Interview: Shantel VanSanten on Season Two of For All Mankind

Shantel VanSantenFor All Mankind, which airs on AppleTV+, picks up ten years after the events in season one. The series focuses on the space program but takes place in an alternate timeline to the real the space race.

Shantel VanSanten, who recently took part in a junket to promote the show, stars as Karen Baldwin, wife of NASA astronaut, Edward. Last season, while Ed was on a mission in space, their son Shane kept acting out, which led to him running off and getting into an accident that eventually proved fatal. Losing their son drove a wedge into the marriage and still affects them ten years later.

VanSanten talked to journalists about Karen’s journey this season, including dealing with her son’s death, as well as other parts about working on the series.

The actress talked to SciFi Vision about how Shane’s death has put strain on the Baldwin family this season and the challenges in playing that during a particular scene coming up. “Oh, of course, it's so hard. It's such a tricky dance to explain…It was tricky. You know, there're times that I think things are going to be challenging. I read a script, and I'm like, ‘Oh, this is going to be a tough scene.’ At first, when I read this eighteen page scene between [the] three of us, I was like, ‘Oh, wow, this is like, theater; this is what I live to do.’ I was really excited, and then there were parts of that scene that just terrified me. There are parts of it that are ugly, and that's the human parts that we want to shy away from and think that we're better than, when in all actuality, we all have massive emotional reactions, sometimes in life, and understanding where that comes from and really diving into the psyche behind where the each of the characters are, is interesting.

Shantel VanSanten“In season one, you see Ed and Karen, and they're this great unit, they function just fine. They are in each other's orbit, and they tell each other what they need to tell each other, and then, you know, deal with things on their own.

“I think it's a different, really exciting thing to explore this season, when you see the people around each other, the things they're not saying but they know the other is feeling and the way that they navigate after being married for this many years and going through this much, the relationship and in the marriage and what it means. It was just beautiful.

“…And I think that it's another chapter for Ed and Karen, and we really see the effects of what they've been through and their loss and their grief for themselves and for their family in that scene. I felt really fulfilled that we got to explore that, and I think it was a really important aspect to show that the grieving process never ends.”

VanSanten also talked to the site about the inspiration she took for her role, “I wish I could say that it was like one particular astronaut wife, but to be honest, I watched so many interviews of them; I read excerpts from books. To be honest, the craziest thing is I pulled them mainly from my grandmother, because at the core, externally, Karen can have all of the clothes and the look and the things that are the program, but what beats in her heart was what I found most true to my grandmother, which was to raise a family, to provide, to wear the pants, but not let the man know you're wearing the pants, and all of these wonderful qualities that my grandmother possessed, that us as modern day women, I think sometimes we don't appreciate and maybe we even look down on, because we're in the era of independence and growth, and we can take over the world. I think all of it is beautiful, but I think there's a role that still exists for some women who just like to provide and nurture. There is such bravery and beauty in that role as well. We need a little bit of everything. You know what I mean? I truly thought of my grandmother.

“My grandmother lost my uncle, who I never met. He passed away when he was fourteen, and it was a complete, tragic, utter upheaval in their family. I have her old diary. She gave it to me, and I read a lot of journal entries where she wrote about it. I really clung to those to understand how she moved on from it and the pride that she took within her family and the role, if you will, that she played as being a wife to a husband who ran a farm. So, for me, there was something very grounding in connecting to that, even if on the external you had like NASA overbearing and all of that. I like to, I guess, ground characters a little bit more, so people can really relate.”

The actress also told journalists that she started a journal herself for Karen this season which also helped to flesh out the ten years of her life audiences didn’t get to see. “I started journaling; I created memories. I filled in some gaps, some mundane, some not, things she would have explored doing, how she processed grief and loss. I think that that was the only part that I was worried that we would feel that we missed. That all of a sudden, nine years later - not that we always want to see characters go through grieving, but just the processing of a complete and utter upheaval of your entire life, of a massive death of your own identity.

“What's amazing is that I don't think that process ever stops, and that was a big learning curve for me, just realizing that it's not just the the immediate after effects but the way that it resonates, and now is different for your entire life. I actually think we don't explore that a lot in film…We don't tell that story. Within this medium, we're able to keep exploring the after effects of a big sever like that. I think it was a task to try to connect where we left off and where we now pick up and fill it with tons of memories.”

For more from the actress, please read the full transcript below and be sure to tune into For All Mankind on AppleTV+.

