Hilary Swank is back on our screens in the new Netflix series, Away. She tells Georgia Humphreys about her experience of playing an astronaut.

It was only as Hilary Swank began her gruelling preparation for new Netflix series, Away, that she realised she has major claustrophobia.

The Nebraska-born actress, 46, takes on the lead role; Emma Green, who we see embarking on a treacherous mission to Mars in command of an international crew, leaving her husband and teenage daughter behind for a year.

And Swank discovered there were plenty of challenges that come with playing an astronaut.

“When I put on my spacesuit, I almost passed out,” confides the star, who is famous for films such as P.S. I Love You and Million Dollar Baby.

“So, that was definitely a great physical obstacle that I had to overcome as a person in order to play this character.”

Meanwhile, the cast also had training to help them understand how it feels to be in zero gravity, she adds.

“We had to be hung by our hips like a pendulum, so we had to have really strong abs and glutes in order to hold us in that position and make it look effortless.”

Loosely inspired by an Esquire article about astronaut Scott Kelly, written by Chris Jones, Away – created by Andrew Hinderaker – is an epic series about love, hope and humanity.

“I love Emma Green,” Swank gushes animatedly when asked what drew her to the character. “I love her drive, I love her passion, I love how she perseveres through adversity.

“I love that she is vulnerable. I love that she is a leader that cares immensely about the people that she works with and their wellbeing and I love that she is a mother and that being a mother is as important to her as her mission to Mars.”

Swank, who comes across as very humble and down-to-earth, was just a child when she decided she wanted to be an actress – and, aged 14, her mum moved the two of them to LA.

In the late eighties and early nineties, she starred in various TV movies and series, before her big break came in 1999: the film Boys Don’t Cry, which earned her an Academy Award (she won another one in 2005 for Million Dollar Baby).

She is now “selective” about the projects she takes on, she notes.

“It’s got to be something like really special to take me out of the environment that I love.

“I really love all the other things I’m working on now, I also have a production company, I have my clothing line, Mission Statement, that I work really hard on building.”

She also took a three-year screen break to look after her father Stephen, a former chief master sergeant in the Oregon air national guard, after he underwent a life-saving lung transplant in 2014.

The decision to be his live-in carer was actually an experience Swank could draw on for the role of Emma, a character who we see having to make some big sacrifices.

“Emma has this moment where her husband has an emergency and she has to make a decision of whether she goes and helps him or continues on her mission,” said Swank.

“It’s similar, but obviously different, because I’m on this path of being an actor and I’m well into living it, 29 years later, but my dad had to get a lung transplant and he didn’t have anyone to help him through that.

“I was in this blessed position that I could take the time off of work and help my dad and be his health advocate – and what was supposed to be one year quickly became two then quickly became three.

“Just being in that position to be able to help him was like a no-brainer to me. There was no other choice for me.”

If she was in Emma’s situation, would Swank – who’s married to entrepreneur Philip Schneider – be able to leave her own family for the greater good?

“That’s a really good question,” she muses.

“You know, I think if you are as passionate about something as Emma is about going to Mars – yes.

“It’s all circumstantial. But you can see the great wear and worry that it puts on her, going on that mission and making that decision and having to live with that every day; she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if something bad happened.”

Space exploration is always a fascinating, much talked-about topic.

In May this year, billionaire philanthropist Elon Musk made headlines with his aerospace company Space X, which he founded 18 years ago.

Their most high-profile mission yet saw a Nasa crew sent to the International Space Station from American soil (the two astronauts have since made a safe return to Earth).

It follows comments Musk made last year that it is imperative we become “a multi-planet species” to preserve the human race.

Discussing his view, Swank suggests: “I think that we need to tackle our issues here on Earth, that running away and starting any type of new world will only bring our problems with it.

“I definitely love the idea of space exploration and I love the idea that there could be something else out there that we don’t know about. That could be really exciting.

“But I also don’t want to use running away and not taking care of Mother Earth as a scapegoat.”

Swank had the opportunity to “pick the brains” of astronauts on the International Space Station, and people in mission control, ahead of being on set.

“They were so generous with their answers and their willingness to share what their life experiences have been like to get to where they are and then to go into space and what that means,” she recalls.

She found those conversations an important part of her research for the shoot, which she admits was intense – particularly because the pace of doing a TV show compared to doing a movie is “very different”.

“And I’m not the fastest at learning lines, so that was a challenge,” she elaborates.

“Like I was working all night, after I’d get off the set and then all weekend, trying to memorise lines.”

But she managed to find ways to help her relax during the filming process.

“I really connect back and recharge when I’m in nature,” she reflects.

“Thankfully we were filming in a beautiful place in the pacific north-west, and it was just green and lush, so I would usually go memorise my lines and do my script work while walking out on trails. That was sort of my saving grace.”

*Away is on Netflix now.