Joel Kinnaman and Shantel vanSanten on the responsibilities of ‘For All Mankind’

As season two of ‘For All Mankind’ launches, actors Joel Kinnaman and Shantel vanSanten chat about playing an astronaut-civilian couple experiencing loss

We have always been fascinated with the personal lives and the mentality of astronauts, especially the ‘overview effect’ which marks a cognitive shift in awareness of how vast the universe can be. And, yes, we do wonder about their personal lives, and how they transition between two very different worlds.

For All Mankind, one of the first series announced for AppleTV+ addresses this through its ‘alternate timeline’ storytelling. Taking on the roles of astronaut-civilian couple Edward and Karen Baldwin are Joel Kinnaman and Shantel vanSanten, whose son, at the end of season 1, passes away while Edward is on a mission. The actors share their experiences in returning for a second season that answers the question ‘what if the US Space Race never ended?’ and ‘What would this mean for the astronauts in their personal lives?’

In a video interview with MetroPlus, Kinnaman and vanSanten talk about the character responsibilities for them as actors.

Over the years, Kinnaman has been drawn to the futuristic science-fiction realm through projects such as Altered Carbon, Hanna, and RoboCop. But this is a rather different project for the Swedish-American actor, who likens the first season as “Mad Men in NASA.” He recalls the first table read of season 2 as “pretty fascinating and very surprising.” In regard to the trauma Edward and Karen experience, he says, “I found it interesting to portray that. In the beginning, he’s seen as this all-American hero but he also goes through this devastating loss.”

Joel Kinnaman as Edward Baldwin in ‘For All Mankind’ (season 2 episode 4) on Apple TV+ | Photo Credit: Apple TV+

VanSanten — whom we last saw essay the role of Becca (the independent and protective partner of Billy Butcher) in The Boys — looks on her role as Karen Baldwin to be “a daunting and beautiful responsibility I don’t take lightly,” but she later admits, “it’s a very honourable role, requiring an incredible amount of sacrifice mirrored only in the sacrifices she knows her husband is making. But it’s more complex and relatable, as we’ve placed astronaut-wives on these pedestals,” she elaborates, “It feels they have an image to uphold and have to live within certain parameters — even within their own feelings,” explains vanSanten, “and one can crack under that pressure and fall apart.”

Kinnaman, who calls vanSanten “an incredible and talented scene partner”, then explains, “Edward’s primary relationship is going to be his marriage – many marriages aren’t able to survive the loss of a child. But Edwards and Karen are still together in season two, but some things are better, some are more distant. It’s an interesting relationship. It’s also a huge responsibility because if you have a viewer who has gone through something similar, you have to respect their experience.”

About that time jump

He was surprised by the timeline jump, he admits, adding, “I was so ready to play that pain and loss, but the writers took it one step further [in the timeline] so we meet Ed when he’s the happiest he’s ever been! I found this provocative and wondered ‘what is happening here?’ Of course, those wounds have not healed and pain comes out in ways we did not expect. That’s how life is; it doesn’t follow an A-B-C pattern.”

On the other hand, vanSanten, once she realised that season 2 would be further down along the timeline, decided to journal in her character’s voice. These journal entries in a 250-page book would help vanSanten mentally shape everything Karen might have gone through in between the seasons, thus helping her empathise and draw from some emotional narratives. Ask vanSanten where that journal is and if it became an ‘on-set bible’ for her, and she brightens up, “I have it in my apartment now; it doesn’t ever leave me because there are things that spark creativity. I could be in the middle of a massage or cleaning the floor, and I’d have this idea of a ‘memory’ which helped connect the gaps between where we left off and where we begin. Fleshing out that time helps inform my decision-making.” She says that season three is already in the works and there is another time jump, so she is ready to journal once again.

Shantel vanSanten as Karen Baldwin in ‘For All Mankind’ (season 1 episode 9) on Apple TV+ | Photo Credit: Apple TV+

Kinnaman sheepishly admits with a laugh that he “did not do his homework like Shantel,” elaborating, “you see these actors with scripts that have scribbles all over with notes. I never take notes, maybe I should. But it’s not the way I work. But I couldn’t decide what could’ve happened; I talked to some of the writers who gave us little ideas of what Edward and Karen could’ve gone through. But I didn’t think about it the way Shantel did; she’s a much harder worker than I am.”

Bigger values

Both actors are well aware of the societal evolution in terms of gender inequality and racism that changed from the 1950s of season 1 and the mid-1980s of season 2, as well as the political tensions around the Cold War. Gender roles were important for vanSanten. Playing Karen was not always easy for her as she admits she did not always see eye-to-eye with her — perhaps this was always part of the allure of the role. She admits, “I second-guessed myself taking this role, once I met her in the script. I didn’t like her; me being a feminist, her views and outlook on life were antiquated.” But vanSanten shares, as the series progressed, vanSanten started empathising with and empowering the process more She commends the writers on Karen’s arc and how she eventually no longer relates from to her older values.

Joel Kinnaman as Edward Baldwin in ‘For All Mankind’ (season 1 episode 10) on Apple TV+ | Photo Credit: Apple TV+

Kinnaman geeks out when the space race is brought up. He concludes that he loves to be part of this universe. “I was born about a decade after we landed on the moon, but then as I grew up, nothing new was happening! I remember feeling disappointed that we had so much new technology and we are not going back to the moon or deeper into space. The last five to 10 years have been the most exciting time in space exploration since the Apollo era. So it’s great to be part of a show that fantasises about what could have been, but we’re also seeing what steps could have been taken in our time in reality to move forward. Science and science-fiction go hand-in-hand, and these stories are inspirational.”

Season 2 of For All Mankind streams from January 19 on AppleTV+.

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