Hilary Swank on the Intense Physicality of ‘Away’ and Christopher Nolan’s Mastery on ‘Insomnia’

     September 11, 2020

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Created by Andrew Hinderaker and executive produced by Jessica Goldberg, Jason Katims and Matt Reeves, the Netflix series Away is an epic story about American astronaut Emma Green (Academy Award winner Hilary Swank) and her international crew on the first mission to Mars, who leaves behind her husband (Josh Charles) and teenage daughter (Talitha Bateman) in pursuit of science and discovery. It is a deeply human and emotional journey that separates loved ones, but illustrates the incredible advancements that can be achieved through risk and personal sacrifice.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Hilary Swank (who is also an executive producer on the series) talked about the undertaking of great proportions that Away turned out to be, her reaction to reading the material, what she loves about her character, the extreme physical challenges of this role, her hope for a second season, and what she’s most proud of with the series. She also talked about her journey from comedy to drama, her experience working with director Christopher Nolan on Insomnia, and her memories of making the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie.

[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Away.]

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Image via Netflix

Collider: I was extremely impressed by everything with this show. I can’t imagine the undertaking that it must have all been.

HILARY SWANK: Thank you. It was quite an undertaking, but of the greatest proportions. It was a challenge in every way, physically and emotionally. I, personally, love to 100% immerse myself into things that are challenges like this, so I appreciated it.

When this project came your way, was it fully formed, or was it just an idea? How far along in the process of development was it when it came to you?

SWANK: I got the pilot, and it was based off of an Esquire article. I read the article, I read the pilot, and I loved it. There were no other episodes for me to read. It was just a meeting about, “This is where we want it to go. This is the trajectory. These are the blocks that they’ll hit and have to persevere through.” I loved the pilot so much.

What got you interested enough that you also wanted to be involved as a producer as well?

SWANK: When I read the pilot and the article, I realized that what inspires me, more than anything, are people who persevere through adversity, and they never give up and they find a way. I don’t think there’s any more of a challenge than a mission to Mars and all that entails. I loved that it was all these different races working for this common goal, and when it broke down, it showed that we’re all human underneath all of this. We all have the desire to be loved. Watching each person live through that on this mission was so beautiful to me. And becoming an executive producer gave me the opportunity to help shape that. To be able to be a part of forming where it goes and working with such a talented team to collaborate on that was great. I’m not only getting paid to act in a challenging role, but I can help create it. That all wrapped up into the perfect dream.

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Image via Netflix

What was it like to really have the opportunity to get pretty deep inside the head of someone like this? She’s a very ambitious woman, in the sense that she leaves her family behind with the very real risk that they may never be reunited with each other, so what was it like to dig into that, both in her present life and in her past?

SWANK: I loved that she is a woman being faced with that challenge that no one would think twice of if it were a man. We were in the middle of filming and we had some journalists come to the set, and this young woman, for a magazine had said, “Oh my gosh, I was watching the pilot and I couldn’t believe the decision that your character made. And then, all of a sudden, I checked myself ‘cause I realized that if it had been a man, I wouldn’t have even asked that.” It was an interesting look at ourselves and how we view the world because of how we have been raised and conditioned to think of things. That’s why, on a lot of levels, it transcends gender, in a way. This commander of this mission to Mars is a female, which is so awesome, but that’s not the drama of the story, where five years ago, that would have been the drama. She has an equal in her husband. They walk shoulder to shoulder in trying to complete this dream and trying to complete this mission, and it’s not the drama of, “Oh, he’s emasculated by her going and him not.” I just think it’s a human decision. How do we make decisions every day in our life? What brings us to the choices that we come to? Every day, we all have a choice, and how do we walk through that, as human beings, with what’s in front of us? It’s all different, yet it’s kind of the same.

It seems like there are any number of challenges when you take on something like this, but the physicality of this role seems very specific to this project. What was that like to explore and get to figure out?

SWANK: It was more physically challenging than I actually anticipated it being. Learning how to make zero gravity look effortless, when it took so much effort, was really something. Inevitably, when you’re moving slowly, you want to slow your voice down, which obviously doesn’t happen in real zero gravity. So, there were a lot of patting your head and rubbing your belly type of moments. You work on getting your glutes and your abs strong, so that you can move around on those wires that are penduluming you at the bottom of your hips.

How do you feel about where the end of this season leaves these characters? With their journey seeming like it’s just beginning, do you feel like that would make for a really interesting second season?

