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Exclusive: Star Trek: Discovery's David Ajala on why Book's journey gets 'messy' this season
We talked with David Ajala about Book's journey so far and why "there will be pain" for him this season.
After a six-week break, Season 4 of Star Trek: Discovery is back! The latest episode, “All In,” premiered on Paramount+ Thursday, Feb. 10, and SYFY WIRE has an exclusive interview with actor David Ajala (aka Cleveland Booker) about the latest episode and the season as a whole.
Those who’ve seen “All In” (and here is the obligatory spoiler warning, as we’ll get into the details of the episode with Ajala) know that it largely centers around Book’s decision to go off with Tarka (Shawn Doyle) to try and destroy the DMA. It also features a lot of shenanigans at a casino, including Book showing off his gambling moves.
Read on for our conversation with Ajala about how he approached Book going rogue-ish this season, what his most memorable moments from “All In” are, and what we can expect for Book as the remaining Season 4 episodes unfold.
This interview has been lightly edited and structured for clarity.
Book has gone through a lot this season, more than any person should have to go through. How did you approach portraying that performance in terms of him dealing with the destruction of Kwejian and how it ultimately drove him to go off on his own to try to destroy the DMA?
At the start of the season, the producers very ambiguously said to me that Book’s going to go on a tumultuous journey and there will be tears, there will be pain. But had no idea the extent of Book’s full journey. Usually they will give you the full season, but I just wanted to go episode-to-episode to just stay in it as much as possible.
The grief that Cleveland Booker had to deal with has completely taken him out of his comfort zone. It’s a very relatable subject, of course, because it's part of life, especially during the pandemic. The response from the fans on how this character's journey has been cathartic, healing, and painful to them, has been deeply humbling. And this guy's journey continues, as grief is this ever-evolving thing. And I think it's going be important for Cleveland Booker to embrace levity, because that's going to keep him going.
Book’s decision to go off with Tarka (Shawn Doyle) has a lot of ramifications, not least with his personal relationship with Michael (Sonequa Martin-Green). How do you approach those scenes between Book and Michael, where you have to convey all the emotions that are inherent in the rift they now have?
We have to remember the first time these two met it was a very hostile situation, but lo and behold, they just somehow seemed to bring out the best in each other. I think there is a deep level of love, compassion, and mutual respect. And I think they're both very transparent with each other, which makes this specific time in Cleveland Booker's life and in Michael Burnham’s life that much more painful because they're openly honest and care so deeply about each other but are just on different sides of the coin and not seeing eye to eye.
Those scenes were fun but challenging, because you have to fully embrace a different dynamic, and as much as people appreciate and enjoy the sparks that fly between Cleveland Booker and Michael Burnham, we have to be responsible storytellers to show the wide scope of life and relationships. We can't be too sentimental with it. So you have to see these two fight for love. And to push through — the course of true love never did run smooth. And I think that's reflected in this episode especially.
Absolutely. The scene that really jumps to mind in “All In” is the gambling sequence with Booker and Michael. There are layers to that, but first I want to touch on the end of the scene where Michaels is basically saying, “If you do this, Book, what will this mean for us?” The way you convey Book’s emotions when Michael asks that is really touching — how did you approach getting into the emotional place for that?
What was so interesting about doing that specific scene was the fact that we had so much fun with the poker and playing off each other against these two other poker players. It was so much fun, and for a brief moment, we forgot about how high the stakes were.
And it was like, right, this feels great — this is Burnham and Booker again, you know, Starsky and Hutch. We're good to go. And then there's a moment of stillness where we're at the center again, and the decisions we make now will be for the better or will be absolutely detrimental. And it was challenging. It was tough, but you have to you have to embrace it. We did that scene a few times. But we didn't overdo it.
On a less serious note — when Book and Michael are giving each other secret signs, did you two just make that up on the day?
What’s important is the consistency of the shorthand Burnham and Book use to converse. Before we do any kind of scenes, me and Sonequa always steal time aside and build up a vocabulary of visual language and unspoken dialogue. Then once we have that, we literally just find those moments for it to land and connect. So you know, the rubbing of the ear and the nose — we tried to just keep it simple, it doesn't need to be too complicated. It was a ridiculous amount of fun.
A lot of the time in “All In” we're at this casino, a new place we haven't been to before. What was it like performing on that set and revisiting that side of Book before his involvement with Starfleet?
It felt really great to be operating outside of Starfleet again. Remember, before Book encountered Starfleet, it was him and Grudge, his queen. They were always together.
Now that his entire home has been completely obliterated, he is going to latch on to the things that he remembers from his past that he can hold on to. Even though it's a slightly unsavory world that we're in with the gambling and the casino, it still represents, I use this loosely, a North Star to anchor on to — it's not the best place to be, but I'm familiar with it. I can use this to my advantage. So that was welcomed by Cleveland Booker.
Another thing we see in this episode, which we saw a little bit in previous episodes, is Booker's connection with Tarka. What was it like for you acting against Shawn Doyle and exploring the relationship that those two develop?
Shawn is such a dope guy to be around and to work with, a really talented guy. What made it easy to work with him was his character's journey — someone who has been grieving and is now trying to find a solution to heal that grief. And then, dare are say, when the stars align — here we have Tarka going through what he's going through, and then Cleveland Booker goes through what he's going through, and then they meet and they both seem to be the solution to each other's problems.
But I think Cleveland Booker is still cautious, and he'll take the necessary caution to make sure there are no surprises with Tarka. I'm saying that now, but that's going to shift obviously, because we like the drama, don't we?
Yes! You can see hints at that already, that they’re not exactly on the same page. Was there a particular scene or sequence that spent a lot of time preparing for in “All In?”
For this episode, one thing I wanted to make sure I gave the right amount of TLC to is the poker scene, the gambling sequence. It is a lot of fun, but at the same time you want to have a healthy balance, and I always wanted to make sure that we earned it properly. Because if you go too tongue-in-cheek and too hammy with it, it spoils the fun. These guys are having fun, but they're really good at what they do — we have to make sure we earn that moment.
For the whole season, there are two challenging scenes: one that you've seen and one that you haven't seen yet. The one that you've seen was when Cleveland Booker and Michael Burnham had to give their speeches about the reasons why they were for or against trying to destroy the DMA. You had leaders from all the different colonies and parts of the galaxy, and that felt very real because there were so many people, and you had to speak these words to communicate these words to these people, and it felt like he only had one chance to do it. That felt great.
The other scene which was challenging, but a lot of fun, is in the final episode.
Any teasers you can give about that scene?
It's not black and white. It's very gray.
Intriguing! Can't wait to watch it.
You'll know it — it’s a very pivotal moment, you will know it.
In that same vein, as you mentioned Book is going through quite the journey this season and has already gone through so much. Is there anything you can hint at about what will happen to Book in the remainder of the season?
What’s so interesting about this episode is he has made a decision that will be detrimental to his relationship with Michael Burnham and to the Federation. Absolutely. There's no two ways about that. Now, I believe, this is a process of limiting collateral damage. The plot thickens, it gets messy.
New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery drop on Paramount+ on Thursdays.