Avaah Blackwell is no stranger to prosthetics. Currently, she’s donning a massive 15-pound head to play Osnullus in Star Trek: Discovery as well as portraying a host of other aliens in the series. Blackwell is a chameleon who enjoys getting under the skin of the characters she plays. But she’s not just an actress.
Blackwell is also a seasoned stunt performer who’s well versed in martial arts. Her stunt and martial arts training have opened doors in the entertainment industry. Whether it’s diving into the sports world for films like EFC or running through the streets in Jupiter’s Legacy, Blackwell has a padded resume in stunt work.
Recently, I had the privilege of chatting with Blackwell. We talked about playing an alien species on Star Trek: Discovery, what fans can expect for Season Three, our mutual love for Doug Jones and what’s next for her after the global apocalypse subsides.
Melody McCune: Let’s dive right in. Here at GGA, we love a good origin story. What’s Avaah Blackwell’s origin story?
Avaah Blackwell: I’m from a military family. Both parents are military. They met on active duty in Germany. It was the way I kind of integrated into new communities, whenever my dad moved. My mom stayed in Calgary and I started a theater program there at our church. And then whenever my dad moved to a new city and I had to make new friends, I would just join the community theater there. Or my dad would put me into a drama camp or something. It would just connect me right to people.
MM: How did you get into doing stunts?
AB: That was like an organic evolution of my career. Not without hard work, though. I’ve done martial arts all my life. And being from a military family, again, I was familiar around firearms. I guess, because I’m tall and kind of thin and could do some action, I kept getting cast for action roles. Then, more and more people were asking for skills, so I just started training in more skills. The more I trained, the more people I met and eventually stunt coordinators started asking if I was available for stunt work. That came after a long time of training though, and I’ve just been getting more and more into stunt work.
MM: Love it! So let’s talk about Star Trek: Discovery. What was the audition process like for that?
AB: I didn’t even know I was auditioning! It was a last-minute thing. I had gone in at the beginning of Season Two. They look at you and they get a bunch of people together for a pool of new faces for the season.
I went and then about a month later, I get a call from my agent saying, “Can you get down to the studio right away? They need to see you.” I didn’t know what it was for, and I get there and there’s a lineup of girls that all look like me, were all tall and were all thin. They were all a lot better than me. Beautiful girls and they all look like exquisite. Like beautiful cheek bones, all gorgeous, and I was like, “Oh man, I don’t really have a chance of getting this.”
The costumes lady, Heather, who I’m good friends with now, came out with a costume and she said, “Whoever this fits best has to go to the prosthetics trailer.” Anyway, I thought I had no chance because these girls were thinner than me. They all tried on the costume and it was too big. It was too big on all of them, so I tried on the costume and it fit like a glove. Then I went to the prosthetics trailer with James MacKinnon. I now know who all these people are, but at the time I had no idea. I had this giant 15-pound head on me. I couldn’t see anything; I could hardly breathe.
They dragged me across the studio parking lot of Pinewood Studios and flopped me on the bridge of Star Trek. I was blind. Alex Kurtzman was there and Olatunde Osunsanmi (showrunner and executive producer). They were setting up the camera. Alex spoke to me and gave me some direction. We were figuring out how to work with each other. Because I couldn’t hear anything, and he couldn’t hear me when I was speaking. I did some stuff on the bridge and tried to navigate my way around the bridge as a blind alien. That was my camera test. I didn’t even know it was a camera test.
MM: Oh my God!
AB: We took some publicity shots. In retrospect, it was just everybody trying to learn how to work with this prosthetic. I’m sure somebody told me what was happening, but I couldn’t hear anything. That’s a challenging prosthetic to wear and I was the second to wear it. I was somebody’s replacement. The original person they hired didn’t want to do the role anymore because it was too difficult for them.
So, I just stepped up and I did it. I thought it was only supposed to be for one day, but they kept calling me back and here I am.
MM: That’s so cool! What an interesting story.
AB: Isn’t it? Thank you.
MM: You were talking about the prosthetics and that actually leads into my next question. What was the process like preparing to shoot? Was it mostly prosthetics that you had to wear?
