‘Star Trek: Picard’: How the Actor Playing Young Guinan, Ito Aghayere, Stepped Into Whoopi Goldberg’s Shoes (EXCLUSIVE)
SPOILER WARNING: This story discusses specific events in Season 2, Episode 4 of “Star Trek: Picard,” currently streaming on Paramount Plus.
As even casual fans of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” know, one of the beloved sci-fi show’s most meaningful relationships was between Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the proprietor of the main bar on the U.S.S. Enterprise, Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg). The characters mean so much to each other that Stewart moved Goldberg to tears when he invited her to join him on the “TNG” sequel series “Star Trek: Picard” while appearing on an episode of “The View” in January 2020.
The Season 2 premiere of “Picard” wastes little time in bringing Goldberg back as Guinan, with a lovely scene in which the two old friends throw back some strong hooch in Guinan’s bar on Earth, as she attempts to soothe Picard’s wounded psyche.
It turns out that scene wasn’t just an exercise in nostalgia, either. After his reunion with Guinan, Picard finds himself plunged into a horrific alternate timeline in which the Federation doesn’t exist, the Earth is the center of a violent totalitarian empire, and Jean-Luc Picard has risen to power as a ruthless and bloodthirsty conqueror. So with the rest of the show’s main cast — all of whom also retain their memories of how things used to be — Picard travels back in time to 2024 to the point where he believes the timeline diverged irrevocably from its true path.
And that’s how, in Episode 4, “Watcher,” Picard finds himself stepping back into Guinan’s bar, where he comes face-to-face with a young Guinan. As the exclusive clip below illustrates, instead of Goldberg, however, the character is played by actor Ito Aghayere (“Carol’s Second Act”).
In her exclusive first interview about the role with Variety, Aghayere reveals that playing Guinan was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to be a part of “Star Trek” — especially “The Next Generation.”
“I watched all of ‘TNG’ as a kid, primarily because my parents are immigrants, and they’re very conservative,” she said in a Zoom interview. “As a kid growing up, there were very few shows that they would let us watch without having to care what it was about, or understand what it was about.”
She laughed. “I don’t think I told Patrick — as I probably should have — but they thought he looked really smart and intelligent,” she said. “So they were like, ‘Eh, she’s gonna learn something, let them watch it.’ I couldn’t watch ‘Power Rangers,’ but I could watch ‘Star Trek.'”
Rather than pour him a drink, Aghayere’s Guinan is so deeply disillusioned with humanity that she pulls a shotgun on Picard when he reveals he knows she’s a member of a long-lived alien species called El-Aurians. But as much as she enjoyed shooting the scene, as a “TNG” devotee, Aghayere also noticed that it seemed strange that her Guinan does not recognize Picard at all when he steps into her bar.
That’s because in the two-part “TNG” episode “Time’s Arrow,” Guinan first meets Picard in 1893 San Francisco, part of a twisty time-travel plot line that is launched when the severed head of the android Data (Brent Spiner) is discovered after its seemingly spent 500 years buried in a California cavern. So Aghayere said she asked executive producer and showrunner Terry Matalas about why Guinan wouldn’t recognize Picard in 2024 if she’d met him so memorably in 1893.
“I think what Terry does in terms of storytelling when it comes to time travel is just brilliant,” she said at first with a smile. “I don’t think he ever got me a clear answer on it. And I think…” She paused for a long time. “I never will.”
Fortunately, a representative for Paramount Plus did provide a rather head-squeezing answer from Matalas on this question: “Guinan does not recognize Picard in 2024. Fans might be briefly confused by this because she did meet him on Earth in 1893 in ‘The Next Generation.’ The reason that she doesn’t recognize Picard is that he’s traveled from a future in which Starfleet doesn’t exist, and therefore the whole thing with Data’s head in ‘Time’s Arrow’ never happened.” In other words, the alternate reality Picard was too busy conquering and never traveled back in time to 1893, so he never met Guinan then.
Time travel shenanigans aside, Aghayere talked with Variety about how much Guinan meant to her, how she approached playing the role, and what surprising gift cemented her own friendship with Stewart.
When you were first watching “The Next Generation,” what do you remember of your feelings about Guinan and who she was?
Oh, man, I just thought she was so cool. I have to paint a picture of you what it was like back then: I had braces until I was a freshman in college, so I was the epitome of a Black nerd. So watching Whoopi just steal scenes right out from under Patrick Stewart — I love you, Patrick — but just stealing scenes left and right. It just felt so empowering to watch her do that. Looking back now, I just think this woman completely encapsulated the kind of Puck-like quality of [being] both mischievous and omniscient. She wasn’t in that many episodes, so to have such a pivotal impact on the series is quite remarkable. As a kid, every time I saw, “And guest starring Whoopi Goldberg,” I was like, “Yes! She’s back! It’s going to be a good one!”
So given your abiding love for the show and this character, what was your reaction when you first learned it was not only “Star Trek: Picard,” but the role was a younger Guinan?
