“I started out with my own feminine and masculine duality for each character,” says South Korean-born actress, musician, and multimedia artist Jihae about developing the characters of twin sisters Joon and Hana Seung — she plays both — in the six-part National Geographic miniseries Mars. “I found that immersing myself in both the outer and inner makings of the characters helped to separate Joon from Hana, who are also very much alike as identical twins.”
The series, which takes place in the years 2016 and 2033, is a hybrid endeavor, mixing interviews and research from today’s boldest scientific minds like Elon Musk and Neil Degrasse Tyson, with a fictional storyline taking place in the near distant future (2033) just as Earth-bound humans are undertaking their first manned mission to Mars. For example, in the first episode, a fictional team of expert astronauts board the Daedalus spacecraft bound to pierce Mars’s atmosphere; meanwhile, back in 2016, SpaceX continues trials to land its first experimental spacecraft on earth.
Directed by Evarardo Gout and based on the book How We’ll Live on Mars by Stephen Petranek, the series is lauded for its authenticity and fresh cast. Jihae was excited to take on unexplored territory. “I was always fascinated by stars, looking up at the night skies,” she says, “we were lucky to have a wonderful director who cared about telling the truth of each character and scene. He was very collaborative and gave us lots of room for creativity.”
Jihae’s role in Mars is just the latest chapter in a diverse and exciting career. The youngest of three, Jihae came from a musical family — her mother was a trained opera singer and piano teacher. Since launching her musical career in 2007 with the LP My Heart is an Elephant, she’s released three more albums — the latest 2015’s Illusion of You — and collaborated with luminaries like Michel Gondry and the late Leonard Cohen, with whom she cowrote the song “It Just Feels."
Early in her career, Jihae realized she needed to expand beyond the realm of pure music. “Starting with my 2nd LP, Elvis is Still Alive, I began to release concept albums that incorporated various mediums of art to expand the core concept,” she says. “I was working with very limited resources and wanted to extend the lives of my songs but in effect I had found a gateway to explore different mediums of art.” She eventually went on to collaborate with playwright and director John Patrick Shanley on a rock opera based on her third concept album Fire Burning Rain, an exploration of spiritual death and rebirth. “I wanted to create an event that celebrated the death of the ego and a birth of enlightenment or The Golden Age,” she says of the project.
Connected to organizations like the Willie Mae Rock Camp and Hillary Clinton’s 2012 Hours Against Hate global initiative, Jihae works diligently to elevate opportunities for women and girls. Her work on Mars is an unexpected opportunity to continue to work to close that gender gap, as young girls watch a team that includes several women blast off into space. With interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) on the rise over the past few years — The National Girls Collaborative Movement is on the case, and Girls Who Code clubs continue to pop up around the country — showing women taking lead engineering and science-related roles on a prominent show only emphasizes the need to continue the work now. “I think girls interested in STEM will be very inspired by Mars,” says Jihae. “[The show] marries science with entertainment in a unique way with all the thrill ride, drama, suspense and romance without the violence and sex.” She continues, “Women have come a long way for equal rights but we still have a lot more to achieve.”
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Melynda Fuller is a New York-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, HelloGiggles, TimeOut New York, and Bookslut, among others. She is currently working on a collection of essays. You can find more of her published work at melyndafuller.com. Find her on Twitter: @MGrace_Fuller.