AB: Yeah, I do a lot of prosthetic work and I love prosthetics. It helps me bring a character to life and I love the collaborative aspects of it with the prosthetics department. So, you feel closer to the character. You feel like you’re all kind of raising the character as a community because it was all prosthetics. And the prep, they really made it easy for me with that character. The prosthetic itself is very hard to wear. They’ve actually built it around a mold to the other actress’s head, but it fits me fine. And we have the ability to take it on and off between shots. It kind of pops off like a giant helmet.
MM: Can you see anything while wearing it?
AB: I have about 10% vision. So directly below my eye line, I guess at the tip of my nose, I have basically two pencil hole erasers that I can see out of.
MM: As an actor, how do you prepare to play an alien species?
AB: That’s what I love about prosthetics. And I’m bringing this into my modeling as well. That’s why I’ve been quite successful with modeling too. I take a look at whatever I’m doing. I’m visual, I’m an artist and artists are visual, but I love to see something concrete. So if I look at, I look at the prosthetic and I see how it’s built to kind of get a sense for the feeling that that prosthetic artist is wanting to portray through that character. They already have a basis.
I look at Osnullus and she’s kind of mysterious and strange and a little quirky. She obviously has a large brain. Very intelligent. She has four eyes, so she sees a lot. Her hands are quite wide, sort of half-webbed. So it looks like she, I don’t know, these are just judgments that I’ve made as an actor.
This isn’t anything from the Star Trek canon. It was just me looking at the character and picking it up. She likely comes from an aquatic world but also dwells on land. So I envisioned their planet as being sort of marsh like, and how that impacts you being based on Star Fleet and what you’ll have to do as a member of a species to move up in the Star Fleet Academy and get to where you are on the bridge of The Discovery. So all those come into play. I look at the prosthetic and I sort of meditate on it and I ask these questions as they come to me and I feel it out.
MM: Do you have any favorite scenes from your tenure on Star Trek: Discovery?
AB: My favorite is on the Season Two blooper reel for Osnullus. You have to go and watch it. Captain Pike, Anson Mount, gives Osnullus quite the promotion. Those are my favorite scenes for Osnullus. Other than that, I really loved the ones I can talk about. I mean, we’re having an interview and today Season Three is premiering on CBS All Access. So it’s coming today. I can’t talk about too much of that as it’s coming out week by week. But on the first episode that’s out, you can catch me as the blue Osnullus. As a blue giant headed alien. That’s similar to the Osnullus on the bridge. That’s me underneath the beautiful Swarovski crystal costume that Gersha [Phillips] and Heather and everybody on the wardrobe department made.
MM: I’m excited to check that out.
AB: Me too. I’m going to watch it when we get off the phone here since it’s available in Canada now. So I was lucky this season. It’s kind of a little known fact that I played a couple other aliens on the short tracks. I played a Kelpien and a few others that are all uncredited roles. It was their way of just trying me out in different roles. Then, in Season Three, they used and abused me. They never abused me, but they used me a lot. I was very lucky. You can catch me in basically every episode behind a mask.
MM: It’s like “Where’s Waldo?”
AB: Yeah, like a “Where’s Avaah?” situation on Star Trek: Discovery.
MM: Speaking of Season Three, without giving too much away, what can fans expect?
AB: Well, we’ve jumped into the future. So the future is going to be a weird and wonderful place where we end up. It’s anybody’s guess. They’ll have to stay tuned to find out. But as you’ve seen on Instagram and on all the platforms where Star Trek has social media, you’ve seen Booker, played by David Ajala who’s amazing. And Grudge the cat, who I love very much. You can expect a lot of action. You can expect a lot of excitement. You can expect incredible storylines and a beautiful evolution of Michael Burnham played by Sonequa [Martin-Green]. She’s so brilliant. I have so much respect for her. Oh my God. Just getting to watch her on set alone has been amazing. Her and Doug Jones are such an education in how to carry a show. I have so much respect for both of those artists.
MM: I was very lucky to meet Doug Jones a couple years back. He was very sweet. Very tall.
