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Interview: Babs Olusanmokun Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’s Dr. M’Benga talks about character & craft

Courtesy of Paramount+

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds welcomes a new doctor to the pantheon of Chief Medical Officers who have consistently been some of the strongest characters across every show in the Star Trek cinematic universe: McCoy, Crusher, Bashir, Phlox, Stamets and now M’Benga. Played with so much warmth, and even a little humor by Babs Olusanmokun, Dr. M’Benga is quickly becoming a fan favorite.

Awards Radar spoke with Babs about his career and what it’s like to be a part of the cultural juggernaut that is Star Trek.

Lucas Longacre: Babs, you play Jamis in Dune, Dr. M’benga in Strange New Worlds. So needless to say, you’re in two of my favorite science fiction franchises of all time. Were you a science fiction fan growing up as a kid?

Babs Olusanmokun: Yes, yes. You know, but I didn’t think of it as Sci-Fi. I just watched them because they were adventurous and exciting and showed new worlds and possibilities. So I always found them special. It was only of course, later in life that you then put, you know, a name to it. “Sci F”. It was just about adventure for me, always.

Lucas Longacre: And so how and when did you get introduced to Star Trek?

Babs Olusanmokun: As a child, I mean, syndication. I started watching them and Mr. Spock was always a very special character to me. Then, to go into the different planets and all of that. I would say I was like, 12 or so when I first started watching them. And yeah, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it very much. But it was a big part of my consciousness.

Lucas Longacre: So how did you originally get into acting and performance? Is that something that was like, at a young age, you were like, this is for me? Or was it just something you kind of discovered on your journey?

Babs Olusanmokun: It was really high school. Some of my family have told me was actually earlier, I sort of performed even when I was in elementary school and I was watching a lot of film. I wasn’t until high school that I did a musical. I went away on theater performance competition in high school.

Lucas Longacre: Do you remember what you performed?

Babs Olusanmokun: Lenny. From Of Mice and Men. We ended up doing Oklahoma my last year of high school. And, I played all the hockey and, of course, between that and watching films from 9pm to 4am.

Lucas Longacre: Really doing homework, right?

Babs Olusanmokun: Yes, literally it hit me and I walked up to my dad one day, I’m like, Yeah, I got it. I’m going to be an actor.

Lucas Longacre: And where was this?

Babs Olusanmokun: I grew up all over. Sometimes it’s a difficult question. I was born in Nigeria but then we lived in France, Paris for few years and then Brazil. So I actually graduated high school in Brazil, out of an American School in Brazil. Then right after that I was in New York as a teenager, taking acting classes here and there and over the years. But really without any guidance or mentorship I probably needed. So I was always, start/stop. I started training Jiu-Jitsu and that sort of took quite a bit of my time. But I always knew where I was supposed to be, acting wise. It was always my North Star.

And I would always go back to class. So I ended up studying with various studio teachers in New York City, few years at a time. Stop, start again. And then eventually, I started doing theater and going off off Broadway. Performing on the Lower East Side, and then performing at all the little New York spots, and, you know, eventually somebody was actually paying me a bit of money to do it. And not just the metro card.

Rebecca Romijn as Una and Babs Olusanmokun as M\’Benga of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS. Photo Cr: Marni Grossman/Paramount+ ©2022 ViacomCBS. All Rights Reserved.

Lucas Longacre: As independent filmmaker in New York, I’m guilty of having paid my actors in Metro cards for sure. That’s incredible, though. Did you ever try your hand at the commercial circuit? Was it really just doing theater and performance?

Babs Olusanmokun: No, I did a commercial years ago. And I went out for a bit. But they were never my thing. And it was one of those first steps in cutting away things in terms of realizing, yes, commercials pay money and whatnot, but it’s just not me. And it took me a while to realize that.

Lucas Longacre: I mean, it’s a lot of hard work. I don’t think people who aren’t on that side of it realize the amount of auditioning and just getting rejected over and over. So I’m fascinated that you’re in Jiu-Jitsu. So tell me a little bit about that journey with martial arts. How did you get into Jiu-Jitsu?

Babs Olusanmokun: I started with karate as a child. I got head butted by a kid when I was like, 11 or so in Paris. The next day, my dad put me in karate.

Lucas Longacre: Do you remember what style?

Babs Olusanmokun: I would say Shotokan. And I did like one or two competitions, you know, flying kicks right into some other kids chest.  And was not good. But yeah, then I started doing Jiu-Jitsu. And that really took over and I spent quite a bit of time doing that training and competing. Teaching. For a long time in New York.

Lucas Longacre: Does that inform your your acting or your performance at all using that kind of physicality?

Babs Olusanmokun: Yeah, I would say.I think I’m a naturally physical person. I remember I was in a method acting class and  that teacher, he had a specific kind of warm up, that really seemed to get me more tense. Subsequently, after I found another teacher, a great guy called John Nucor, he was actually Tennessee Williams’ personal assistant, years back. I spent a long time with him, I was able to speak to him a bit more forthrightly, more directly. And I’m like, ‘You know, we used to do this warm up, and it really gets my shoulders tense. It just does not help me.’ And he’s like, ‘Babs, what did you say you do apart from this?’ I’m like, ‘I do Jiu-Jitsu’. Alright, how do you prepare for that? How do you limber up? And he was like, ‘okay, just use that. You can bring it together’. And that really helped me. It really sort of set me free, in a way. You can prescribe your own warmup, you know, as long as it gets you to the place where you need to be, then set forth within the scene, that emotional work.

