Star Trek: Discovery's David Ajala Talks Breaking the Rules as Cleveland Booker

Star Trek: Discovery is back with a new season in a new era. The season premiere saw Michael Burnham crash landing in the 32nd century. Luckily for her, she found a guide to this future in Cleveland "Book" Booker, a courier with an important mission played by David Ajala. Michael and Book didn't make great first impressions on each other, but once the shooting at each other and double-crossing was done, they turned out to make a pretty good team. What's next for Book and Burnham as Burnham continues to search for the Discovery remains to be seen as the season unfolds.

In the meantime, we caught up with Ajala to talk about what it's like joining the Star Trek universe in such an atypical role. Here's what he had to say:

Star Trek Discovery Cleveland Booker David Ajala
(Photo: James Dimmock/CBS/Dami Oyetade)

How much of a cat-lover were you going into Discovery and has that love increased or decreased while working with Grudge the Cat? Because my understanding is Grudge isn't the easiest actor to work with.

David Ajala: No, I think it's a known thing now. I think that the recent thing is definitely going to go to her head a little more. Her head was already sizable. She had an ego prior to the show being launched. So God help us with how we're going to deal with the diva now.

Prior to working with Grudge, I was definitely more of a dog-lover than a cat-lover, but I've been converted because she is a very, very beautiful, wonderful species.

From talking to other actors, I know they'll often look for something they have in common with their characters as a way into the role. Did you find something like that with Book, or did you take a different approach to find his voice?

That's a good question. I think my character, Cleveland Booker, I tried to allow that process to happen very organically, over like a couple of months. So I think I had literally like two months and a bit to prepare, and I think the most important thing for myself was creating a character that felt reachable and connectable. Because nearly a thousand years into the future, I think it was very important that this character has the essence of humanity that is easy to recognize. So that was the most important thing for me.

In terms of, I don't know, little quirk for character and whatever, that will inform itself. But the most important thing for myself was to create a character that people can connect with.

You and Sonequa Martin-Green had wonderful chemistry in that first episode. How did the two of you build that relationship between Michael and Book?

Fortunately, Sonequa is a gem of a woman and is equally talented as she is a wonderful human being. So getting to do the work with her, it felt really easy, because she has a great work ethic and a really good attitude towards working. And because we knew with this episode, especially the first episode, we're literally carrying the episode. It's in essence, a two-hander. So, it's so important that Sonequa and myself were always on the same page, And don't get twisted, we worked hard, but we had a lot of fun. We had a ridiculous amount of fun and the banter never stopped, and we allowed the banter and the hard work to be part of the process. And I'm forever grateful for those memories.

It turns out that Book has some interesting, for lack of a better term, powers. How much of a focus will those be throughout the rest of the season?

We're definitely going to have more of Book's back story, and that's going to play out throughout the season, which will unravel and answer any unanswered questions. But what was so exciting to me is from the first episode, we get to see Book with these powers and interacting with nature and with animals. And I think it was very important to establish that right from the beginning. And like life, sometimes we don't always know all the answers to questions, but we hope along the pursuit, not only will we find the answers, but we'll also find things that will allow us to grow and heal. And that's certainly going to be the case for Cleveland Booker. And I'm really excited for the fans to follow him along that journey.

Will part of that backstory include shedding some light on his name? Because his name says human, but those powers say otherwise.

That makes me laugh because there are fans of the show who are really, really sweet and they have shown an incredible amount of love my way, and they were like, "We're nearly 1,000 years into the future. Why does this guy have the name, Cleveland Booker?" Again, this is a cool little thing that will be revealed later on down the line.

What can say about the kind of role Book plays throughout the season? He's one of the rare Star Trek characters that is a protagonist but not a part of Starfleet, which is interesting. Does that bring some special or unique to how he interacts with the other characters?

Yeah, absolutely, because I think for Cleveland Booker and Michael Burnham, they're so similar but so different. And I think the main thing that draws them together is their moral compass and their pursuit to do something which is greater than themselves. And they don't do it for any kind of applause. They do it because it's part of their identity and how they operate selflessly.

So in saying that, that's one of the similarities. But then it's also very exciting to know that though Cleveland Booker and also Starfleet have similar goals, which is to serve a bigger purpose than themselves, they're also very different. And Cleveland Booker has been a lone wolf for many, many years and has got along just fine doing things by himself, of course, with his leading lady Grudge the cat.

So the idea of being incorporated or integrating himself within Starfleet has never been appealing. So when you're able to be someone like Cleveland Booker, who is part of Starfleet, but not part of Starfleet, in a very fun way as an actor, you get to break the rules, because you know the rules. And that is going to be fun to do because we're going to see someone who operates outside of Starfleet etiquette.

