Interview: Natascha McElhone on The First

Simon Button

We talk to Natascha McElhone about The First, her new book and how she balances busy family life with work

Born in Surrey and educated at LAMDA, Natascha McElhone started out in theatre before making her TV debut in Bergerac and starring in such films as The Truman Show and Ladies In Lavender. Most recently seen in American political drama series Designated Survivor, she’s now starring opposite Sean Penn in The First—a show about the first manned mission to Mars in which she plays Las Ingram, the CEO of a commercial space company. Natascha, 48, lives in London with her three sons.

 

RD: Laz is a female CEO 13 years in the future. Does the show predict a near-future where more women are in such positions or are there more than we know about already?

Natascha: I would argue the latter. When I was researching the role I didn’t notice gender as much as speciality and passion. I watched a lot of videos and listened to podcasts and it was mostly women talking. At NASA’s JPL [Jet Propulson Lab] there’s a massive percentage of women and Leane Caret at Boeing has been with the company for many years. I have to say I didn’t notice a big gender disparity in that world at all.

 

RD: Laz is very on it when it comes to science and technology. Can you relate to that?

Natascha: [Laughs] Not at all. I don’t possess any of her expertise. There are huge differences between us but that’s always the appeal when you read a part, like “How can I crack into this woman’s psyche?”  

 

RD: How was it working opposite Sean Penn, who plays astronaut Tom Hagerty on the show?

Natascha: I loved working with him. He has a lot of experience and longevity but he’s also incredibly dry, funny and playful so the atmosphere on set was great. It was hard-working and focused but terrific fun as well.

 

RD: The storyline revolves around a mission to Mars. If you got the chance would you take the trip yourself?

Natascha: I don’t think so because of the time it would take to get there. I would feel very impatient and wouldn’t like to be in a capsule or a confined space for that long. It would drive me insane. Strangely, the risk element is less worrying for me but only because I’m not in a space suit about to get into a rocket. I’m sure it’d be much scarier if I was.

 

RD: As a mother of three (to Rex, ten, Otis, 15, and Theodore, 18) how would you feel if any of your boys wanted to venture into space?

Natascha: Oh, I’d let them do anything apart from ride a motorbike because motorbike accidents are horrendous. It also feels needless to put yourself in danger like that whereas if you’re going on a mission to Mars to try and advance human exploration that’s an endeavour that’s definitely worth weighing the positives against the negatives. 

 

RD: Are they showing any interest in following in your acting footsteps?

Natascha: I went to see my middle son’s school play the other night and he was very good in it, but I hope they’ll have lots of options. I think for all of their generation none of them will do just one job; they’ll all be renaissance people given how much our work spaces are changing. Jobs that exist now won’t exist in 30 years’ time and there’ll be new ones we can’t conceive of yet. Their future will be very exciting.


RD: As a very busy actress and a mother, do you ever get to just kick back and relax?

Natascha: To me work is kicking back. Domestic life is a different rhythm—organising things and ferrying them around, disciplining and all of that routine stuff that every parent does. Most of my time is spent doing that and the work is like a holiday. I find it incredibly relaxing. I feel very lucky because my work is like my hobby. It’s the fun thing I get to do which also pays the bills.

 

RD: That makes it sound like it’s not fun being around your sons!

Natascha: [Laughs] No, they’re great fun. The system we live in, with so much schooling and rigour, can be hard but being on holiday with them is fantastic and they come to set whenever they can. And I haven’t worked since we finished shooting in March. Most of my life is spent doing the school run and things like that.

 

RD: You’ve done so many varied roles. Do people have a hard time placing you if they spot you in the street?

Natascha: Yes, and I like it like that because it means the next role you do can be as different as the previous one. When you become identified with one character you become synonymous with that and that would worry me. In a sense it’s been forced on me but not working a whole lot or doing lots of projects means I’m off the radar for periods of time and you can come back in something very different each time.

 

RD: What have been your favourite acting jobs to date?

Natascha: I very much live in the present so The First is it right now. I really enjoyed working with these people and I’d love to have another crack at it, to explore more of this slightly inscrutable woman, so I really hope we get a second season.

 

RD: In The First there are a lot of science geeks. Are you a geek about anything yourself?

Natascha: Can you be a geek about your kids? They’re definitely the centre of my universe.

 

RD: As a youngster you took Irish dancing lessons. Have you kept it up?

Natascha: [Laughs] No, but I’m learning to jive at the moment—not for work but for fun. I love it.

 

RD: What’s the one skill you wish you had?

Natascha: [Laughs] Oh God, I can’t do anything. I’m a totally skill-less person. That’s why I act—because I can pretend quite well. I cook a lot but that’s only because I have three growing sons, but other than that I can’t do anything.

 

RD: Your book After You, where you addressed the loss of your husband Dr Martin Kelly from a heart attack, was deeply moving. What reaction have you had from readers about it?

Natascha: An air steward came up to me on the plane the other day and told me how much it had helped her. That’s always lovely to hear. I haven’t revisited it since I wrote it but it feels good that it’s served a purpose for some people who have gone through a similar experience.

The First is on Channel 4, Thursdays at 9pm