The two-time Oscar winner stars as the commander of a mission to Mars. To prepare for the role, she headed to Mission Control in Houston, Texas
Hilary Swank is grateful every day for the ability to tell stories in her craft as an actor.
“It’s a gift that I’ve been given, to be a storyteller,” Swank tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “I couldn’t be more blessed. I literally get to walk in different shoes with every single job that I get. It enriches me as a human being in so many ways — it blows open the blinders of how I see the world.”
With her new role, as the commander of a spaceship headed for Mars, Swank, 46, has an entirely new view of the world.
In Away on Netflix, Swank joins the Joint Mars Initiative, an international crew undertaking a three-year trip to the red planet.
While it’s an action-packed and dramatic series, Swank was attracted to it because the tension didn’t come from one familiar plotline.
“I love that the commander on this mission to Mars is a woman and that that’s not the drama of the show,” she says.
The drama of the show, instead, says Swank, also doesn’t come because of the diversity on board. “I love that the show deals with all different types of races. There’s an LGBTQ storyline. It really is representative of the world we live in. And I think so often, in the 30 years of my career, so much of it was just from the point of view of really a white straight male. It wasn’t representative of the street that I walk down every day.”
For her role as Commander Emma Green, Swank headed to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, for a day of training in February. She was also able to interview women who have long been her heroes. She met Karen Nyberg — who became the 50th woman in space upon her first mission in 2008 and spent a total of 180 days in space — and met, in a way, Jessica Meir. She spoke to Meir, who was onboard the International Space Station. (Meir returned to Earth in April after seven months in space.)
Swank, who won her first Oscar in 2000 for her portrayal of trans man Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry and again in 2005 for the Clint Eastwood boxing film Million Dollar Baby, is known for going all-in for her roles.
The choices she makes professionally are rooted in her personal worldview.
“We are trying to continually find equality as women in very much what I think is a man’s world,” she says. “I think I’m drawn for sure to these women, mostly true stories, who persevere in their own way.”
Away is now streaming on Netflix.
– Away > Screencaptures Screen Captures > 1×01 – Go
Emma Green is juggling two families and a lot of responsibility. In Netflix’s Away, Emma (Hilary Swank) is the commander of the first man-led mission to Mars. But she’s also a wife and mother, and leading her crew to Mars means leaving behind her family on Earth. Needless to say, it’s an emotional journey.
EW spoke with Swank about what drew her to the project and what it was like to fake zero gravity.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did this all start for you?
HILARY SWANK: First of all, I wanted to be an astronaut before I wanted to be an actor. So I was like, “Wait, what? I could play an astronaut?” I was sent the script, and then I was completely hooked — not only on the fact that this commander was a female leading this mission to Mars, but that that wasn’t the drama of the story. I loved that. But then also that there are all these different races in it, and that we were all working in a place that had no borders, that we needed to become a family and trust one another to make it there. And then there’s this gravitational pull, no pun intended, to Earth and our families there and what we left behind. There’s a myriad of different things that I loved about [the script] when I read it.
Most space stories I’ve seen over the years didn’t spend so much time focusing on the people back home, and as a result, I’ve never really thought about it. Now, I can’t stop thinking about what it would be like to have a parent be out of reach for three years.
Yeah, you really think: Could I do that? And what does it entail? And what would I have to sacrifice? It’s really, when you sit with it, profound when you go into space. It’s a whole other thing.
You were cast first, and then showrunner Jessica Goldberg told me that they brought up Josh Charles to play your husband and you were very into it. You two had never met before, right?
But you knew of him?
Oh yeah. I mean, we all know Josh Charles. It’s a no-brainer. I was so excited when they brought his name up. I was like, “That’s our guy.” And I was so happy that he said yes to being part of this journey with us. He’s like the anchor of the show. He’s the one you go to. He’s Emma’s compass. She has that champion and, again, the drama is not about gender roles, of the husband supporting the wife. It’s not about that — and I love that. It’s just this guy who genuinely has such integrity, and he’s such a good person, and she trusts him implicitly.
What went into the research and training for playing an astronaut?
Well, I wish I could have felt what it’s like to be in zero gravity [via a zero-gravity simulator a.k.a. the Vomit Comet], but I had to take the second tier of training, the pretend astronaut training. We did try and see what it felt like to be in zero gravity, as well as being attached to wires, to try and figure out how to make that look effortless. I also got to go to mission control and speak to the astronauts on the International Space Station, and speak to retired astronauts as well, and just really pick their brains. They were so gracious with their time and their sharing of what it took for them to get there, and the perseverance and the fears and the hopes. And I think that’s the one really connective tissue to the story of the mission to Mars and the story of human beings on Earth, which is hope. It’s what I think we’re all redefining in our world, globally, right now, as we’re working through the coronavirus. We all hold on to hope. That’s the connective tissue within everyone. And that’s certainly the connective tissue of the show.
So when you guys were filming the zero-gravity scenes, was it literally just wire work? Because I can’t get over how flawless it all looks.
Yeah, it was all wires. There were times when you would be connected — you’d be sitting at a table and you’d have your feet connected and you still had to bobble around and pretend that you were weightless. All of that was something that we had to try and figure out, but it takes a lot of effort to do!
Away is streaming on Netflix now.