Zoom Interview
For All Mankind
Shantel VanSanten

February 1, 2021


QUESTION:
   We know that the show picks up to almost ten years after the first season…I can see that you created basically about almost ten years of backstory for the character. How did you go about doing that, and was there anything particular you really wanted to have her experience in those ten years that we don't really get to see?

SHANTEL VANSANTEN:
   
Of course, are you kidding me? I lived with this human basically in my bones for the whole first season and went through quite the journey. So, it was such an anxious feeling waiting for that first script to come, because I wondered what they were going to include, where we would be, and how I got there.

Once I got the script - I actually have a journal for Karen. I started journaling; I created memories. I filled in some gaps, some mundane, some not, things she would have explored doing, how she processed grief and loss. I think that that was the only part that I was worried that we would feel that we missed. That all of a sudden, nine years later - not that we always want to see characters go through grieving, but just the processing of a complete and utter upheaval of your entire life, of a massive death of your own identity.

What's amazing is that I don't think that process ever stops, and that was a big learning curve for me, just realizing that it's not just the the immediate after effects but the way that it resonates, and now is different for your entire life. I actually think we don't explore that a lot in film. It's not as though we're like, “Okay, let's talk about this woman whose child died nine years ago; this could be interesting.” We don't tell that story. Within this medium, we're able to keep exploring the after effects of a big sever like that. I think it was a task to try to connect where we left off and where we now pick up and fill it with tons of memories.

And hilariously enough, I can't reveal who because it’s a spoiler, but one of the people that Karen interacts with in season two did a similar thing. This person actually kept a journal and created memories as well, and we shared our memories together and kind of took them on as something that was very real. It was pretty cool to experience that with this character that I get to interact with.

QUESTION: 
  
My question to you is about what Karen thought between when Edward [makes a big choice that upsets her] and episode eight, where she has this interaction with the character. I don't want to spoil it for others. She has this interaction with this character. What did she tell herself? Why did you think it was okay, or not okay? What is the conflict there for Karen?

SHANTEL VANSANTEN:
   
Yeah, you know, I'll speak in broad strokes, because I don't want to spoil anything, people haven't seen it. I think that this season taught me one thing with Karen, because I felt really protective playing her and having her search and discover and make really human mistakes. A lot of things in season one happened to her. She was tightly trying to hold on to herself and the program and what she knew, and it all eventually fell apart. In this season, I feel as though she's a little lost. I think things that rang true for her once don't quite make sense anymore. She’s trying to fit puzzle pieces in where they don't belong, and it's such a human experience. I learned a massive amount of forgiveness and to not judge, because we all make some mistakes along the way, and we trip and we fall and we dust ourselves off, and we try again.

I think that that's something that is tough to play. It's tough to play these ugly human very real moments and to not judge a character or to not allow your judgments of a situation to bleed into it but instead to just be honest.

And I think, for once, Karen is learning to try and live in truth and what what rings true for her and her struggles, rather than shoving them down or projecting them. It was difficult, but I also think that, once again, her storyline is a necessary part of unfolding a human experience and something that a lot of people can relate to, and maybe people carry shame or guilt for, but ultimately, is part of a lot of people's human experience.

SCIFI VISION: 
  
There is one scene in particular that’s really emotional - without spoiling anything - with you and Ed talking about Shane, and what happened and kind of how it's changed everything. Can you kind of talk about, without spoiling it, how it's all impacted your family this season? How everybody's kind of in a different place? And was it difficult to get into that emotional headspace?

SHANTEL VANSANTEN:
   
Oh, of course, it's so hard. It's such a tricky dance to explain…It was tricky. You know, there're times that I think things are going to be challenging. I read a script, and I'm like, “Oh, this is going to be a tough scene.” At first, when I read this eighteen page scene between [the] three of us, I was like, “Oh, wow, this is like, theater; this is what I live to do.” I was really excited, and then there were parts of that scene that just terrified me. There are parts of it that are ugly, and that's the human parts that we want to shy away from and think that we're better than, when in all actuality, we all have massive emotional reactions, sometimes in life, and understanding where that comes from and really diving into the psyche behind where the each of the characters are, is interesting.

In season one, you see Ed and Karen, and they're this great unit, they function just fine. They are in each other's orbit, and they tell each other what they need to tell each other, and then, you know, deal with things on their own.

