Melissa Navia is currently starring in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, out now on Paramount+, which follows Captain Pike, Science Officer Spock and Number One in the years before Captain Kirk boarded the U.S.S. Enterprise, as they explore new worlds around the galaxy. Melissa plays Lt. Erica Ortegas. the Enterprise’s helmsman. Melissa’s recent television credits include a recurring role on AMC’s Dietland and guest roles on Showtime’s Billions and Homeland. In March 2020, she made her Off-Broadway debut in the praised Bundle of Sticks at INTAR Theatre. (Photo by Francis Hills.)
Over the festive break, Talkhouse Film is revisiting some of its most read pieces of the year, including this one. Happy holidays! – N.D.
This is not the story I wanted to tell. I had a story I wanted to tell, when I got my big break, when I finally had the world’s eyes on me, when people wanted to meet me because a character I played spoke to them. You have to do that kind of thing when you’re a working actor. Tell your own stories. Otherwise, there’s a good chance you’ll go mad. (Auditioning will do that to you.) Or that you’ll give up. And I have never been prepared to do either. I’ve refused to entertain the thought of settling for anything less than doing what I love for a living. That was the crux of the story, really: that against all odds, you can make it in this business; that if you are relentless, you will succeed.
But this is not that story. All I thought before now rings inconsequential and incomplete. Death will do that to you. Grief transforms you. Losing the love of your life breaks you. So, this is the beginning of a new story, one I am still finding the strength to tell. Of how I went from not being able to physically leave my couch, all of six months ago, to reluctantly leaving the country to film the much-anticipated second season of a yet-to-be-aired, internationally anticipated TV show. Of how I went from becoming a widow in an agonizing heartbeat to re-becoming Erica Ortegas, helmsman of the USS Enterprise on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, and how the two will forever be inextricably linked.
This first bit, I’ll keep brief, because I refuse to give the spotlight to this part of the story. In December 2021, what some (not me) would call the happiest time of the year, my world shattered. My partner, Brian Bannon, the love of my life, died battling an aggressive and rare form of acute leukemia that blindsided us, his doctors, and our family, and our friends who have not stopped saying what a privilege it was to have known him. May they never stop – I’m only getting started.
For the whole time we were together, Brian made the impossible possible and sincerely believed, as I did, that the right role would come to me, and when it did, I would be ready. The absolute truth is that I would not be part of the Star Trek universe today if it weren’t for him. Originally from Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal, Ireland, Brian was a musician, songwriter and singer, with a voice that my words cannot do justice describing. He was also a world traveler, a charming raconteur, a teacher, a trained EMT, my biggest fan, and, as one of his regulars put it so perfectly, the last of New York City’s poet bartenders. He was a force of nature, at home both in his city stomping grounds and out in the country, where he took rambling walks up mountains, and a veritable whiz at mathematics, crosswords and computers. He was a wordsmith who loved numbers and taking on challenges, like life with a headstrong actor whose big dreams came second only to how much she adored him.
When the pandemic hit, we took to the woods to quarantine, thanks to angelic friends who lent us their lakeside cabin. It was paradise. Except, of course, that Brian and I were both now unemployed and the world was on the verge of collapse. But besides that, it was paradise. Auditions for me, and all actors everywhere went from in-person hellscapes to self-taped hellscapes, which meant that instead of questioning your purpose in life in front of strangers in a strange room, you got to question your purpose in life from the temporary safety of wherever you were currently calling home. Brian became my self-tape everything, from my cameraman to the lighting expert to my director to a surprisingly versatile reader who would occasionally ask, “Are you gonna do it like that?” just to rile me up. When the audition for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds came in, we had already been at it for months, and we were now back home in NYC. It was a relationship scene between a cocky Rongovian officer and a pilot named Ortegas that starts off with promise and goes south by the end of its two pages. So confidential was the project that not even my manager who got me the appointment could see the material. So, it was Brian who taped it, read with me, OK’d what we would send, edited it, and helped me submit directly to the casting directors. What we did that day changed our lives forever.
Brian traveled with me to Toronto and stayed with me for all of Season 1. Border restrictions were so strict that in order for him to cross with me, as we were not officially married, we had to prove that Brian was essential to the work I would be doing in Canada. “Well, of course he is,” I remember thinking – without Brian by my side, I was not whole. But such poetry does not sway border officials, so we hired an immigration lawyer to get the same idea across. It worked. While I went to set, Brian worked from our new apartment overlooking Lake Ontario. When I came home, he cooked dinner – yes, he was also a chef, who cooked so fast and so well (occasionally while watching Deep Space Nine on a tablet perched on the fridge) that I never attempted to take notes – we talked Star Trek, helm controls, what we would do tomorrow, and everything else, because there was little we did not discuss.
