'The First' Star Natascha McElhone on the Challenge of Bringing the 'Visionary' Series to Life (Exclusive)

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Alan Markfield

It took both a little and lot to convince Natascha McElhone to jump aboard The First.

In the new Hulu series, the 48-year-old actress plays Laz Ingram, an aerospace magnate leading a mission to colonize Mars. While she was immediately charmed by creator Beau Willimon’s pitch, saying yes to the series proved to be a mission of its own.

“I had a seven-and-half-hour meeting with Beau, where we talked about the universe at great lengths, and I was utterly seduced by his vision and his process, and his imaginative landscape, and wanted to become a part of that,” she tells ET. “So I was incredibly flattered when he invited me [to join the show].”

McElhone last starred opposite Keifer Sutherland on Designated Survivor. After her character was written off the ABC (and now Netflix) series in season two, she took a meeting with Willimon. “Because I have sons, and it's been like that for sort of 18 years or so, for the large part of my career, I'll only end up working for a few months every year,” the actress explains. That’s why it was important to her that she bring Willimon’s “visionary” series to life -- in the right way.  

ET: The magnitude of The First is insane. It has an outstanding ensemble cast, including Sean Penn and LisaGay Hamilton, and it’s a co-production between Hulu and Channel 4. Is that scope part of what Beau laid out for you during that seven-and-a-half hour meeting?

Natascha McElhone: I think he had a very good sense of what it was he wanted the show to be. I was aware of Hulu and Channel 4's involvement, but I was also sort of slightly gun shy around network television having the power to sort of hire and fire showrunners. I was very assured by Beau that it was his company that was making this, and the integrity of it would stay, and nothing would be in the show that hadn't been approved by him. That was very important to hear, because it's not always like that.

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Paul Schiraldi

ET: Your character Laz is at the top of the totem pole, and while she sometimes struggles with her interpersonal skills, her incredible mind has gotten her to this point in her career. How did you prepare to play a woman like that?

I did a fair amount of research. I hit up a few of the contacts from [conferences I had done with Wired], and I said, 'Listen, I need to meet a woman, ideally early to mid 30s, who I could sit with and see where they're at, who perhaps had also come out of maybe an engineering background and maybe had an idea or a sort of prototype that they wanted to get patented and get financing for, and just see what their trajectory was.’ I needed to learn how much time they spent working, what their education had been, and that helped a lot more with [creating] mindset, I think.

My research was quite broad, and I read a book about Elon Musk, and I read Chris Hadfield's book, and a few other things. I watched a wonderful documentary called Particle Fever. And that’s tons of stuff actually, now that I think of it. That was great fun. I love being thrust into different worlds, and exploring things that I wouldn't otherwise have a reason to explore.

ET: What was the most challenging part of preparing for the role?

I think making sure that I understood the science behind the mission, and the universe of the problems of trying to build a life on Mars, all the things that people are struggling with --  oxygen, water, all of those obstacles. So I just sort of immersed myself in podcasts (laughs). A myriad of different things.

ET: All of the women on this show are so smart, especially dynamic and really three dimensional characters. Was that something that was important to you when signing on to the series?

It's something that's always important to me, and it had been since about the age of 18, so nothing's changed there. I'm very happy to play a woman who is conflicted about her love life and obsessed with someone and doesn't have a huge identity outside of that, because that exists. That's real, there are many women who live those lives. So that's as intriguing to me as someone who has huge agency over who she is, what she wants to put out in the world, and isn't fettered by romance or love perhaps isn't central to her life. I mean, I'm interested in all of these roles.

For me, I don't think, knowingly at least, I've taken a role where the intention is that I play someone who's objectified by men, or who is only there because I'm an appendage to a man. And if that does happen, or if that is the case, I've got out very quickly, or I don't take the job. So that's nothing new for me.

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Paul Schrimaldi

ET: What are your hopes for the future of the series? 

I, along with the rest of the cast, would be delighted if there was another season. We all just had a terrific time making this. It was hart work, and we shot a lot more than you ended up seeing. There were always options for scenes, and they left themselves with a lot of room to play with in the edit suite, which is why there's so many layers of sediment, if you like, to the characters and even the audience as a kind of character. There's just a lot of texture to the piece.

ET: You’re still remembered for a role early on in your career in The Truman Show. Jim Carrey is back on TV with his show, Kidding. The Truman Show was released 20 years ago -- have you guys kept in touch?

No, we haven't. You know, to be honest, we all live very peripatetic lives, and it's a bit like being part of a circus troupe. You know, one travels and you form very tight bonds for a very short, deep period of time, and then one goes back to one's real life. And I spend much more time in my real life than on a set. … Most of my time is spent at home, so therefore I don't necessarily come across some of the wonderful people that I've worked with in my back garden. It's not a very starry place (laughs). But I enjoyed working with him enormously, and he's hugely talented and that was great, and with [director] Peter Weir, who is just a visionary. I mean, I feel Beau is a visionary as well, and I'm very, very lucky to have worked with a few in my life.

All eight episodes of The First are now streaming on Hulu.

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