Uhura, what attracted you to the character?

Fun fact, actually: I didn’t know that I was auditioning for the role of Uhura until after I booked it. Casting went about it in a very interesting way, and I think they actually gave me a bit of grace because I auditioned under a pseudonym. But her character description really got to me: She was described as a bright, young prodigy who is deciding whether or not the place that she’s in is where she wants to be right now. And as someone who is very young in this industry and is still figuring out what my explicit goal and dream is in this life, I found that a lot of her story and a lot of her mentality mirrored mine — in a different industry.

You got your start on Broadway — theater and musicals are really your background. What has it been like pivoting from that world to the world of television? Has anything surprised or challenged you while making this transition?

Having a theater background, a lot of my training is a lot more full body. It’s a lot more physical, as opposed to TV and film which is a lot more cerebral and in my head. The major difference between theater and film is that with theater you can really see everything that’s going on on a stage at one time, whereas film is whatever the editors decide to share with you — and everything else is sort of off-camera and up to the perception of the viewer.

What’s it like to take on a role that audiences already are so familiar with?

It’s an honor, really, to know Uhura’s future and how her story ends. But we don’t really learn much about her beginnings in Starfleet, and even during The Original Series we didn’t really get to know Uhura as a person. We knew her as a communications officer — someone who worked on the ship — but we don’t really know how she got there and who she was before she grew into this confident, brilliant, graceful woman.

Joining something that is already well established versus starting a new musical and building that from its genesis? At first, I was incredibly overwhelmed because it’s daunting knowing that you’re stepping into a role that already means so much to so many people. The social and political aspects of this character and what it meant to be a young Black person in the 1960s having a role onscreen — it’s incredibly daunting and overwhelming knowing all of that. And during the first season, I think I put a lot of pressure on myself to measure up to who this character is and who she ends up being. But then I had to remind myself that that’s not where I am yet. I had to remind myself that I don’t have to step into this character with all of the knowledge of her future, because this character has no knowledge of her future yet. I realized that the work of it is going to be braiding in the aspects of herself as this character ages — and as we continue season to season — instead of showing up as a carbon copy of the character that we see in The Original Series.

Gooding with Ethan Peck (who plays Spock) in Paramount+’s Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. - Credit: Courtesy of Marni Grossman/Paramount+.
Gooding with Ethan Peck (who plays Spock) in Paramount+’s Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. - Credit: Courtesy of Marni Grossman/Paramount+.

Courtesy of Marni Grossman/Paramount+.

What did winning the Grammy for Jagged Little Pill change for you?

I am someone who, of course, has big dreams. Of course I manifest like crazy. I have a vision and a dream and a goal for myself and my future and I would love to be an EGOT at some point. I just didn’t think it was going to start happening this early! It felt unreal; I originally never considered myself to be a vocalist; I always considered myself to be an actor who has a voice and can sing if asked to. So for my first big award to be a Grammy, it’s like, life is wild.

Your mother is a Tony Award winner [best actress in a leading role in a musical in 2006 for her role as Celie Harris Johnson in The Color Purple]. What’s the best advice your mother has given you?

Having someone who is already so well-loved and well-respected in this industry as your mother is a gift. It’s a blessing, honestly, because there are certain things that I’d have no idea about, and I have someone in my life who I trust to give me the honest lowdown about what to expect. I think her greatest piece of advice, that I remind myself of every day, is, “It’s not that deep.”

What do you miss about NYC when you’re shooting elsewhere, like in Toronto?

I miss the spontaneity of Manhattan. Almost everything I need is within a couple of blocks. I miss the city even when I’m home in Westchester, so it’s definitely hard being this far away for months at a time. Things close pretty early in Toronto compared to NYC, and the pizza isn’t nearly as good. I miss my friends, and my community. I’m someone who was raised by a village, so being away from them takes some getting used to.

How has the environment of NYC shaped you as a person, and as a performer?

Something about the city makes you want to work harder. The knowledge that everyone around you is also trying to make their dreams come true is inspiring. Working in the city has definitely shaped me into the person I am today. It’s made me tougher but also more empathetic. There are so many people from all different walks of life grouped together on one island. I often have this thought on the train: “Everybody around me has a full life here, just as complex and layered as mine. I know I’ll probably never see any of these people again, but we’re all on this journey together.” It’s beautiful.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the May 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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