Lucas Longacre: Any chance we’re gonna get to see Dr. M’Benga do some Jiu-Jitsu in Strange New Worlds.

Babs Olusanmokun: We will see. As I said, we’re finishing up a second season, right?

Babs Olusanmokun as M’Benga of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS. Photo Cr: Marni Grossman/Paramount+ ©2022 ViacomCBS. All Rights Reserved.

Lucas Longacre: Tell me about the audition process for Strange New Worlds. How did that unfold for you?

Babs Olusanmokun: I got the appointment, actually the information was sent to me directly. The agents weren’t even allowed to see the sides and whatnot. I had to prepare two scenes. It was strong, and I took to them immediately. I’m like, okay, ‘I could do this’. I was sort of like, just a guy on a mission, who actually still keeps his cool. And then the next one was a very short scene, but went from A to Z very quickly, emotionally. And so that was quite a challenge, a lovely challenge to embrace. Because, the scene is literally just a few lines.

I sent in tape. They wanted to meet with me, and I met with show runners Akiva and Henry, and the cast. And it was just so beautiful and comfortable. We spoke for, I don’t know, 20-25 minutes for a good while before they then asked me to do the scene again. And they gave me notes. And then I did it again. Or it was like, ‘do it in this accent’. And I played with it, because I’m quite sure I did it in American accent initially. But they were very, very generous with our time, very generous with our energy. For years, living in New York and auditioning, I sort of handicapped myself by not being just 100%? But the idea of going to meet these people and, like God, all of that was not present. My focus was just on the work. I already had gotten to the point I’d worked enough and gotten to the point like, ‘I’m just going to give the work. Trust the work’. And that’s it. If they are attracted to it then something will happen. So I was at peace for this project. I was already at that point. So I could just chat with them, you know, ask questions, and just enjoy it. And then when we were done, it was just like, All right, cool. That was lovely.

Lucas Longacre: It’s like falling in love, right? Like, if if you try to force it to happen, it’s never gonna happen. But if you’re relaxed and yourself, that’s where the magic happens. Well, how did it feel getting the call that you got the part? Was it a long time between when you audition and when you got it?

Babs Olusanmokun: You know, it feels like it was shorter than I think it was? Because again, I wasn’t hyper focused on it. But I felt good about it. It took a month and a half to two months in between the audition, And then it got to the point where I had to re tape the scenes, because now they were gonna give it to more people. Like, it’s gonna go through the gauntlet again.

Lucas Longacre: The studio exec circuit.

Babs Olusanmokun: Exactly. The unnamed ones. behind the curtain. So that was wonderful, to do that again, I just did not mind tackling the work over and over again. And that really, I think served me well. My agent called, and I was sitting in London, and I was like, ‘really?’ I was quite thrilled. I was quite thrilled. Because it’s Star Trek, you know. There’s nobody that I can say that too, that no matter how jaded you are, it meant something to all of us in some way. Or it meant something to your dad, or your uncle, or your aunt.

Lucas Longacre: I’m sure you’re still processing some of those thoughts.

Babs Olusanmokun: All of us. I am still processing. We could be on set. And another actor, one of my castmates would be like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe we’re doing this’. Like really. We’ll be in the chairs waiting for the next scene and somebody will bump the other and be like, “right?”. I don’t think that feeling will ever go away. Because it just demands that of you, the community. The people that appreciate it, that truly, truly appreciate it. You know, you have to serve them. Also. It’s not that kind of job that you do and throw away in any kind of way.

Lucas Longacre: You have to give it your all. How has that been, the fan reaction? I imagine this is something you’ve never really had to deal with before. What’s it like being in the in the maelstrom?

Babs Olusanmokun: I’ve not gone out to meet people. I see the onrush of it.I think it’s a beautiful thing. I think Star Trek fans are mostly, they’re not looking to tear it down. They’re not looking to tear others down. They demand something of the show, of the producers, but they’re not coming from a place of trying to belittle or be above what the piece is. If the piece speaks to them, they will embrace it fully. I see that. I have a dear friend, older than I, calls me like, ‘Man, I’m enjoying this’. I mean, he’s one of the most cynical people I know. Like a super, super cynical New Yorker dude. He can’t stop calling me. ‘Man, I’m just watching this episode. Oh, my God! Oh, my God!’

Lucas Longacre: So I think a huge part of that is that Star Trek does speak to these higher ideals we’re supposed to possess. And so even as like, the fans, like me, when we approach the show itself, try to have those ideals in mind, which I think is really powerful for a piece of entertainment.

Babs Olusanmokun: Absolutely, absolutely. Because, without that, there’s not much more. Whether it’s Star Trek, whether it’s Dune, whether it’s another piece of work that touches us in a different genre.If it grips us, if it speaks to us, if it exposes something in us, that’s the work. That’s art, right? So ultimately, that’s why we want to be artists, doing it as beautifully as possible within these parameters that are forced upon us.

