Inspired by real astronauts, Netflix sends Hilary Swank 'Away' to Mars
August 12, 2020
— An American astronaut joins an international crew for a long-duration spaceflight and has to endure both the challenges of the mission and the effects of being separated from Earth.
That is the plot of the new Netflix series "Away," starring Hilary Swank as a Mars-bound astronaut.
It also describes the real-life story chronicled in "Away," writer Chris Jones' 2014 feature for Esquire magazine that focused on NASA astronaut Scott Kelly's year-long expedition aboard the International Space Station.
That the article and series share the same title is not by accident; Kelly's flight, as recounted by Jones, served as the inspiration for the show (and Jones joined the series' writing staff, penning one of the 10 episodes in the first season of "Away").
"We really wanted to create a show that was in space, but one that was also deeply human, emotional, relatable and really grounded in human emotion, rather than in science fiction, and we wanted to look at what it's like to be away in different forms," executive producer Jason Katims said about the approach to the series. "We wound up bringing it [Jones' article] to the writer, Andrew Hinderaker, who wrote a beautiful pilot script."
"It really is the story of Emma, played by Hilary Swank, not only leaving, but leaving at a time when her family is in such crisis and perhaps when they need her the most," Katims said in a statement released by Netflix. "Away" is set to debut on the streaming service on Sept. 4.
In addition to Kelly, who holds the record for the single longest mission by an American, the cast and crew of "Away" looked toward several NASA astronauts to help shape the crew of the Atlas mission to Mars.
"I was fascinated with Peggy Whitson, the United States astronaut who spent the most [cumulative] time in space, and has served the longest tenure as commander," said Hinderaker. "A lot of people don't know that it was a woman who did that."
Swank, who once dreamed of being an astronaut, had the chance to speak with Whitson as part of her research for the role.
"Peggy was wonderful and she shared with me both the smallest and biggest details," Swank said. "I was able to pick her brain and that was really helpful in terms of what it means to be a commander, the responsibility that comes with that and how that is shaped in a man's world,"
"She is also from the same town my parents are from, which is incredible. I didn't know that until I was actually talking to her," said Swank. "She was great to speak to because she had been in positions where people's lives were in her hands and I was able to talk to her about that responsibility and what that felt like."
In creating the characters, Hinderaker also drew inspiration from Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to fly into space, and from a chemical engineer still active in NASA's corps and known for his photography and personal science experiments that he demonstrated aboard the space station.
"There's a wonderful astronaut named Donald Pettit, who to me, in a very, very small way, informs our botanist character Kwesi [Ato Essandoh] as this strange, delicate scientist," Hinderaker said.
That is not to say that all of the series' role models were from NASA. The "Away" five-person Mars crew is international, with members hailing from the U.S. (Swank's Emma Green), the U.K. (Kwesi Weisberg-Abban/Essandoh), India (Ram Arya/Ray Panthaki), China (Lu Wang/Vivian Wu) and Russia (Misha Popov/Mark Ivanir).
"The Russian space program did a fourteen-episode show on the Russian Science channel, which followed one Russian cosmonaut over almost a year in space. This man shows everything that is happening in the spaceship from how they eat, how they play, how they watch things to what they work on," said Ivanir, describing his research into cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, Kelly's crewmate on the space station. "It was really informative and interesting."
Advice for being 'Away'
The series' primary astronaut advisor was also the only one to appear on "Away."
"I had the chance to be in front of the camera playing myself," said Mike Massimino, a former NASA astronaut who also appeared in several episodes of the "The Big Bang Theory," also playing himself. "I was interviewed as myself in the show."
Behind the scenes, the "Away" cast asked Massimino about the experience he gained on two missions to service the Hubble Space Telescope, and how flying in space changed him.
"I asked him this question, 'When you're up in space, does it make you believe in God?'" said Panthaki. "He said he's been up in space with both very religious and very scientific based colleagues, and what tends to happen is that each of them upsurge the beliefs they formed on Earth."
"I asked him what he felt and I'll probably never forget what he said until the day I die. He said that when he looks down at the beauty of Earth from outer space, he sees Earth as being the Heaven we talk about," said Panthaki. "That really blew my mind."
For Swank, Massimino helped her put a human face to her idea of what it was to be an astronaut.
"I think in the past, the idea of playing an astronaut was very specific and there was a stereotype of what we imagined, but Mike was so human," she said. "For example, he had on these space socks. I loved that an astronaut was wearing space socks and they were funny. His socks really went with his personality. So I went and bought socks and that became part of my character."
Overall, Swank and her castmates wanted to know from Massimino what it meant to be away — away from Earth and away from your family and friends.
"We dove into more of the personal issues that they would be dealing with when portraying these characters in the series," said Massimino.
"You [as astronauts]," he said, "are going to have ups and downs in your family life and you have to try not to have that affect what you are doing in your professional life, because what you are doing is really important and family support is also important for that."
Hilary Swank is NASA astronaut Emma Green, the commander of the Atlas mission to Mars, in the Netflix series "Away." (Netflix)
The cast and crew of the Netflix series "Away" based the Atlas crew on real space explorers' experiences, including Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko (top left), Peggy Whitson (top right), Don Pettit (bottom left) and Mike Massimino, who advised the show. (NASA)
The crew of the Atlas mission to Mars, from left to right: China's Lu Wang (Vivian Wu), Russia's Misha Popov (Mark Ivanir), the United States' Emma Green (Hilary Swank), India's Ram Arya (Ray Panthaki) and the United Kingdom's Kwesi Weisberg-Abban (Ato Essandoh), as seen in the Netflix dramatic series "Away." (Netflix)
Hilary Swank added solar system socks to her character's outfit after seeing "Away" advisor and astronaut Mike Massimino wearing space socks. "His socks really went with his personality. So I went and bought socks and that became part of my character." (Netflix)
Emma Green (Hilary Swank) balances leading a mission to Mars and being a wife to Matt Logan (Josh Charles) and mother to Alexis Logan (Talitha Bateman) in the new Netflix series "Away." (Netflix)