In the Star Trek: Discovery episode “People of Earth,” Saru faced off against an intimidating personality who represented the United Earth. For several tense scenes, Saru matched wits against Captain Ndoye, brilliantly played by Phumzile Sitole. Though the tension was eventually released, the face-off between Saru and Ndoye had fans on the edge of their seats.
Though she is new to the Star Trek Universe, Sitole has been involved in many high profile productions, including Orange Is The New Black on Netflix, and The Good Fight and Elementary, both on CBS.
Sitole is a native of South Africa and made her way to the United States by way of Columbia University in New York, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts. Since then, she’s been very busy.
In real life, Sitole is funny, engaging, and easy to talk to. In fact, Sitole is quite the opposite of her Trek character Captain Ndoye. To become the stern and commanding captain, Sitole looked to her late father for inspiration.
“He passed away during my studies here in New York City, and I believe he is still cheering me on,” says Sitole. “He was always in some sort of managerial/boss position growing up, and seeing him lead or take charge, was always something to behold.
“He still managed to slip in some kindness, so he was definitely of access to me when playing Ndoye,” says Sitole. She even sees her father’s determined look on her face during those moments.
“Even in the pictures and watching the scenes, I’m like — whoa!”
Growing up in South Africa, Sitole says she was aware of Star Trek but did not watch regularly.
“I knew of Star Trek, but I wasn’t a sworn in Trekkie yet,” says Sitole. “I think I might be becoming one [laughs]. I love the show and find the Star Trek Universe and its stories quite poignant and powerful.”
Star Trek is gaining popularity worldwide, and South Africa is undoubtedly one of the places where this is happening. Brad Patterson, a Trek enthusiast and South African, is excited that one of his own has joined the Trek pantheon.
“For me, it is great to see a South African embracing a wider form of entertainment and finding a place in the international world of Star Trek, where imagination is unbridled,” says Patterson.
Though this is her first experience with Trek, it’s not her first time working with actors from the franchise. Sitole says that when she worked alongside Star Trek: Voyager’s Kate Mulgrew on Orange Is The New Black; she admitted that she fangirled a bit.
“I particularly loved being on set with Kate,” says Sitole. “Kate and Uzoamaka Aduba are just very prepared when they arrive on set for the day. They’ve made bold choices, they know their lines, and they’re ready to play.
“They showed me how I want to be seen as an actor too, and I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to watch them work,” says Sitole.
Perhaps one of the challenges of working in Hollywood or New York for actors who are English speakers, but not from the United States, is nailing that “American” accent. Working on hers — which is remarkably authentic-sounding — is something that Sitole immensely enjoys.
“Honestly, it’s so much a part of the job,” says Sitole. “I spend a lot of time listening in general, and I do a lot of YouTube deep dives around someone who may sound like the character I’m going to play.”
“It’s fun — I enjoy shapeshifting,” says Sitole.
Sitole’s ability to shapeshift is incredible. Captain Ndoye could not be any more different than the character, which made her a breakout star — Antoinetta Kerson. Ndoye is a leader and holds significant power, while Kerson is a convicted felon and considered to be very dangerous.
“I think on a surface level Kerson had all her power stripped away from her, being part of the prison system for such a large chunk of her adult life, whereas Ndoye had literally all the power on Earth’s behalf,” says Sitole.
“They couldn’t be more different on paper, but I think, in essence, they both present very tough exteriors while being relatively sensitive deep down,” says Sitole. “They hold their own regardless of the circumstances thrust upon them — that’s for sure.”
Interestingly, the person who stood up to Sitole’s Ndoye is quite a shapeshifter himself — namely, the great Doug Jones. While they served up conflict on screen, when the cameras weren’t rolling, Sitole says it was an incredible experience.
“Doug Jones is a truly wonderful human being,” says Sitole. “I learned so much from how graceful he is on set and how kind and considerate he was to me throughout the whole experience.
“He made it wholesome and so enjoyable,” says Sitole. “I think what connects Ndoye and Saru is their level of integrity. Ndoye sure learned a lot from Saru during their clash of wills.”
Since this episode was so well done, and after Sitole’s portrayal of Captain Ndoye caused much talk among Trek fans, one would hope that we’d see her again. Sitole would not say one way or the other. But, if the writers and producers have the Discovery return to Earth, we certainly hope to see Captain Ndoye in command again.
Stream the Season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery now on CBS All Access.