Actress Shantel VanSanten portrays Karen Baldwin on Apple TV+’s For All Mankind with equal parts grace and resilience.
For All Mankind began in 2019 alongside the launch of Apple TV+, a small unassuming show about what would have happened had the Soviet Union beat the US to the moon. An alternative timeline began and takes viewers on an incredible journey of ‘what could have happened’ and how the US/NASA coped with those losses.
As the network grew, as did the viewership of the show, it was critically acclaimed worldwide, the show’s second season receiving a rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics deeming it “one of the greatest seasons of television.” In a show that launches 4 women into space, it is the character of astronaut wife Karen Baldwin that centres as the heart of the show. We see Karen begin the show as a housewife in the 60s, and by season 3, which is set in the 90’s, we see Karen’s full transformation into a smart savvy businesswoman on the cover of Forbes, who has commercialized space travel and accommodation.
Shantel VanSanten plays Karen Baldwin, a veteran of hit tv shows such as One Tree Hill and The Flash, and gives an incredibly emotionally nuanced performance. Each season of For All Mankind is set in a different decade, so the characters age with each season, something that could potentially come across as gimmicky, we see these characters age and grow with the history around them. The character of Karen is one of the show’s biggest triumphs. Shantel takes us on a journey from the 60s to the 90s with grace, resilience and subtle nuances that make us root for a woman adapting and adjusting to the ever-changing world that she is in.
1883’s Amelia Walker spoke with Shantel VanSanten about what season 3 has in store for Karen, and how she has found taking her character on a 30-year journey, and more.
Firstly, I just wanted to say congratulations on the continued success of For All Mankind because it has evolved so beautifully. Season 2 was universally critically acclaimed. Your character Karen has grown so organically with each season, we’ve seen her go from housewife to now in season two being a businesswoman and so involved with the space programme, I just wondered how that growth of character has been for you as an actor.
First and foremost, thank you for this awesome compliment about the show. You know, from the very beginning, we would call it ‘the little space show that could’ We got to be around when Apple was launching its network and as the network expands and grows and Apple TV gets more notoriety, it seems as though the following and the fans have just kind of taken off and it’s incredible to see because I believe in and I love our show, so so so much.
From the very beginning I think that we all had our judgments and understanding of who Karen was, and each season and each time we kind of jump ahead, it feels as though we discover something about her that maybe we didn’t know, or that is surprising, or that juxtaposes our judgement. Matt (Wolpert) and Ben (Nedivi), two of our creators besides Ron Moore – who is brilliant – we have these discussions about change often. Change is a very common theme on our show as we jump through time and what’s going to change in history and what won’t change in the timeline, and how much we as individuals change. We can look at somebody like Eddie (Karen’s ex-husband played by Joel Kinnaman) and as much as maybe he denied his love and prioritized space for part of season two, it’s always been there. It’s been there.
As we find out in this conversation between Eddie and Karen this season. It’s been there since they were in their teens when they first met. As I played this new iteration of Karen that we see in season three, I wondered if that woman always lived inside her. If that ambition and that desire to be a businesswoman to negotiate, to take risks to step forward into this purpose had always existed, but that she was prioritizing other people? Or if it was because it has been more allowed, because the time has changed, or if it was an accumulation of all these things. It’s been one of the highlights of my career thus far to play Karen and to be a part of the show that constantly challenges me to find empathy and not have judgments and to just be along for this wild crazy ride.
That’s so lovely to hear, I feel like we have seen her adapt to the societal changes that happen within the time jump such as societal changes for women to have more rights, but nothing about how she has grown feels forced or just a byproduct of society changing. So much of her development has happened off-screen, but it feels very organic and very natural. As viewers, we accept each season’s version of her and are rooting for her. There are so many little nuances that you play as an actor that I just love to watch. I just wonder how you hold that characterization when so much of her life has happened off-screen.
You know I think maybe the favourite challenge that I face in playing Karen is filling in all of the gaps. I’ve said this in a couple of interviews but I have this journal of Karen, and it’ll go into the museum of things that I treasure and keep from my career. It started from when I got the job and I had to develop who this woman was and come up with memories and history and stories that technically don’t exist, that the writers never know about. Unless I feel like it’s relevant and it could play into something, then I go to them like a crazy woman and I’m like “you know, Karen, when she was in college, she had this experience and I think…” and obviously, it sounds crazy because I am just making all of this up, but for me, it is so important to create a life that has been lived especially in between the seasons.
Developing that as the show started was important, and then I was on this ride. Once I knew who Karen was, and usually, that gets torn apart and deconstructed with all the time jumps. I need to fill in the gaps. So it starts with ‘what’s happening in the world?’ ‘What historical events are grounding points? How does she feel about them?’ ‘Who does she vote for?’ ‘What music does she listen to?’
