In Star Trek: Strange New Worlds on Paramount+, Christina Chong plays Lieutenant La’an Noonien-Singh, the Chief of Security on the USS Enterprise.
The Beat got the chance to catch up with Chong over Zoom to find out more about how she came to be involved in SNW, learn what it was like to undergo the process of being disguised as a resident of Kiley 279 in the first episode of the series, and ask about an upcoming series guest star who is near and dear to her heart: her pet dog, Runa!
AVERY KAPLAN: Can you tell us about how you came to be involved with Strange New Worlds?
CHRISTINA CHONG: I auditioned for the first time in October 2020. I sent a self-tape, and I didn’t know it was Star Trek. And then heard… nothing. I thought, “OK Well. Fine, it’s the pandemic. No body’s really working, so that’s fine.” Then in January 2021, I got the audition through again. And I thought, “That’s weird. I sent this tape before, I’m pretty sure,” and I looked back into my history and I had sent a tape.
I told my agent, “I’ve done this. Did they see the one before? Do I need to do it differently, what do they want from this one?” So my agent went back to the casting directors in LA (obviously, with the time different in London). And I said to him, “I’ll just send the same tape again, if not. Or if there’s another scene to do, I’ll do an extra scene.”
Unbeknownst to me, he’d gone back to the casting overnight and said to them, “Is there anything you want her to do differently?” And they said, “No, we love what she did.” And he said, “So why don’t you test her for the role?” And they were like, “Yeah, good idea!” So the next day I woke up and I had an email saying, “You’ve got a test today on Zoom with Henry Alonso Myers, one of the co-showrunners, and the casting directors, and you’ve got a new scene.”
Which was the scene with Una in the mess hall with the strawberries, from episode three. So I was a bit, as you can imagine – oh, and by the way, it’s Star Trek. I woke up in a bit of a panic, because, how am I going to prepare for this? And luckily, I felt very connected to that scene on reading it. So it all went very well.
The casting directors, Margery Simkin and Orly Sitowitz, are incredible. They were so amazing at helping me feel comfortable and relaxed on the Zoom. And Henry was great as well, he’s such a great person. It actually felt very chill. A few days later I found out I had the role, and seven days after that, flew to Toronto to start filming. So it was very quick.
KAPLAN: I understand that you became more acquainted with the world of Star Trek after you were cast. Does the world of the show reflect the kind of world that you hope to see in the future?
CHONG: Oh, 100%. That’s been one of the biggest gifts for me, is realizing and understanding what Star Trek means. Not just to the fans, but what it means to now, myself. The themes of diversity, hope, inclusion… all of that is completely, 100% in-line with what I want to see in the world and what I hope to inspire through La’an.
For me, one of the main messages which lines up with the way I live is equality, and the fact that we’re all the same. The fact that we’re all made of the same thing. Regardless of our race, our gender, all of that – we’re molecules, we’re all made up of quarks. We vibrate at different levels, but essentially, we are all one.
So when you’re looking at someone else, or having a conversation with someone else, or arguing with someone else, know that actually, you’re arguing with yourself. That person is you and you are them.
For me, that’s one of the messages that I want to take and run with, and pass on through La’an: that we are all one.
KAPLAN: La’an is a complicated character. Can you tell us a bit about how you approach playing her, and what informs your performance of the character?
CHONG: For me, I always use own baggage to put into my characters. My main personalization with La’an this season has come from the fact that as a child, as early as I can remember, I was bullied for my surname. You know, I don’t necessarily look Chinese and I don’t necessarily look English, but when the children would hear my name, they would run for the hills with that. All the name-calling and songs and eye pulling that they could think of, you know? And that was a daily thing, throughout primary school and secondary school, up until I was about fourteen.
And yet, it’s like I felt ashamed by my name, by my father. And that’s obviously an awful thing to admit, for me. I don’t feel like that now, of course. But it took a lot of personal development and growth to work through that, and to feel worthy, and to feel as an equal.
I think maybe that’s why “we’re all one” resonates more with me, because I didn’t feel “we’re all one” growing up, I felt less-than. I would often put people up on a pedestal, others around me, and found it hard to see that I was as good as, or just equal to.
So I used that to parallel the relationship La’an has with her ancestry, and also the guardedness she has up. Her fear of being hurt again, which – you know, I said I’ll take things from my personal life where I’ve experienced loss – and being afraid. I guess we all have that to some extent; that guard, that wall to certain areas of our life we feel we can’t experience again. Our darkest times that we want to protect ourselves from; self-preservation.
Some of that is necessary. Then there’s a level of that which holds you back from living your most authentic self, living your fullest life. I think La’an is learning, through facing her fears – especially in episode four, and after episode four… But actually, Pike says it in episode one: “There’s surviving and then there’s living.”
KAPLAN: Can you share some of your thoughts on the relationship between La’an and Number One (Rebecca Romijn)?
