Martian, The: Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Pena

In the original script, the astronauts and NASA personnel are equal parts of an ensemble.

But Ridley Scott fleshed out some of the action sequences and made Commander Melissa Lewis’ arc even more active, creating another of the strong female roles that have marked many of his previous films.

As leader of the third Mars mission, known as Ares III, Commander Lewis heads a crew of six, including Watney, and is in charge of the surface mission and the spacecraft that carried them there, the Hermes. The journey from Earth’s orbit to Mars required nine months, giving Lewis ample time to establish authority with her team, and for the astronauts to bond.

Jessica Chastain, who portrays Lewis says, “She is such a well-written character, another in the legacy of Ridley’s remarkable women characters. Lewis came from the Navy, and has to lead a team of specialists who are very smart and have very specific tasks to perform. She is friendly and personable with her crew, but wants to leave no doubt as to who is in charge.”

Having made the decision to leave Watney behind, believing him to be dead, Lewis feels an enormous measure of regret and guilt that will later affect her actions and the integrity of her command.

Michael Pena

At Lewis’ side, as the Hermes’ pilot, is Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), who, in typical fly-boy fashion, is a wisecracking, highly confident military veteran. He exchanges humorous verbal jabs with Mark Watney during their initial days on Mars – before the storm and the ensuing disaster.

“I had done the 2014 World War II action film Fury prior to this and picked up on the ways that military guys joke around,” says Peña. “It’s kind of crass, but it helps keep everyone on their toes and pretending they’re not afraid of the danger they may be facing.”

Kate Mara

Lewis, while occasionally allowing a smile to seep through, finds Watney and Martinez’s banter a bit tedious, as does fellow crewmember Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), the mission’s techno wiz and cyber expert. The reserved Johanssen is essentially responsible for anything “computer nerdy.”

Says Mara:  “I had a chance to meet with Ridley and discuss the role before I was even given the script. I had named one of my dogs after a character from Gladiator (“Lucious”) and have been a Ridley fan forever, so I of course I wanted to work with him.”

Mara was equally keen to work alongside Jessica Chastain, and “loved that she’s playing the commander. Johanssen looks up to Lewis, which is fitting for me, as I admire Jessica and respect the projects and choices she’s made in her career.”

Rounding out the crew of the Hermes is German chemist Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie) and American flight surgeon Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan).  Hennie, a popular actor in his native Norway for such films as Headhunters and Pioneer, says THE MARTIAN is “about both solitude and teamwork. It expresses some of the highest ideals of our humanity. It’s a wonderfully uplifting narrative which, on a personal level, I eagerly want and choose to believe in.”

In addition to his medical background, Beck, like the other astronauts, has been educated in other fields of science and is highly trained for numerous fail-safe scenarios. But they are well aware that every space journey has two possible destinations – the objective, and the unknown.

“I view these incredibly brave Martian explorers as our generation’s Lewis and Clark,” Beck says. “Exploration is part of the human DNA.”

At NASA, rattled administrators and engineers are still trying to comprehend that they sent six astronauts to Mars, and only five are returning. The best minds at NASA and its California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory are now scrambling to find a way to get Watney home. It is the media event of the century. NASA and JPL executives and scientists find themselves in the eye of the storm – and the whole world is watching. Think your job is a pressure cooker? Step into the shoes of Annie Montrose (Kristin Wiig), NASA’s media relations director. Along with the challenge of extracting meaningful information from preoccupied NASA personnel, she is charged with facing down a gallery of frenzied press, starved for any bit of information to sink their teeth into.

“Annie must manage how a lot of important people want to address the situation, and has to make the decisions on exactly how and what to tell the public,” Wiig states. “She has to walk a fine line between keeping the world informed and protecting the reputation of NASA.”

Montrose works in a male dominated environment, but she has earned the respect of her boss, Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Director of NASA, who bears an almost unfathomable responsibility. Life and death decisions stop at his desk. Some of the top minds in the world await his judgments, and Teddy must effectively guide a few planet-sized egos. He is, after all, literally working with rocket scientists.

“Teddy manages highly intelligent, MIT-educated people, but his approach is that he’s herding cats,” Jeff Daniels quips. “Smart cats, but cats. They love to come up with theories and ideas and have their brilliance on display in meetings, but shirk from making decisions. Suddenly it’s, ‘Oh, that’s someone else’s call. I’m just, you know, a rocket scientist.’ So Teddy rather enjoys the power he has over these remarkable minds and even toys with them at times. Keep the geniuses humble.”