We came back to the States at the end of July, returned to Toronto for one short bout of additional filming in September, and were all set to return in January for Season 2. That was the plan. While Brian looked for our new artists’ abode in the no-longer-locked-down Toronto area, I ordered our first set of custom-designed, portrait-of-a-couple Christmas cards. (After almost seven years together, we decided we might as well.) And then, in a matter of days, it was all over. Disease struck. Reality unraveled. My world went black. I taped fleece bed sheets to my windows, called them mourning curtains, and curled up on my couch, hoping the massive chest pains I woke up with every morning would one day very soon finish me off.
They did not. (Spoiler.) They subsided, just as my phone started pinging with emails that needed answering. Strange New Worlds was calling. But of course it was. It was January. I was Erica Ortegas. The world didn’t know yet all that entailed, as Season 1 had yet to premiere, but I knew, the studio knew, and an entire cast and crew of the most wonderful, hard-working people knew. The job I had worked my whole life for was waiting and all I could think was, “How?” How can I go back? How can I do what I did? When half of everything that made me who I was has died, how can I become that same person again? From where does one summon the strength? From where would I?
It’s hard to see when you’re grieving. The ground has been ripped out from beneath you and the future you once envisioned in the quiet moments of your day has vanished. Everything is darkness. Figuratively, and for me also literally – my mourning curtains were still up. The new me, a ghost of my former self, existed only in my living room, mostly on the couch, furious at the world and convinced I would never be able to pay bills or go grocery shopping again. Grief manifests itself in the most existential of ways and also the most ridiculously mundane. My soul has been torn asunder and also God help the person who asks if I want to meet up for coffee.
What finally got me to Canada was a network of people. Never underestimate the power of who you surround yourself with, because it is a testament to everything that is good in your world and a mirror for what could be better. In acting and in life. I hit the jackpot with Brian, with my family, and with Strange New Worlds. My castmates, our showrunners and the real-world filmmaking crew that makes the Enterprise fly were tremendously supportive while I was still in New York, when I finally got to set and throughout filming. I don’t have anything to compare the experience to – lose your spouse, fall apart, leave the country, fly a starship, make history, keep it together – but once in a lifetime is enough to know I was cared for by people who cared, not just for the good of the show, but for the good of me. As for the actual travel, I was pulled off my couch, out of my apartment, and into a car by my younger sister Soraya and brother-in-law Connor, who put their lives on hold to get me across the border once more, this time a reluctant, tear-stained mess, and who stayed with me long enough to make sure I would not completely fall apart. I still could not go grocery shopping. I still did not see the point of eating well or sleeping much. The couch in our monthlong hotel residence became my new safe space. I cried every day. I was far from my best. In fact, I was the worst I had ever been in my life, but at least, if nothing else, I was in Canada. One obstacle down – only one whole new season of a Star Trek show nearly 60 years in the making to go.
Stepping back onto the set was not nearly as difficult as I had anticipated, as I had imagined in the depths of my early grief. All my friends were there and, it turned out, I was very happy to see them. I hadn’t actually seen more than a handful of people in person in over a month, and now I was surrounded by hundreds, but I wasn’t fazed. Costume fittings, hair consultations and director meetings were scheduled without delay and my consummate professional self, who viscerally understands in an actor kind of way that opportunities are to be seized and never underestimated, showed up to all of them without shedding (many) tears. But you know what I did do? I spoke about Brian. It came out organically. Nearly everything reminded me of him. Behind every funny moment there was a significant memory. In spite of my constant underlying sadness, speaking his name out loud and telling the cast and crew about my best friend brought me a joy that made me laugh and left anyone who knew what had happened in awe that I was doing as well as I seemed to be doing. I knew it because they would tell me. They would say they couldn’t believe how I was showing up to work and not collapsing. To which I would laugh and say, “What choice do I have?” For that is grief: everything all at once. It is multitasking at its most brutal. If sinking into the ground had been an option, for a short reprieve, I would have done it. But it wasn’t, so off to blocking I went, and that is where the struggle took place. I was dealing well enough with Melissa, but what was to be done with Erica?
The on-set atmosphere of filming Season 2 was electrified by the simultaneous premiere of our long-awaited Season 1. There we were, writing a new chapter, just as the world was finally being introduced to and falling in love with Captain Pike’s pre-TOS crew. That is, of course, an actor’s dream, to be on set already working on the next season of a show that is currently airing. I have been in all matter of other tenuous positions throughout my uphill climb of a career. As if booking a role isn’t hard enough, sometimes keeping it feels even less certain. I know what it feels like to be cut from an episode. I know what it feels like to find out your show has been canceled. I know what it feels like to lose your health insurance because your guest-starring role didn’t make the final cut. But that was all in the past. My problem now was that I had been graced with an iconic, wonderfully written, amazingly open-ended character who audiences were identifying with more and more every week, but who to me now felt like a stranger. How could I play the same character when every attribute of my own that I had summoned to create her had failed me? Confidence, heart, swagger, the ability to laugh and make others laugh when a situation is dire … the belief that good things will happen to good people.
