Interview with Actor Ben Cotton of NatGeo Miniseries MARS

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By: Haylee Fisher (@haylee_fisher)

From the creative and prolific minds of Brian Grazer and Ron Howard comes tonight’s global miniseries event, MARS.

Inspired by Stephen Petranek’s book “How We’ll Live on Mars,” NatGeo’s MARS depicts the first voyage to the Red Planet and the successes and tribulations that might entail through a unique storytelling format: scripted scenes set in 2033 that depict the mission intermixed with interviews with real-life scientific experts like Elon Musk and Neil DeGrasse Tyson to give accurate, documentary-style context.

Ben Cotton portrays one of the astronauts on this pioneering mission. I recently spoke to him about why the project excited him even before he auditioned, what sets this project apart from other Mars-related media, whether he would actually ever want to go to Mars, and more.

What was it about this project that drew you in and made you want to be a part of it?

I looked at the audition notice and I looked at the names on it and before I even read anything, I see “National Geographic” and as I’ve learned since we shot this thing, anywhere you go, people perk up when they hear that. They do! I’ve had the good fortune of being in many different places where I’ve spoken to people with whom it was difficult to communicate because we didn’t have a common language and we were struggling through trying to speak each others’ languages and having trouble communicating until National Geographic comes up, and it’s something everyone’s like, “Ooohhhh!” Everybody loves it. So seeing that, and seeing Brian Grazer and Ron Howard and Radical Media – I had just finished watching a few of their documentaries and loved them, actually right before I got the audition, so all of that together made it look like a very thrilling project and of course reading the scripts just helped to solidify that feeling.

Tell me about the training that went into accurately portraying an astronaut. Did you go through anything real astronauts go through?

I wish we had! We didn’t actually get to. I was kind of hoping we’d get to go on that thing – what do you call it? The vomit comet? [Laughs] The thing that flies up and down like a roller coaster and lets you feel zero gravity. We didn’t get to do all that stuff, but I certainly spent hours watching videos of astronauts and interviews with them. Lots of different videos, like things from up on the space station. And we got to spend a lot of time with Dr. Mae Jemison, who is a former astronaut with NASA. She’s also got nine Ph.D’s. Let’s just think about that for a second. Nine of them! And she is the first African American woman in space. So we had a wonderful and privileged time to hang out with her and to learn from her everything she certainly figured we would need to know to do this show. She taught us everything from what the effects are on your body when you’re in zero gravity, then what happens when you re-enter into gravity; she taught us about her training and what sort of things she went through; what you go through mentally when you have to prepare yourself for possibly not returning to Earth, because of course, as we’ve seen, unfortunately with any space travel, it’s got potential dangers to it; and she taught us how to deal with one another and how to communicate with one another, because, of course, people in the shuttles and in different areas of the space programs are taught a certain cadence and a certain way of dealing with each other so you don’t get too emotional when things are going wrong and there’s a stressful situation – you’re meant to stay calm and be very clear with one another. So she helped us understand all of that stuff and it was great.

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What was the most challenging aspect from the project? The training, the research, the shoot in hot Morocco…?

Yeah, I would say that was probably the most challenging, the hot shoot in Morocco. There were days where we would go out there and it was 125 degrees on a couple of them, and I’m not a religious man, but there were times when I was looking up at the sky going, “Please, not today!” But we all made it through. They had suits inside of our suits that had cooling systems in them that would pump cold water through and cool us down and help us to regulate, which almost made it hard because you’d cool down and you’d un-tether from the ice water and you’d immediately be roasting again. But all in all, we had a great time and a lot of laughs, so it was cool.

Obviously lots of movies and TV shows explore what it might be like to go to Mars, but a more recent project to do so was The Martian. Andy Weir is even interviewed for this project, but how did y’all seek to make this show look and feel different so as not to seem like a re-hash of the same locations and stories from it?

