‘My kids are the cen­tre of my life... work fits in around them’

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - WEEKEND TV -

NEW ROLE:

If you’ve ever won­dered what it would be like to be an as­tro­naut, there’s a new drama on Chan­nel 4 with your name on it. The First, which has al­ready been stream­ing in the US on Hulu, stars Sean Penn in his first lead TV role and is set in the near-fu­ture and chron­i­cles the ef­fort to send the first crewed mis­sion to Mars.

Cal­i­for­ni­ca­tion star Natascha McEl­hone, who’s also known for films such as So­laris and The Tru­man Show, plays Laz In­gram, a vi­sion­ary aero­space mag­nate over­see­ing the as­tro­nauts. And part of the ap­peal for the Sur­rey-born ac­tress was em­body­ing a char­ac­ter so dif­fer­ent from her­self.

“My kids are the cen­tre of my life and work is some­thing that I fit around them,” notes the 48-year-old mum-of-three, whose hus­band, plas­tic sur­geon Martin Kelly, died of heart fail­ure in 2008. She was preg­nant with their third child at the time.

“So, I liked the idea of play­ing some­one whose re­al­ity was the op­po­site of that — her pri­mary re­la­tion­ship is with her work and, sig­nif­i­cantly, you don’t see her kids in the pilot.

“And that’s not to say they’re not well-ad­justed and well taken care of, it’s just she sees life through a very dif­fer­ent prism, which is, I sup­pose, the mark she’s go­ing to leave be­hind on hu­man his­tory.”

Be­ing her kids’ — sons aged nine, 15 and 18 — sole par­ent meant McEl­hone had to think long and hard about tak­ing on The First, writ­ten by House of Cards cre­ator Beau Wil­limon, as film­ing took place in Louisiana.

“Beau is hugely gen­er­ous and un­der­stand­ing about the com­plex­ity of our lives, so that was one of the first things we spoke about when we met; whether it was even pos­si­ble for me to do this job, be­cause I need to be home, pretty much all of the time, she says.

“They shot a lot in my kids’ school hol­i­days, so my kids came out for a month, which was great. And the rest of the time I com­muted. It would be a week shoot­ing and then I would just come back and then go back out a few weeks later.”

A mo­ment later, she adds earnestly: “I must big up all the peo­ple I’ve worked with over the last 10 years. They’ve been in­cred­i­bly un­der­stand­ing.”

Laz, who is sin­gle-minded in her mis­sion to reach Mars, was a com­plex char­ac­ter for McEl­hone to get her teeth into.

It’s ob­vi­ous from the first episode just how driven she is. But she also comes across as rather cold, as she doesn’t have the best in­ter­per­sonal skills.

“She is quite in­scrutable on some level and an aw­ful lot of her per­son­al­ity is an in­te­rior one and not some­thing peo­ple are privy to,” notes McEl­hone.

“It’s dif­fi­cult to con­vey that. I quite liked that chal­lenge and you’re very re­liant on the cam­era, whether they’re go­ing to pick up mo­ments of in­se­cu­rity, or doubt, or not, be­cause you don’t have di­a­logue to sup­port it.”

Does she think view­ers will find it hard to em­pathise with Laz?

“Pos­si­bly,” the star pon­ders in her typ­i­cally soft, calm tone. “I won­der, though, if, as a TV au­di­ence, we are over-catered to in that way; that writ­ers only dare put very em­pa­thetic char­ac­ters in lead roles, be­cause un­less some­one’s like­able, some­one isn’t go­ing to want to watch them. And I think re­cently we’ve found that isn’t nec­es­sar­ily the case.

“That doesn’t mean the per­son has to be a vil­lain, just sim­ply that they’re hon­est and you’ll see through­out the show Laz is very hon­est and trans­par­ent, in the way she con­ducts her busi­ness and her­self. There’s some­thing quite re­fresh­ing about that.”

McEl­hone has been out­spo­ken about be­ing anti-Brexit. She was one of a hand­ful of pub­lic fig­ures who con­trib­uted to the cost of coach travel for peo­ple head­ing to a march call­ing for a ref­er­en­dum on the fi­nal Brexit deal ear­lier this month.

And talk turns to pol­i­tics as she dis­cusses how we, as a so­ci­ety, seem to have the at­ti­tude that some­one say­ing they’ve made a mis­take is a sign of fail­ure, or dis­ap­point­ment.

“It’s so strange to me, po­lit­i­cally at the mo­ment — ob­vi­ously, I’m talk­ing about Brexit — this idea that we can’t re­visit and re-ex­am­ine some­thing and that there’s some­thing un­demo­cratic about that.”

She elab­o­rates fur­ther: “It’s so pe­cu­liar to me that, at the high­est level of ad­min­is­tra­tion and of pol­icy-mak­ing — and I’m as­sum­ing in big, big com­pa­nies like Laz’s — there’s this fash­ion and trend to just use smoke and mir­rors and not be trans­par­ent and be right.

“So, I like the fact Laz isn’t re­ally in­ter­ested in toe­ing that line. She’s ex­pe­di­ent and she will go and say what needs to be said to a bunch of peo­ple, who she’s go­ing to be re­liant upon to make sure she gets her fund­ing through, but she is happy to be wrong and to be un­pop­u­lar.” The First, Chan­nel 4, Thurs­day, 9pm

Natasha McEl­hone in The First

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