I go through all of that before we start each season, and answer so many nuanced questions, and then I spend those months – while I’m working out, while I’m driving my car or while I’m getting a coffee coming up with life memories that don’t once again exist for this, you know, the person that it only exists on screen. As I say it out loud, it sounds crazy, but it feels like maybe stories that would help her develop into the woman that we find and that I want to create. So that way new nuances can come through, and we can accept who she is now because, at least in my mind and in this journal, she has such a well-developed life and experiences. I even have the most mundane things, like what plants did she plant in her garden? because she’s always loved gardening, to big ones like ‘what trips did she take by herself?’ ‘Who were her people? the ones who influenced her the most?’ I take the downtime between the seasons to still sit with Karen, it feels like Karen has been my best friend now for almost four years.
That is so clever, it doesn’t sound crazy at all because you can see so much change with her on-screen, subtle and not so subtle. It has been so lovely to watch because even though she was a main character, she wasn’t part of the core group of women that were going into space or were heavily involved with that as part of their careers, so we got to see them in action and tackle so much just by being astronauts in this tv show about space. Karen hasn’t been boxed into ‘just the wife’ she’s been through so much, and she began season 3 with yet another loss. So much of Karen’s life has been punctuated with loss, with losing her son, her business, and her marriage. Season 2 ended with the loss of two of the show’s most beloved characters, and now Karen has lost her business partner, I’m so curious to know Shantel’s narrative of what Karen did between seasons two and three. There is roughly a time jump of around 10 years, and that’s a huge chunk of life to fill in.
I think there were huge major shifts for Karen, where we end season two with a giant loss of her marriage, which I would maybe say was one of the greatest losses other than Shane (her son) Her marriage was something that was a really big defining pillar for her and that she fought for. It’s interesting because I think their relationship is now in an even better, more beautiful friendship space than it ever was when they were married. There’s more respect and acceptance of one another. But I think that shift for her and you know, her daughter Kelly finally being old enough and out of the house, allowed her to sit back and take a look at herself. And if we noticed that she didn’t jump into another partnership, as Ed did, she is just living for her, for the person that maybe she neglected or denied for so long, for the dreams that she didn’t share with anybody. because Ed’s or Kelly’s or Shane’s were more important. There is something so freeing about that.
So, a lot of the stories that I created between those two seasons had to do with what had she always dreamed of doing coming out of the loss of this marriage and how would she evolve into this grand successful businesswoman that we need who, by the way, like it’s in the snippets as the season starts, but she’s on the cover of Forbes magazine! She has developed a company with Sam where they were doing commercial flights with people up into space, and then took that and developed a hotel! They were commercializing the space industry and she has become this successful businesswoman in a space that again, for lack of a better word, she was familiar with, but also that she loathes because space has taken so much from her. Yet it is the place that she knows understands and can thrive in, so she capitalizes on that.
I think she took trips and had some Eat, Pray, Love moments, but I guess differently, but where she got to see what was outside of her bubble and it helped her not just develop as a businesswoman but to relate to the world outside of this small Texas space bubble. That broadened her horizons of being a businesswoman, and I think Sam ushered her into that and opened her eyes to those things. I think for once she got to see other cultures because she was pretty sheltered, non-feminist, she was all sorts of things, but I think most of that came out of fear. Every time we watched Karen lose something – which we’ve watched as you said, we watched her go through a tremendous amount of loss – she has become more and more resilient and found more and more space for herself to grow. That’s something that is only mirrored, even more on a grander scale on our show every time we have a loss. Started with losing the moon, not being first to the moon in season one. We have seen the resilience of humans, of a programme of individuals, of women being able to come forward, of minorities now being implemented into this workspace where only men were. It constantly has pushed us into a better space by ‘losing’ and I just think that that’s a common theme and we see it obviously on an individual level with a lot of our characters.
That’s really lovely put and I think that is why the show is such a success, the resilience and the growth and the inclusion that happens to these very human and imperfect characters. Some of my favourite growth on the show was some of the beautiful scene work that you did with Sarah Jones in the previous seasons. I loved watching the friendship between Karen and Tracy grow so wonderfully from the pilot. Some of the greatest work of the show for me was the work that you two did together, particularly in the scenes when Karen’s son Shane dies.
That translates so well because in real life; that is my wife! She calls me her wife, I’m her wife! It’s something that I will never forget going through that episode where I lose Shane. Sarah and I shared and bonded a lot through that episode. I think when you get this gift of really challenging difficult work, and you have seen partners or a partner who is by your side, it makes you better. Sarah makes me a better actress. She held my hand through it and I’ve held hers and we have a bond that is born out of, obviously love for one another, but also out of the kind of surviving something and exposing something and being vulnerable to the deepest parts of yourself. That will never go away and I will never forget. It still makes me emotional. I didn’t watch the season finale of Season 2 for six months, I said to her if I don’t watch it, it feels like it didn’t happen, it feels like you won’t be gone.