I think it’s a very different storyline from The Martian. I don’t know how much I can give away, in terms of what the plot is like. I think when you watch it, you’ll see it’s quite different from The Martian. What I think sets this thing apart is the story for this is born out of the interviews with all of the experts we’ve got, the list of 21 “big-thinkers,” as we’re calling them. And they’ve all been interviewed about what a mission to Mars will look like and what will need to happen in order to make it happen, what sort of challenges arise, and the storyline that we have that I’m a part of is born out of those interviews, so everything that happens in the story is based on fact. You know, one of our producers was calling it, rather than science fiction, science factual. And I think they’ve gone to great lengths to ensure that everything that you do see is based on fact. Of course, it’s National Geographic, so I think that’s certainly part of their M.O., isn’t it? Making sure what you’re seeing is the truth.

Why do you think humanity is so obsessed with Mars and possibly actually going there some day?

I think there are a number of things. Any kid that’s looked up at the sky at night has sort of had a fantasy about going up there, or certainly going in to the stars, and Mars is the one place in our solar system that could possibly support us. Most of the other places will kill you dead before you even get close to them, so I think that’s maybe a big part of it – that it’s the most inhabitable thing we’ve got close to us. And also there’s the idea that, at some point in our future, there will be some sort of extinction event that will happen on the planet, as has happened a number of times already, and whether that comes from global warming or a meteor hitting the planet or could be a nuclear thing – it could be anything! – and the idea is that if we can get human beings to Mars and become an interplanetary species, we lower the risk of extinction down to nearly zero. So there are a lot of people who are looking at it that way, that this is about hope for the continuation of humankind, with or without our planet.

The cast is very diverse and it’s because in 2033 where your part of the show is set, all of the space-going nations have merged to form an international space program. Do you see something like that happening in real life and why do you think the joining of forces would be advantageous (Or disastrous! Either way.) in exploring more of space?

I think it would certainly be advantageous. You’d have the expertise coming from a lot of different backgrounds and countries and I don’t think that could do anything but help the situation. It’s also something that I think, if we are going to get to Mars, it’s going to require a lot of the world coming together and starting to think together on that goal. I don’t know that it’s a one-nation thing to do. And I think making the cast as diverse as that and the group of private and public entities coming together in the story is symbolic of where we would like to go in the future, both here on Earth and in space. The question of whether there would be problems, I certainly don’t know what they would be.

mars-cast

The show is a hybrid series, with some set in 2016 like a documentary, but some set in 2033 as a “what if” situation. How do you think such a creative style will influence future filmmakers to tell more and more ambitious stories?

I hope it opens up doors and gives them different ways of looking at storytelling. I think that’s been part of the goal and the aim: to break genres down and build something new. I gotta say, as we were shooting it, all I got was the scripts. We saw a few of the talking heads – the interviews – but I didn’t see all of it, so I really had no concept of how it would be woven together. So I’ve seen the first two episodes now, and to see the way they’ve woven it together, I think it works beautifully and I think it’s a really interesting way to start telling stories. Usually when you get interviews in that kind of way, people are talking about the past or an event or something that has already transpired and so to see somebody speaking about the future in the way that they are, and then to have the story go along with it, I’ve certainly never seen anything like it and we’ve screened it for a few audiences and that’s been the thing reflected back to me again and again is that everybody keeps saying how exciting it is because they’ve never seen anything like it. So hopefully that inspires storytellers to try something new.

What do you hope people learn or take away from this miniseries?

I hope they are inspired. That’s one of the main things. If this mission is to succeed in the future, and certainly there are people planning on doing it – the process is happening and people are working towards it right now – so I hope people who watch it, maybe young people watching it, get inspired and that might direct them toward science programs where they might not have gone that way before so that it will start to cultivate a new generation of people who will actually be the astronauts who go. So I hope it inspires peoples’ sense of adventure, I hope it inspires their thirst for knowledge, and I hope they’re just straight-up entertained by it.

Finally, and I know you’ve probably been asked this a million times, but would you ever want to go to Mars?

[Laughs] You know, I don’t know that it’s for me. I’ll put it this way: certainly not the mission that we’re depicting, which would be the first group to go. I don’t think I would want to be a part of that. Maybe the seventh or eighth mission? There’s nice beds and there’s a coffee shop and a movie theater and places to go and once they’ve sorted out how to deal with the water and oxygen issues that would be present. Or to shield you from the radiation. Mars is not going to be an easy place. Would you want to go?

I would not!

MARS premieres tonight at 9/8c on National Geographic Channel.


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