Lucas Longacre: Dr. M’Benga, one of the reasons he’s so relatable is not just your performance, but he’s on a mission not just explore the universe, he has a very specific reason which is to save his daughter. How did you approach playing that character?

Babs Olusanmokun: Wow, I mean, really, just tapping into tapping into love. And the love of a child, the love you have for a family member. We can’t be comparing grief, but that is one of those sacred things, like your child is gravely ill. Your child may leave this world before you. That is something none of us ever, ever want to go through. So really, this was already presented to me at the meeting we had with the producers before we started filming. And so just started building his emotional life, and that end, the battle, the journey of having this child, having this family loving this child and taking care of her raising her and all of a sudden, as she’s still a child, and you now have to start pondering and dealing with her possible loss or possible death. So it was it was more emotional work, creating that and laying down a soil for that. And, of course, also keeping him brave enough and desperate enough to bring her on the ship, and really go against his sworn duty. And so, yeah, the work was to sort of lay the ground for that for that emotional journey. For that journey of doing what I have to do, what he has to do to save this child. The places we’ll have to travel to, the the people he will have to negotiate with, to discover some new medicines. So really going back the sides. You know, the asides for the audition was him, sort of haggling with another individual in terms of getting this, what he thought could be the life saving medicine. And at first, it means not much to him. But really, we find that it’s actually very, very important. So for me, it’s that, keeping him brave, keeping him focused on the goal he needs to achieve. And making sure the vulnerability is there. But that’s the chunk of the journey that I was working to craft for him for the season.

Lucas Longacre: Well, I just watched the episode last night in anticipation for this interview, the fantastical one where it becomes a storybook.

Babs Olusanmokun: The Elysium Kingdom.

Lucas Longacre: Exactly, Elysium Kingdom. And I’ll tell you, it snuck up on me because it’s a very silly episode in many ways, such a throw back to original Star Trek series, where they would have these very plot driven reasons why they would suddenly be in another genre. So I didn’t realize there was this emotional sledgehammer coming. By the end I was tearing up over the interaction you had with the daughter, it was just a beautiful. A beautifully done scene. But that’s transitioning into my question, which is in Strange New Worlds, It’s like every episode can be a different genre completely. It can be an action movie, it can be a Western. It can be a drama. It can be a comedy. So are there any genres you haven’t explored that you actually really looking forward to being allowed to play in?

Bruce Horak as Hemmer and Babs Olusanmokun as M\’Benga of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS. Photo Cr: Marni Grossman/Paramount+ ©2022 ViacomCBS. All Rights Reserved.

Babs Olusanmokun: Oh, man, I feel if I say that then I’m giving too much away.

Lucas Longacre: Yeah, let’s reverse it. Let’s say, what are the ones you’ve done so far, first season that you’re allowed to talk about that have been really just a pure joy to play in the series?

Babs Olusanmokun: I would of course say The Elysian Kingdom which you just watched because it is that fantasy. It’s the fantasy episode essentially. And as you know, as heavy as it became, at the end, it was really fun. It was really like, as an actor, it felt it felt like it was a chance to just spread the wings and explore and sit in moments and just enjoy playing this King Ridley, even though I would still M’Benga. And keeping my wits about me. But I had to sometimes become him to compel the other characters who were fully in the mode of the Elysian Kingdom. It was a beautiful thing to play with. And that’s one thing I love about the show that we can be really silly one moment, and then we can be adventurous and badass the next moment, I think it’s just, it’s a wonderful playground to be on.

Lucas Longacre: Definitely, and some of these Star Trek shows, they’ll go for four or five, six, even seven seasons, are you in it for the long haul? Are you excited to be on this potential journey?

Babs Olusanmokun: Absolutely, I will be around as long as they’d have me. I’m quite sure everybody’s invested in keeping it strong and interesting. And not just putting something out to put something out. Ultimately, we want to do things that we’re proud of, and that we care about and that others can connect to. So I think we’re all have that in mind, we all want to make it meaningful. So, yeah, as long as we can keep doing that, you know, why not?

Lucas Longacre: Well, I hope so. For me, Star Trek has been such an integral part of my life since I was a child and so Strange New Worlds, I think really taps into all of that like positivity, that wonder of adventure and exploration. So I’m really hoping that you at least get a few more seasons, maybe a feature film or two. Any chance you’re going to be at New York Comic Con this year?

Babs Olusanmokun: I don’t know. I’d like to be I’d like to be, but maybe so hopefully somebody gets a clue and makes that happen. And I will be there.

Lucas Longacre: People from Awards Radar are on a podcast are actually going to be there doing coverage of it. So I’ll make sure if you’re there we’ll cover whatever panel you’re on.

Babs Olusanmokun: Excellent. Thank you so much.

You can follow the Babs Olusanmokun’s adventures as Dr. M’Benga and the rest of the crew of the Enterprise on Star Trek: Strange New World’s streaming on Paramount+. 

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Written by lukonianlogic

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