My eyes would well up just sitting at the helm. I had to steady my breathing more than once before a turbolift door opened. Every so often, I had to remove myself from the presence of everyone to hold my head back so tears wouldn’t streak my makeup. It would only be for a few minutes and then I would return, quick enough that no one would notice I’d even been gone. I would stare out at the viewscreen that was very much not outer space, but that I as the pilot had to believe really was, and I had to wonder if I was dreaming. Would Brian be waiting for me at the end of the night? As he had done for all of Season 1, when Toronto was on lockdown and the most company we kept was each other Thoughts like that are fleeting, but in grief, they are real and they materialize without warning. Oh, and sickbay was trig-ger-ing. That’s not even a word I like because it’s used these days with abandon. But it was absolutely triggering, in sickbay scenes and everywhere else – someone going into cardiac arrest, someone’s brain malfunctioning, someone hoping for a medical miracle, someone being resuscitated, blood and carnage strewn everywhere. Jarring, but still, it was my job, so I kept it to myself. As Brian would say, in his nonchalant way about personal matters, “Tell ’em nothing.” And I knew if I ever needed urgent help, anyone and everyone I asked would provide it. That is the set of Strange New Worlds. I’m not sure how I would have fared on any other.
Every week got better. Every day was a new day to try something different, to try again. They say time heals, but that’s not quite right. Grief does not go away. Nor should it. I had the love of an incredible man. If such impossible love could have lasted a lifetime, then so should the tumultuous grief that swells in its absence. Makes sense, no? My castmates were invaluable. My bosses were my advocates. And my new fans were everything I could have hoped for and more. They reminded me via social media, our one channel of communication, who Erica was, how they saw me in her, and how they saw themselves in both of us. And in doing so, they reminded me of what I had done a year before. I had breathed life into a helmsman who believed in the ideals of Starfleet and whose actions reflected as much, whose confidence on the bridge was backed by excellence at the helm, whose loyalty was questioned by no one, and who Captain Pike trusted implicitly. I had done with her what I had done with so many pilots and soldiers I have earned the opportunity to play throughout my career. I looked to real-world examples. I asked myself what made them what they were and how could I, who was neither pilot nor soldier, become them on screen in a way that was authentic, accurate and respectful.
Not only is Erica Ortegas the helmsman of the Enterprise, she is also a combat veteran, and although it is a part of her life that is rarely – if at all? – discussed in Season 1, it is a part of who she is, and so it was a part of everything I worked into her character. On the page, I could see she was funny and witty and that her captain allowed and even encouraged her banter, but where did it come from? It’s one thing to read lines and entirely something else to create a whole life that gives meaning to those lines in a way that makes audiences curious, eager and impatient to see more of what lies beneath. Yes, Ortegas’ wisecracks and gallows humor serve as moments of comic relief, but they are also exemplary of a person who has lived and worked on the frontlines and knows near-death experiences firsthand. It is because she has been in battle, has experienced loss, has seen death, lives with grief, knows how short life can be, that she not only can joke, but she sometimes must joke. So when she speaks up to lighten the mood, she does so not just to say, “When things are dark, we need to laugh,” but also, “I got this.” Because, of course, she is also highly proficient at her job, and her crew knows it and trusts her to execute. So, while there’s always the possibility that we could be here one moment and gone the next, if Erica Ortegas has anything to say about it, the Enterprise is gonna make it.
There it is, then. In Season 1, I discovered Erica; in Season 2, I needed Erica to help me rediscover myself. We are now more alike than I ever could have imagined – more than I ever wanted. Sure, I only play a pilot and soldier on TV, and my everyday job is not generally a matter of life and death, but trauma and loss and grief are now in my bones, and I understand now more than ever why laughter is crucial when so much else in life, it turns out, really is not. I enjoy making people smile and giving audiences something to look forward to, in the same way Brian did as a musician and a bartender and the kind of person whose calming, jovial presence you enjoyed being in, especially when you needed someone to lift your spirits.
I am back on my couch. Back from filming. Back from 10 more adventures, exploring strange new worlds. And I miss Brian so damn much. But I am doing better than I was six months ago, and I will be even better in another six months. Some days, I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing, but by Grabthar’s Hammer, I am bloody trying. So, this is not the story I wanted to tell, and absolutely not the one I wanted to live, but getting what we want, exactly how we want it, is not how life works. To quote Captain Jean-Luc Picard from my Star Trek growing up, The Next Generation, and to counter my Galaxy Quest reference two sentences ago (that still has me chuffed): “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life.”
I might not know where I’m going, or always what I’m doing, but I do know that wherever I go now, Brian and Star Trek will lead, and grief cannot shadow. That makes me happy. That makes me beam. That reminds me of Starfleet: to the stars, through hardship, and beyond. With everything I’ve got.
Featured image: (left) Melissa Navia as Lt. Erica Ortegas by Marni Grossman/Paramount+, courtesy CBS Studios; (right) Melissa Navia with Brian Bannon, courtesy Melissa Navia.