AB: Oh is that so? He’s very tall. I’m taller, but we’re about the same height. I think I’m maybe half an inch taller than Doug. When he’s in the Saru boots — oh my God. I don’t know how he does the Saru shoes. I’m a runway model and he walks better in those shoes than I would.
MM: He’s just fantastic.
AB: He is so talented. I love Doug.
MM: So to switch gears from Discovery for a bit, you did some work for Secret Society of Second-Born Royals. What was that experience like?
AB: It was a short day. That was the first time that the stunt coordinator, Alicia Turner, hired me. And you’ll see next season, but she’s now hired me for something much bigger. So it pays to show up and do the work. What they call it here in Canada is SAE work. Basically in SAE work, when a new coordinator in the stunts world asks you to try out, do it, because you could end up in a much larger role down the line if you do a good job.
So I had a short day in the crowd and we just did a bunch of running around. Like we were basically there to help make sure everybody was safe. It was a big street scene and me and a bunch of the other stunt guys and gals in Toronto got to dress up like pedestrians and run around. I haven’t seen it yet, but it looks like a beautiful show.
MM: It does. I mean, I’ve only seen the trailer, but it looks very sleek.
AB: It was a good few days on set. I had a lot of fun with that crew and Alicia is an amazing female stunt coordinator. I was so excited that she even knew who I was, because she’s just this power woman here in Toronto. In the industry in general, it’s always so inspiring to see a woman come up through this world and really hold her own. To be in charge of such huge stunts and shows she’s in charge of. I have so much respect for her as well.
MM: What do you like most about doing stunt work?
AB: I like the community vibe of it. I like how we all keep each other safe. I like how we all encourage each other and support each other. Everybody cheers each other on. And I like how you can show up and just put in the work and people support you and encourage you.
It’s really a competitive niche of the industry and it’s hard to break into. You just keep showing up and you’re humble and you do the work and you keep improving and you’re not afraid to admit, “I’m weak here.” So I’m going to lean into that and train that. I’m going to train both my strengths and weaknesses. Obviously, you want to specialize at some point, but when you show up and you’re not afraid to train, people see that and they support it. It’s really nice.
MM: You were in the movie EFC and I know you have a martial arts background. Did you find that that experience sort of lent itself to your character or was there a lot of training involved?
AB: Yeah, so it did help a lot. I trained from the time I was six to 16. Got my black belt and then started doing other styles. Muay Thai and Jiu-Jitsu, and then also acting combat for film and stuff. I found that with EFC, the coordinator was Wayne Wells, amazing guy, with Hubert [Boorder] and Julian Lewis. Great group of people and amazing, strong women.
I cannot wait for you to see this movie and see all the incredible work by these incredible women who all showed up and worked in insane conditions. It was freezing cold in the studio in the middle of January. Some of the worst snowstorms we’ve ever had, and everybody just showed up. Everybody was a team player and I found that my martial arts training and background helped, but this was very much Western style boxing, which at that point was one of my weak points. I used it as an opportunity to make it stronger.
MM: Excellent! I want to talk to you about Jupiter’s Legacy. Can you tell us what that’s about and your role in the series?
AB: I can’t speak too much. I can say that on my IMDb I’m credited as stunt doubling Sharon Belle for one episode. And it is based off of the comics, Jupiter’s Legacy. If you haven’t read the comics then you should go read them. They are amazing. The show is going to be incredible. There was supervising stunt coordinator and second unit director, Philip Silvera; action, factory guys and Jayson Dumenigo. And then the Canadian match to that is Max White. His team has incredible people. And that was an incredible education in my stunt career. For sure. I wasn’t with them for very long, but it was very valuable in my stunt journey. Thanks everybody for that.
MM: Do you have a dream role?
AB: Well, if I could play like a female Deadpool meets Trinity from The Matrix, I would be very happy.
MM: I love both of those characters. That’d be awesome.
AB: Yeah, that would be my happy place. Action-packed comedy with a really good, intense message for humanity, that’s my dream.
