The Netflix remake of the 1960s TV series Lost in Space follows the Robinson family, part of an expedition to a new human colony after a celestial object known as “The Christmas Star” crashes into Earth causing destruction. Something goes wrong on the main ship, and a number of families crash on a habitable but dangerous planet.
In the new series, Mina Sundwall takes on the role of Penny Robinson (originally played by Angela Cartwright). Penny is the middle daughter, full of humor, but dealing with her own issues. We spoke to Sundwall about her wild audition, working on action scenes for the first time, the women of the show, and what she’d like to see if Lost in Space comes back for a second season.
I heard that you hadn’t watched the original show before you got involved with Lost in Space. What was your reaction when you did?
The first episode I ever watched of the original was the episode with the life-sized, human-sized carrots and vegetables. And that was definitely not what I was expecting! I think that it’s very, very cute, and I think that for the time it came out and the world of TV that it was, I think it’s absolutely perfect. I think they nailed it.
This is obviously a very different version of Penny, and I would love to hear how you describe her.
Penny is the quick-witted, sarcastic middle child in the family. She doesn’t always feel as if she has a place or is in her place, or is completely in her element. She is the only non-science person in a science family, but I think that there is definitely a growth that comes with her, and no matter what the situation she finds herself in, she is always true to herself, which is very important.
She’s funny, too! She had me laughing out loud.
Yeah, we have some incredible writers on the show. Reading every script that we get, I mean, I’m still laughing about it!
She’s also got some particularly middle child moments as well, like how sneaking out is kind of her thing. Did you do any research into what it’s like to be a middle child?
I did do a little bit. I am an only child. I guess the only other competition in my family is my dog! I don’t have any experience with it, but I do have a lot of friends who are middle children. I hear all of the stories, and all of the little lines that they put in, or the little fights and quarrels in their families, so I definitely drew from that.
I know that you’re pretty new to green screens and action scenes. What was that like for you to film this stuff?
It was incredible. The entire special effects process and the extent of special effects that we got to play with was nothing like I’d ever experienced before. It was definitely a learning process. I discovered and picked on tips and tricks over the course of the seven months that we were filming, and I definitely learned that, in that kind of environment, action is more than emotions and a character and even specific movements. It’s more of a choreography of little movements and camera angles and light and sound. It’s very specific. It’s very precise. And it can be very challenging, but at the same time, I’m really very glad and lucky for what I’ve learned.
Can you talk a bit out the dynamic between Penny and the Robot?
The Robot, for Penny specifically, it’s like—imagine your brother bringing home a stray animal and you don’t know where it’s from or what its intentions are, so there is an element of fear, but you know it also does everything for him. It does all of the chores, it carries him places, it protects him whenever he needs it, so at the same time, there is definitely an element of jealousy. I guess Penny has a bit of a love/hate relationship. Let’s put it like that.
There is this sweetness about the relationship between Penny and Will (Maxwell Jenkins). Did you guys have a relationship like that on set?
Definitely. Because we were with each other every day for seven months, in forests and on mountains and in and out of space suits in these complicated situations, we crafted this family. People always ask us, how did you make this family, how did you guys put together this family. We didn’t really have to work for it. It just happened. And we are very close, both when we’re working and when we’re not working. We see each other whenever we can. We stay in touch with each other, and all together, what you see on screen is what it’s like in real life.Something that’s striking about the show—I wish it didn’t have to be striking, but it is—is how many science-based women and intelligent women, and female characters in general that there are. What did that mean to you?
I think that we have plenty of incredible, independent, opinionated women on our show, and I always say that something I find that is so important is that we don’t have a “female scientist.” We don’t have a “female doctor.” We have a scientist and a doctor, and there’s never a question about it. And with that, I think having these roles portrayed by women on TV is important for the rising generation of girls, but it’s equally important for shaping this generation of boys that can look up to and relate with a woman hero. I think that it’s amazing, the progress that we’ve made, and moving past this damsel-in-distress stereotype to anywhere from Grey’s Anatomy women doctors and Wonder Woman and all of the women in Black Panther. I think that’s amazing, and I’m so honored to be a part of this transition.
I love the fact that Will is the one looking up to all of these women. Dad (Toby Stephens) is always off somewhere else.
Yeah, John is always carrying something or beating someone up!
What was the audition process like for Lost in Space?
Our showrunner Zack Estrin never lets me live down the self-tape I submitted. The entire auction process was pretty standard, actually. I got a note from my agent saying that I had scripts to read and I had to send in an audition. The scene that I had to read was the glacier scene that you see in Episode 1 between Judy (Taylor Russell) and Penny. And we filmed it under my kitchen table with a bed sheet over it to kind of mimic a glacier. My whole family crawled underneath the kitchen table, kind of huddled together, and filmed it on an iPhone! So we submitted that and I guess our creativity worked!
We were called to a callback in LA, and I will never, ever forget this audition. It was one of the scariest auditions I’ve ever had. It was a room with me and two other girls waiting. I was the last girl to go. And when I went in, I thought I had done fine, so I went out to sit and wait. And our showrunner Zack Estrin walks out and tells the other two girls that they can go home. They did great. And then he turns to me and says that they’ve actually printed out another version of the script because I’d messed up my lines so badly, and if I could just take another look at that when I was ready. [laughs] At this point, I’m having a mental breakdown and my heart is palpitating. But I read the script. I did not know what I did wrong. I went back in, clutching it for dear life, and did it again. Then afterward I called my mom and was pretty much brought to tears! But yeah, a week later for so, give or take a couple days, we got a call and they asked if we were ready to move to Vancouver, and here I am!
That’s pretty intense!
It was an emotional rollercoaster!
One of the things that I love about Penny is that she’s got this romance going, but it’s not the typical thing you see. She’s pretty much in control.
Yes! First of all, that whole romance with Ajay (Friese) who plays Vijay was so much fun. It was so much fun to film. It was so much fun to play around with. I think that it brings another level to this idea that our show is based in space. It is this extraordinary situation, but these are ordinary people. It’s a story about a family. It’s a story about people and characters, and there are different dynamics to people. And I guess emotions and relationships is one of them. So being able to play around with that aspect was something that I really enjoyed.
If the show gets a second season, what would you like to see for the story in general, and also for Penny?
Well, firstly, I think that words are great and all, but I would like to give Vijay a good slap in the face at some point! [laughs] Maybe not even as Penny. Maybe I’ll just make an arrangement with Ajay! I think that, for Penny, we’ve only really scratched the surface. She’s still an awkward, uncomfortable teenager, and I’m really excited to see and feel her growing and continue to grow until she’s who she’s meant to be, in a way. For the story as a whole, I’d be excited for every brutal, uncomfortable situation our writers can think of!
Lost in Space is available to stream on Netflix right now.