'Away' takes Hilary Swank to Mars

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Hilary Swank may have taken a punch in the boxing ring, but that was nothing compared to flying weightless, she says. Swank stars as an astronaut on her way to Mars in Netflix’s new series “Away,” premiering Friday.

“Pretending that you’re in zero G, zero gravity, it takes a lot of effort and a lot of effort to make it look effortless,” she says.

“We were harnessed by the lower part of our hips, and they were acting as a pendulum. So we’d squeeze our glutes to move us forward, and then squeeze our abs to move us backwards. But the whole time we’re squeezing these muscles so tight and trying not to talk funny because of it,” she grins.

“The whole idea of being in zero G, you just naturally want to talk like you’re in slo-o-o-w motion — which people don’t do in zero gravity. So it was, I think, for all of us a lot more challenging than we realized it would be.”

Swank is up to the task. The winner of two Academy Awards as best actress, for her role as a transgender youth in “Boys Don’t Cry” and as a pugilist in “Million Dollar Baby,” Swank has been acting since she was practically a toddler.

“I love the idea of exploring another human being and what makes them work. I just love the human condition, what makes people tick,” she says.

She was 9 when she starred in her first play.

“My mom always said to me, ‘Stop staring, stop staring, Hilary.’ I was always staring and observing and watching what makes people work. I remember one of our teachers had us write a script and act it out in front of the class. I remember feeling like something just came alive in me that I’d never felt before. And it’s one of those inexplicable things that you just can’t put into words. I didn’t realize at the time you could make a career out of it, but I just kept doing local theater and doing plays and finally realized, ‘Hey, wait a second, you can be an actor.’”

Swank worked her way up, landing a role on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” when she was 18 and her first big break in “The Next Karate Kid” two years later.

Since her notable splash in films, she’s played everything from a suffragette to Amelia Earhart. But she’s never been impressed by her colorful resume.

“I’m not one to ever expect anything in my life, but I was hoping I would get the opportunity to test my chops and challenge myself,” she says.

“I was just lucky with that opportunity when ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ came along because they didn’t want someone who was famous. It was the right time. I’m very thankful for that and for the opportunities that have arisen since then, after winning the Oscar. I never thought about it. I never expected it to happen that quickly.”

At this point Swank, 46, can be choosy about what she does. She liked “Away,” she says, because it views the challenge of space in the context of family.

“The commander of this mission to Mars is a woman, and that’s not the drama of the story,” she says.

“I think that shows how far we’ve come … working towards equality. The drama has these richly different racial backgrounds; these people who are on this journey working toward a goal together while having this gravitational pull to Earth … all of us having these families that made it a love story,” she says.

“So my character was dealing with this dream come true of being on a mission to Mars, this dream come true of being a mother, which was unexpected; and, then, growing these deep relationships with these other human beings she was on this mission with, and breaking through these stereotypes to see what connects us all, which is humanity.”


With COVID-19 shutting down Hollywood’s productions, creators are transplanting shows from other countries. And on Tuesday NBC introduces a Canadian medical drama, conveniently named “Transplant.”

The series is about a Syrian-trained doctor (Hamza Haq) who flees his homeland and tries to make a new start in Canada. When he witnesses an accident, he slips into automatic overdrive and helps save some lives, including the chief of emergency medicine at York Memorial, played by the versatile John Hannah.

The Scottish Hannah actually worked as an electrician before he was an actor and says he wasn’t burning the torch to become a performer.

“I became an actor by chance probably like most people,” he says.

“I became an actor because I went to drama school and I went to drama school simply because you didn’t need any qualifications to get in. I was definitely looking for something, looking for a direction in my life. And I suppose I was looking for myself in a way. I was 19. I’d been working since I was 16, had left home at 16 and was kind of looking for some sort of direction, looking for who I was and where I was going in life.

“And acting didn’t necessarily give me that, but it certainly gave me a lot of fun while looking. I do feel that being an actor is like a very broad foundation course at university. You’re constantly stimulated by the diverse and eclectic (subjects) that you can research. And you can perhaps discover something about yourself and about the human condition. Even in literature, when I read fiction, I’m often impressed by characters who seem to know answers, who seem to offer me direction.”


You wouldn’t think a robotics engineer and a physics professor would have anything to do with television. But not only are these guys behind a TV show, it’s a TV show for preschoolers. “Elinor Wonders Why” premieres on PBS next Monday, and it’s based on the daughter of Jorge Cham, the engineer and cartoonist behind the online comic “Piled Higher and Deeper.”

Anyone who’s had a 5-year-old in the house knows they constantly ask questions. And that’s a good thing, says Daniel Whiteson, the physicist half of the production team.

“Jorge and I have been working together for more than a decade now, not on animated children’s television, certainly, but sort of in the same universe, in that we have been working on science communication and portraying science for the general public,” he says.

They joined forces in trying to explain “things like the Higgs boson and dark matter and the research that I work on in a way that’s accessible,” says Whiteson.

“And one thing we have always been trying to communicate is curiosity, the joy of the world and encouraging people to think and to wonder and to explore the universe. So that’s how our collaboration got started.”

They may be entertainment’s odd couple, but their joint mission is stimulating curiosity, says Cham. “The show is really centered around natural design and having kids discover all of the amazing connections that exist between nature and how nature solves problems, or how nature does their thing to things and the design solutions that are surrounding the kids’ world.”


It’s hard to believe, but a scary alien has called off earthly destruction because he fell in love with humans. It’s the new Disney+ series, “Earth to Ned,” in which the alien, Ned, and his companion, Cornelius, host a secret talk show from the bowels of the Earth.

All the subterfuge is necessary because Ned’s father, admiral of the Galactic Fleet, would hotly disapprove of Ned fraternizing with the enemy (humankind). This 10-part series comes from the Jim Henson Co. and premieres Friday. Some of the celebrities landing on Ned’s guest couch include Rachel Bilson, Rachel Bloom, Taye Diggs, Gillian Jacobs, Kristen Schaal and Billy Dee Williams.

Williams, who will forever be the dashing Lando Calrissian from “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back,” tells me he had no idea what to do with his life when he was young. “I was easily sidetracked. Even when I was a kid, I used to wander a lot and get lost. My father used to watch me.

“He’d hide behind a tree and be in hysterics — I’m looking for my father, and he’s having a good time. One time I wandered off on the beach. He found me with a group of girls with Cupid lips on my face. I knew I was on my way to something.”


(Luaine Lee is a California-based correspondent who covers entertainment for Tribune News Service.)


©2020 Luaine Lee