Natascha McIlhone: To my kids, I'm just the person who runs the house

In new television drama The First, Designated Survivor Natascha McElhone plays the CEO of a company launching the first mission to colonise Mars. The actor talks to Georgia Humphreys about her character, raising her three sons by herself and her opposition to Brexit

Natascha McElhone in new Channel 4 drama The First

IF YOU'VE ever wondered what it would be like to be an astronaut, Channel 4's new sci-fi drama could be for you. The First, which had already been streaming in the United States on Hulu and which stars Sean Penn in his first lead TV role, is set in the near future and chronicles the effort to send the first crewed mission to Mars.

English actress Natascha McElhone, known for her TV roles in Californication and Designated Survivor, as well as for films such as Solaris and The Truman Show, plays Laz Ingram, a visionary aerospace magnate overseeing the astronauts.

And part of the appeal for the star, who has strong Irish links, was embodying a character so different from herself.

"My kids are the centre of my life and work is something that I fit around them," notes the 48-year-old mum-of-three. McIlhone's husband, plastic surgeon Martin Kelly, died of heart failure in 2008. She was pregnant with their third child at the time.

"So, I liked the idea of playing someone whose reality was the opposite of that – her primary relationship is with her work and significantly, you don't see her kids in the pilot.

"And that's not to say they're not well adjusted and well taken care of, it's just she sees life through a very different prism, which is, I suppose, the mark she's going to leave behind on human history."

Being her children's sole parent meant McElhone had to think long and hard about taking on The First – written by House Of Cards creator Beau Willimon – as filming took place in Louisiana.

"Beau is hugely generous and understanding about the complexity of our lives, so that was one of the first things we spoke about when we met, whether it was even possible for me to do this job, because I need to be home pretty much all of the time.

"They shot a lot in my kids' school holidays, so my kids came out for a month, which was great. And the rest of the time I commuted. It would be a week shooting and then I would just come back and then go back out a few weeks later."

A moment later, she adds earnestly: "I must big up all the people I've worked with over the last 10 years. They've been incredibly understanding."

Laz, who is single-minded in her mission to reach Mars, was a complex character for McElhone, whose ex-journalist mum Noreen is from Co Donegal and whose stepfather is the journalist and commentator Roy Greenslade, to get her teeth into.

It's obvious from the first episode just how driven she is. But she also comes across as rather cold, as she doesn't have the best interpersonal skills.

"She is quite inscrutable on some level and an awful lot of her personality is an interior one and not something people are privy to," notes McElhone.

"It's difficult to convey that. I quite liked that challenge, and you're very reliant on the camera, whether they're going to pick up moments of insecurity or doubt or not, because you don't have dialogue to support it."

Does she think viewers will find it hard to empathise with Laz?

"Possibly," the star muses in her typically soft tone. "I wonder though, if, as a TV audience, we are over catered to in that way, that writers only dare put very empathetic characters in lead roles, because unless someone's likeable, someone isn't going to want to watch them.

"And I think recently we've found that that isn't necessarily the case. That doesn't mean the person has to be a villain, just simply that they're honest, and you'll see throughout the show Laz is very honest and transparent, in the way she conducts her business and herself. There's something quite refreshing about that."

McElhone has been outspoken about being anti-Brexit. She was one of a handful of public figures who contributed to the cost of coach travel for people heading to a march calling for a referendum on the final Brexit deal earlier this month.

And talk turns to politics as she discusses how we, as a society, seem to have the attitude that someone saying they've made a mistake is a sign of failure, or disappointment.

"It's so strange to me, politically at the moment – obviously I'm talking about Brexit – this idea that we can't revisit and re-examine something, and that there's something undemocratic about that."

She elaborates further: "It's so peculiar to me that, at the highest level of administration and of policy-making – and I'm assuming in big, big companies like Laz's – there's this fashion and trend to just use smoke and mirrors and not be transparent, and be right, whatever the cost – even if you know you're not right.

"So, I like the fact Laz isn't really interested in toeing that line. She's expedient and she will go and say what needs to be said to a bunch of people, who she's going to be reliant upon to make sure she gets her funding through, but she is happy to be wrong and to be unpopular."

It's easy to chat to McElhone: She gives long, considered answers about her work, but is equally happy talking about life at home with her three sons, aged nine, 15 and 18.

Although she whimpers jokingly that we can't talk about the fact her eldest son has just left home to go to university.

"No, it's exciting, and I've only been in excitement mode until I dropped him there and [now] there is this empty cavern in the basement. But he's having an amazing time, so it's all good."

Asked if her kids find her job cool, she replies: "They're pretty disinterested in what I do, to be honest. I'm very much the person who runs the house and provides and is there, and probably in a slightly invisible wallpaper-ish sort of way at this point.

"I'm definitely the frame around which they shine."

:: The First continues on Channel 4, Thursdays.

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