Contains spoilers for the first episode of Netflix’s 10-part series Away.
You are commanding the first manned (and womanned) mission to Mars. You are on the Moon waiting to blast off, when a family emergency back on Earth presents a dilemma. Do you go home, or do you boldly go on?
That choice faces Hilary Swank’s character at the start of Netflix’s new sci-fi series Away.
It’s an extreme version of the tension a lot of people struggle with – job vs family. But when mom’s going to Mars for three years, it’s the ultimate work-life conundrum.
Commander Emma Green has a husband and teenage daughter back home, an international crew on board with varying levels of faith in her, and a world watching on.
By way of answering the question of what she would have done in her character’s shoes when choosing between mission and family, the double Oscar-winner relates it back to an experience in her own life.
“I’m on this journey of my life, right?” she begins. “And I’m pursuing my dream of being an actor. And of course, I’m well into it.
“And my dad, he needs a lung transplant. And so I take what was to be a year off – because it takes a year to see if the organ takes or not – and it quickly became two years, and then it became three years.
“And, you know, I was in this blessed position that I could take time off work and I could become my dad’s health advocate and help him through the hardest problem we think he’ll ever have happen to him in his life. And that was without question. Of course, that’s what I’m gonna do. Right?”
Her father’s transplant was in 2015. As she admits, Swank was fortunate to be in a position to take that time off, and has found starring roles again now she’s back (which might not always have been the case for an actress in her 40s).
She was able to spend six months filming the new series – her father is now healthy, and she took her husband and rescue dogs to the Toronto set with her. “So we’re kind of a travelling circus. I don’t have quite the same circumstances as other people who have their children.”
Addressing the original question while trying not to give too much of the plot away, she continues: “If I was in Emma’s shoes and I was on this mission to Mars… Her daughter and her husband said to her vehemently, ‘This is what you’re going to do’.
“Then you see the ramifications of that as the show continues to unfold, and what that decision has meant to her, and how deep in her marrow her family [is], and how important that dream [of going to Mars] is to her.
“So I think it depends on the circumstances which you’re under to make that decision.”
In recent years, movie-makers have put father-child relationships at the heart of many sci-fi dramas. Last year, BBC Inside Cinema highlighted a breed of “Space Dads” in movies like Interstellar, Ad Astra, First Man and High Life.
Swank’s commander is one of the first space moms.
Away comes on the heels of Proxima, one of the first new films to be shown after UK cinemas reopened in July, which sees Eva Green play a single mother training to blast off, also to Mars.
And last year’s For All Mankind on Apple TV+ was set in an alternative history in which Russia won the space race and put a female astronaut on the Moon, leading the US to do the same.
For the mothers, though, their space trips go hand-in-hand with guilt trips about their parental responsibilities.
Swank recalls how a journalist pointed out that this is not the case for men.
Different for women?
“There was a young woman from a woman’s magazine who said, ‘When I saw the pilot, I saw the decision that your character made, and I couldn’t believe it. My jaw dropped,'” the actress says.
“She was almost angry. And then she checked herself. She said, ‘And then I realised that I would have never thought that had your character been a male’.
“So it was such an enlightening moment for her, that the stereotypes that are put on gender or race or whatever made her come to that conclusion. But then it made her question it. And I love that about the show.”
As well as depicting long-distance family tensions, Away pitches Swank’s character into claustrophobic crew relationships.
In an optimistic vision of international co-operation, Commander Green is joined on board by astronauts from the UK, China, Russia and India. (This may also be a ploy by Netflix to make the show appeal across those huge target markets.)
The British representative is actually played by an American – Ato Essandoh. Meanwhile, the Indian crew member is played by British actor Ray Panthaki, who made his name as Ronny in EastEnders before moving on to Marcella, Gangs of London and the films Official Secrets and Colette.
The actors took advice about life in space by former Nasa astronaut Mike Massimino. “We were able to ask him the most personal questions,” Panthaki recalls. The actor got philosophical, asking what being in space made him believe in terms of religion.
“He said something so profound, I’ll never forget,” Panthaki explains. “He said, ‘When I look back at Earth from space and I see the amazing beauty of it, I believe that is the Heaven that we speak about’.”
OK, but was that the most personal question he asked? Panthaki thinks again. “It’s things about, like, what is it like to go to the toilet in space and how messy is it?”
Panthaki and Swank both say they had dreams of going into space when they were children. For Swank, they came at the age of nine.
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“One of the things that fascinated me at that age was the idea of the unknown, and being somewhere that looked out on the vastness of this place,” she recalls.
“I think the idea, which I didn’t understand at the time, was that we’re really so small in the whole cosmic idea and scope of things.
“We’re living in a day and age where we can kind of see and experience everything, right? We can look things up and have everything at our fingertips.
“But no-one knows what it is to explore space. It’s the great unknown.”
As fulfilling as shooting a TV series about going to space for six months is, it’s probably not the same as realising that childhood dream.
“Not quite the same, no,” she replies with a smile. “But I’ll take it.”
Away is on Netflix from 4 September.
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