SWANK: Of course I’m a little biased, but yes. Where we end is a really interesting beginning that people want to then embark on with us in the next wave of what could be that journey.

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Image via Fox Searchlight Pictures

You started your career on more of a comedy path, and then the two roles that you received the most acclaim for – Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby – were clearly both dramas. Do you feel like your eventual goal was always working in drama, or did you think you were going to go down that comedy path?

SWANK: My mom says that I should have won an Academy Award for tricking everyone into thinking I’m so dramatic. I’m a total goofball, and I grew up a goofball. I was a clown. As you stated, I started my career in comedy and, in fact, I was doing a lot of half-hour shows, which were all comedy and four cameras. When I auditioned for my first drama on television, the exec at the network that I had worked with so much said, “Well, you know that I love you, but you’re just too half-hour.” They didn’t even say that I was funny, by the way. They just said that I was too half-hour. And that same year, I did Boys Don’t Cry. I think it just goes to show that we all do it, but we put people in a box. We’re able to define people in a way that helps us see the world and to identify ourselves within the world, too. I get it. It’s tribal. It’s human. But it also goes to show that we’re all so much more than we think, even for ourselves. When you start living for decades-plus, we stop to say, “Hey, there actually is more to me than that. I’d like to learn what that is for myself.” I’m not saying that we have to prove it to other people, but just by exploring. As far as we know, we have a short life. So, I hope to get back into some of my comedy roots, especially now that I’m just so happy in my life and I wanna explore laughter.

You worked with Christopher Nolan nearly 20 years ago on Insomnia. What is something that you learned about him that you think would surprise people?

SWANK: Well, I don’t know what people know about him, but the thing that I was taken by and surprised by, which I guess shouldn’t have been a surprise ‘cause he’s a genius, is the fact that he works in the most unique way, in that he understands his lenses and where he wants the camera. I remember one little scene, that was a very quick scene in Insomnia, where Ellie is on the ground and she’s trying to figure out and break down what’s going on in front of her and solve this. It was the first scene we did, and Christopher was like, “Okay, I wanna come in and I want a dolly over here, on a 20. And then, we can cut here. We don’t need to keep going. I wanna be up in the corner stagnant on an 85. And then, I wanna shoot through this door here. Let’s do that on a 45.” He knew exactly what he wanted and was already cutting it in his head. I’ve never worked with another director who was that masterful in seeing the overall picture that clearly. They’ll get it as you go. It will evolve and they’ll be like, “Let’s get on a 20 here. I don’t wanna miss this moment.” But he had it in his head. And that doesn’t mean that he can’t improv and say, “Oh, I didn’t anticipate that. Let’s get this, too.” But his understanding of lenses and camera, and how to capture a scene, is like no other that I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with greats.

The first time that I became aware of you as an actress was in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie. What do you remember about making that movie and playing that character? Was that a fun experience?

SWANK: Oh my gosh. It was fun, but it was also not. It was stressful. The hours were really long. I was 17 years old, and I was doing something that I probably shouldn’t have. I was doing a pilot during the day and then I was filming Buffy at night, because it was mostly a night shoot. That was fine. I was a kid, so it’s not like it was too hard for me, but working night has never been my favorite, even as a young person. I just am not a night person. But there were times where we would be so giddy from being so tired, that we would just have those moments where you laugh, but you’re not really laughing for any reason. We would have these break-out laughs. We were all so new and trying to not mess up.

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Image via Netflix

When it comes to a project like Away, where it does seem like it took so much to pull everything off, and the season is now complete, what are you most proud of, as far as what you accomplished with this project and how everything came together?

SWANK: Clint Eastwood really said it well. He said, “You always aim for the bullseye, but you don’t always hit it.” I think if you just go in and you bring your A-game, and everyone’s bringing their A-game, and you’re there because you love it and you feel the story is worth telling, and you didn’t compromise your integrity and you’re not doing it for any other reason, it’s all a good experience. And then, if it comes out well, it’s the icing on top. You didn’t let the people down who invested in, believed in you, and believed in the story. You want everyone to make their money back that invested. Especially as a producer, you feel an extra responsibility for all of that. You feel like, “Okay, wow, I hit the lottery,” ‘cause it doesn’t always work.

Away is available to stream at Netflix.

Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter of Film, TV, and Theme Parks for Collider. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaRadish.

Television