Netflix is on a tear in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I just can’t get enough of new shows to binge watch during my downtime—especially since world travel isn’t exactly a thing right now. I’m a huge space geek, so I was intrigued when I recently saw that one of the top new shows on the streaming platform was about a mission to Mars, called Away. I’m also a fan of Hilary Swank and Josh Charles, who play the two main characters, so I started the binge. What I saw in the first few episodes totally blew my mind—but not for the reason you might think.
You see, one of the main characters becomes disabled at the beginning of the season, and has to start using a wheelchair. Even worse, his spouse is in space on a three-year mission to Mars while he has to care for his teenage daughter at home. What follows in Away is some of the most realistic and authentic representation of disability and wheelchair use I’ve seen, not just on TV, but in the media as a whole. I was lucky enough to spend some time speaking with the show’s creator, Andrew Hinderaker, about how his vision for disability representation in Away grew out of his personal experiences, and what he sees for wheelchair users in media’s future.
Sylvia Longmire (SL): I know the starting point for Away was an Esquire article by the same name about Scott Kelly’s extended stay at the International Space Station, and then I read an interview of you that said you had been physically separated from your partner during a severe illness. Could you talk about how these events combined in your mind to create what we see now in Away?
Andrew Hinderaker (AH): Yeah, absolutely. Well, you nailed it, really. The entire article that was brought to me from Esquire magazine was extraordinary and moving, but the moment that struck me the most was this moment that the journalist Chris Jones writes about, where Scott Kelly is up in the International Space Station and learns that his sister-in-law, [former US Representative] Gabby Giffords, has been shot, and I just thought that it was so profoundly moving to read about Scott and his family – Gabby, Mark, everybody – trying to negotiate that moment, particularly Scott trying to negotiate it from a distance. And for me it felt really profound, and something I connected to personally. Because my partner and I have been together for over 15 years – and a lot of our relationship has been long distance and we were physically apart.
I was in Chicago opening a play when she was diagnosed with a really serious illness, really serious disease, and so that experience that is described in the article of, sort of one moment, you’re somewhere doing the thing that you really feel like you’re put on earth to do, in Scott’s case, be an astronaut (and in this case put on Earth is the wrong expression because he was literally not on Earth), that he was really fulfilling his purpose. And then the next moment, something catastrophic happens to someone you love and you really want to be home. It was just something I connected to profoundly, and was really grappling with and wanted to explore, and so I knew that that would be a fundamental part of the series as well.
SL: One of the main characters, Matt Logan (played by Josh Charles) unexpectedly becomes a wheelchair user early in the season. The amount of detail shown regarding his transition – for example a slide board, the hospital bed on the first floor, the grabber, the ramp, etc., – is amazing, and frankly quite surprising to many of us in the wheelchair community because we’re not used to seeing that level of detail in a show, or a film where a wheelchair user might rarely be shown. These things are very real to us, but they are often invisible to TV audiences. What was the process for including those details – either using consultants, or other wheelchair users, etc. – and why do you think it’s important to show those details?
AH: Well, first, thank you so much for saying that. It is really important to me and it’s important to the show, and it just means a tremendous amount, if that was in any way successful. For me, I mean, I almost need to go back a little bit. I started my career as a playwright in Chicago and the first theater company, and really the first artist, that took a chance on me and produced my play is the extraordinary theater and TV/film artist and actor named Michael Patrick Thronton, who is the Artistic Director of The Gift Theater Company in Chicago. And he is, interestingly, also in the show. He plays Hilary’s psychiatrist, Dr. Fred Putney, and is in five of ten episodes. And Mike gave me my first production, and was one of the lead characters in that play, and I really credit Mike enormously because he was so good in that play. That play kind of launched my career, so I went to New York. And Mike is a wheelchair user, and he and I have closely collaborated since 2008. He’s my closest artistic collaborator; we’ve done, I want to say five projects together: theater, TV and film.