One such genius, Rich Purnell (Donald Glover), an “orbital dynamicist” at JPL, waltzes into a meeting with the grown-ups and confidently proceeds to demonstrate the solution to getting Watney back. Unaware of Sanders’ lofty title, he recruits him to help out during an impromptu demonstration of Purnell’s theory.

Says Daniels:  “Teddy feels Purnell’s irreverence is akin to saying to the Queen of England, ‘Hey, nice dress.’ So the wunderkind is quickly swept from the room.”

Purnell’s lack of deference to superiors reflects a larger cultural distinction between the more buttoned-down environment of NASA, which is responsible for humans in space, and the more relaxed, California vibe of the JPL.

The offices of Purnell and JPL director Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong) are messy, litter-strewn cubbyholes, indicative of their exhausting round-the-clock habitation. Watney isn’t the only one who’s stranded. The JPL team, tasked with designing a probe in improbably abbreviated time, is essentially marooned on “JPL island,” sacrificing personal time and home life in dedication to the rescue effort.

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Their herculean efforts seem to be paying off.  Sanders senses the validity of Purnell’s theory, which is affirmed by NASA’s Director of Mars missions, Dr. Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Kapoor bears the most direct responsibility in handling the Watney crisis, and has placed his entire team into full-scale response mode.

Ejiofor comments: “I was fascinated by the story’s look at the space community. These are some of the most mentally gifted people on the planet, and yet we see that their interactions and office politics are similar to most any work environment. I was moved by the effort of this community to rally around one man and commit every last bit of available equipment, energy and resources to save him.

“I spoke to some of the people at JPL and NASA to get an appreciation of the sort of pressure they operate under,” Ejiofor continues.  “Astronauts place their ultimate trust in these agencies, and everyone who works there knows a single mistake will be uncovered at the worst possible time. Vincent epitomizes that dedication and professionalism, but what’s most interesting about him is that, as he begins to more deeply connect with the man who’s marooned on Mars, he no longer sees his mission as rescuing an astronaut ¾ he’s rescuing Mark Watney.”

The resources of NASA and JPL, however, are not going to be enough. Fortunately, the agency’s counterparts (Eddy Ko, Chen Shu) at the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) make a remarkable overture that could either create a new sense of harmony and cooperation in international relations and diplomacy – or add some major new wrinkles in this delicate balance. CNSA initiates contact with Sanders to offer the services of a prototype Chinese rocket that could undertake a resupply mission to Mars. Here we see professional courtesy in action: men and women who share common ground, or rather “space,” seeking a way around government bureaucracy. It speaks to the common bond highly trained professionals share in any industry, regardless of location or nationality.

Once he has secured the assistance of China, Sanders has to worry about challenges to his authority from one of his own team — Ares III flight director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean). Unlike Sanders, who must look after the interests of both Mark Watney and NASA, and not necessarily in that order, Henderson doesn’t have dual loyalties. He couldn’t give a damn about NASA’s public relations problems. His one and only concern is getting his astronauts home. All of them.

“Mitch is not as conventional as the other members of the team, but he’s highly focused and no-nonsense,” describes Sean Bean. “He’s one of those rare people who’s not content to pass the buck and is willing to stand up to superiors. He’s furious that the Hermes crew has not been informed of Watney’s survival. He’s going to do what he thinks needs to be done, regardless of personal consequence.”

Henderson will set in motion an exceedingly risky chain of events that may jeopardize his job and force the crew of Hermes to make a profound decision that could result in charges of mutiny.

Neither Henderson nor anyone else at NASA would even be aware of Watney’s survival if not for the curiosity of lower-level employee Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis), who works the night shift at the Satellite Communications desk. In the middle of the night, she’s fulfilling orders from Dr. Kapoor to view satellite images of the Ares III site to determine if its supplies are intact and available for a subsequent mission. It’s been a month since Watney’s presumed death and Mindy cannot resist the temptation to look for the body. She is stunned by what she sees.

“Mindy’s discovery sends a shockwave through NASA, and suddenly thrusts her into a higher weight class,” explains Davis. “Now she sits at the grownups table in meetings with the brass, and it’s intimidating. She has to learn quickly and gain a sense of confidence because her new responsibilities mean people will be looking to her for answers.”

For Mark Watney, the questions he needs answered are clear: How to devise a way to grow food once the crew rations are exhausted? How to establish communications with NASA? What about dwindling oxygen supplies?

And how does he sustain the will to live with only Commander Lewis’ disco playlist for entertainment?