By Samantha Highfill
September 02, 2020 at 11:34 AM EDT
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Despite winning two Academy Awards for Best Actress — and a slew of other accolades — Hilary Swank didn’t always want to act. "I wanted to be an astronaut before I wanted to be an actor," says Swank, 46. Now, thanks to her new show, she gets to do both. (Minus the actual "going to space" part.)

On Netflix’s Away (Sept. 4), Swank stars as commander Emma Green, a former Navy pilot chosen to lead four fellow astronauts on the first-ever human mission to Mars. The assignment will take three years to complete, and there’s a chance Emma won’t survive. But it’s a risk she’s willing to take to achieve a dream. The catch? It means leaving behind her husband, Matt (The Good Wife’s Josh Charles), and their teenage daughter, Alexis (Love, Simon’s Talitha Bateman).

Credit: Netflix

"It just had this grand scale mixed with family drama," Charles, 48, says of the show’s appeal. "It’s the contrast of the big and small, the landscape of space and the intimacy of family." Or, as showrunner Jessica Goldberg puts it, Away is the "ultimate working-mom story." And as a single mother of a 13-year-old, Goldberg can relate. "I love my work as much as my child," she says. "I’ve never really seen that portrayed the way it is in this show."

Created by Andrew Hinderaker, the series was inspired by Chris Jones’ 2014 Esquire article that detailed astronaut Scott Kelly’s space journey. While in orbit, Kelly received a call informing him that his sister-in-law, then congresswoman Gabby Giffords, had been shot. In Away’s pilot, Emma experiences something similar: She gets a call about a family emergency and begins to question whether she made the right decision in leaving. As Swank explains, "There’s this gravitational pull, no pun intended, to Earth and our families there." Except, as Kelly said in Jones’ article, there’s no going home.

Credit: KATIE YU/NETFLIX

For a show about space, Away presents a pretty grounded picture of family dynamics put to the test. However, it isn’t just the story of one family, but two. On her journey, Emma is joined by a pilot from India (Ray Panthaki), a Russian cosmonaut and engineer (Mark Ivanir), a chemist representing China (Vivian Wu), and a British botanist from Ghana (Ato Essandoh). And if spending three years in cramped quarters with four other people doesn’t form a familial bond, nothing will. Over the first 10 episodes, any number of things can — and do — go wrong, forcing the crew to work together if they want to live.

"It’s aspirational in a way," says executive producer Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood). "[The show] is about people from different countries coming together for a common purpose, and I think that’s such an uplifting thing to see at a time when there’s so much division in our world."

But the timeliness of the story expands past a message of togetherness (and the relatable use of FaceTime). Unlike many movies and shows about space, Away centers on a woman. "Everybody got much more excited about [the mission having] a female commander once the idea came up," Katims says. Although more than 60 women have been beyond Earth’s orbit, a woman has yet to land on the moon, much less lead a mission beyond it. Putting Emma in command "took something we were already excited about and gave it the potential to be more timely."

Casting Swank was crucial, says Goldberg: "There are so many wonderful actresses, but it’s so rare that you believe somebody could be an astronaut. I believe that [Hilary] would be an astronaut." Known for transforming herself for her roles in Million Dollar Baby and Boys Don’t Cry, the actress prepared for her latest by visiting mission control in Houston and chatting with astronauts currently on the International Space Station.

Those Oscar-winning chops come in handy for the show’s more emotional moments as well. "The mother-daughter aspect of the story was very moving to me," says Katims. Because how is Alexis supposed to tell her mom about her first boyfriend if she’s not around? "Emma has to decide if she wants to be there for her daughter or if she wants to go down in history," Bateman says. Or better yet, if she can do both.

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