That’s a good segue into talking about Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s movie about humanity desperately seeking a new home in the middle or late 21st century. Here you are, just a year after that film, playing another astronaut who must endure a long isolation on an alien planet. Is that just a coincidence, that these two projects lined up the way they did?
Yeah. Two great directors came to me within a year of each other. They’re very different movies, but the circumstances of the characters I play are exactly the same! [Laughs.] That irony wasn’t lost on me. Luckily, they’re very different in feel and tone and theme. I just couldn’t say no to Ridley.
Your face is all over the posters for The Martian, whereas with Interstellar, Nolan and the studio and everyone did a good job of keeping your presence in that movie a secret. The fact that you are at least as big a star as anyone else in that film, but you don’t show up for a long time, makes the actions of your character, Dr. Mann, and his fate, more surprising. The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Departed aside, audiences are used to seeing you play the guy we can count on, you know?
Yeah. There are three or four references to my character before he comes onscreen, and every time he’s mentioned, someone says, “He was the best of us!” [Laughs.] Chris was really setting up the audience there.
Well, on subsequent viewings, that sticks out more. Has playing a pioneer astronaut in two back-to-back movies deepened your interest in spaceflight or astronomy?
I’ve always been a big science fiction fan. Getting to go to JPL [for a press event event for the movie] and meeting some of the astronauts was incredibly humbling. What they do is awesome. I don’t think I want to experience space travel, at least not in the near future. But it’s definitely given me an appreciation of what these guys do.
Your guy, Watney, is an astronaut, a botanist, and at least a makeshift electrical engineer. Obviously it would take decades to learn to do all the things this guy can do, but do you feel like you need to try to acquire at least a tiny fraction of the character’s skill set to feel confident playing someone like that?
Nah, I didn’t have to learn anything. I did learn how to grow potatoes. That was kind of inevitable, because we just grew them. We had potatoes at various stages of growth for all these different scenes. They were growing them in a soundstage adjacent to the one we were shooting in. So we planted them and re-planted them on the set.
Growing potatoes in Jordan must count for something.
We did that on a soundstage in Budapest.
Ah. Well, did you consult any astronauts? What sort of research did you feel was necessary?
It was more just sitting with Ridley and going through the script moment-by-moment to design a plan of attack. But we had technical consultants. NASA was incredibly helpful and available to us. We did want to get the science right. That was always Andy Weir’s contention, that he’d started with the question, Could a person survive on Mars? and then just let the science lead the story. We wanted the movie to do that, too. We didn’t want any gaps in logic.
Did you shoot the movie in sequence? It seems that it would be important for us to see Watney’s physical condition erode over time.
No, we didn’t. That was my idea. I asked Ridley if we could shoot the third act first, so I could lose the weight, and then, over Christmas break, try to put some weight back on and shoot the beginning of the movie. That was the plan. But then when we scheduled it out, because we had to go to Jordan and shoot our exteriors all at the same time, we realized that wouldn’t work. So we shot it all out-of-order.
And you went to JPL?
Yeah. We were there just last week.
Do you remember who you talked to there?
I met about 30 rocket scientists and PhDs. [Laughs.] I met one of the astronauts, Drew—what was Drew’s last name?