Shooting the scene in the cemetery at the end of season two; I remember getting into the van to drive back to base camp and just losing it out loud like a four-year-old who couldn’t breathe. I called her saying “I don’t want you gone, I don’t want to do this show without you. This sucks.” So I think that on some level I know the audiences have felt the loss of Tracy and Gordo, but my life on the show would never be the same without her. I still feel like if anything Karen carries that spirit of her best friend who would want her to fight for herself and for the things that she wants to feel successful in life and she was inspired by her.
That is so beautiful. Sarah is an incredible actor and Tracy was my favourite character, the loss just felt so extreme and gutting, which I think is why it had an emotional impact that it had on all viewers and critics alike. I read someone say they cannot look at duct tape now without crying! Seeing Karen so broken in that scene in the cemetery with the two coffins felt like such a huge moment in her life, which now we are over 10 years on from that, and we’ve talked about her growth over that period. It must be so exciting to be able to showcase how resilient and determined she now is. What does the rest of Season 3 hold for Karen?
I think for the first time the audience is seeing Karen finding her voice in a much greater space. I think she’s always had opinions, she’s always fought for certain things, but it was on such a small level within her household. Then it was for a bar and a business and now it’s on a much grander, greater scale as you know. She gets to work alongside Dev, and she’s fighting for a place in the world and a place within this business structure where her voice is valued and heard. She finally knows her worth and what she’s learned, even with the losses. The resilience of her is that she knows now more than ever to speak, even if she’s trembling, to step forward and have an opinion. Some of that I think also comes with age, which is beautiful because I feel that within myself. If I can go back and tell my 20-year-old self anything, even though I probably wouldn’t be brave enough to accept it, I would say “you have a voice, please speak, you have value” I do think that just comes with age and time.
For Karen, we get to see her in that space, which is so fulfilling. Societal structures in the 60s silenced women to a certain point, yes, but I do think that Karen didn’t feel worthy of an opinion or a place in the world larger than in her family unit so it’s really rewarding to see that. For the rest of the season, we get to see more of it and her fight for things and become this very different opinionated woman. That speaks to what she thinks and feels and stands up for what she believes in. Even in this day and age that’s inspiring to me.
That feels very relevant right now, with everything that’s happening in the world. It feels like she’s a voice that could be used at the moment.
Absolutely! To think that in season one she was fighting with Ed saying “Molly can’t go to the moon with you, she’s a woman! That’s not her place!” whereas now she’s like “hello, you’re going to listen to me and I’m going to lead the board meeting of this giant billion dollar company!”
It’s such a wonderful journey to witness! Speaking of having a voice that leads me to my last question very nicely. You’ve been working as an actor now for so many years and you’re also using your platform for advocacy work; with your work with the Lung Association, and obviously with current events with regards to women’s rights. It’s very encouraging to see people have a voice as themselves, and use their platforms for good. For All Mankind is an incredible showcase for an actor, you’ve managed to create and showcase a tapestry of life for one character over such an expansive period. That feels like the jackpot for an actor, incredible character. What is next for Shantel?
I have five more episodes that I’m going to be doing of FBI on CBS, which is the total polar opposite of Karen, there’s something I love about that too. I love that we get to kind of step into different shoes and route ourselves and tell stories, so I’m gonna go fight crime for a couple more months in New York! And for me, working with the American Lung Association is a lifetime commitment, I knew that the minute that I lost my grandmother. I get to see the developments that we’ve made in the last eight years affecting patients and the research and the treatments that are now being provided.
For me, it’s a labour of love and never feels like labour. It feels like it’s an extension of a way that I get to love my grandmother in her absence, and a legacy that I get to keep forever. This team that I’ve created in her honour is a force and the way that they fundraise and give everything just leaves me in awe. Hopefully, by the end of this year, we’re gonna surpass the $200,000 mark, and that’s everybody’s generous nature to a cause that is now more than ever. With COVID-19 and respiratory issues that are so at the forefront in our world right now, it’s incredibly relevant. I just feel lucky that I’m able to educate and advocate for something that I watch affect so many people and hopefully save somebody’s grandmother or mother from the same fate as mine has suffered. For me, that’s a passion project that’ll never stop.
Work is always circling and orbiting, and I just try to find projects that inspire me in the same way. The bar has been set from For All Mankind. I think that to find something of this calibre again, will be rare and special. I’ll say it again, I just feel fortunate to play Karan and to be on this show!
Interview Amelia Walker
Photography Emma McIntyre
Season 3 of Apple TV’s For All Mankind is streaming now.