Actor David Ajala has become a fixture in Hollywood starring in films such as Fast and Furious 6, The Dark Knight, and Jupiter Ascending. This fall he joins the cast of Star Trek Discovery for its third season. This season, the show embarks on an entirely new adventure outside the cannon of its history. Ajala plays a headstrong character, Cleveland Booker, who opens the seasons’ first episodes. We spoke with David about his acting career, recent social movements, and his role in Star Trek Discovery from his home in London where he has spent the past few months during quarantine.
Mark Benjamin: Hi David. Thank you for chatting today. Where in the world are you?
David Ajala: I’m in England at the moment, born and raised in London. And that’s where I’ve been during the pandemic, actually.
MB: How’s London right now?
DA: Now the vibe is cool and as relaxing as it can be. London’s a very fast paced city and I was always on the move. I guess during this time it’s been humbling to slow down a bit and turn lemons into lemonade.
MB: Yeah, you’ve got Brexit and then pandemic.
DA: You’re killing me! I think levity is important. We’ll get to some semblance of normalcy sooner or later.
MB: You had your break big break with films like Starred Up and in big films The Dark Knight and Jupiter Ascending, and now Star Trek Discovery as Booker. He’s described as having a natural charisma and a devil-may-care attitude. How is this role different from what you’ve played in the past?
DA: One thing I always try and do when I’m getting on board for a project is I try to approach it from a character perspective. That character becomes my icon into the story and into the world. So, my decision is always character driven and there was something about this picture of Cleveland Booker I found really interesting in essence.
I think his character represents an underdog who was ostracized by his family and had to find a purpose bigger than himself to survive. I think in life, we’re always trying to find our purpose one way or another. It’s part of our survival and a part of our identity. And that was something that really stood out to me. Because I was able to connect to the character through that specific way. It allowed me to really embrace joining onto this franchise which is so special.
MB: In your own words, why is Star Trek such a compelling and enduring series and story for people?
DA: Star Trek has a special way of using social commentary in a way that can disarm us, edify us, and empower us. This show has been on TV and film in different iterations for over 50 years. That’s a massive achievement in itself. The one way that Star Trek has really resonated with me specifically, personally, is it has always been a forefront of normalizing diversity and not doing it because it’s an interesting thing to do but doing it because it’s literally a reflection of the world in which we live in.
People come in so many different shades of color, texture, energies, and vibrations. What’s so wonderful is that these people are all brought together because of their own curiosity in that space and that’s special to me.
For season three, we had a joint interview with the cast and our wonderful show runners, Alex Kurtzman and Michelle Paradise. Alex was talking about when watching the episodes being cut together, he said it had such a profound effect on him because he didn’t realize how current the issues were that we’re dealing with in this season and how it reflects some of the things which are happening in the world right now.
He said that that caught him off guard. And when I came back from some of the episodes that we shot, wow, yeah, there are some very profound, wonderful moments.
MB: It’s almost like you have to go to space to get out of contemporary society, as we know it, and everyone is in uniforms…you have to go to an abstract world in order to comment deeper on things that happen.
DA: There’s great freedom and liberty effectively because you’re already somewhat detached and removed from the physicality of us being here. Then Star Trek operating in space allows room for empowerment and for speaking in different ways to present concepts that are much easier to grasp because they seem slightly abstract.
There was an episode where it dealt with races. It was this creature who was half white and half black, and the creature didn’t know which side it should take. It was interesting how other aliens who were just white or who were just black responded to this alien in confusion, but then cohesion was a really interesting way of talking about race in a way that completely disarmed people’s prejudice or preconceived ideas. That’s what makes Star Trek special.
MB: I never really thought about it, but you’re totally right. Even in the original series, there was an emphasis on diversity in the cast, right?
MB: In Star Wars, I remember when black actor John Boyega was cast as the lead in the new films, some people were up in arms. I remember some people saying, ‘Oh, no, that’s not Star Wars.
DA: It’s like some people would find it easier to believe in a space creature like Chewbacca that runs around with Han Solo, but then they find it hard to believe that Ariel from The Little Mermaid could be played by a black actress.
These casting choices should challenge our preconceived ideas. And it’s not to villainize anyone for thinking a certain way, but it’s to try and empower us to just think slightly outside of the box and have a more inclusive way of thinking.
“I think you always have to have a sense of empathy with whatever character you’re playing, because if you don’t, then you’re judging that character. I think every character wants to be loved, wants to be understood.”
MB: Hollywood has a long history to catch up on.
DA: As long as the movement is happening in the right direction, I’m all for it. The speed, we’ll keep working on that. I’m putting the foot on the accelerator the best I can, but it’s really important.
MB: Are there different perspectives being in the U.K. versus what you see going on in America?
