Why ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Season 3 launched a cat into space
New “Star Trek: Discovery” cast member David Ajala is blunt about one of his biggest scene partners.
“She is a diva,” he told The Post of the interplanetary Patti LuPone-wannabe with whom he shares significant screen time.
But he isn’t really being that harsh: Said “diva” is an enormous Maine coon cat named Grudge, who keeps company with Ajala’s character, Cleveland “Book” Booker, on his cosmos-cavorting journeys in Season 3, which premieres Thursday on CBS All Access.
Ajala, 34, plays Book, a strapping courier for hire who transports coveted dilithium for trade. When he first meets USS Discovery Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), his seemingly hard-hearted nature is belied by the poofy, purring furball Grudge, who has a penchant for languidly lounging on his ship’s bridge.
In Season 3, Burnham and the Discovery crew — including Saru (Doug Jones), Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz), Jett Reno (Tig Notaro) and Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) — exit a wormhole and are catapulted 930 years into the future, to the year 3188. There the galaxy-hoppers find a significantly changed Starfleet and United Federation of Planets, as well as an assortment of characters with their own agendas — including Booker and his kitty companion.
“We wanted a really big, fluffy, substantial beast of a cat,” said executive producer Michelle Paradise. They found her in Grudge, who is actually played by twin male cats — and first-time “actors” — named Leeu (pronounced lee-YOU) and Durban. The 2-year-old felines live with their owner outside of Toronto, where the series is shot, and from nose to extended tail measure 40 inches long and weigh about 18 pounds.
“The fact that there was a big, gorgeous cat that also had a twin in case he didn’t want to work one of the days was a selling point,” Paradise said.
“Working with any animal, they’re not always willing to do what you want them to do when you want to do it,” she added, noting that Leeu and Durban both have “really mellow” personalities. “Just being patient with that and creating that quiet environment on set, it’s not entirely different when you work with babies. You just have to make sure the set is calm for them, that they feel safe.”
Ajala — already a sci-fi vet from shows including “Supergirl,” “Falling Water” and “Black Mirror” — didn’t even realize he would have a feline co-star until he first checked out a script. And even then he figured his large, luxurious scene partner would be computer-generated.
“I had no idea whatsoever. I remember when reading the first episode and thinking, ‘OK, so this cat is a very big cat. They’re probably going to be a CGI job or a guy in a green suit or whatever,’ ” he said with a chuckle. “This is just my naïveté.”
Cut to being on set in Toronto, where “everyone was laughing at me,” he said. “Of course, lo and behold, I had to build a friendship and a trust with Grudge.”
Having animals as scene partners also challenges human actors, said Ajala.
“They don’t conform to on-set etiquette and protocols,” he said. “They force you to be very in-the-moment and to be aware of the surroundings and to embrace spontaneity. When you have children, animals or Grudge on set, anything can happen.”
In fact, it wasn’t always smooth sailing with his scene partner. Ajala recalled one time when Grudge used claws to exhibit dissatisfaction and drew “a little bit” of blood.
“I’m doing a scene with Sonequa and holding Grudge in my hand. For whatever reason, Grudge clawed my costume,” he said. “I felt a scratch. I kept the best poker face, completed the scene, put Grudge down as gently as I could and called costume [crew] and a medic to just help me out.
“That was her way of showing tough love because, since then, we’ve been clean sailing,” he added. “I took one for the team. I think me and Grudge are good now.”
And why the name Grudge? In the words of Booker, “Because she’s heavy — and all mine,” he tells Burnham at one point, peeling back an emotional layer that will unfold over time.
Paradise said Grudge adds a “softness” to Booker, who refers to the animal as “a queen” and otherwise comes off as a loner.
“What Grudge tells us is that he’s not entirely on his own. He’s not a misanthrope — it’s not like he doesn’t like people or animals,” she said. “Grudge is his family. It gives us a clue into his character and his connection to other living beings, which is something we learn more about about as the season progresses.”
Paradise added that Booker’s bonding with Grudge provides an emotional draw for viewers.
“There’s something really lovely about a character either caring for another character or caring for an animal, where a character has to give of himself or herself to another being,” she said. “That just tells us, ‘OK, this is a character I can connect with and feel for.’ ”
“There’s something quite endearing about seeing this guy who is a character in himself but who, at the same time, has this Maine coon he loves dearly, looks after and cherishes,” said Ajala, who believes Grudge also “allows room for levity and fun” this season.
“It says something about the person’s character by how well they look after creatures that do nothing for them.”
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