Hulu’s ‘The First’ Stars Sean Penn, But Beau Willimon’s Drama Is Far From a One-Man Show

Even with an Oscar-winning star, the "House of Cards" showrunner wanted many perspectives to tell his story tracking the first manned mission to Mars.
The First -- "The Choice" - Episode 107 - Tom and the Providence crew must make a choice with potentially life-threatening consequences. Matteo wrestles with his past. Tom and Denise must deal with unfinished business. Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn) and Kayla Price (LisaGay Hamilton), shown. (Photo by: Alan Markfield/Hulu)
Sean Penn and LisaGay Hamilton in "The First"
Alan Markfield/Hulu

When Beau Willimon was a kid, his father would leave home for up to five months at a time. Henry Willimon was a captain in the U.S. Navy and worked as an engineer on nuclear subs. For those long stretches at sea, he couldn’t even send messages home.

“One of my earliest memories, when we were stationed at Pearl Harbor, was him taking me down into a sub,” Willimon said. “To a four-year-old kid, it’s a spaceship. You’ve never seen anything like it. You’re in this completely enclosed, high-tech environment, staring through a periscope, and you know this thing is traversing the oceans underwater for months on end.”

Willimon credits these early memories for piquing his interest in space travel, and thus his new Hulu drama, “The First.” Chronicling mankind’s first manned mission to Mars, the eight-part first season also examines a bond between father and child — and why one might be driven to leave the other.

When his father was away, Willimon said he’d fantasize about what challenges his dad might be facing and where he was in the vast world under the waves. Willimon expressed his hopes and fears by painting, just like the captain’s daughter Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron) does in “The First.” But unlike the portraits shown in the series (which Willimon painted himself), the creator said he would mock up “cross-sections of submarines” as a child, portraying various crew members fulfilling their duties.

Not just his dad: every single person who worked with his father. While “The First” may seem like it’s about one man, veteran astronaut Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn), it’s really an expansive ensemble told from multiple perspectives. And while it’s created, written, and executive produced by Willimon, his voice is only one of many that drive this story.

The First -- "Near and Far" - Episode 108 - The crew of Providence 2 prepares to launch. Laz and Denise get ready for a new chapter in their lives. Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), shown. (Photo by: Alan Markfield/Hulu)
Natascha McElhone in “The First”Alan Markfield/Hulu

Willimon chose to introduce the drama as a three-character story. There’s Hagerty, his struggling daughter Denise, and his superior Laz Ingram (Natasha McElhone), who heads the private company working with NASA to helm the mission. Once those characters were established, he opened the lens to include commanding officer Kayla Price (LisaGay Hamilton) and Sadie Hewitt (Hannah Ware), an astronaut fighting for a spot on the final roster. The show also spends significant time with Aaron Schultz (Bill Camp), a reporter for The New York Times.

These aren’t your typical supporting characters. Kayla and Sadie receive lengthy, episode-spanning arcs, while Denise’s perspective also drives her own hour. Though ensemble-driven dramas aren’t uncommon, spending so much time away from two-time Academy Award winner Sean Penn is a bold choice.

“Just as [the audience] was really starting to get invested in these three characters, I wanted [them] to have this experience of, ‘But wait! There are a lot of other people involved in this!'” Willimon said. “In the early days of space exploration, all the astronauts did tend to look the same. That is not as much the case now in 2018, and certainly moving forward one would hope that you have folks from all walks of life who are populating space.”

Focusing on four women — one of whom is black and queer — sent Willimon searching for voices other than his own to help tell their stories.

“The vision of a show is always bigger than any one person,” he said. “There may be a creator or a showrunner, but ultimately you’re talking about hundreds of people who are bringing their talents and their perspectives to what you’re doing. […] Our duty as storytellers is to reflect the world we’re in.”

The First -- "Cycles" - Episode 103 - Kayla and Tom find themselves at odds when faced with a difficult decision. A problem arises with the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) that may jeopardize the crew’s safety. Aiko hosts a dinner party to celebrate Sadie and Ollie’s wedding anniversary. Sadie Hewitt (Hannah Ware), shown. (Photo by: Paul Schiraldi/Hulu)
Hannah Ware in “The First’Paul Schiraldi/Hulu

He ended up with a woman writing or directing every episode. Carla Ching, AJ Marechal, Francesca Sloane, and Christal Henry are credited with upwards of four episodes, and two women, Agnieszka Holland and Deniz Ergüven, directed half the series. To find such a team, Willimon said producers needed to be active: Watch as much as possible, pay attention to a wide variety of projects, and break out of your comfort zone.

“You really want to make sure you’re opening your mind to people whose work could expand your show, not just ape or echo one person’s vision,” he said. “If you just go to the standard lists of who has the most credits or who has done the most TV, then in an industry that has tended over decades to favor mostly men and mostly white men, you’re going to limit yourself. You have to look beyond that, and that’s a choice, for sure.”

His example from “The First”: Deniz Ergüven, a Turkish-French director who had never worked in television and has just two features to her name.

“If you look at ‘Mustang,’ though, it’s clear this is an original, ambitious, imaginative artist who has a lot to say and a lot to offer,” Willimon said. “So we said to ourselves, what we think she can do with our material — and not just do with the material, but add to the material — could be really extraordinary. We don’t even know exactly what that will look like, but let’s talk to Deniz and see if she’s interested. Luckily, she was. In Episode 5, you really see that. It feels like a film in and of itself.”

Asked if it’s hard to find qualified writers and directors who are women, as has been cited as an excuse in the past, Willimon is blunt: “That’s not true.”

“We’re in a very quantifiable society right now. People look at how many Twitter followers you have, people look at Rotten Tomatoes scores, people look at lists of credits,” he said. “They want to have a quick answer to, ‘What is good?’ And I think it takes a lot more boldness to say these are unquantifiable things. I’m not going to necessarily pay attention to those numbers or those lists of credits. I’m going to respond to a person and their work.”

“The First” Season 1 is streaming now on Hulu.

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