Before Beau Willimon started writing, he was painting and drawing, and he thought that would be his profession. Instead, he went on to create series such as “House of Cards” for Netflix and “The First” for Hulu, the latter on which he finally got to dramatize his chosen art form of oil paintings.
“The First” centers on astronauts preparing for the first mission to Mars, but one of them, Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn), has a daughter, Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron), who uses art as a way to work through trauma. Willimon himself painted all of the pieces depicted in the show.
“Just from a personal and selfish standpoint, I wanted to write what I know,” he tells Variety.
But “on a deeper level,” he notes, “there isn’t much difference between scientists and artists.” Both, he says, are trying to understand the universe — and they have to use a lot of imagination in order to do so. Furthermore, he believes the artistic process of an artist closely mirrors that of someone trying to reach another planet.
“You’re launching yourself into emotional and psychological risk [and] entering your own black void to confront things that can be scary and try to wrap your head around it in a way that’s constructive,” he explains.
As Denise paints to work through her pain over her mother’s death, as well as the pain of her own recovery from opioid addiction, she is “confronting her own abyss is just as vast as the one her father’s taking, and it is, to a degree, life and death,” Willimon continues. “I wanted to draw those comparisons because most people watching are never going to go to space or Mars, but I wanted to show how it’s not necessarily different than whatever anyone is setting themselves to — it all requires struggle, sacrifice and endurance.”
Willimon brought some of his own personal elements as an artist into Denise’s work — such as the oil medium and making her a portrait artist because he is “fascinated by the human face.” However, he worked to paint as if he was someone else and created pieces that were not necessarily in line with his usual aesthetic.
“You try to put yourself in a character’s shoes when you’re writing that character, but it’s a whole other thing to put yourself in their shoes to paint their painting. In a way I found it incredibly liberating because it allowed me to explore an artistic voice that in some ways was coming from me but was different than what I would paint on my own,” he says.
In order to create the portraits, some of which were of Denise’s mother Diane (Melissa George), Willimon used photo references, but he says his goal was never to reproduce the photo. Instead, he would “do an undercoat, almost an armature for what the eventual piece will become, but that image may transform in many ways over time” as he layered paint and played with shapes.
He also worked with Jacoby-Heron to help her feel comfortable with holding a brush in scenes so she could accurately portray a painter. “It sort of brought me back to my early days of painting and that excitement of engaging with these materials for the first time,” he says.
What he found most rewarding, though, was how he could switch back and forth between his “writer brain” and his “painter brain” while working on “The First.”
“Writing, by nature, is rooted in language, and the visual arts for me are not,” he says. “But I think they inform each other, and sometimes it’s useful to think more as a painter when you’re writing something and say, ‘I need to get out of my logical, literal brain and become more visual or invest and trust more in the poetry of something that doesn’t necessarily have an easy explanation.’ And sometimes when you’re working on a painting, you need to think in a more structured way and get almost scientific about it, thinking about color choice the way you might also outline a story.”
“The First” is streaming now on Hulu.