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Hilary Swank Goes On A Voyage To Mars In Netflix Series 'Away'

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Mars - as our nearest planetary neighbor, it has always been so close and yet so far. Now Netflix's new series "Away" takes us on a fictional maiden voyage to the red planet. Astronaut Emma Green is commander to a team of elite international astronauts and scientists. And as Emma deals with the dangers of the mission, she also wrestles with a very personal challenge - how to take care of her own family, which is facing a major crisis from millions of miles away. We're joined now by Hilary Swank, who plays Commander Emma Green. Welcome.

HILARY SWANK: Thank you. I love your show. So it's a great honor to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I love this show. And Jessica Goldberg, the showrunner of the series who brought the vision to life. Welcome to you.

JESSICA GOLDBERG: Thank you. Also huge fan. I'm so excited to be here. Thanks for having us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's a bird in the background.

SWANK: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Going to pause here. Is that a - is that a bird?

SWANK: It's my bird, but I'm telling you I am a floor up and at the furthest room away.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

SWANK: I have a few parrots. I've had an African grey since I was 19, and then I rescued an eclectus about a year and a half ago. So they are singing their little songs down there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, African greys are my favorite type of parrot. However, what drew you to the character of Emma Green? You know, she seems to have a lot on her plate, like, you know, many mothers.

SWANK: Yeah. Well, first of all, I just loved that she is a leader that leads with compassion, empathy and vulnerability. The vulnerability isn't seen as a weakness. It's really seen as a strength. And she is this modern-day woman who has a dream and a desire and a purpose that she wants to see fulfilled while also having, really, a surprise of getting pregnant kind of early on in this journey of her becoming an astronaut and then realized that was also a dream of hers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You went to space camp. Is that right?

SWANK: Yes, but it's not quite as exciting as it sounds unfortunately because I thought, oh, my God. I'm going to go to space camp...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: My 10-year-old self...

SWANK: Yeah, exactly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I know my 10-year-old self is, like, jumping up and down going space camp, space camp.

SWANK: Me, too. I was like I'm going to experience zero gravity. And I'm going to, you know, do all these things. We did experience zero gravity but on wires the way we had to film. And I am not the most graceful of human beings. And so learning how to kind of float your arms around while you're having a conversation, an emotional conversation but not making your voice slow down - because inevitably, it's like patting your head and rubbing your stomach. You walk across the room in slow motion, and you want to slow your voice down, which is not what happens in space.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I don't want to give too much away because a lot happens, especially in the first episode. Emma's husband has a medical emergency, and her teenage daughter is there with him while Emma is on the moon, as sometimes happens. She's on a pit stop on the way to Mars. I want to listen to a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AWAY")

SWANK: (As Emma Green) OK. OK, listen to me.

TALITHA BATEMAN: (As Alexis Logan) Mom, I need you here.

SWANK: (As Emma Green) I know, baby. And I want to be there. I want to be there more than anything, but I can't be right now. So I need you to be strong, stronger than you've ever been in your life, OK?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I got to say this was like a gut punch because she's on the moon, but this is something that many parents have faced these choices, you know, working mothers are presented with, right, Hilary? What were you trying to capture there?

SWANK: You know, I was just trying to honor what was on the page. I don't think that there's any more challenging situation to have your child or your husband or your loved one needing you so desperately when you are so present with them and you're not there. You physically could not be there. And so you do everything emotionally to try and get across that you are as present as possible and will be there even though you can't be.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jessica, unity is also a central point to this show. You know, the world superpowers have their best on this mission. Historically, countries have competed to put their first satellite in space, the first man on the moon. Did you intend, Jessica, for this show to challenge that norm?

GOLDBERG: You know, it felt like such a hopeful thing to write about like, what if? I mean, it's crazy. Like, you'd never see China and America on the same spaceship ever. But what if they were? What if the world came together? You know, if they did, this mission is possible tomorrow. You know, that was a really exciting thought and just felt like in these incredibly divisive moments to, like, live in that fantasy, you know, for a little while. One of the most profound things I heard many, many astronauts tell us is that when they look back down at the Earth from space, they don't see a divided world. They see one planet. They see Earth. And that's just such a moving sentiment to me, especially in this moment.

SWANK: Yeah. And to add to that, you know, one of the things - I was speaking to Jessica Meir when she was up on ISS, the International Space Station. And she was talking about when you're up there, if you were to go to another planet, you would look at all the inhabitants on the planet, if there were life, as one thing. You wouldn't see them as separate entities. It would be that's life. And that's how they do look at the Earth. It's life. And we are all one people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What did you get from talking to these astronauts, Hilary?

SWANK: Oh, well, first of all, I wanted to be an astronaut when I was 5, 6 and and 7 before I wanted to be an actor at the age of 8. So for me, the idea of going into space - there could be probably nothing greater in my mind, the idea of something bigger than all of us and looking down and experiencing what they all talked about - this wonder and this realization that Earth is so beautiful.

And like Jessica said, when she just got back, and she was up there, and COVID was breaking out down here, she was talking about, when she touched down, the smell of Earth. Space has no smell. And the overwhelming sounds of just the wind rustling through the trees. And she was overwhelmed with the beauty of it. And it's just all these things that we clearly obviously take for granted because we know no other way. But when you really think of those things, it kind of just grounds you back into something we've all lost touch with that COVID is actually kind of reminding us about - the importance of health and family and loved ones.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is that what you want people to get from this, Jessica, now in this moment? I must say, like, watching this, it was great to be transported (laughter), but it is something that has, you know, more resonance.

GOLDBERG: Absolutely. Like, we finished shooting in late February, and then we suddenly were editing at home in COVID. And the resonance of seeing people away from each other, seeing people having to communicate to their loved ones on their computers and on their tablets suddenly felt very powerful. I mean, there's an episode where someone gets a virus in space and what it means to be in a tin can - and how prescient, you know? You know, in the end, there's a humility that you start to feel when you start to talk to these minds about being part of a larger universe. And it's an extraordinary thing to feel.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Jessica Goldberg and Hilary Swank talking to us about their new Netflix series "Away." Thank you both very much.

GOLDBERG: Thank you.

SWANK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 5, 2020 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous headline for this story misspelled Hilary Swank's name as Hillary Swant.