When the cast of “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” was first announced, much attention was paid to all the legacy “Trek” characters who were getting a new life on the Paramount+ series, from Capt. Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) and Lt. Spock (Ethan Peck) to Cadet Nyota Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) and Nurse Christine Chapel (Jess Bush).
Then there was Lt. Erica Ortegas, one of the only wholly original characters on the series, which takes place on the U.S.S. Enterprise roughly a decade before the events of the original “Star Trek” series from the 1960s. As the helmsman on the Enterprise under Capt. Pike, Lt. Ortegas — pardon the pun — flew under the radar for “Trek” fans at first. But as the series nears its Season 1 finale on July 7, Ortegas’ flirtatious wit and nerves of steel have made her a standout on the show, even as other characters have earned more of a spotlight this season.
Talking with the actor who plays her, Melissa Navia, it’s easy to understand why. A working actor for over a decade, the 37-year-old has never been afforded a role nearly as prominent as Ortegas. She’s been relishing both the experience of making the show and watching “Trek” fans embrace it with more unabashed enthusiasm than just about any other iteration of the franchise in decades.
“It’s been a beautiful ride so far,” she said. “I’m just still in awe.”
Navia’s own exuberance — for “Strange New Worlds,” but, really, for just about anything — is also readily apparent from talking with her for even a few minutes. When the actor’s interview with Variety shifted to questions about Ortegas’ gender and sexual identity (more on that shortly), Navia was asked in passing for her own preferred pronouns. Her answer could’ve taken just a second. Instead, Navia smiled, and leaned forward a bit into her Zoom camera.
“She/her,” Navia said. “But, I mean, I’m from New York, and in a lot of our wonderful queer spaces in New York City, everyone is they/them, because it’s just easier. So I’m also always open to that as well. All my life has been, like, from behind, with my short hair, people say, ‘Excuse me, sir.’ So I’ve always been, you know, whatever pronouns work for you, work for me.” She chuckled. “But my preferred pronouns are she/her.”
Navia also talked about trying to avoid “Star Trek” while auditioning for “Strange New Worlds,” why she became such a stickler for knowing how the controls of the Enterprise bridge actually worked, how long she trained to become a medieval knight for Episode 8 and what fans can expect for Ortegas in Season 2.
“The Universe Is Punking Me”
Because Ortegas wasn’t already a part of “Trek” history like Uhura or Nurse Chapel, Navia was clued into everything about the character for her first audition.
“The name was right there in the breakdown,” she said. “She’s a pilot. Combat veteran. Latina.”
Navia watched “Star Trek: The Next Generation” as a kid — “that opening with Patrick Stewart and his wonderful voice will never get old,” she said — but she purposefully tried to avoid exposure to anything even related to “Star Trek” during her audition process. Resistance, alas, was futile.
“No matter what I watched, there was a ‘Star Trek’ reference in everything,” she said. “It was absolutely wild. I’m like, ‘The universe is punking me. What’s happening?!'”
Navia’s late partner, Brian Bannon, took a different approach, binging the 1990s series “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” while she waited to hear whether she’d landed the role. (Bannon died in December, just days after receiving a leukemia diagnosis.)
“The funny thing is, I wouldn’t have known him as a Trekkie,” she said. “Brian was so intelligent. He just knew everything about everything. I remember we were doing a ‘Star Trek’ trivia game after I booked everything and Brian knew everything. We were like, ‘What is going on?!’ He knew that this was huge, and ‘Strange New Worlds’ was going to be the hit that it now is.”
“How Do You Fly a Starship?”
When Navia stepped onto the eye-popping set of the Enterprise bridge with her castmates, she remembered everyone else standing agape at the polish and detail of the production design.
“And I was just like, ‘How does this all work?'” she said. “I still remember heading back to our chairs after like our first setup, and googling, ‘How do you fly a starship?'”
While it has been a longstanding “Star Trek” tradition for starship control panels to be made up of an intentionally baffling array of undifferentiated buttons and dials, for Navia, it was imperative that she actually understand how her character would actually go about piloting the Enterprise. She just had no idea how. That first night, she went back to her hotel room she was sharing with Bannon feeling overwhelmed.
“I told him, ‘I don’t know how all of this works,'” she said. “He’s just like, ‘Ask everybody. Figure it out.'”
So she did, coordinating with everyone from “Star Trek” vice president of brand development John Van Citters to the visual effects team in charge of the on-screen graphics on Lt. Ortegas’ control panel.
“It’s all touchscreen, but it isn’t interactive,” Navia said with a wry smile. “I pointed out it should be, and everyone was just like, ‘We don’t have the money yet for that.'”
Still, with the “Strange New Worlds” crew, Navia painstakingly constructed a thorough understanding of how to use the controls to satisfy her need to feel like she’s really guiding the Enterprise through all manner of treacherous cosmic territory.
“It informs what you’re doing,” she said. “So much of what we do is all, you know, techno jargon. We’re making believe, but it’s real to so many people. It has to be real to us.”