Star Trek Discovery Season 3 Episode 1 015
(Photo: Michael Gibson/CBS)

You've spoken in other interviews about how Star Trek is a reflection of our present time and issues, which is something I think most fans would agree with. For you, what themes and issues are Star Trek: Discovery new season, specifically, reflecting?

Well, one thing I have to say about Star Trek, and it's a known thing, that Star Trek has always been at the forefront of normalizing diversity, and then also effective social commentary. And when I look at the world now and some of the things which are happening, and it's reminded us of the limitations of man's power as an island. It's also humbled to understand that we are so interconnected and reliant on each other.

There's that acronym, team, Together Everyone Achieves More. I don't know, it's something that's kind of thrown around a lot. Teamwork makes dream work and what have you. But I think the best thing that we can do as citizens on Earth, and this was reflected in this season of Star Trek, is to understand that there is strength in numbers, and there is strength in unity, and our differences should be embraced.

I'm really, really excited for fans of the show and people whose first introduction to Star Trek will be this season, to join us along this journey and hopefully feel empowered by it. You can't change the world. It's too big a thing to do for one person, but you can change someone's world.

You see that reflected in Book's personal story as well, right? He's been ostracized from his family and chooses to work with this found family of sorts on this new mission.

Absolutely. And it says a lot about someone's character. This is what I mean. It sounds a bit flippant on my part, but I'm indebted to Michelle Paradise and Alex Kurtzman, the co-showrunners of Star Trek: Discovery because they've created a character which lives off of the page anyway. They fleshed out this character so much so that, inside of one episode, you get multiple strands of this character.

So for myself, stepping into it, all the food was already readily available. It says a lot about a human being looking after animals that cannot do anything for him or for them. It shows the richness and the quality of that individual. And Cleveland Booker, again, is someone who selflessly does this because it's ingrained in his identity. He's been ostracized from his family, lost his identity. So now he's found a new identity in serving endangered species, and that's part of his survival.

You've talked in past interviews about how you gravitate towards sci-fi stories. You've been in Doctor Who and Supergirl and done voice work for Mass Effect. Are there franchises or existing universe you have on some kind of list that you'd like to join?

That's a really cool question. I think I'll always follow the characters because more and more, I found that acting has become a spiritual and cathartic process for me. So it's something that I've organically embraced.

Character is everything for me because character is a thing that allows me to connect to a story, where it's out of necessity that I need to tell this character's story because the world needs to hear it.

In terms of work and career, I'll always go where the right opportunities are, but I've been very grateful for the work I've been given in the UK. And I'm also very grateful for the work I've been able to do in the US.

Truth be told, I'm just happy to keep working and telling stories, because I'm very aware that on two occasions I was going to throw in the whole acting thing, because I found it tough and taxing, because I was auditioning for really, really cool gigs, getting close, it not working out. And every time you go into the room, you do your audition, you do the best you can, you leave a little bit of yourself in that room, and it comes at a bit of a cost.

And on the two or three occasions, I remember when I was going to pack it in, lo and behold, a phone call came from Hollywood that just changed the game for me. It happened on three occasions, and I'm forever grateful for that. So I've already won.

Do you have a favorite episode of Star Trek? And has your work on Star Trek: Discovery changed how you think about or view the franchise?

In terms of personal favorite episodes, I don't have a personal favorite, but there's bits of different iterations of Star Trek that I do appreciate. And the Next Generation is definitely one of the Star Trek iterations that I connect with, that I really enjoyed.

I think going forward, one thing that's been profoundly surprising and humbling is how important and how special these stories are to fans of the show. And I remember being at the New York Comic Con and seeing certain individuals interacting.

I'll never forget. I was with Mary Wiseman. There was a girl in the audience who connected with Mary Wiseman's character, and she said, "Because of you, I am visible. I see myself onscreen, and it's unapologetic, and you make me feel like I'm more than enough."

And that touched me. It really, really touched me and allowed me to understand that not only are these stories powerful and special, but they're also healing. And they're also progressive and pushing the needle forward. So to be part of that is a wonderful, wonderful thing, which humbles me.

Is there anything else you'd like to share with fans before we wrap this up?

This is a cool story actually. A friend of mine -- and we have to name quote him 100%. His name is Aaron Fontaine. He's also an actor. And him and his partner had a nickname for myself a few years ago. And this nickname, I kid you not, was Booker. And I didn't know this until I got this role. And the reason why they called me Booker is because they said, "David, you're always booking cool acting gigs."

So when it got revealed that I was joining Star Trek and my character's name was Cleveland Booker, I spoke with Aaron Fontaine. He reached out to me, and we spoke. And he told me that that, the character name, that's the nickname that he gave to myself, because of acting gigs and what have you. So without him even knowing, he spoke the character's name into the universe, and here we are. There's nothing more fulfilling than being the recipient of the stars aligning.



New Star Trek: Discovery episodes debut Thursdays on CBS All Access