Star Trek: Strange New Worlds' Jess Bush On Nurse Chapel's Backstory And The TNG Episode She Loves [Interview]

With its finale set to air on Paramount+ next week, I think we can officially call the first season of "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds" a resounding creative success. The latest Trek series is boldly going where none of its predecessors have before: Into prequel territory, as it covers the years directly before Captain Kirk stepped foot on the Enterprise. Fun, dynamic, and character-driven, "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds" marks a refreshing return to episodic storytelling for the half-century-old franchise.

The show's first season has introduced memorable new crew members, but it's also given the spotlight to reimagined and expanded versions of characters that fans of the 1966 series know and love. Each reintroduction has been excellent, but few have been as instantly winning as Jess Bush's Nurse Chapel. Bush embodies the character originally brought to life by Majel Barrett, but while the old Chapel was mostly known for her one-sided crush on Spock, the new incarnation is a quick-thinking, charismatic, and grounded member of the Enterprise crew. Also, this time around, her flirtation with Spock is shaping up to be a bit more reciprocal.

I spoke with Bush via Zoom about how it felt to become Nurse Chapel, which classic "Star Trek" episode she loves, and future glimpses we'll get into Chapel's "grit" and her backstory with Doctor M'Benga (Babs Olusanmokun).

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

'There was a really great opportunity to give Chapel new life'

"Star Trek: The Original Series" has this amazing legacy, and you're entering into hallowed ground stepping into the role of Nurse Chapel. I was wondering how much of becoming that for you was research on old "Trek," versus intuition on starting something new?

Yeah, I mean, it was a really great combination of both. The writers and the showrunners wanted to honor the original Chapel, but also we're really excited to give her rebirth and allow for new things to emerge. I think that there was a really great opportunity to give Chapel new life in a way that wasn't really possible for women back when "TOS" was being written and then screened. I think that they've done a great job with allowing that to really blossom, you know?

So yeah, I did do my own research, both into "Star Trek" more broadly and how it fit into pop culture contextually when it was first around, and how it has done that throughout the decades that it's been around. Because I think that's important, too, in character development in this show in particular. And into Majel [Barrett's] performance.

Also, this has been more of an ongoing thing, but just reading into different materials like nursing memoirs, and watching different documentaries on medical work in different contexts, like medevac and things like that, too, which I think have been really helpful. Yeah, so there's all that background research, but a whole lot of intuition, also. I think that just builds the skeleton for then things to unfold organically. So it's been really nice to kind of be a participant, but also be an observer and just be like, "Oh, this unexpected thing has come about," and taking that on board and letting that grow.

'People first, heart first'

I think that's really interesting that you looked at nursing texts as well, and I think that the show has really been clear that Nurse Chapel is a very essential figure in the crew. She's a very savvy problem solver, and she gets a lot of moments where she's embodying what it is to be a healthcare worker in terms of thinking on her feet, problem solving, and giving compassionate care. How did you go about creating that angle, and were there discussions ahead of time or was it all in the script?

I think a lot of it is in the scripts, but it's also important to know where it's coming from for you in reality, like in your body. And I think that Chapel, in my development of her, my process is quite physicalized as opposed to intellectual — or I take intellectual ideas and make them a physical reality for myself and how my body moves and where I move from. So with Chapel, it was about understanding that she acts from a place of instinct and morality a lot of the time rather than intellectual ideas and rules, and what that meant for me. And I think this also came from my research into nursing, that nurses are so driven by their heart, at all costs, it's always driven by the heart.

I think my approach to what it's speaking of, that's literal for me. So when I'm reading scripts for the first time and doing my own digestion of them, it's reading it from that part of my body first and seeing where it lands for me, and what kind of feelings and ideas that makes in my body, and then deepening my discovery from there. And then when I'm on set and working with the other actors, it's that literally again, I move from the heart. I reach into their hearts from my heart and let decisions come from there. So that kind of translates to "people first, heart first." That kind of thing. So it's quite literal, actually.

Adapting to something like Trek 'is an art form, really'

When you first started shooting, did you feel that way right away, or were there nerves to get over at the beginning? And if so, how did y'all deal with being the new kids on the block in "Star Trek?"

Yeah, look, I think that is an art form, really. I think that's really one of the biggest challenges of acting, for me anyways. Letting something be the most exciting and important and all-consuming thing for you, but also treating it like it's just every day. Like walking into these giant sets and being like, "Yeah, this is fine." At once, it has to be giant for you and all-absorbing, but also, you have to be able to handle it really casually to be able to be open. And I think that just came from doing it more, just with time. But it definitely took me a little while to calm the nerves.

In your research into "Star Trek," do you have a certain episode that you like either as a touchstone for your character or just in a favorite episode in life, overall?

Yeah. I mean, I recently watched the "TNG" episode, "Inner Light." Are you familiar with that one?

I'm not a "TNG" person yet, but I'm on my way.

Well, if you don't watch any other ones, this episode is just so beautiful. I found that really inspiring and deeply moving. It's just, it's quite simple. In a way it's simple, the way that they tell the story, which makes it even more powerful, I think. There's not a lot of the classic big action sequences and crazy science things going on, but it's just really poignant and moving, and Patrick [Stewart]'s performance is just, ooh, beautiful.

'There's a real depth and strength to her'

I'm sure everyone's asking you about all the relationships on the show. What I really like about the show — I mean, there's a ton to love — but I like that all the interpersonal relationships are handled with such a light touch. There's sort of like a playfulness to everything. Can you talk about how it's been to develop Chapel's relationships out, whether it's with Spock or Ortegas, or everyone else?

Yeah. I mean, I think a lot of that, again, is organic. It's been really interesting to be developing the friendships with the cast members outside of the show. And then also being able to watch the dynamics between our characters develop separately, and them being slightly different, and just being open to what the other actor's bringing to set. Seeing how your creation interacts with their creation is really interesting.

I love Ortegas and Chapel's friendship. I think their dynamic is really cool. And I also love — I've really enjoyed watching Chapel's relationship with M'Benga unfold. I think that their friendship is beautiful. It's got this really gorgeous familial quality about it, and their story goes deep. It goes really deep in the future. And yeah, it's just a really supportive and safe friendship, I think. I think they trust each other with a lot.

With your version of Chapel, already you've gotten to engage with such a full range of emotions. In the episode that's airing this week, there's kind of a fear angle that we haven't seen before with her. In terms of going forward, because I know it seems like there's some already planned for season 2, is there a certain side of her that you want to see more?

I don't know how to not spoil this. I can just say that there's a lot of grit to Chapel coming up, and I'm really excited about her backstory. And there's a real depth and strength to her that's going to come out in a way that I'm really excited about.

"Star Trek: Strange New Worlds" is available to stream on Paramount+.