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‘The First’ Team on Telling the Human Story Behind Mission to Mars

Hulu’s new mission to Mars drama “The First” may follow a group of astronauts preparing to colonize the fourth planet from the sun, but it focuses much more heavily on their emotional experience than the science of training.

“I see the mission to Mars as part of a millennia-old story of humans having a deep and incessant curiosity of the universe around them,” creator Beau Willimon tells Variety. “It forces questions like, ‘Is there a god? What is our place in the universe? What does it all mean?’ Put them in a context where they’re forced to confront these questions more than the average person and there’s a particular type of drama — almost existential drama — which comes from that and is also maybe mixed up with [drama such as] maybe things aren’t going so well in my marriage and maybe I’m having trouble at work.”

Most important to Willimon when creating his cast of characters was to have “diversity of perspective.” Although he notes that all of the astronauts are trying to achieve the same goal, having wildly different backgrounds allows for different motivations — as well as conflicts.

Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn), for example, is leading a new crew while mourning his wife’s death and struggling with his daughter’s addiction, as well as her ambitions to turn her mother’s workspace into her own. Aiko Hakari (Keiko Agena) is running a multi-generational household and caring for a mother whose health is in decline. Kayla Price (LisaGay Hamilton) fought against racism and sexism for years to work her way up — and in many ways is still fighting that battle, finding herself overqualified in her position but not necessarily advancing.

“It’s 2030 [in the show] and the idea that racism and sexism still exists is grounded,” Hamilton says. “It’s not a post-racial society bulls—. It’s the real deal — and if it’s the real deal, then let’s deal with that. Let’s deal with how this person feels, how the institution is run. And we do.”

Hamilton’s character is not only an African-American female astronaut, but she is queer, as well, which adds another layer to some of the challenges she has faced to get to where she is. The serious and often tense situations she comes up against at work, though, are balanced by much more tender and intimate scenes at home with her wife, Nancy (Tracie Thomas).

“Their relationship is so rich and yet so simple — it’s just two, let’s face it, older people who know each other so well, have been together a very long time, who have invested in the relationship, who are supportive of each other and their goals,” Hamilton says. “I appreciated the screen time we were given to show that.”

Spending so much time with the loved ones of the astronauts depicts just how much they are willing to leave behind — potentially permanently, since the risk of danger is so great. “Astronauts, even though they don’t like to talk about it, still must confront that every time they go up they might not come back,” says Willimon. “It’s a special sort of person who is drawn to that line of work.”

The astronauts the team behind “The First” spoke to — “and we spoke to quite a few,” Willimon says — all had an “unwavering determination” to carry out their mission, despite those potential dangers. Embodying that trait became key for the actors.

“There’s this thing about, ‘This is in me, this is who I am, and who I am is an explorer, and I’m willing to risk,'” Hamilton says. “I truly believe every human being must find the thing that they would die for. … In this particular instance of space exploration, there’s such a belief and interest in how do we further mankind [and] how do we preserve living? [But] on a personal level, I have those things in my life — I’m willing to die for my child; I’m wiling to die for some of my political beliefs.”

On the flip side of the equation in many ways, though, is Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), who is the CEO of the company behind the mission. Since she is not preparing to ship off, more time is spent with her dealing with technical issues at work and with her employees than getting to know as much about her personally.

“[Tom] is kind of the heartbeat of the piece, as is his relationship with [his daughter] Denise and the co-dependence there and pain and complications,” McElhone says. “In Laz’ world, there’s something quite finite around her and the way she functions. I kind of love the fact that she’s slightly inscrutable and there isn’t a lot of access to her.”

Her life may not be on the line the way the astronauts’ lives are, but Laz has a lot at stake with the launch, as well. Willimon says it was imperative to set up just how high those stakes were from the start of the series, and then “really explore how hard it is to even get to a launch.” But despite so many elements in play that could work against success, such as politicians not wanting to fund the program, clashes of personality types, or failure to pass required tests to prove space travel suitability, Willimon ultimately wanted to tell a “story of optimism, of hope, of people trying to achieve something together.”

“We’re living in pretty complicated, tough times in our world right now so there might be a need for some stories that can investigate the best in ourselves [and] remind us the value of dreams and doing hard and difficult things,” he says. “Where the ordinary and the extraordinary brush up against each other is where we want our show to be.”

“The First” streams Sept. 14 on Hulu.

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