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Two months before the entire United States began to shut down due to COVID-19, the idea of extended separation from family and friends for months at a time might've seemed unrelatable for some. For the actors on Netflix's Away — a new show starring Hilary Swank as Emma Green, the commander of astronauts on the first mission to Mars — the parallels between acting as if they were separated from everyone they knew and loved and actually living it were already starting to appear.
In January 2020, it was a common occurrence to head to an airport, get on a plane, and arrive in another country within hours. That is exactly how I arrived in Vancouver to visit the set of Away on a particularly snowy winter day. Now air travel is just another activity on the list of "remember whens" from our self-isolated lives.
When Ray Panthaki first flew from his home country of England to Canada to begin shooting Away, where he plays Ram, an astronaut on the Mars mission, the feeling of isolation so familiar to us now was something he had to contend with immediately.
"Well, being here in Vancouver has been pretty lonely for me, to be honest," said Panthaki. In the first episode of Away, the five astronauts from across the globe say goodbye to their loved ones and set out on a three-year mission, with only video chats and emails to connect them to Earth. Seven months later, this is something many of us can understand in a new way.
"I remember, on the plane over, reading the newspaper, and there was an article on loneliness and how much of an epidemic it is now," Panthaki said. "For some reason, I just tore it out, because it really moved me, and brought it with me. Then I had this whole parallel thing where I was lonely when I first arrived. I've never felt that in my life before, but, I guess, it was just some divine kind of thing for me to draw from."
Throughout the first season of Away, the crew members find themselves in almost constant life-threatening situations, and yet still also dealing with what's happening on Earth. They have to long-distance parent and struggle with not being physically there for those they love when they need them the most. As actors, they are uniquely suited to portray these emotions because they leave their families for months at a time to work on projects, Mark Ivanir (cast as Russian astronaut Misha) pointed out.
"It's not the moon, but it has a parallel of I'm face-timing with my family as we astronauts face-time with our families in the show," Ivanir explained. "And it's a really interesting parallel to grapple with during the state, and I think we had a few conversations, all of us in some way are going through this."
Throughout the global pandemic, so many moments have been missed. Graduations, weddings, holidays, birthdays, funerals — all of the events that so many usually spend with family and friends have taken a different shape or been canceled altogether. In Away, the astronauts can see Earth from their windows, see the struggles their families are going through, but are unable to be there. Oh, and they're also facing the pressures from their entire nations, who are desperate for the mission to succeed no matter the personal sacrifices.
In some ways, missing the events can make us appreciate those moments, even more, when we (someday?) can gather again. Maybe you were dreading attending your second cousin's wedding and now wish you had the chance to snark through it with your sister like you had planned. Or maybe you didn't quite realize how hard it would be to be away from your family during a special holiday to perform the traditions you once thought were pointless. Separation can give a much-needed perspective on what we value as well, something Ato Essandoh, who plays astronaut Kwesi, realized while the act of filming Away literally kept him away from his family.
"It was because of this great opportunity of working on this show, I had to miss my parents' 50th anniversary and my dad's 80th birthday because I couldn't make it back," Essandoh explained. "My parents live in Ghana with my brother-in-law and sister. And so I finally got to go there and it really was impactful ... and I think because I'm in the show, I felt it, even more, when I finally got to see my parents and just like sit and eat food."
These are feelings many of us are now so keenly aware of, but a pandemic that has left everyone struggling to survive has also shown us just how the people in our lives can come together to find hope and help one another through suffering. At the beginning of COVID, one of my friends left a birthday cake on my front step, one friend dropped off a care package with food, one went grocery shopping for me, and one organized a birthday Zoom call. Maybe separation makes us even more aware of what we miss but also more thankful for who we can count on, even during the hardest of time.
"Us humans, we are a social animal. We need each other," Essandoh noted. "And so when we don't have our actual family, we make a family and it just fits in. Do you know what I mean? It just happens automatically or genetically or in our DNA. It just happens naturally in the cast. And then I think that translates into the show as well, which I think is beautiful."
Season 1 of Away is now streaming on Netflix.