Fourteen year-old Arista Arhin found herself in a role of a lifetime nearly three years ago, playing young Michael Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery. The show is currently ending its second season. Arista is no stranger to being in front of the camera but getting cast in one of history’s most iconic franchises definitely left a lasting effect.
I had a chance to chat with Arista about playing the young human growing up in a Vulcan world, her relationship with adult Michael Burnham, Sonequa Martin-Green, what it’s like to be part of a hit science fiction universe and what’s on her horizon.
Audrey Kearns: When did you decide that you enjoyed acting? What was your first acting experience?
Arista Arhin: I first started modeling when I was about 10, and after having done a few commercials, I auditioned for TV shows and films eventually landing a role as Agent Ozlyn in Odd Squad, which was my first acting experience.
AK: I saw that you trained at Second City! Did you study acting and improvising? What skill did you learn?
AA: I took improvisation classes at Second City and that was such a fun, interactive experience and a valuable training, which I had the opportunity to use in my roles that required a good sense of comedic timing and improve skills.
AK: I’m a huge Star Trek fan. I mean, like, I collect action figures and have Star Trek art on my walls so I’m in deep! Congratulations on becoming a part of this wonderful universe that means a lot to so many people. Knowing that Star Trek is incredibly meaningful to so many, did you feel pressure when you were working?
AA: Thank you and I’m so happy to hear that you’re a Star Trek fan! I feel so honored and grateful to be part of the iconic Star Trek Universe. I did put a lot of pressure on myself in trying to portray Young Michael Burnham as best I could, and being surrounded by such a committed team of cast and crew members really inspired me and supported me in achieving that.
AK: You play Young Michael Burnham whom we get to see in flashbacks. Those flashbacks are so important in explaining why Michael thinks and acts the way she does. I have to say that you do a terrific job! As an actor, you have showed so much growth from the moment that Michael first comes to Sarek’s house to when she starts adopting Vulcan culture. I can’t imagine it would be easy to play a human child raised on Vulcan to a Vulcan dad and a human mother! On top of that, you have Spock as a brother! What kind of research did you do once you found out about your part?
AA: Thank you so much for your kind words. Portraying Young Michael Burnham was both inspiring and challenging. Being a new character within the Star Trek franchise, and the first human to be raised on Vulcan, telling her complex story was very interesting. As someone who plays her in her childhood, I made sure to study the way in which Sonequa was telling her story as an adult, and learn as much as possible from her. It was very inspiring to see how she reconciled Burnham’s internal conflict between her human emotions and adopted Vulcan logic. Additionally, it was quite challenging to fit Burnham’s story into this well-known family and it was especially exciting to play Spock’s adopted sister. I still have to pinch myself sometimes. I also read as much as time permitted on all things Star Trek, and especially on The Original Series; I watched the TOS episodes; and I studied the scripts. I was also very fortunate to work with amazing directors who would provide guidance and the context for various scenes that I was in.
AK: Did you become a Star Trek fan during your research?
AA: Absolutely! Thursdays have now become my favourite days of the week because I get to watch a new Star Trek: Discovery episode.
AK: In the present day of Star Trek: Discovery, Michael is played by Sonequa Martin-Green. Did you get to chat with her about your character?
AA: I feel tremendously lucky to have had a very strong connection with Sonequa from the very beginning, and I was always able to talk to her about different scenes involving Burnham. In this way, we were able to, in a way, coordinate our telling of the Burnham’s story.
AK: Another favorite actor of mine is James Frain who plays your adoptive father Sarek. His acting resume is so long! Did he give you any pointers as well?
AA: My very first scene in Season 1, episode 1, was with James Frain who is indeed a phenomenal actor. He was instrumental in providing the context for a very emotional scene that we were shooting, and I was very happy to have more scenes with him in Season 2.
AK: Okay! Let’s talk about that wig! Was it fun to look Vulcan (minus the ears!)? What did you think the first time you saw yourself with the short hair and Vulcan clothing?
AA: First time I saw myself with the Vulcan hairstyle, I thought I could totally rock it! In terms of clothing, Gersha Philips did an amazing job at designing all the costumes which had so much texture. It was wonderful to be part of the entire process; from the first time I tried on a particular piece of clothing during my fittings to seeing it completed and actually wearing it. I absolutely loved everything that I got to wear!
AK: In your real life, can you relate to Vulcans in any way or are you completely the opposite?
AA: I would say that I can relate to Vulcans, but that I’m also an outgoing person, so I’m able to be both, probably as most people. I think that everyone has a bit of Vulcan culture within them especially when they need to suppress their emotions or not have an immediate reaction to a situation.
AK: Now, you have new show coming on called Bajillionaires. Can you tell me about it?
AA: My new show Bajillionaires is a brand new comedy about a group of pals who run a start-up company out of a parent’s garage. They hope that their inventions will one day change the world for the better. The show promotes positive messages such as youth empowerment, the importance of friendship and believing in yourself. I play is Alicia Windsor, the Chief Product Designer and the team’s newest member as the company’s. She is a DIY engineering genius who constantly makes prototypes and codes.
AK: You have to switch gears a bit in Bajillionaires since it’s a comedy. How did you feel about that?
AA: It was fun switching between two completely different characters. Sometimes, it was confusing because one day I would be bubbly Alicia, and the next day I would be dramatic Michael. Overall, I’m so lucky to be playing such cool characters!
AK: Since you have experience now in both the genres of drama and comedy, can you tell me one favorite thing about acting for each genre?
AA: With comedic roles, it’s fun to improvise on set, while with dramatic ones, it’s cool to see my fellow actors transform into complex characters and then see them crack jokes and be so different from their characters when we finish shooting a scene.
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