From the Soviets beating the U.S. to the moon to humans finally making it to Mars, Apple TV’s “For All Mankind” imagines an alternate history of space exploration. Joel Kinnaman leads the series as astronaut Ed Baldwin, a role the Swedish-born actor calls “a gift” for being able to portray the conflicted protagonist across decades. Ahead of “For All Mankind” wrapping its fourth season, Kinnaman spoke with Variety about the appeal of astronauts, asteroid heists and conflicted all-American heroes.
What drew you to “For All Mankind” and your character, Ed Baldwin?
There were two things that really drew me to playing Ed. First off, he was this American archetype, this all-American hero. And to me, it’s not particularly interesting to play that guy. So that’s why this was so fascinating because he was that on the outside, but on the inside there was something entirely different going on. He was a man who wasn’t really able to handle his emotions and dealing with rage and not being able to handle his rage and being a parent. When he suffers the ultimate tragedy of losing his child, he starts to fall apart and becomes something different. Then over the course of several seasons, it’s really a deconstruction of that archetype. That was really fascinating to me.
And to especially see the aging version of Ed where his supreme confidence has enabled him to be this impulsive and courageous person, who has been able to make decisions in life-threatening situations with a pretty calm hand. Now, when his physicality starts to come apart, and he’s no longer physically able in the same way, and he’s making mistakes that have consequences that kill people that he cares about, his confidence starts to come apart. He basically becomes a different person. All of a sudden, his existential anxiety starts to guide him, and his fear of death almost paralyzes him. It’s a really fascinating process to portray him in that way.
You’ve played Ed from his 30s to now him pushing 70. From the hair and makeup to changes in physicality, what was it like getting to play different versions of Ed as he ages?
I thought for me, it’s such a gift with this profession that you get to spend this amount of time where you focus on something that gives you such understanding. It forced me to really put my mind on what it’s like to be in your mid-70s. I hadn’t really grasped the idea that, of course when you get older, it’s going to affect your confidence when you’re not as physically able to do the same things.
Especially someone like Ed, who as an astronaut, being physically and mentally strong is so vital.
That was part of what drew me to the character. On the one hand, it was the deconstruction of the all-American archetype and then on the other hand, it was to get to play this character over the course of several decades. You basically become a new person every 10 years. So, to sort of have to reinvent the character with these new circumstances was really fascinating.
Playing old and and this much older, it is one of the most difficult things you can do as an actor. It’s something that is done in the epilogue scene of a movie, but not as a lead character over the course of a whole season of a show.
If we didn’t have an incredible makeup team that really made it happen — the whole show stands and falls on it. It’s mentally the most difficult thing I’ve done in my professional life. I would get up around midnight, get in the makeup chair at 1 a.m. and be in the chair until 7 a.m. Then you tack on a 12- to 14-hour day on top of that. Also, when you got that makeup on, it’s very itchy, very uncomfortable. So it was demanding mentally to keep an even keel and to stay in a mentally good space. But then, you know, the fun challenge was, of course, building the physical, the body language.
What kind of research have you done throughout the series to understand the life of an astronaut?
So Garrett Reisman, who was our technical advisor, he’s an astronaut. I spent hours talking to him about different aspects. And then, of course, watching documentaries and interviews. I eat it all. You sort of immerse yourself in this world and in the minds of these real professionals that have done this. You know, of course, nobody’s spent a decade on Mars. But it’s also the thing of just being isolated in the way that they are and on a space station. I definitely did a deep dive on it all.
Coming into Season 4, Ed’s suffered two major losses — his wife, Karen, and his best friend’s son, Danny. Where would you say Ed is mentally this season?
I think loss is something that the older we get, the more it’s part of life. But of course, the seminal moment for Ed is losing Shane, his son, at the end of the first season. That changes him. For me, it was so fascinating to see how this strong all-American deals with the ultimate tragedy and how that broke him and how it changed him. Then he loses his wife, his best friend and also his best friend’s son.
Ed is more and more cutting his ties with everything. It becomes an inability to face his grief and his loss. I think that’s why he’s so reluctant to go back to Earth because that means facing all of that. … I think he is so utterly afraid of becoming irrelevant and living without purpose.
On a more positive note, we see Ed develop a touching relationship with his grandson.
It’s fascinating how when you jump a generation, you get another chance. Or you just repeat the same mistakes if you haven’t grown… His grandson is almost the same age as Shane was when he died.
This season, Ed joins Dev Ayesa (Edi Gathegi) in his plot to steal an asteroid. What was your reaction to that storyline?
That was actually one of the first conversations that I had with [creators] Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi. We usually sit down and have a dinner before a season, and then they give me the outline. They were like, so tagline for Season 4: “asteroid heist.” I was like, what? I couldn’t even wrap my head around it.
Sounds like an “Ocean’s 11” scheme in space!
That’s exactly it. You have to do like the three frames that come in. I mean it just goes to show the vision of this series and how the scale just keeps increasing for every season. It just gets bigger and bigger. It’s just really exciting to be a part of and I hope the audience feels the same way.
Touching on that, the show explores what could have been with space exploration. Are you disappointed that we haven’t gone nearly as far as the show?
I think it would be great if Elon just forgot about X and just focused on SpaceX instead. It’ll do a lot more good. That is such a waste of his time. … It’s an exciting time now because I think that in the past five to 10 years, we’ve seen more activity and we’ve come so much further than the previous 30 years. So finally, things are starting to happen. I also hope that we get more of these UFO revelations, and more whistleblowers come out. It’s really fascinating that it seems like there’s something really there, when you dive into it and hear these people with top-level security clearance that are blowing the whistle after the Schumer amendment.
I have this hope that if we as a world really got the information that we are being visited by outside intelligence, that could be something that unified us and made us look up into the stars more than looking at these internal power struggles, and more resources would be put on space.
Where would you like to see the show go next in terms of space exploration? Aliens? Or even just Ed’s daughter, Kelly (Cynthy Wu), finally discovering life on Mars?
I think all of the above. That’s what I would want to see, but we’ll see.