Do people still grow up wanting to be astronauts? It’s a fair question in a world where the space program hardly sparks the same level of awe or maintains the same visibility that it did years ago. It’d be unfair to hang the burden of flipping that trend on Away, Netflix’s new space-focused series (it’s streaming now). But no one associated with the show would likely balk at a suggestion that some might be inspired by this ambitious drama about our capacity for doing awesome things among the stars and the sacrifice endured by those who take on that adventure.
Away is, itself, inspired by something like that, taking both its title and a key part of its story from Chris Jones’ 2014 Esquire feature about astronaut Scott Kelly. Specifically, the telling of Kelly finding out that his sister-in-law, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, had been shot in a mass shooting while he was orbiting high above the Earth on the International Space Station in 2011. But while both Jones and Kelly are involved with this adaptation, Away pivots to a fictional (but one day possible) mission to Mars and a female commander (played by two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank) who is dealing with her husband’s horrifying medical emergency at home.
It probably goes without saying, but that last bit is something that might hit a little bit harder in the midst of a pandemic when Zoom funerals and Facetimed final moments are part of the equation of life and death. Series creator Andrew Hinderaker surely gets that, but he’s also long had an understanding of the pain of being just out of reach of a sick loved one, telling us about his own occasionally long-distance relationship with a partner managing a progressive disease. “She was diagnosed when I was opening up a play as a playwright in Chicago. The experience when someone you love suddenly faces a crisis, and you’re not there and what that feels like… I wanted to write about that,” he says when offering us some background ahead of our conversation with Swank, who he says “elevated, deepened, and complicated her character” before lauding her willingness to collaborate.
This is more than a family drama spread across an unfathomable expanse, though. Away is also about the sometimes repressed ambition of our species and a functional amalgamation of nations that might feel like the show’s most fantastical suggestion in this divisive climate. It’s also about gazing at a sci-fi epic through the eyes of a female commander and flipping genre norms, something that inspired both the show’s creator and its lead. In the following interview, we spoke with Swank about that and how Away stands out in a crowded field, the daunting physical challenge of playing an astronaut, and developing chemistry with castmates like Josh Charles, who plays her husband.
Obviously, you’ve been through quite a few grueling roles. Where would you rank this in terms of physical preparation?
It was more challenging than I thought. I thought that we’d be on these cables or harnesses. Someone in another room is pulling you up and down like your dance partner, so I thought that’s what it was going to be like. I thought, “Oh, that’s not going to be too hard. You’ve just got to move around and look like you’re floating.” It was way harder. The spacesuits weighed like 35 pounds, we were being held by the lowest part of our hips like a pendulum, squeezing our glutes to move forward, squeezing our abs to go back. Lifting and trying to make it sound and look effortless. It was greatly challenging.
This has been adapted and changed a bit from the original source material, but I’m curious how much time you spent with Scott Kelly trying to get a handle on the gutting emotional aspect of this story?
Unfortunately, I didn’t get a lot of time with him. He was on set at one point because he wrote an episode and I got to spend a little bit of time with him, but I didn’t get as much time as I would have naturally liked. There was so much preparation, and so much we were doing and he wasn’t on set at that time. But I did get to speak to a lot of astronauts, which is very informative and helpful for the development process of the character and the story.
I’m sure most of them don’t deal with a circumstance like Scott dealt with or like your character deals with, but what did they tell you about how they handled the distance from loved ones?
Well, they all say that they know that that was a sacrifice they had to make, yet it was still harder than they imagined. It’s something that I think we all take for granted when someone’s with you and you know they’re going to be there. That’s something that I can really relate to. Being an actor, we travel so much and we’re constantly on the road. So we’re constantly away from our loved ones as well, albeit a little differently. But the astronauts I spoke to were in a position where they could communicate via phone, or Skype, or very much like was depicted in the story, but there was definitely an ache in their heart. They would go away for… Jessica Meir was just in space for seven months.
Chemistry is obviously so important for your character and Josh’s character even though you’re not necessarily next to each other for large parts of this. How was that forged?
You do this fun thing where you’re like… When you have a character with a house, it’s supposed to be a family with years of memories, so you have this day where you’re creating memories for photos to go into the house. So we would go and do all these fun things where we’d have a picnic with horses because they’d need to photograph that. So it’s like a crash course of family time with all these different events that we do, like get on bikes and we go for a little bike ride while they’re photographing us. And it’s funny, it’s something that you don’t think about. All the little ins and outs of telling a story that you don’t realize that when you look at a scene and you’re in someone’s house. Of course, those aren’t just faces put on someone else’s body. So, we did get a nice amount of time together and it formed our relationship in a way that was so important. Doing most of our scenes via Skype just added to the element of wanting to see the other person. But it’s an interesting way to, like you said, when you’re not with somebody, to develop that relationship and chemistry.
There have been a lot of interesting space-based dramas that have taken a deeper look at the emotional strain. How do you think this stands out, or stands with things like Ad Astra or Gravity?
I would say that even though this is a story, for sure about a mission to Mars and all the different human beings on their way to Mars on that journey together and what that entails, it’s also this beautiful love story between all those humans, those five astronauts and that gravitational pull of love back on Earth for all of them. It’s the common thread through all human beings that breaks down stereotypes between different races, it shows the human quality that we all want to give and receive love and how important it is to have no regrets. This story deals with those earthly human qualities as much as it does with living your whole purpose and going on a mission to Mars.
Was that the primary pull for you to take this on, to speak to that common thread within a big epic sci-fi story?
Yes. 100 percent. I love that it was dealing with all these layers of humanity, and different races and the LGBTQ storyline as well. I find that a lot of content that we see is mostly told, or has been in the past… it’s getting better now, [but it’s been told] through the white straight male point of view. When you walk down the street, it’s really colorful, there are so many different ways to move in your life and this show, I feel, depicts that. That was a huge drawing point for me. To show all the different colors that are actually out in the world.
‘Away’ is streaming now on Netflix