Can you be a good parent if you accept a work assignment that will take you away from your teenage daughter for three years? If, just as you’re about to head out, your spouse suffers a serious — perhaps life-threatening — health crisis?
What if that job is commanding the first manned mission to Mars?
That’s the situation faced by Emma Green (Hilary Swank) in the Netflix series “Away,” which starts streaming Friday. And it’s no spoiler to tell you that Emma blasts off for the red planet. (If she didn’t, there’d be no show.)
“I love that the commander of this mission to Mars is a woman and that’s not the drama of the story,” said Swank. “I think that shows how far we’ve come working toward equality.”
Showrunner Jessica Goldberg said she “fell in love” with the script by creator/executive producer Andrew Hinderaker for that reason. “I had never seen that — a woman who was a mother, who had a family, who had a career, articulated in such a complex way.”
Emma commands an international crew that includes veteran Russian astronaut Misha Popov (Mark Ivanir); deeply religious botanist Kwesi Weisberg-Adebayo (Ato Essandoh), a British citizen from Ghana; Indian fighter pilot Ram Arya (Ray Panthaki); and Chinese chemist/astronaut Lu Wang (Vivian Wu). And the mission commander is not your prototypical military type.
“I love that Emma was also written vulnerable — that that wasn’t seen as a weakness,” Swank said.
Emma definitely cries more than any astronaut you’ve ever seen on screen before, and she suffers ongoing angst about her family and her decisions.
(She’s not alone. All five crew members suffer their share of personal drama.)
Swank said she signed on for a couple of reasons. First, she “actually wanted to be an astronaut before I wanted to be an actor.” And, second, because of the “modern-ness” of the story. She said that in the 29 years she’s been an actor, most stories have been told “from the white, male point of view, and this is just so rich with all the different races,” an “LGBTQ storyline,” and the perspective of Emma’s 15-year-old daughter and her friends back on Earth. “It’s showing a colorful part of the real world, and I really appreciate that.”
Executive producer Jason Katims (“Parenthood,” “Friday Night Lights”) was inspired by Chris Jones’ 2014 Esquire article “Away,” about astronaut Scott Kelly’s yearlong mission aboard the International Space Station. (Jones joined the writing staff of the Netflix series.)
“I’m not, like, the space show guy, but I couldn’t get this article out of my head,” Katims said. “He was writing about what was the experience like to be so far away from family for so long. And I felt like in that was this great family story.”
What appealed to him was the thought of a narrative “that was, in one way, sort of epic and had all the sort of grandeur and gravitas of space, but [is] also deeply intimate and personal and about the nuance of your relationships.” And he brought in Hinderaker as the series writer/executive producer.
Emma leaves behind a 15-year-old daughter, Lex (Talitha Bateman), and a supportive husband, Matt (Josh Charles) — but she’s wracked with guilt. Lu has a husband, a young son and a complicated personal life. Misha is estranged from his adult daughter; and Ram and Kwesi are both dealing with family tragedies.
The characters are, Swank said, “on this journey working towards a goal together while having this gravitational pull to Earth.”
They’re not entirely cut off from their loved ones. They communicate with family members via video — although the delay grows longer as their journey to Mars continues. That they “play out these very intimate moments from so far away from each other seemed like it made it something very special and made it feel different than other shows that I had seen in space,” Katims said.
“I think some of the most extraordinary scenes are the ones between space and Earth,” said Hinderaker, pointing to “deeply emotional scenes that transcend space and Earth. And I think, in some ways, those are the most essential to the show.”
The best of humanity
The writer and producers envisioned “Away” as an aspirational series that celebrates humanity and “the hopefulness of space exploration,” Hinderaker said. “I think now more than ever ... is the time to remember what we’re capable of and remember what happens when we believe in science.”
The producers worked with current and former astronauts and with NASA “to make this feel as accurate as possible,” Katims said. They spent months designing and building the ship that carries the astronauts toward Mars, and creating the spacesuits they wear.
While the ship and the suits don’t actually exist, the technology to make them does. And a mission to Mars is no longer the stuff of wild speculation.
“This is a story about what we’re capable of doing. It’s a story about what’s possible,” Katims said.
The 10-episode first season of “Away” follows the mission’s journey from the moon to Mars. And, no, things don’t go smoothly — this is a TV series, and there’s drama along the way. (In addition to the family drama.)
“Thirty million miles is a long way to go. There’s a lot of stuff that could go wrong,” Hinderaker said.
And a lot of stuff does go wrong.
But there’s also a sense of purpose and wonder — a sense of “hope ... and what’s possible for us to do when these people from all different countries, from different backgrounds and different philosophies, come together for a greater purpose,” Katims said.
Although there’s no manned Mars mission in humanity’s immediate future, “Away” inadvertently turned out to be more timely than its producers, writers and stars imagined.
After filming had been completed and the show was in post-production, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and forced producers, editors and visual effects people to work separately and remotely, communicating online “without having the normal human interaction that’s so important to the creative process and to life,” Katims said. And the show they were editing “started to resonate in a way that we never imagined before.”
“As writers of this show we, certainly, all more deeply understand now what it is to be isolated,” said Goldberg. “What a bizarre thing that we ended up living in that world now where a lot of our communication with loved ones has to be done over Skype or Zoom.”
They were working on a show about people “stuck in a tin can for month after month, and not being able to step out into the world,” Katims said, at the same time they and millions of other Americans found themselves in a similar situation because of the pandemic.
“The show is about many things, but at its core it’s a show that is about the human spirit,” he said. “And, more specifically, when it’s tested, what the human spirit is capable of.”