Coral Peña talks about becoming a TV aerospace engineer, “Good Will Hunting”, and unexpectedly becoming a role model to other minorities
Coral Peña stars as NASA Engineer Aleida Rosales in “For All Mankind”. Photo Credit: Robby Mueller

Arturo Hilario
El Observador

“For All Mankind” is an Apple TV+ original that centers around a simple question: What if the US lost the space race to the Soviet Union so the pursuit for power in the cosmos continued on past the 70s?

In the first season of the riveting show, the rapid advancements in technology and society had NASA colonize the moon and bring in more Women into the space program. In season two, which is now streaming and finalizes with its last episode on April 23rd, it’s been nine years since the first season and the fight for control of the moon and space continues.

Aleida Rosales, played by Dominican-American actress Coral Peña, is an engineer tasked with handling the physics of flight in space. Coming from a past full of troubling experiences including crossing the border illegally and losing her mother at a young age, Rosales is very intelligent and can adapt to situations, but also challenges the rules from the space program superiors.

Recently I had a chance to speak to Coral Peña about her role in “For All Mankind”, her 1997 movie inspiration which helped flesh out her interpretation of Aleida, and why more than just space fans will be captivated by the show’s mix of alternate history, Sci-Fi, and drama.

To start off, could you tell me a little bit about Aleida’s story and how she fits into the overall narrative of “For All Mankind”?

Although it is my first season with the show Aleida was actually in the first season. She’s in fact, I think the very first character we’re introduced to in the first season and the younger years [were] played by an amazing actress named Olivia Trujillo. She did a beautiful job. And so the exciting part about the fact that I get to play the older version of Aleida is the fact that Olivia plays Aleida very different than I do.

And that is something that I was afforded because there is a ten-year time jump and because Aleida, somewhere between season one and season two, has been through so much and has had such a difficult life.

Clearly, we don’t exactly know why yet, but we do know that she’s had a very difficult life and in the second season [it] is exciting to watch a very different version of Aleida who is extremely brilliant. She’s an amazing engineer, but who, because of her trauma, doesn’t know how to work with people and doesn’t know how to work with authority figures and with people that she just hasn’t doesn’t know how to trust yet. So that’s Aleida, she’s a very special character. I love playing her. I know that people get an even clearer idea of who Aleida is as we finish off the season.

Besides looking at the initial performance of the younger version of Aleida, how did you mold the character to your style or, your own performance, and did you have any other inspirations which helped you in that?

Yes. So, I got very lucky that the whole point was that Aleida must have had this 180-degree transition between season one and season two. So, at first I was trying to mimic a lot of what Olivia Trujillo did in the first season, but after speaking to [creator] Ron Moore and the show runners and Maril Davis, who produced the show, I realized that the most exciting thing I could do was create a completely different character.

So, I had a lot of freedom and I got to just think about what it would be like for someone to, you know, we leave her in the first season, and we see that her father has been deported and she’s virtually homeless. And what is it like to play a character who at such a young age has been through that much immigration trauma?

So there’s that end of things, and then in terms of my inspiration, I feel like I’m going to keep bringing it up – and it’s so cheesy – but the perfect example of a troubled genius that we see and that we have is in “Good Will Hunting”, we see Will Hunting whose this mega genius, but has gone through so much trauma, and that was the movie when I was a kid that I loved so much!

And so, I drew a lot of inspiration from that as well. What is it like to be someone who everyone knows is the most talented and everyone is rooting for them but can’t help but self-sabotage and self-sabotage. That movie definitely was a bit of my inspiration for [Aleida].

I was reminded a little bit about José Hernández who is a retired Mexican-American astronaut, and I personally didn’t know about him until I was in adulthood. And I was wondering, seeing yourself play a space engineer of color and not only that, but a female space engineer, do you feel that the representation aspect is important? You are advancing diversity in a show like this that’s a really large ensemble, but that you have that role and kids watching it now can be like “There’s a career in engineering and space exploration for people that look like me.”