I mention him because I have to credit him in terms of—if I have any ability to write stories that have it feel authentic and real and true and lived, it’s in large part because of my close collaboration with Mike. And we have done a number of projects together with roles where it’s not specified that the role is a wheelchair user, like in Away. But we also did this theater project called Colossal where Mike played the main character, and the main character is a former football player and dancer. It’s in the wake of a spinal injury that he endured on the field. And so that play in particular, it was absolutely essential, that every detail—because so much of the play was about a character in the wake of an injury—and so it was vital that absolutely every detail had to be correct dramaturgically. I would argue it’s vital regardless, but particularly in this play. And so I think that’s probably where that philosophy was crystalized and I think carried through.
You know, that play, the character that Mike played, and subsequently we produced around the country, it actually can’t be produced unless the actor playing Mike, is a wheelchair user. So I think that that was just sort of my artistic philosophy. And that’s really a philosophy that is, I hope, present in every aspect of the show, Away. You know, we did an immense amount of research on the astronauts, on space exploration, and so it to me it should be no less detailed and no less authentic than when you’re exploring the aftermath of a stroke.
SL: Do you think that this level of authenticity can help other show creators and producers realize the value of it when it comes to casting actors with disabilities?
AH: I hope so. I mean, I think that with the role of Matt that Josh Charles plays, it’s quite complex because when the when the series begins, the character is not a wheelchair user and then, subsequently, is. However, we have a couple of languages in the show of both flashbacks and magical realism that are pretty present in the first season, and the plan is actually even more present as season two and season three progress. So I think that role is—you know I’m still educating myself, but it’s a complex question, how you approach a role like that. But, my opinion is if the character is a wheelchair user, and barring complexities like I’m talking about with Matt’s character, they should always be cast with actors who use wheelchairs unequivocally, end of sentence, period.
SL: Now I want to get a little hypothetical here with you… There’s an episode where Matt has to make a critical decision: stay in his physical therapy program longer for a better chance of recovery, or go home to be there for his daughter, who’s struggling emotionally. Can you talk a bit about Matt’s mental struggle to make this decision, and how things maybe might have been different had he made another choice?
AH: Sure, I think that storyline came out of—honestly, it came from conversations when I was doing research for the play I mentioned, Colossal, which is kind of where I went to such depths about that play. You know, one of the things that a number of folks talked about during their own stage in rehab was this idea that it can often be advantageous to stay in the hospital longer, and maximize the amount of time you’re spending at rehab. And that sometimes the hospital can be motivated financially to have you leave prior to when your rehab can be optimized. So, that always stuck with me.
In the case of Matt, it’s a particularly interesting story because you’re always looking at dilemmas for characters where they’re faced two choices that are equally valid, and so the idea of staying in the hospital and maximizing his recovery versus getting home and being more of a presence for his daughter – particularly when his co-parent is away in space – felt like that’s a real dilemma. Where there’s validity to both choices, I think that we’re interested in the idea of exploring whether there’s a cost to the choice that Matt makes.
SL: Both Emma Green (the crew commander played by Hilary Swank) and her husband Matt go through significant emotional struggles in parallel – even though, she’s in space and he’s on earth – related to inadequacy, fear, and isolation, but for very different reasons. Do you think that these parallel struggles, particularly with the insider look into Matt’s life as a new wheelchair user, can help audiences empathize a bit more with wheelchair life?
AH: That’s the aspiration. Absolutely. There’s a line where Alexis, Matt’s daughter, is talking to the family psychiatrist – I mentioned played by Michael Partick Thornton, Dr. Putney – and given that Mike is a wheelchair user, Putney, then, is a wheelchair user. Alexis asks the psychiatrist if it’s hard being in a wheelchair, and his response is that it’s sometimes hard being in a world that wasn’t designed for chairs. That came out of conversations as well, and that’s sort of the aspiration in any storytelling is enhanced empathy.
I think it depends who the audience is, but often the audience, certain members of the audience, are folks like myself who might otherwise not appreciate the experiences that that someone has gone, is going through. I mentioned myself because I just have an enormous amount of privilege in my life given how I go through the world, identifying as a straight White male who doesn’t use a wheelchair. I feel like the world was in many ways designed for me, whether I asked for it or not. And part of my responsibility as a human being is to understand that, and to understand the ways in which the world wasn’t designed for other groups of people and to try to rectify that. To me, that begins with empathy, and you can’t have empathy if you don’t have authentic representation.
