Away's astronauts talk season 1, wire training, and more
In Netflix's Away, Hilary Swank's Emma Green leads a crew of astronauts on a mission to Mars. Along the way, they face a series of life-or-death scenarios, all the while grappling with what it means to be away from Earth — and the people they left behind — for three years. The result is an in-depth look at relationships, space travel, and what it'd be like to live in zero gravity.
EW spoke with the actors behind the astronauts, Ato Essandoh (Kwesi), Ray Panthaki (Ram), Vivian Wu (Lu), and Mark Ivanir (Misha) about their experience filming the show's first season.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you find this project? What drew you in?
ATO ESSANDOH: For me, it was an audition. I read who was on it and I'm a big Hilary Swank fan already and I'd worked with Ed Zwick and even if I hadn't, it's Ed Zwick. [Laughs] It seemed like a no-brainer for me.
RAY PANTHAKI: My first impression was, "Okay sci fi's not really my thing," and then I started reading it and I realized how much of a beautiful character-driven drama it is, and then as you get further, you realize how diverse it is and the message it's putting out into the world and you're just like, "I have to be part of this."
ESSANDOH: I am a sci-fi fan so I was a little disappointed that we didn't get lasers or anything like that. [Laughs] But I was like, "Oh they're actually going to try to shoot the physics of space correctly?" I have a science background so I immediately was like, "How are they going to do this" but also, what an ambitious thing to do. I'd love to be a part of something like that.
VIVIAN WU: For the last decade I was working in China. I really hadn't read many roles as wonderful as Lu. Lu came as a really big, happy surprise. She's so multi-layered and not a stereotype, which is really important for me to play new, modern Chinese women in the public light. This was it, so I was really elated. I told my manager, "I really really want to get on this show," especially knowing Hilary's going to be in it.
MARK IVANIR: They sent me the pilot and I read it and we had a great conversation about, what's the dynamic in the group and who wants to be the commander. I was in the Israeli army for three years and a lot of it has the same feel of, "I should be the commander, not you."
What was the research process like for each of your characters?
ESSANDOH: We didn't get to go to NASA, which was disappointing but I get it. But they did bring in Mike Massimino, who has been in space a bunch of times and is an absolute rock star and recounted his experience in space and what it's like.
IVANIR: Nothing scientific for me. If I were to go on a spaceship, it would crash. [Laughs] My science aptitude goes up to replacing a bulb. But I found a documentary about a Russian cosmonaut who's been in space for over a year. That was fascinating. Every evening I would watch an episode and there was a lot of stuff I started taking away from it. Sometimes it's the little things that somehow bring you closer to the part. There was something about how he had two watches on, and every time he calls his wife, he checks the watch before he does. One watch was for Houston time because that's where mission control is, but one was for his wife. I took it to my part so Misha has two watches just in case he needs to call his daughter.
WU: This is my first time playing an LGBTQ role and I think that story is really important, especially because we're talking about an Asian, middle-aged [woman] coming to find her true authentic self for the very first time in her life. There's a lot of layers to that. I did a lot of research and tried to bring empathy and humanity to the role.
At what point did you know your character's backstory?
ESSANDOH: We got scripts ahead of time so we knew a lot of that.
PANTHAKI: It really helped me with my character because it informed every scene. Something so significant form his past determines how he sees things now.
ESSANDOH: Before they had cast me, Kwesi was actually a Nigerian character. But when they cast me, knowing I have a Ghanaian background, they wanted to make sure we were being as true to my actual heritage, which was really nice. What I didn't appreciate as much until I saw it filmed was when they showed Kwesi's backstory and he's speaking Fante. That's the language my family actually speaks. I don't know when I have ever seen my parents' language spoken in that setting, which was amazing.
WU: I'm still trying to dig into her backstory.
IVANIR: Same here. It's a working process and the process is ongoing.
WU: I can connect to her in the realm of both of us have to work so hard. She's a working mother. It's hard when you have to give your full emotional availability to your child and at the same time, you want to give it all to your work. My work constantly takes me away for big chunks of time.
What went into the wire work necessary to make it seem as if you all were experiencing zero gravity?
IVANIR: I watched a lot of TV and movies about space as my research and none of the shows I've seen came even close technically to doing what this show does. In this sense, I think the show did an amazing job. It was physically taxing because it's really difficult to keep yourself in the air even if you're hanging.
WU: Mark was really nimble. He was like the monkey on the set. [Laughs] We had a two-week bootcamp before the show started for wire training, and the first time when they showed us how they wanted us to be, I started laughing. I was like, "I couldn't do those things!"
PANTHAKI: It was a lot of physical hard work. I worked muscles that I never knew existed in my body. We started rehearsals a few weeks before we started shooting and we were guided by Jeff Aro and his whole stunt team. Every day for two weeks we were learning a little bit more. It was a lot of practice, a lot of hard work. Those sessions were grueling. It's your core and your glutes. Then you add the spacesuit on top of that and then you're trying to deliver lines and be natural. It was really hard but worth the pain because it looks so real and authentic.
ESSANDOH: And we've got great asses and abs now so that's one very good takeaway from that, I'm telling you it's awesome. [Laughs]
PANTHAKI: I did have abs and then lockdown happened and my abs disappeared. [Laughs]
ESSANDOH: I honestly can't believe we pulled it off. What you see in your school play when you're a little kid watching Peter Pan and Tinkerbell fly away is exactly what it was, it's pulleys and wires.
PANTHAKI: It was choreographed like a dance. Just know that every time we're speaking, our abs are killing us.
ESSANDOH: I thought I could do space until this show. Now I'm like man, I can barely handle the wires.
Away is available on Netflix now.