MM: You should definitely call up Ryan Reynolds and make that happen.
AB: Ryan, please answer this call and get back to me!
MM: Do you have any advice for aspiring performers wanting to get their foot in the door?
AB: Well, I mean, right now, it’s a crazy time. Very dark days for a lot of people, but an incredible opportunity to ground yourself and just get down to work. Find what you like and what you’re good at will come from that. I would say, just do the work and watch as much as you can. If you want to ask, just ask. Find monologues. Record them at home. There’s lots of time to do that for many people.
Now, you can do it from your iPhone. Record them and watch them. And when you’re watching back your performances, ask yourself, “Does this sell? Would I mortgage my house off for this?” If you want to be booked even more, your work has to sell. And if it doesn’t sell, that’s no problem. I worked with myself when I asked myself that question. Can I put myself in a producer and director’s shoes and say, “Does this sell? Is this the story I want to tell? And is it believable?” You can take your ego out of it that way and just keep going. You’ll get better. If you just commit yourself to the training and to the work, you’ll get better.
MM: That’s really applicable for just about any profession.
AB: Anything. There’s so many bugs in this industry. There’s so much stuff to wade through that is just illusion. It’s just bullsh*t. But it’s not true. You can always control yourself as an artist, your work, what you put out in the industry and the decisions you make to get to where you want to be. It’s a roller coaster and all you’re in charge of is navigating the ups and downs for yourself, within yourself. Because this is a crazy ride.
MM: So what’s next for you? Global apocalypse withstanding, hopefully.
AB: Yeah, so when we wrapped the last season, I was supposed to head straight to LA, but then I had my 30th birthday party at the end of February and shot a short film. Then the world ended and I’ve stayed in Toronto ever since. So looks like Toronto for a little while until the States settle down. I’m working on three different productions right now. And I’m starting an initiative with my sister.
My sister is a conservationist in Alberta. She works with Ducks Unlimited and she does a lot of stuff for the native Prairie and what’s left of it. There’s only 10%. A lot of people don’t know, but worldwide, there’s only 10% of native Prairie left and it’s all been destroyed due to poor agriculture and farming and oil and gas practices. So I’m working with her on a few initiatives for environmental awareness and we can hopefully reclaim and rebuild some of the native wild Prairie.
MM: That’s amazing! Have you binge-watched anything during quarantine?
AB: I have, but not what we would expect. I mean, I’ve been watching some of the other Star Trek shows. I watched Unorthodox. That was an incredible mental series on Netflix. Caught up on Stranger Things. Loved it. I just started watching The Umbrella Academy. I know I’m behind all the time.
MM: Umbrella Academy is really good.
AB: All good. I got to episode three last night. So good. Incredible work, everybody on that team.
MM: Season Two is a ride. Get ready.
AB: I can’t wait! I’m so excited. Then I went back to a bunch of the Turner classics and watched a bunch of the classics over quarantine to catch up. Solidify my knowledge of the classics.
MM: Nothing wrong with the classics. I love the classics! Last question. Can you name your top five favorite films? It can be whatever comes to your mind.
AB: So the film that made me want to be an actor is The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. That’s where a lot of my direction comes from. And that was at a very pivotal time in my career. I love The Green Mile. I really love Fight Club. I love Zwartboek, which is a Dutch film. That’s one of my favorites to watch. It means “Black Book” in English. Saving Private Ryan is one that my dad and I and my little brother watch together all the time. That’s one of my favorites. I really, really love American History X. That was also a huge film in my formative years. And it’s all too crazy. What’s happening in the world, it’s quite relevant.
MM: I was just going to say, it’s very familiar. Very timely.
AB: Yeah, it’s very current events now.
MM: Well Avaah, thank you so much for chatting with me!
AB: You’re welcome! I hope you have a wonderful rest of your quarantine. I hope you’re safe.
You can follow Avaah Blackwell on Instagram (@therealavaahblackwell) and Twitter (@AvaahBlackwell).
Be sure to catch Avaah in Season Three of Star Trek: Discovery Thursdays on CBS All Access.
This interview was originally published on 10/19/20