SL: On a bit of a more whimsical track, let’s talk wheelchairs in space! Now, I write a travel blog, so I would be remiss if I did not talk about space travel. But seriously, the astronaut crew is incredibly diverse, which sends the message that whether you’re Black, White, Chinese, Indian, male or female, you can dream of going into space. Can you talk a little bit about the diversity of the cast, and do you see wheelchair users or people with other disabilities eventually in space, whether in reality or on screen?
AH: I love this question so much! I don’t know where to begin. The diversity of the show absolutely was intentional, but again was sparked from something I read in that article. Because in addition to focusing on Scott Kelly, it also talks about the International Space Station itself, and its rather improbable alliance between all of these countries that might not normally get along, and came together because they had to, because they wouldn’t have been able to build this laboratory in the sky without each other’s expertise and money. That is generally accepted as the analogue for a mission to Mars: that if the world can figure out way to work together, that’s how we get there. So it was vital that this show embody that.
Again, I was really starting with what’s real and true, and in terms of starting with what’s real and true, at the moment, the specifications – for example for NASA – are so specific in terms of health and what’s allowed and what’s not allowed that 99% of the population is ruled out at the offset. However, all I can say, intentionally cryptically, is that in season two (should we be lucky enough to get it, there’s not been a season ordered) the question of wheelchair users in space is one we intend to explore.
SL: That’s so awesome! That’s fantastic, and considering how well it’s doing in the ratings, I am very, very optimistic about a season two. So I’ll definitely keep my fingers crossed! Is there anything else that you’d like to say to my wheelchair-using and people-with-disabilities audience?
AH: Aw, thank you. I genuinely appreciate your kind words more than I can say, and we just had a number of folks consulting on the show to try to get those details right. I want to reiterate that for me, my perspective on the character of Matt, is it’s incredibly complicated considering how that character is portrayed, and I’m so profoundly grateful to Josh Charles and the work that he does so beautifully. Because what you’re describing in terms of getting all the details right, it’s not just a matter of doing the research involving experts, involving people who have a lived experience and having consultant – although that’s vital – it also requires an actor who insists on getting everything right and authentic, and I want to give him due credit.
And I also just want to echo what you said, as we look ahead, the goal to me is to tell stories that reflect the world in which we live, and to tell them authentically and to reframe our perspectives so that we are more cognizant of our blind spots and assumptions. And you know when you were describing the experience of—I can’t remember how you said it so beautifully, but you were talking about being disabled because of the design of systems and structures. I can’t remember exactly how you said it but it was so great.
SL: It’s really just along the lines of the world not being designed for us. That the medical model of disability says we’re disabled because of a condition or a disease, but the social model says that we’re disabled because of the world around us, and if the world around us were accessible, we wouldn’t be disabled.
AH: Right, and I had that experience so acutely, to where I was working on Colossal, I did a lot of research at the Rehab Institute of Chicago, which is where Michael Thornton and I would just also—I’m obviously biased he’s like my closest collaborator – he’s just one of the most extraordinary actors and human beings alive. That’s where Mike did his rehab after he had a spinal stroke in his early 20s, and being at the Rehab Institute of Chicago and being in a building that was designed for people who use chairs was such a vital and radical reorientation for me. I mean, I feel like for one moment to have the tables turned for just a second in one building, to understand the ways in which, my physical reality is often catered to, whether I’m aware of it or not, that I think that is the responsibility of art and storytelling, to redesign paradigms that are more inclusive.
SL: Well, the beautiful thing about universal design and accessible design is that if you make it accessible for wheelchair users and people with disabilities, absolutely anybody can use it.
AH: That’s right.
SL: So that, in my opinion, that should be the baseline. But, I’m biased! Again, Andrew, thank you so much for your vision and for your effort to really increase the visibility and representation of wheelchair users in Away, and congratulations on your success with the show!
AH: Well, thank you for taking the time. It’s probably the favorite conversation I’ve had in all these conversations.
SL: That makes me feel so good! And best of luck moving forward and fingers crossed for season two. So, thank you!
Away is streaming NOW on Netflix.