It was actually quite strange. I found out the normal way: My reps were like, “There’s this role, we have no idea what it is. But it looks interesting, read it.” At the time, my character’s name was Gwen. I had no idea she was Guinan. They were dummy sides — it was a scene that was written that had the same dynamic and the same relationship to the actual scene from the episode, between a person named John and a woman named Gwen. All I knew is that when I read the scene, it felt like I understood her. I understood her bitterness and her disappointment and her fear to hope in the world. That’s what locked me in, just to the story that she seemed to be telling, which resonated with me as a Black woman in America. It felt like a story I wanted to tell.
But did you know it was for “Star Trek,” at least?
I had no idea that it was “Star Trek.” I found out maybe two callbacks in that it was “Star Trek.” It was one of those things where I was like, No way. There are very few moments in an actor’s career where you get to be in the thing that you loved as a kid. Usually those things end — as they should. Unless you’re [auditioning for] “Grey’s Anatomy” and were born in 2000. So it didn’t sink into me until I was doing my final test with producers. It was at that point of the pandemic where my now-husband and I couldn’t be in the house anymore. So I was at Mount Zion National Park in some hotel room with my laptop stacked on top of the suitcase, stacked on top a case of water, doing this really heartfelt scene. I think it was with Terry Matalas, the showrunner. And at that point, in that moment, I was like, this is legit. This is “Star Trek.”
How did that feel?
It was lovely, because the thing about “Star Trek” is that they don’t shy away from delving into really reflective topics that shed a light on the world that we live in. There’s this moment where Guinan lets loose on “John,” and she’s just like, “Your privilege blinds you from my pain.” And it’s just, ahhh — what more can I say, as a Black woman? It just went there for me. So to be able to be with people who are writing about something that still resonates with me as a 33-year-old woman was cathartic. To be able to tell stories that are still relevant in a universe that means a lot to me — it was just unreal.
What really struck me in your performance is that your Guinan is in a much different place than Whoopi Goldberg’s — she’s much more emotionally demonstrative and distraught. How did you work on connecting on what Whoopi had done in the role while differentiating yourself?
Rewatching her episodes, it gave me a lens into the future of who this character would be. In some ways, what I did was reverse engineer what someone has to grow into in order to be Whoopi’s Guinan. What wisdom doesn’t she have access to, what optimism does she not subscribe to, so that she can have a place to go? What does she not know yet that she will come to learn to be the enigmatic, wise counselor that she is in “TNG”?
One of the things that I did was go through all of the different moments through “TNG” where Whoopi’s Guinan mentions things about loss, things about her history, things about her pain. I took note of every moment where she hints at a past pain. That allowed me to strip that down into its component parts. What wisdom do I have now, but isn’t applied in the best way? You know, and I think that’s why this story can happen, because I need the Picard of Whoopi’s timeline to at least get me going along the path of where Whoopi’s Guinan ends up.
What is something you wanted to emulate physically from Whoopi’s performance as Guinan?
I think Whoopi had this beautiful stillness to her work. I took that to be that to come from a place of confidence and an ease with which she exists in her body. She sits in the center of herself, in each moment. You never see her fidgeting. You never see her move around. I wanted to use that. I think that is key to who this person is, but in 2024 Guinan, I think that stillness is used as a weapon. It is the precursor to a threat, to an attack. It is aggressive. It’s not out of a place of ease, it’s out of a place of, “I’m going to gauge what I need to do to protect myself.” It is selfish in many ways. It’s not giving in the way that I think Whoopi’s Guinan is.
Did you get to meet Whoopi?
I didn’t because of the pandemic. There were so many stops and starts with closures and people getting sick, so pretty much no one shot anything in sequence. It was a lot of bouncing around. I think they’d hoped at one point that it could work out. I’m still holding out hope. I think eventually we’ll make a connection.
You did, of course, meet Patrick Stewart since all your scenes were with him. What was that like for you?
He is such a generous actor, on and off the screen. One of our first scenes together, besides having to go there calling him out on his privilege as Jean-Luc, I also had to pull a shotgun on the man and look calm doing it. And, I mean, he has a “Sir” in front of his name. He was just ready for it. He was like, “Bring it! Bring it!” And such a sweet soul.
A friend of mine had told me he really likes this yeast thing, Marmite. Because I have family in the U.K., I know it, and I hate it. It’s awful. But it’s hard to get here. I was at a store and I saw it and I was like, I wonder if it’d be cheesy to get him like a little jar of Marmite? It’s so random — why would some random person you’re working with just hand you a jar of Marmite? And so, the first time we met, we’re outside and I have this jar of Marmite in this bag. I’m like, “Patrick, you don’t know me. But here’s the Marmite.” He lost it! He was like, “Oh, my goodness, Marmite! I love this stuff! Who told you?” That was how we started. He just brought this joy. He doesn’t have to be kind and warm and generous. And he does. It was just thrilling.
This interview has been edited and condensed.