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‘The First’ Creator Beau Willimon Tells Us What the Hulu Drama Is ‘Actually About’

”I’ve always seen science and art as really cut from the same cloth,“ Willimon tells TheWrap

(Spoilers ahead for “The First” Season 1)

Hulu’s new series “The First” is more about the journey to Mars, creator Beau Willimon says. It’s also about “human journeys” inward.

The juxtaposition of artistic and scientific exploration is central to the series, and can be personified in Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn), an astronaut on the first manned mission to Mars, and his artist and recovering drug addict daughter Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron).

“The inward journey that an artist takes, into their own black void, to their own abyss, and [Denise] certainly does with confronting the loss of her mother and her own demons, I think is just as vast and perilous as a journey to another planet,” Willimon told TheWrap in an interview before the series premiere. “And that, for me, is what the show is actually about. Which is not just the journey to Mars, but journeys. Human journeys. Some of those are inward. And for her, it’s an inward journey.”

Willimon said that while growing up, his own father, who worked as an engineer on nuclear submarines, would be gone for months at a time without communication home — just like the child of an astronaut would experience. Willimon said that while he’s “always been interested in space travel and exploration and science,” his childhood was also inspiration for the story. 

I started asking myself — but what’s at the root of that [interest]? Like take it farther back, Beau. Like, why? Why are you interested in that stuff? And I think what it really is, if I take it back to like four years old, is my dad served on nuclear submarines. He was the chief engineer on nuclear subs,” he said. 

“And yeah, of course there’s a lot of myself in [Denise]. I’ll never go to Mars. I wish I could. But that’s not my destiny,” he continued. “But to explore, and with some degree of risk, you know, the emotional travails of really trying to explore the truth as a writer or as a painter, can often feel dangerous.”

Willimon said that the differences between art and science aren’t as pronounced as one might initially think.

I’ve always seen science and art as really cut from the same cloth,” he said. “I see them both as creative endeavors. I mean great scientists are taking their minds places where people have not imagined things before. They’re hypothesizing oftentimes what their peers are calling crazy, in order to try and understand the universe. I think artists are trying to understand the universe in their own way as well.”

Willimon himself as dipped his toes in both worlds — at different times during his life, he thought he might be a physicist and a painter. He painted the portrait of Diane (Melissa George) that Denise works on in Episode 5.

“He was a really good painting teacher,” Jacoby-Heron told TheWrap in an interview before the series premiere. 

Denise struggles with drug addiction, and in Episode 5, she relapses after working on a portrait of her mother, Diane. Jacoby-Heron said that while painting is her therapy, the journey of “going through all the trauma within the painting and then remembering these things” is so painful that it leads her off the wagon. 

But using art as therapy is something Jacoby-Heron thinks Denise will revisit if Hulu greenlights a Season 2 — which Willimon is hoping for.

I mean, I didn’t set out to do a limited series,” Willimon said. And while he wouldn’t say exactly how many seasons he envisions the series being, he did say he “certainly [has] a plan for the story,” which includes telling the story of the astronauts’ journey to Mars in parallel with the story of those left on Earth. 

“The First” is now streaming on Hulu.