CHONG: I think she feels like because Una saved her when she was a child, and gave her a purpose, gave her meaning to her life when she lost everything. Una found La’an out in space when she’d been thrown off a Gorn planet! And obviously, there’s an element there to the relationship, that she feels like she owes Number One.
Obviously, there’s an element of respect for her, because they both have a similar sort of seriousness and hard-work ethic. And Number One is very sensitive with the fact that she knows more than anyone what La’an’s been through, because she was there right afterwards. So I think she’s very sensitive in the way that she prods La’an to grow, but she is there almost as like a big sister kind-of figure, slowly chipping away at the ice block and helping her to evolve past her trauma.
It’s a really great relationship that Rebecca and I have off-set, as well. When we’re in-between scenes, or whatever. She’s obviously a lot more experienced in this industry, she has a wealth of knowledge and things that she can pass on when needed. So it’s very easy to play that with her.
I think ultimately, Number One is the closet person La’an has in her present. Up until now, anyway – we’ll see what happens!
KAPLAN: In the very first episode of the series, La’an’s physical appearance is temporarily altered to pass as alien. What was it like to wear “alien makeup”? Did it affect your performance?
CHONG: Oh, the Kileys. Oh my goodness. That was hard, I’m not going to lie, because that was the first – I think my first scenes were as a Kiley, if I’m not mistaken? Or very soon after we started to film, maybe the first scenes were bridge scenes, actually.
I was in prosthetics. My whole processing time took six hours. Like, from arriving to set to being ready to go and film was six hours, so there was a lot of forced calls, meaning you don’t get much time to sleep. I am not used to the American hours, and the way of working. In the U.K., there’s always a wrap time, and at the end of the day you get to go home and have dinner with your friends or your family, or even the cast all going for dinner.
But I suddenly realized that’s just not possible on an American TV set. So I was very much learning how to manage my energy, and at the same time, with this massive forehead stuck on my face. Which looked incredible!
The other thing was the contact lenses. They would mist-up quite easily. So it was constantly taking them in and out, washing them so I could see again. Akiva Goldsman (who directed that episode) said, “For some reason, when you’ve got those contacts in, your acting’s even better.” I was like, “I think you’re just saying that so I’ll get through the day.”
Looking back at it, I’m so happy with it. It looked amazing, the prosthetics team did an incredible job. And it was really fun to play the Kiley race. But yeah, it was a deal, becoming a Kiley.
KAPLAN: Can you please tell us about Runa, and when we will see more of her?
CHONG: Oh my god! I love that you asked about Runa! She’s my favorite being in the world. She’s my little puppy, she’s two years old. Because I had seven days to organize getting to Canada, I said to the production, “Well, you have to help me get Runa there, because there’s no way I’m traveling without her.” So they managed to sort everything out.
So from day one they all knew how important Runa was to me. I kind of was playing in quarantine with building her an Instagram account, and I was like, “Oh, what voice is she going to have; what’s her M.O.; what’s she want in life.” Creating this social media platform for her.
“Oh, yeah. She wants to be in Star Trek.” So I would put these things up, and people would see them at work. And my make-up artist, she said, “Well, why don’t you ask if she could be in an episode? Just ask.” Because I was kind of joking about it, but maybe it could happen.
“Yeah, that’s a good idea. I’ll just ask!” So I asked Chris Fisher, who said, “Yeah, I’ll pitch it to Henry.” When I asked, he asked if this was a casting or an emotional support thing. And Celia Rose Gooding, who plays Uhura, was behind me, and she said, “Oh, we all want Runa in this show.” She was kind of my back-up for the whole thing.
Henry then replied and said, “I’ll see what I can do.” And when episode eight then came out, no spoilers, but she was in the script. And her name is “Princess Runa” in the script. She has close-ups…
We were all playing different characters in that episode. We were all wondering if we were doing it right, and at that point, we hadn’t gotten any feedback on the new characters. So we were all asking each other, “Have you been told what you’ve been doing is right?” “No, we’ve not been told anything.”
Then, I stood with Runa waiting for another take, and the director, Amanda Row, came up to me, and I thought, “Oh this is it, this is the bit where she tells me I’m doing a good job.” And then she comes up and she said, “Christina, I just wanted to tell you Runa is doing an incredible job.” And then walked off. I was like, “Oh, okay. Great. And me…?”
So yeah, Runa steals the show wherever she goes. And I recently did a Canadian TV show, etalk, and took Runa with. Again, she completely stole the show. They wanted her doing close-ups and have her doing all her little tricks and things. But she’s the best dog, she’s so well behaved, and she’s on set with us every day. All the cast love her and she loves them.
KAPLAN: I understand you have a background in musical theater. Is there any chance we will see some of these skills utilized on Strange New Worlds?
CHONG: Maybe… maybe. (laughs) I can’t say. But potentially, maybe yes. We will see.
New episodes of the first season of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds are released for streaming on Paramount+ on Thursdays.