“I was really intrigued by a woman who would want to leave Earth and never go back,” says Carla Gugino as we settle in to discuss Kendra Wyndham, the astronaut, scientist and reluctant surrogate mother she plays in the new sci-fi romance, The Space Between Us. “She has a very noble reason to do it, but also, in her case, there are really personal reasons.”
The film, directed by Peter Chelsom, tells the story of Gardner (Asa Butterfield, Ender’s Game) who is born on a Martian colony and kept there after his astronaut mom dies in childbirth. The private company that has built the colony and its Elon Musk-like chief, Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman), have kept Gardner’s existence a secret, with fellow colonist Kendra serving as a friend, confidante and mother figure. When Gardner wants to visit Earth — to meet his mysterious father and the teenage girl (Britt Robertson, Tomorrowland) he’s been secretly Skyping with — it’s Kendra who accompanies him back and then must pursue him when he sets out on his own.
It’s intimated that Kendra herself has no real desire to return to Earth and Gugino explains that some of her back story was deliberately kept ambiguous. “What we sort of articulated in a scene that is not in the movie anymore, is that her husband had left her when she found out she couldn’t have kids,” says the fan-favorite actress. “Her specialty was terraforming, so she thought she was sent to Mars to terraform, and she gets up there and realizes that she’s basically a glorified babysitter, and initially is not happy about that and feels that she was duped. Then of course, begins to really care for this kid.
“Ultimately, it’s such an interesting relationship, because though there are definitely mother-son elements to it, it’s also a best friend and it’s also co-workers,” continues Gugino. “It’s a very unusual relationship, and I was really intrigued by that.”
Gugino was also intrigued to work with Oldman, with whom she shares a lot of screen time in the latter half of the movie as they search for Gardner. “He is an extraordinary actor, and certainly deserves that sort of legendary status,” she remarks. “I remember having a similar feeling when I worked with Robert Downey Jr. and Al Pacino, in the sense that there’s a moment where you get on set, and you realize, ‘Oh, right. The reason they’re legendary and amazing is just because they are actors who are so good at what they do, and who just come to tell a story and play a person.’ There’s no ego involved… I stepped on the set with Gary and didn’t know him at all. We had so much fun every day, and he has a really fearless quality as an actor that I really love, and that I feel kind of a kinship with.”
“Fearless” is a good word to describe Gugino, who may not be a superstar in the celebrity culture sense but who is the definition of a working actress with tremendous range and versatility. For genre fans, her presence in movies and TV shows like Watchmen, Sin City, Wayward Pines and San Andreas is always a solid addition to any title, while her resume also includes children’s films (the Spy Kids series), TV comedy (Entourage and Californication) and adult-oriented dramas (American Gangster). Next up for her is a Netflix adaptation of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game, a largely solo piece in which she will find herself handcuffed to a bed with her dead husband on the floor after a sex game goes wrong.
For The Space Between Us, the last thing she had to do was lie down, with the part involving both anti-gravity effects in the Mars scenes and a lot of running back on Earth. “I didn’t really realize that to that extent,” she admits. “I knew that I needed to be in good shape, just to be an astronaut. For the health of your organs and everything, you need to be pretty slim, and by the nature of how they have to eat and all of that. What’s funny and what I hadn’t accounted for, which was actually kind of helpful, is that when I was dealing with Earth’s gravity, I would also be dealing with New Mexico’s elevation.”
Despite doing some wire work for the Mars sequences and having weights attached to her ankles for the Earth sequences — to simulate her adjusting to her home planet’s gravity again — Gugino recalls that one scene in which she literally chases a plane on foot was challenging. “That sequence, we shot it for what eight hours, and by the end, I was really winded, and I’m a pretty athletic person. That was actually fascinating. It was nice to be like, well, the elevation is helping me out.”
Gugino also appreciates the fact that her character and Robertson’s are the anchors for Butterfield’s Gardner, who veers between a savvy kind of scientific intellect and a guileless naivete about the Earth. “When I read the script, I thought it was really interesting, that the two women were ultimately the grounding forces of the movie while also having their own struggles,” she says. “One of the things that I really love about this movie is that it’s these four isolated human beings — two are men, two are women — and that their connection with each other is in the most unlikely of ways and that’s what brings them to the place where they understand what their purpose is … I think it’s really wonderful to have these women who are complex and interesting as women are.”
The Space Between Us is in theaters today.