I think it's a different, really exciting thing to explore this season, when you see the people around each other, the things they're not saying but they know the other is feeling and the way that they navigate after being married for this many years and going through this much, the relationship and in the marriage and what it means. It was just beautiful.

I watched the movie The Marriage Story, and I thought going into the season, when I saw it, I'm like, “There's a bit of that in this season.”

And I think that it's another chapter for Ed and Karen, and we really see the effects of what they've been through and their loss and their grief for themselves and for their family in that scene. I felt really fulfilled that we got to explore that, and I think it was a really important aspect to show that the grieving process never ends.

QUESTION:  
 
What would you say Karen's main purpose is this season?

SHANTEL VANSANTEN:  
 
Oh, wow. Karen's main purpose. You know, I think that the season is truly about all of the tension happening in the world, of course, but on a very small level within each character, the tension of what's happening, the push/pull, the dance. We play between communication and what our truth is and what our heart longs for and the disguise that we're wearing and not speaking about. I think that every character plays a different part of showing that, of showing, do we actually change? How much [do we] change? How do we find our truth, and how do we fight for ourselves in that truth? I think that our show has the backdrop of space and the discovery and exploration, and now, this season, it's ramped up, but I feel that way about all of our characters too. I thought because space got crazier maybe our lives would settle more, and instead, it just feels like it's a metaphor for what each of us is struggling with.

QUESTION: 
  
…How has Karen's relationship changed with Tracy (Sarah Jones)? The first season they started off together, and now Tracy is at a very different place from Karen. So, how has that grown for you

SHANTEL VANSANTEN:
   
You know, it's interesting. I find that as we're getting ready to start season three and we're prepping, I find that there's such nostalgia for each season. The things I experienced as myself and with Karen that were kind of like my anchors or the emotional pillars of the season, I find how much I longed for those things to still exist. Then, I look at, I guess, the way that my own life has unfolded, and I have to remember the passage of time. I have two best friends that I've had since I was fourteen years old, twenty, twenty-one year friendships. The way that they've evolved and the times when we were closer and further apart and what was happening in our life, I think that way about the relationships in the show and how we grow together and come apart and how sometimes life dictates that. Sometimes their own choices dictate that and just how real they really write it.

You know, I think as myself, when I watch other shows, I long for happy endings or for, “Oh, I love those two characters together. They have the best chemistry”. But at the end of the day, what I love about our show is they always pick truth, and they pick truth over entertainment in that sense.

Shantel VanSantenI think Tracy and Karen are friends for life. That never changes, but they're both in very different seasons. I think they're in seasons of self more than in seasons of other, where I think the first season, they were almost, if you will, a little bit [more] like husband and wife than her and Ed sometimes. They had their own shorthand. They had their own way of raising their families or handing a kid off. So, there's an intimacy that still exists in having those types of friendships that will always be there. I don't think you can go through what they went through without being lifetime friends, but it's interesting to see them both in different places this season.

SCIFI VISION:
   
Thinking back, was there anyone in particular that you were inspired by when you created this character other than [taking it] from the script, anybody else that you kind of thought about when you were starting that journey?

SHANTEL VANSANTEN:
   
I wish I could say that it was like one particular astronaut wife, but to be honest, I watched so many interviews of them; I read excerpts from books. To be honest, the craziest thing is I pulled them mainly from my grandmother, because at the core, externally, Karen can have all of the clothes and the look and the things that are the program, but what beats in her heart was what I found most true to my grandmother, which was to raise a family, to provide, to wear the pants, but not let the man know you're wearing the pants, and all of these wonderful qualities that my grandmother possessed, that us as modern day women, I think sometimes we don't appreciate and maybe we even look down on, because we're in the era of independence and growth, and we can take over the world. I think all of it is beautiful, but I think there's a role that still exists for some women who just like to provide and nurture. There is such bravery and beauty in that role as well. We need a little bit of everything. You know what I mean? I truly thought of my grandmother.

My grandmother lost my uncle, who I never met. He passed away when he was fourteen, and it was a complete, tragic, utter upheaval in their family. I have her old diary. She gave it to me, and I read a lot of journal entries where she wrote about it. I really clung to those to understand how she moved on from it and the pride that she took within her family and the role, if you will, that she played as being a wife to a husband who ran a farm. So, for me, there was something very grounding in connecting to that, even if on the external you had like NASA overbearing and all of that. I like to, I guess, ground characters a little bit more, so people can really relate.

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