She laughed at herself. “I don’t consider myself a method actor,” she said. “But truly, the more I’ve described how I’ve been approaching this role, I’m like, ‘Star Trek’ finally made me a method actor.”
“She Doesn’t Have to Put a Label on It”
Navia is fully aware that Ortegas’ androgynous appearance — not to mention her chemistry with male and female crewmates alike — has suggested to many LGBTQ+ “Trek” fans that Ortegas is queer. It’s a perception she’s played into happily.
“I’ve been playing Ortegas to be very much, like, she’s super loyal to her crew and she also has a crush on probably all of them,” she said.
Since the launch of “Star Trek: Discovery” in 2017, the franchise has incorporated many explicitly LGBTQ+ characters into its storylines, part of a wider effort to bring the “Star Trek” prime directive of infinite diversity in infinite combinations into 21st century storytelling. Most recently on “Strange New Worlds,” trans actor Jesse James Keitel played a nonbinary space pirate who befriends (and then betrays) Lt. Spock.
But Navia is comfortable with leaving Ortegas’ identity more ambiguous. To her, that’s the point.
“I don’t want to sound like it’s a flippant thing, but she doesn’t have to put label on it,” she said of Ortegas. “I like that we’re approaching it in a way that nobody bats an eye. Like, they shouldn’t, right? Everybody should be a bit queer. Everybody is a bit queer, I feel, you know?”
She paused. “And in that way, me too,” she said. “This has been my whole life and I’m so happy about it, but I know I give off this wonderful queer energy. It’s just been a part of who I am.”
So now that Navia has wrapped Season 2 in Toronto, will audiences get to see Ortegas direct that queer energy towards another person?
“I think we’re gonna see — I mean, I can’t say anything — but I think we’re gonna see that for Ortegas, if she relates to somebody, if she likes somebody, it doesn’t matter who they are, where they come from,” she said. “If there’s a connection, she’s going to go for that.”
Like, perhaps, the connection between Ortegas and Nurse Chapel in “Spock Amok,” Episode 5 of Season 1?
“When I read the script, you know, I saw that,” Navia said with a smile. “They’ve been friends for a long time, but there is definitely something where romance could be a thing. Has it been a thing? We will see.”
“It Was the Most Talked About Episode All Season”
One day early into shooting Season 1 of “Strange New Worlds,” Navia visited the costume department for a fitting and someone there asked her if she knew how to sword fight.
“And I was just like, ‘Well, I have a martial arts background and I’ve done sword fighting stunt work for a film before,'” Navia recalled. “And they were like, ‘The writers have to have known this.’ I’m like, ‘Why?’ And they’re like, ‘We can’t really say too much.'”
At some point later, Navia saw a concept sketch wearing the dashing costume of a medieval knight, hinting that some kind of fanciful episode was looming on the horizon. She wasn’t alone in getting a heads up, either.
“It was the most talked about episode all season,” Navia said. “Everybody was like, ‘…and you’re gonna be playing a princess and you’re gonna be a wizard.’ Like, what’s happening?!”
The episode in question was Episode 8, “The Elysian Kingdom,” in which a semi-omnipotent alien being transforms the nighttime story read by Dr. Joseph M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun) to his terminally ill daughter into a flesh-and-blood fantasy that takes over the Enterprise. Naturally.
“It’s such a beautiful script, but we didn’t get it until, like, the day before,” Navia said. She and the stunt team got the heads up that something was coming months earlier; however, the actor was able to being training months in advance.
“We’d basically choreograph this fight scene that kept changing as stunts kind of got more of the story,” she said. When they finally did get the script, “We discovered we were doing it in a corridor versus, you know, in our heads, this beautiful battlefield where we had so much space.”
Still, Navia has zero complaints. “I appreciate that I got the chance to play a knight because I don’t know what other show would allow me to do that,” she said. She was especially struck that Ortegas was taking on the role of a male knight from M’Benga’s storybook; one produced described the character to her as part Aragorn, part Indiana Jones. It all felt so much of a piece with what she had been doing from the start with Ortegas’ identity — and her own.
“Indiana Jones is both who I wanted to be growing up and also, I had a crush on Harrison Ford,” she said. “In my life, I’ve always been kind of defying gender norms without even acknowledging that they were gender norms, if that makes sense. It has this queerness to it that is just so, so joyful, and also so real.”
“The Payoff Will Be There”
Navia knows that while Ortegas has often had a big role to play throughout Season 1, she’s never been given a showcase episode in the way that the rest of her castmates have. And she’s fine with that.
“The biggest storylines in Season 1 are not me,” she said. “My thing is, like, I’m flying a ship. I don’t have time to have all these emotional conversations.”
While the actor is tight-lipped on what’s to come for Season 2, she can barely contain her excitement for it.
“You are definitely going to see some big arcs,” she said. “The payoff will be there. I think we’re building up to something really beautiful and really compelling. It’s a joy to play the part.”