Actress Sonequa Martin-Green On 'Space Jam,' 'Star Trek' And Natural Hair : It's Been a Minute Actress Sonequa Martin-Green has made a career of otherworldly roles. She survived a zombie apocalypse in The Walking Dead, she explores space — the final frontier — in Star Trek: Discovery, and she's the wife of NBA star LeBron James in Space Jam: A New Legacy. She talks to guest host Ayesha Rascoe about her career, her hair and identity, and why she felt called to speak up about her internalized racism after the murder of George Floyd.

You can follow us on Twitter @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at samsanders@npr.org.

'Space Jam 2' Star Sonequa Martin-Green On Her Natural Hair Journey In Hollywood

'Space Jam 2' Star Sonequa Martin-Green On Her Natural Hair Journey In Hollywood

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Sonequa Martin-Green attends the premiere of Warner Bros Space Jam: A New Legacy at Regal LA Live on July 12, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. Amy Sussman/FilmMagic via Getty Images hide caption

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Amy Sussman/FilmMagic via Getty Images

Sonequa Martin-Green attends the premiere of Warner Bros Space Jam: A New Legacy at Regal LA Live on July 12, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.

Amy Sussman/FilmMagic via Getty Images

When it comes to building a fantasy world, sometimes it can be the little details that count the most.

Sonequa Martin-Green, who stars in Star Trek: Discovery, and who appears in the new Space Jam: A New Legacy as LeBron James' wife, Kamiyah, knows this all too well.

Since Star Trek: Discovery premiered in 2017, Martin-Green has played its main character, Michael Burnham, a human raised on the planet Vulcan. The story follows Burnham through her journey from Starfleet officer to captain, with plenty of obstacles along the way.

Martin-Green is the first Black woman to lead a live-action Star Trek series. She says of the role, "I was so appreciative of being the first Black woman to helm the franchise and also knowing it was a journey to the captain's seat, knowing it was a big deal being able to see someone slip, and trip, and fall forward, and actually earn their position there."

Who Braids Hair in Space?

Michael Burnham might have grown up on Vulcan, but her humanity sets her apart from Vulcans. The character expresses herself through emotions, vulnerability, and also her hair. Burnham wears a variety of styles: first starting out with short straight hair, then a short natural hair style, and finally, long braids.

And while many have praised the show's unexpected representation of Black hairstyles, there is still one pressing question: who does Burnham's hair in outer space?

Martin-Green shares the backstory she came up with for her character during her recent conversion with Ayesha Rascoe.

"I thank you for asking this question, I've never been asked that before, but it's definitely something that I have to think about," she says. "How is this happening? There was a moment where I asked myself about the authenticity of this."

She details that at the beginning of the third season of Star Trek: Discovery, Burnham is left stranded and isolated from her crew. In her time alone, she realizes she can express herself in whatever way she feels comfortable.

"I don't have to live by an institution's standards, and I start to get really comfortable with that, and I fall in love with that."

Burnham then finds herself visiting many planets to deliver and receive goods. Martin-Green imagined how her character connected to a deeper part of herself on one of those trips.

"I came to a home, and they let me in, on one of the planets I was visiting, and it was a very tribal community, and they braided my hair for me," she says. "I ended up loving it, and I kept it up. It worked with this new me, this freer, edgier me, which is really closer to who I really am as Michael."

To maintain the hairstyle, Martin-Green explains that Burnham simply inputs the requirements into programmable matter, a substance in the Star Trek universe that can mimic different forms and movements that can perform tasks, like in this case, braiding.

Natural Hair in Hollywood: "It's better... but it could go further"

Martin-Green was trying to create something in a fictional world that can be difficult to replicate in the real world. For many Black actresses, the topic of natural hair has long been a point of career-oriented stress.

Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images
Actor Sonequa Martin-Green attends the &quot;Star Trek: Discovery&quot; Season 2 Premiere at the Conrad New York on January 17, 2019 in New York City.
Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

"It wasn't easy. It's not easy for any of us," Martin-Green says of having natural hair in Hollywood. "It's [gotten] better, it's so much better, and we have to celebrate that, but it could go further, and it needs to go further."

Martin-Green says that although she's worn natural hairstyles since college, her early days of acting consisted of her straightening her hair for headshots, auditions, and anything related to her professional life.

"I truly believed that I could wear my hair natural in my regular life, but if I wanted to do anything industry related, I was gonna have to straighten it," she says. "There was just absolutely no way I was going to be received or accepted if it was natural. And that is so debilitating to actually believe that the way your hair naturally comes out of your scalp is ugly, unacceptable, unprofessional."

Martin-Green says she ultimately realized she didn't want to contribute to a narrative that could portray her hair as "wrong" or "unprofessional," and she decided to keep her hair natural for every part of her life, including photo shoots and walking red carpets.

She's happy with the choices she's made for herself, but Martin-Green also says she has no issue with the multitude of other options out there, like relaxers, wigs or weaves.

"As long as you have the right understanding, as long as you know it's an option on the plate, as long as you know your value is not connected to it, your beauty is not connected to it, your competency," she says. "As long as you know that, have a blast."

This episode was produced by Andrea Gutierrez and was edited by Jordana Hochman. Engineering support came from Patrick Murray. Manuela López Restrepo adapted this interview for web. You can follow us on Twitter @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at samsanders@npr.org.