Launching September 4, the Netflix series Away is a thrilling drama that celebrates an international crew of their first mission to Mars. As the crew journeys into space, their personal dynamics and the effects of being separated from their loved ones becomes increasingly complex. Ray Panthaki plays Ram Arya, a former Air Force fighter pilot from India, now a crucial part of the crew on the first space mission to Mars.
(Netflix has provided The Daily Vox with this Q&A produced below)
WHAT WAS IT ABOUT THIS CHARACTER THAT YOU FOUND EXCITING AND CHALLENGING?
For me, I guess the first obstacle to cross was working on the cultural aspects of Ram coming from India because I was born and raised in England. Of course, my ancestry is Indian, so immediately there are familiarities and mindsets which are second nature, but it was really about trying to capture that cultural authenticity of him being born there. I had to delve deep and research his social status, his education and his history, trying to concoct a backstory for him that not only seemed plausible, but was taken from clues contained within the wonderful script that Andrew Hinderaker created. Then, there was working out the heart of Ram and how the traumas of his past make him see things now. I spoke with Andrew about that a lot and tried to create a three-dimensional understanding of how he navigates life, not only in his head but also from his heart. That was the first hurdle for me.
Next of course comes all of the space stuff, which meant trying to get myself into the mindset of a brilliantly efficient Air Force pilot-turned-astronaut. I really wanted to study how these high achieving and immensely physical guys function, what their training entails, and to gain an understanding of their sharpness. These are super smart humans and often some of the best in the world in their respective field. Then, when you’re talking about someone like Ram who is coming from being a fighter pilot, this is a guy who has to have reactions quicker than most; he’s been making life changing decisions in milliseconds. So really, it was about trying to get into that kind of mindset and to think about how having a brain like that would affect his relationships within the story.
WHAT DID YOU FIND INTERESTING ABOUT THE GLOBAL SCOPE OF THIS STORY?
I think it represents the world today. It’s a story that offers hope. It’s about mankind coming together for something much greater, and that feeds into the fact that there are British actors playing Indian astronauts, and American actors playing British astronauts, it’s a mishmash of cultures in all ways. I loved that, because that is the world now; that is what and who we are. It fits into this story of humankind. It doesn’t matter who we are or what color, it’s about countries and communities coming together for something much greater. There are no borders when you look back at Earth from space and I think that’s the most powerful message that could go out into the world in the climate that we currently live in.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO SPEAK TO FORMER ASTRONAUT MIKE MASSIMINO FOR THIS PROJECT?
Incredible! It was probably one of the highlights of the whole experience. To actually be able to sit and speak to a real-life astronaut really brought out the kid in me. Mike is extremely charismatic, and an open book when it comes to his stories and anecdotes. He always said he would answer any question no matter how probing, so it was wonderful to be able to speak so freely with him. I really wanted to learn about the small things, the nuance, so it was a godsend to have him and his generosity as part of this project. Mike is a big fan of what Andrew Hinderaker has written and appreciates the authenticity of it.
AFTER HEARING ALL OF THAT INSIDE INFORMATION, DID IT CHANGE YOUR MIND ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE OF BEING IN SPACE?
I think one of the most profound moments I had when talking to Mike was when I asked him this question: “When you’re up in space, does it make you believe in God?” What he said was incredibly profound and I’ve never forgotten it. He said he’s been up in space with both very religious and very scientific based colleagues, and what tends to happen is that each of them upsurge the beliefs they formed on Earth. So, if you’re religious it tends to enhance your faith in God to a whole new understanding, and if you’re a Scientist you see more of the scientific beauty of the cosmos and that increases your faith in science. I asked him what he felt and I’ll probably never forget what he said until the day I die, he said that when he looks down at the beauty of Earth from outer space, he sees Earth as being the Heaven we talk about. That really blew my mind and made me think that if we could only fly every person on the planet out to experience that once, maybe it would eradicate a lot of the harm we inflict on our home and each other.
WHAT WAS THE PHYSICAL PREPARATION LIKE FOR THIS ROLE?
A few weeks before I flew to Vancouver, I was given a heads up by one of the producers who called saying “I’ve heard it’s the core you’ll need to work on for the wire work,” so out went the carbs and in came the personal trainer! I did a few weeks of intense working out at home just to get a head start, but the best training came when we were actually up on the wires everyday. The first few times you get into these things, you’re really just trying to learn to balance yourself. Our stunt coordinator Jeff Aro and the rest of the team who trained us were incredible in their technique because no more than a week later, I was starting to spin solo and noticed muscles l didn’t know even existed had appeared! It was a big lesson and a reminder that practice does always eventually make perfect. I want to continue wirework after this because there’s something very freeing and enjoyable about being up there.
MOST OF THE ASTRONAUTS ARE DEALING WITH HOW TO STILL KEEP CONNECTED TO THEIR LOVED ONES BACK ON EARTH, BUT YOUR CHARACTER IS MORE OF A LONER. HOW DID YOU THINK ABOUT THAT ASPECT OF RAM?
Well, moving to Vancouver was initially pretty lonely to be honest. Coming from the U.K. I didn’t know anyone when I first arrived and everyone in the main cast was pretty much trying to find their own feet in a new city in the same way, so that initial period was hard and I was definitely able to draw from that; for a start it’s the longest period I’ve ever been away from home. The experience of arriving on my own in a new city halfway around the world, along with those of the character, made me have a newfound appreciation for loneliness. Coincidently, I picked up a newspaper on the flight to Vancouver and began reading an article on loneliness and how much of an epidemic it is in the world right now. For some unknown reason I tore it out and kept it because it really touched me, and then days later I started to have this whole parallel experience where I found myself incredibly lonely and homesick. I’ve never consciously felt that in my life before, but I guess it was just some divine thing for me to draw from.
HOW DO WE FIRST MEET THIS CREW IN THE SERIES?
What is so wonderful about the series and the way the show’s creator Andrew Hinderaker started the story is that we enter straight into the action. This is not about the build up of these astronauts leaving for space; these astronauts are already in space. When the story starts, they are already on the moon; it ploughs you straight into the world and I loved that about the script. They have already had an incredibly dramatic event happen before the audience even enters the story, and I thought it was a unique way to begin the series. Through that drama, we start to learn who each of these people are, how they dealt with the situation that has just happened, and how they all align within the story.
WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE WORKING WITH OSCAR WINNER ED ZWICK AS A DIRECTOR?
It was a complete and utter honor to work with Ed Zwick. He is everything you imagine and more. As actors we all have a secret wish list of directors that we would like to work with, and Ed has always been on my list. To get the opportunity to work with him and watch him bring his film sentiment to television was just wonderful. After seeing him do his thing, I don’t believe there was anyone else who could have set the world and tone for this show. His style is made for something like this, because he not only brought the filmic scale that it needed, but also the intimacy. Ultimately, Away is a relationship drama set in an extraordinary world and I think Ed was the perfect person to be able to fuse those elements together.