Celia Rose Gooding didn’t always know that she wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become an actress. But in 2006, when she watched her mother, Broadway actress LaChanze, win a Tony for her portrayal of Celie in the 2005 theater production of The Color Purple, she knew she wanted to do something that provided the same joy she saw on her mother’s face the night she accepted her award.
Gooding was six years old when she witnessed that moment. By the time she was 17, she was cast in the reading for what would become the Broadway musical Jagged Little Pill, written by Diablo Cody and based on the music of Alanis Morissette. When the show finally made it to Broadway in 2019, Gooding played one of four leads, Frankie Healy: a 17-year-old Black, bisexual activist who was adopted into an affluent white family in Connecticut.
Gooding received several accolades for her performance, including a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical. LaChanze was also working in theater at the time and the two made history as the first Black mother and daughter pair to star on Broadway simultaneously. But in 2020, things shifted.
The world, including Broadway, shut down. And Gooding, unable to perform, found herself contemplating several things, including her presentation in the world.
“I was just really falling further and further into myself,” Gooding explains. “I was just so tired of feeling like I had to look a certain way to be worthy of a platform and to be worthy of a space so I just took my sister’s shears and I just went to town. I don’t want to have to slap on a wig to feel presentable and comfortable. I just wanted to show up as myself. It was the summer, it was hot. I was tired of wearing these wigs. My scalp itches. I need freedom. I need my scalp to breathe. So I shaved my head and I think it was the best decision I could have possibly made.”
The haircut paid off for Gooding in more ways than one. She auditioned for a role in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds with the new look. It was a decision Gooding believes made all the difference.
“The production team loved it. I can say with great confidence that if I auditioned for this role with a wig on, I don’t think I would have booked it,” Gooding says.
At the time of her audition, Gooding didn’t know that she was vying to play a young Nyota Uhura in the prequel series. The historic character was made famous by actress Nichelle Nichols after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself encouraged her to take the part.
Gooding is grateful that the Star Trek team decided to keep her character’s identity under wraps so her audition could simply be about the work and not the weight of this character.
Now that the part is hers, Gooding can’t “put the honor into words,” she says. She loves that Uhura’s character is more than just eye candy.
“She’s not an auxiliary character. It’s about her brain and the honor people feel having her on her team. It really means a lot to me to be a part of the representation I want to see in the world.”
Not to mention Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, which premiered on May 5 on Paramount+ and has already been renewed for a second season, feels like a home to Gooding.
It’s not something she’s been able to say about every project. In 2021, Gooding released a statement announcing her departure from the production of Jagged Little Pill. Gooding acknowledged that the decision was in part because of her role as Uhura but also because she could no longer ignore “…the harm Jagged has done to the trans and non-binary community, including cast members on stage, off stage, and behind the scenes in the production making process…”
While many in her position would be afraid to take such a stance in this type of competitive industry, Gooding doesn’t believe she’s asking for too much.
“Some folks don’t want to ruffle feathers but closed mouths don’t get fed. If you don’t ask for change, you won’t get it.”
Ultimately, Gooding says her critiques come from a place of love and a desire to see the entertainment industry be better.
“In order for [the industry] to have a place in the future, it needs to be a safe space,” Gooding says.
She concludes her statement saying: “I believe it will be in my best personal interest to focus more on work that I can align myself with emotionally and morally…”
Thankfully Gooding found that space in Star Trek.
“I really feel supported here and that’s why I’m committed to it. I’m like a flower. I’ll grow wherever I have great water, great light. That’s really all I need. I don’t need too much.”