Yeah, I think when I’m working on something I oftentimes don’t focus on or don’t know how to focus on how other people could receive it. I’m just focusing on what’s here now. And so when we were working on the second season, I didn’t think about, ‘oh, this could be really impactful for young Latin girls who want to be engineers.’ But then, as the show has started to come out and more and more episodes have come out this season, I was on set one day with Michael Okuda, who is the Technical Advisor on set for a lot of these ‘space things’. And I went up to him, (we’re filming season three right now), during the middle of filming and I said, ‘Hey Michael, how do you like the second season have you been watching it?’ And he said, ‘yes I’ve been watching it.’ And then it got quiet, and I saw him starting to get teary eyed and he said, ‘I just want to let you know that personally, this character means a lot to me. I relate to Aleida a lot. And even though I’m older now, even now, the representation and her presence in the show, it makes me feel like I can do anything.’

And I started to get teary eyed as well! So I thought, ‘oh, my God, I didn’t even think about how far of a reach something like this could have.’ So now I think since having that conversation with him, I’ve been thinking about what it means for a young girl who wants to be an engineer, to see it, to see themselves and say, ‘oh my gosh, yeah, I’m allowed to do this, I’m allowed to do this. And now I’ve been given permission,’ which is crazy. They they’ve always had permission. But sometimes you just have to see yourself to know that you have permission to do whatever you want. I can’t even begin to unpack what it means to be that person that can offer that to someone.

Thank you for that great answer. On another note, I did wonder about space things. I was wondering how you might have physically prepared for this. Was there a lot of like sort of like astronaut training, physical training etc.?

Well, Aleida’s stuff is on Earth. So, most of my preparation has been just it’s like space travel 101, you know, trying to just catch myself up with how engineers have to think, you know, how does a space engineer have to think – when they see an astronaut, when they see the moon, when they see a shuttle? What is their first thought?

Unlike an astronaut who is coming from maybe the Air Force or Annapolis, as Ed Baldwin (played by Joel Kinnaman) was, they’re just thinking, how can I fly this thing? And what are the physics to fly? Well, I’m thinking, okay, what are the physics of how many people can I have on this ship? What’s the weight going to be like? What type of engines do I have to consider using, what’s the force and impact that I have to take into consideration?

I mean, it’s just a different mindset that you have as an engineer versus someone who’s coming from a flying background. So that was the preparation I did just kind of listening to interviews of how engineers just talk about space.

And although there’s only probably like .01 percent of it I actually understand, it’s just about opening my brain up to the possibilities of thought that an engineer has.

Thanks again Coral. My last question is why would you recommend people get on Apple TV+ if they haven’t seen “For All Mankind” and catch up as the second season is coming out, with the final premiering on the 23rd of April?

Like I said, when I’m working on a project, I never think about exactly how people will receive it. But as the season has come out, I’ve been delighted and just in shock at how many people are, I guess, in love with this show. I mean, I am someone who, I read a lot of GQ and recently GQ published an article where they said, ‘you need to stop sleeping on “For All Mankind.”‘ And I go, ‘oh, my gosh, people are not just in love with this show, people are fighting for this show. People are begging for people to watch it because it is it is that exciting of the show.’

It is doing something very special, which is these time jumps in the ultimate history and it combines these interpersonal stories with politics, with space. It is exciting and it juggles all these things at the same time. And it’s doing something that I don’t know has ever been done with the structure of the show.

I usually say, well, if you like space, if you like Sci-Fi, if you like alternate history, you should watch the show. But I think the show has been able to do so much more than that. So, I guess I’ll just say, listen to Rolling Stone, listen to GQ, listen to Vanity Fair, and watch the show, because it’s great and this season is fantastic.

So like come for the space, but stay for the other things it does.

Stay for everything else. I mean, pick, what do you like in TV? Do you like the family drama, well you get it in “For All Mankind”. Do you like shows about politics, well you get it in “For All Mankind”. It does have everything. And it’s crazy that they’ve been able to not only make it work, but to make it exciting.

Yeah. I like eighties period pieces, so I think that’s what I’ll stay for.

Exactly! If you like period pieces well, you should watch “For All Mankind”. It has everything!