For example, the Black Lives Matter movement has become such a tour de force here in the States. And I know you’re starting to see more and more movements in various parts of Europe. I’m curious does it seem to be the same? Is it different in any way growing up in the U.K. versus experiences in the U.S. or people you know here?
DA: The Black Lives Matter movement when it was really the forefront of everyone’s fight, it happened in the most powerful way because there we were: we’re all locked down in our homes and our entry point into the real world is through technology. It’s a cellular device in our hands, or the TV screen, and we’re all glued to our monitors, to our cell phones, information, and then here we are flooded by something that’s happened that is greatly affecting the world.
And off the back of that, you have protests around the world. A lot of people are fed up because it’s going to look unjust. There’s been a lot of unjust actions which have happened from some police officers within the police department. It goes without saying, there are good police officers, there are bad police officers, the same way there are good human beings, there are bad human beings.
I do believe bad human beings, bad police officers, can be change. Something’s wrong and that something needs to be fixed. And then in the U.K., there were a few conversations which would come up on the news, on TV, on the radio stations where some of these newscasters would say, ‘Oh, well, at least it’s not as bad here in England.’ At least it’s not as bad is to completely undermine some of the issues which happened here in the U.K.
We’ll abuse you or we’ll shoot you. See in America, they shoot you. It’s like they’re saying, ‘we’re not as bad as [The U.S.].’ I think that’s a wrong mentality. And hopefully what’s happened is the Black Lives Matter movement has really brought to the forefront social issues which need to be challenged and changed. And the fact that so many institutions are backing this movement and having this conversation. When I talk about backing this movement, I’m not talking about backing a political power. I’m talking about backing the movement of protecting black lives. That is not to say black lives matter more than anyone else. It’s just to say at this moment in time, there’s a real issue here if all of our lives to matter black lives need to matter, too.
And to see so many conversations happening and people actively wanting to make a difference, it’s been really healing. And just myself as a black guy, that’s been healing. My circles of friends are multifaceted faces of all different kinds. That’s been a healing thing because I look at my circle of friend and we literally represent a world that I would love to live in where everyone has love and respect for each other, irrespective of your race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion.
I really have to commend the younger generation because they have a zeal and a fire that has allowed them to be vocal the way they’ve been vocal. They’ve been born into a generation where they don’t come from a background of certain racial injustices. So, I think they have a lot more clearer view of the spectrum of what’s right and what’s wrong. And because of that clarity, I think that’s what’s allowed them to categorically, stand up and speak out against injustices, which are happening specifically in America and various parts of the world.
MB: I watched your interviews and it seems like you empathize a lot with the character in which you’re getting into to the point where you can talk very openly and quickly about who this character is. How do you go about getting to know your character?
DA: I find acting more and more over the years, it’s become quite a cathartic process. With a character like Cleveland Booker. He is someone who has had to find a purpose to survive. So, it’s like you reinvent yourself and find a new identity that you’re at peace and comfortable with. An identity that allows you to say, ‘but you know what, it’s worth me pushing through because I am a value to someone. I’m better off being here than not being here.’
And that really resonated with me. So, I always try to connect with characters that I see a bit of myself in that character one way or another, even if it’s aspirational. Even if I see that there are some attributes that this character has that I don’t fully possess. It makes me feel that I too can have those attributes. I find that very empowering. But then what do you do when you delve into a character who may seem like a villain and not a nice person maybe to be around?
I think you always have to have a sense of empathy with whatever character you’re playing, because if you don’t, then you’re judging that character. I think every character wants to be loved, wants to be understood.
MB: What teasers can you give us about season three?
DA: Well, it all starts with the first episode. The fact that we go a thousand years into the future is a massively exciting thing for Star Trek because this is the first time we’re going to be operating outside of the cannon. So, it means that there’s a lot more freedom of flexibility to invent things and to expand upon ideas – things which have already been established in the previous iterations of Star Trek.
We can go further. We can break the rules. We can stick by the rules. Cleveland Booker will literally represent your introduction into this new world. I remember shooting in Iceland and some of the locations that we got to shoot at were, I don’t use this word often, breathtaking. It’s the only way to describe some of these locations.
And I’ve seen some of the bits of the first episode and just to see the locations and how well they come across on camera. My only wish for those who will watch Star Trek Discovery season three is that they can watch the episodes in the movie theater or on as big a screen as possible because this show and this season is built to scale.
I think about some of the things that we managed to achieve this season and the stories that we tell – it’s really cool new territory for Star Trek in the most exciting, fresh way. I’m really looking forward to the fans getting to watch the show and those who haven’t watched the show before. If this will be their first introduction to Star Trek that’s equally very exciting.
Star Trek Discovery Season 3 premiers October 15 on CBS All Access.