Jess Bush On Exploring Nurse Chapel – The Hollywood Reporter

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[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds episode “The Serene Squall.”] 

Jess Bush knew she had enormous shoes to fill when she was cast as Nurse Christine Chapel in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. After all, the only other actress to embody the iconic role was the legendary Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, whose massive contributions to the sci-fi franchise hand-in-hand with her husband, creator Gene Roddenberry, led to her being dubbed the “First Lady of Star Trek.”

Bush so adored and respected Barrett-Roddenberry’s work on the original Star Trek series, among several other franchise projects, she knew some vestiges would shine through in her incarnation. But the Australia-born actress also realized exactly how she would make Nurse Chapel her own. And she has done exactly that in the Paramount+ series.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Bush prior to this week’s episode, “The Serene Squall” to explore a number of topics, including how the actress was ready to take a step back in her career when the series serendipitously arrived. In the same chat, Bush explored both versions of the legacy character and talked about the emerging love triangle between Chapel, Spock (Ethan Peck) and T’Pring (Gia Sandhu).

I love to hear how you all became involved in the series. What’s your casting story? 

Prior to being cast, I was aware of Star Trek, of course, because it permeates our global culture pretty extensively. But I had no idea just how expansive the universe was until I booked the role and all of these Trekkies started to appear around me. It’s like I entered this secret world that exists among us. It’s been such a wonderful ride, learning about everything Star Trek and its context culturally and everything that it strived for, for more than 55 years.

As for me getting the role, it was a short time after I had a conversation with my managers about taking a step back. I was just at a point in my life where I was feeling pretty burnt out and exhausted by the hustle, and I had a conversation to say I’d like to have a bit of a rest. I said that I only want to go for things that are exciting to us, and lo and behold, they came through with this audition for a Star Trek series. So, I put something down, and about three weeks later, I got a call to have a Zoom meeting with [co-creator and executive producer] Akiva [Goldsman], [co-creator and EP] Alex [Kurtzman] and [EP] Henry [Alonso Myers]. Then, I bloody got it! (Laughs.) I didn’t find out that it was Nurse Chapel until I got the deal done!

Jess Bush as Nurse Chapel of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS.
Courtesy of Marni Grossman/Paramount+

How cool! That leads me to my next question: You, perhaps, have the biggest legacy shoes to fill. Majel Barrett-Roddenberry is a Star Trek icon for so many reasons. Where did you even begin with your research, and then what was the process for making Nurse Chapel your own?

It’s a massive honor to be only the second actor to play Nurse Chapel after Majel Barrett. I think that I was lucky in a sense that I wasn’t that aware of Star Trek to begin with, so it wasn’t particularly overwhelming. I watched all her performances. I also read nursing memoirs and continue to read different materials that feed into what it’s like to be a medical practitioner in different situations, like a medevac situation

Regarding how much of Nurse Chapel comes through in this current iteration, it was a conversation with Akiva and Henry. It was a balance between honoring Majel’s Chapel and making her new. Majel’s Chapel definitely had a distinct essence about her, but there was still so much room to explore her backstory, what she was like when she was younger, what she might be like in our time as a young woman, and they gave me a lot of license to explore. It was a fun, collaborative conversation.

Do you have a favorite characteristic of Majel’s Chapel, and do you have a favorite characteristic of your Nurse Chapel?

Majel’s Chapel, she’s really dry and sarcastic, which I love. That was the main takeaway for me, and that leads to my favorite aspect of Strange New Worlds Chapel: Humor. That humor as it exists in a younger woman. She uses that humor to ruffle people’s feathers to discover more about them. She’s got this sense of humor, and it’s driven by curiosity.

Unpacking this week’s episode, it was great to see she can take care of business and quickly took out those two pirates. How far out did you know such a physical episode was on the way?

Oh, my goodness, they shot it so long ago that I can’t really remember what we did before the episode started. I remember shooting it, and I was nothing but excited to do stunts. I’m a very physical person, and it just jazzes me up so much to jump around and use my whole body. I came out of it with a few gnarly bruises, but a full heart. It was really fun. (Laughs.)

Jess Bush as Nurse Chapel and Ethan Peck as Spock of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS.
Courtesy of Marni Grossman/Paramount+

Seems like there is something of a love triangle unfolding among Chapel, Spock and T’Pring. How do you process or prepare to play those subtle — although far more obvious this week with that kiss — emotions?

I look at the writing. It is so good that the complexity of it often comes organically through the characters, just developing alongside each other. Ethan and I are good friends, so it’s very comfortable to explore that complexity, to let it unfold as the story does on a practical level. Scenes like that are discussed down to a T. There was an intimacy coordinator and the director [Sydney Freeland] explained what she wanted visually from the kiss. Once we’d done the very choreographed version of it, Ethan and I were both comfortable freestyling and seeing what else happens.

I loved the first scene that Ethan and I had together in this week’s episode, where we are walking down the corridor together, and he’s confiding in her about his relationship with T’Pring. Chapel was giving him a hard time, but with kindness. I think at that point in the episode, this is a lovely friendship between them that has developed over the first six episodes. I just thought it was a delightful exchange between the two of them, very gentle and caring — but also you can feel the chemistry that they’re both deciding not to do anything about at this point.

Finally, do you have a favorite moment when the cameras weren’t rolling? Your castmates have told me you all have become super close and genuinely enjoy one another’s company.

I feel extremely fortunate to be a part of this production. In particular, the actors and the crew are so wonderful, and I think that the values of this show and the stories that we tell are also very present behind the scenes. It’s an extremely supportive group and there’s so much heart in the crew. Every day feels like such a beautiful, safe place to create. There’s no weird politics, everybody is just there to make sure everyone else feels safe and supported to do their best.

It’s very rare for us all to be on set at the same time. The days when we’re all there are often pretty low stakes storytelling-wise, and we just have an absolute blast together, cranking the speakers, having a chat, having snacks. Chrissy [Chong] brings her dog, Runa Ewok, and we throw the ball around. It’s those days I’m like, “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this.”

Interview edited for length and clarity. 

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds airs new episodes Thursdays on Paramount+.

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