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September 04, 2019

The Woman Who Fell to Mars

Jihae went from having no acting experience to playing twins on two different planets. It’s been quite a journey.

Ann Farmer
  • Paola Kudacki

When Jihae Kim, the South Korean singer-composer–songwriter known simply as Jihae, was invited to play twins in the National Geographic docudrama series Mars, she accepted the dual role without a lick of acting experience.

The director, Everardo Gout, had been searching for months for the right person to portray Mars mission astronaut Hana and her Earthbound flight-controller sister, Joon. After watching a music video in which Jihae — a striking presence — plays a man and a woman, he became convinced she could do it. So she gleaned some acting lessons from a book and showed up.

"I almost quit on day one," Jihae says. "I was like, 'I don't know what I'm doing. I'm going to ruin the show.'"

Ultimately, though, she blazed through that first season and then the second. More recently, she played a badass resistance fighter in Peter Jackson's Mortal Engines film.

"I've always had to adapt to new situations," Jihae says. By age 13, she had attended 10 schools and learned three languages to accommodate her diplomat parents' moves.

Mars is a hybrid series: it uses documentary footage of actual space exploration to support a fictional story about astronauts who land on the red planet in 2033 and set up an artificially oxygenated encampment. Any step outside requires spacesuits and helmets.

"I don't think anyone who had to wear a spacesuit for a long period of time didn't feel the claustrophobia," says Jihae, who was mentored in space-travel realities by Mae Carol Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel in space. "But that's what they go through, so we had to go through that, too."

To portray twins, she divided them into yin and yang types, pitching Joon's voice higher. She developed childhood backstories for them both; Hana, for instance, played tirelessly with a toy rocket.

Following a tenuous but successful colonization in the first season, the second season is set a decade later. It introduces a showdown between the altruistic astronauts and the employees of a private mining company that wants to extract the planet's natural resources.

These days, a colony on Mars doesn't seem so far-fetched. When NASA landed a spacecraft there recently, Jihae compared its first snapshots of the planet's dry vistas to the desert site in Morocco where the series was shot. Her verdict? "I'd say it was pretty darn close."

Mars is available on demand and on the Nat Geo TV app.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2019

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