When Hilary Swank scooped two Oscars in the space of just five years — for Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Million Dollar Baby (2004) — she became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Since then, the 46-year-old Nebraska native has navigated the industry on her own terms, appearing in weighty dramas such as The Homesman (2014) and prestige TV in the form of FX’s Trust (2018), but also taking regular breaks from acting.
In 2015, she founded the Hilaroo Foundation, a nonprofit that supports underprivileged youth and abandoned animals, and the following year launched Mission Statement, a clothing line specialising in luxury ethical wardrobe staples. Between 2014 and 2017, she also cared for her father, who was recovering from a lung transplant. When she and entrepreneur Philip Schneider married in 2018, her father was well enough again to walk her down the aisle.
Swank returned to work with turns in the sci-fi thriller I Am Mother (2019) and satirical horror The Hunt (2020), but her next role is her most prominent in more than a decade: that of soft-spoken, sensitive American astronaut Emma Green in Andrew Hinderaker’s 10-part Netflix series Away which starts streaming this Friday. Tasked with leading a mission to Mars, she must unite an international space crew composed of a jaded Russian cosmonaut (Mark Ivanir), a secretive Chinese chemist (Vivian Wu), a British-Ghanian botanist (Ato Essandoh) and an Indian co-pilot (Ray Panthaki). In order to make history, Emma also has to leave behind her husband Matt (Josh Charles) and daughter Alexis (Talitha Eliana Bateman) — an arrangement complicated by the former’s ailing health and the latter’s coming of age.
We recently spoke to Swank about her grueling zero-gravity scenes, the illuminating conversations she had with some of the world’s greatest female astronauts, and why taking on the role meant partly fulfilling a childhood ambition.
Is it true that you wanted to be an astronaut before you wanted to be an actor?
“The very first thing that I ever wanted to be was an astronaut! The idea of something bigger than all of us, something unknown, appealed to me. Also the idea of looking back down at Earth — I was so taken by photos of Earth and the beauty of this planet. When you hear astronauts talking about touching back down on Earth, they say that they really think about all the things that we take for granted: water, trees, rustling leaves. That, to me, was remarkable.”
So, was that part of the appeal when you first received the script for Away?
“A hundred per cent, but also the script was such a page turner. I lost all sense of time and then it was over and I was like [screams], ‘I need to know more!’ I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
Emma is an incredibly nuanced character. What made you want to play her?
“She leads with empathy and heart, and her vulnerability is seen as a strength, not a weakness. She’s a commander on a mission to Mars, but she isn’t written in a stereotypical way. She isn’t very intense or harsh. I loved that about her. She takes all of her colleagues into account.”
The cast is also really diverse. Was that important to you?
“Stereotypes can be dangerous and the show breaks them down. It’s about our shared humanity. There are no borders in space and it takes all of these astronauts — men and women from different parts of the world, with different backgrounds — to make this mission possible.”
Did you speak to astronauts while doing your research for the part?
“I spoke to a big handful, including [astronaut] Jessica Meir who was on the International Space Station when we spoke, and [retired astronaut] Peggy Whitson. She’s been in space more than any other American and any other woman worldwide and commanded so many missions, too.”
What surprised you most about what these astronauts shared with you?
“I had an understanding of the contingency plans they have in place and how much work goes into everything, but I didn’t realize the toll it takes on their bodies, the amount of time away from family, and that so much is still unknown. They’re constantly developing and learning. I have a greater appreciation for all of that now. I also learned that all the female astronauts get asked, ‘Isn’t this going to be hard for you, to leave your family?’. But, of course, not all of the men do.”
Isn’t it great that in Away, Emma’s husband cares for their daughter and that’s seen as normal?
“The drama isn’t between the husband and wife. It’s not like he says, ‘I can’t believe you’re going! I’m emasculated because of it!’ [laughs]. He’s supportive. Isn’t that refreshing?”
How difficult was it to film all of the zero-gravity scenes?
“The suits we wore weigh about 35 pounds and obviously we’re not in zero gravity so we’re trying to pretend that they aren’t heavy at all. It was more challenging physically than I realized it would be. We were also harnessed up to be flying around and held by the lowest part of our hips. We had to squeeze our abs to go backwards and then squeeze our glutes to go forwards!”
What did you find most challenging?
“I found out I was claustrophobic when I put on that space suit. That was something that I really had to work through. I had to admit [that in the past], I haven’t been very generous towards people who have phobias. I always think, ‘It’s just a spider!’ or ‘Yes, we’re on a bridge and it’s a long way down, but you’re not going to fall. Just take a breath and think logically.’ Then, all of a sudden, I’m in that position and I think, ‘Oh god, what an asshole I was! This is real!’ [laughs]. I was sweating, I turned red and almost passed out.”
Had you ever suspected before that you might be claustrophobic?
“I had a feeling when I went to the pyramids in Egypt. When you’re walking through the tunnels, you have to duck down. I was inside and started freaking out. I had to turn around and, thankfully, people moved aside. That was a few years ago and I’d just thought, ‘Who wouldn’t be claustrophobic in that environment?’. But, all the other people standing in that same tunnel were fine. I think this can happen as you get older — phobias can start to occur [laughs].”
Beyond the physical challenges, Emma also has to cope with being away from loved ones in times of trouble. Do you think audiences in lockdown will relate to that even more now?
“It feels very timely. Covid has made us reconsider and reprioritize everything. When push comes to shove [for Emma, and now for all of us], what matters is your health and the people you love.”
Where have you been quarantining?
“My grandmother passed away in March — not from Covid, she was 93 — and so we went to Iowa for the funeral. Then we had to get my dad, who’s had a lung transplant, home safely. After that, we bought a used car and started to drive back to Los Angeles. We stopped in Colorado to stay at a friend’s second home because they were in New York, and they said, ‘Just stay there.’ We thought we’d stay for four nights and ended up staying four months. It was a blessing because we have all these dogs and all of the trails were closed in Los Angeles.”
You’ve spoken on Instagram about learning to crochet. How else have you filled your time?
“I’ve spent most of my time working on Mission Statement, my clothing line. I’ve been developing the next iterations [of products], which I don’t always have time to do when I’m filming.”
You took a break from acting to care for your father after his lung transplant. What advice do you have for all the people around the world who are currently caring for friends and family?
“Make sure that you’re also finding time for yourself. Trying to care for someone else while feeling depleted is hard and can take a toll on your health. Take at least an hour a day to recharge.”