Spoilers follow for the third season of the Apple TV+ series For All Mankind.
Every episode of For All Mankind is its own little adventure in Murphy’s Law, and even on those “catastrophe is always possible” terms, the third season of the Apple TV+ series kicked things up several notches. A space hotel tearing itself apart, a deadly rockslide on Mars, and a life-endangering pregnancy are all gasp-worthy subplots for the series’s American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts. But it’s a testament to Wrenn Schmidt’s precise and heartbreaking performance as NASA Director Margo Madison that her character’s multi-season arc about years of subterfuge and shared secrets with the Soviet Roscosmos space program is just as compelling as all those extraterrestrial emergencies.
Since the second season, the Soviets have been using Margo’s semi-romantic relationship with her Roscosmos counterpart, Sergei Nikulov (Piotr Adamczyk), to turn her into an asset for their government — and in the third season, Margo’s mentee, Aleida Rosales (Coral Peña), stumbles upon her deceit, drawing the attention of the FBI. In the season-three finale, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” a domestic-terrorism attack on NASA’s Johnson Space Center throws the future of the program into turmoil, and an eight-year flash-forward to 2003 reveals Margo didn’t die in the explosion. Instead, she absconded to Moscow, seemingly taking Sergei’s place in Roscosmos after she orchestrated his asylum in the U.S.
Schmidt’s performance this season tracks Margo’s stiffening staunchness and easy duplicity, from her shifting facial expressions when confirming her treason to Aleida to her rueful but resolved good-bye to Sergei (who Schmidt confirms is unaware of Margo’s side-switching). And while Schmidt admits it took some time to wrap her head around Margo seemingly fleeing persecution in the U.S. to continue her work for the Soviets, she’s ultimately unsurprised by the choice, given how committed Margo is to scientific discovery — no matter the personal cost.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Both seasons two and three of For All Mankind have ended with scenes that focus on Margo instead of the crazy space stuff. What is it about Margo that makes her so fitting for these cliffhanger moments?
That’s a great question that I don’t know if I have an answer for. Wow, you zapped me right away. Can we circle back to this question?
Of course. Let’s take a step back. When we left Margo in season two, we learned that the Soviets are basically forcing Sergei to lean on her more. We end with the sense that things are just going to get worse. When you came back for season three, how was Margo’s arc described to you?
It was less about how it was described and more about what’s in the scripts. I always start with what the story of the episode is and then kind of drill down into Margo’s story within that episode. It wasn’t really until that third episode, where you see the journey of Margo and Sergei’s relationship, that I had some questions about where it was all going. But I kind of love that, at this point, showrunners Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi know that I would rather know less, and sometimes I feel they tend to give less because they’re still trying to piece together exactly where something is going to go.
It’s really interesting that these two incredible minds, Sergei and Margo, have figured out a way to work underneath the system for the greater good of humanity and space exploration. Because they’re so smart and so curious about space and so idealistic about discovery and science, they’ve said, Okay, we’ve both experienced what it is to be a pawn in this greater system where politics and the military play a much bigger role, so let’s figure out a way around that. I really leaned into what Margo says to the very mysterious gentleman who comes into the hotel room when she’s like, “Say whatever you want to say. Anything I shared was in the interest of international peace and space travel.” It’s really fascinating to see how this young woman has blossomed into a leader within the U.S. space program, who in many ways has never doubted herself, her abilities, and nobody around her doubts her abilities, and suddenly — or not so suddenly — she’s put into this position in which she’s really not sure how things are going to end.
Do you remember your reaction to reading the finale script and where Margo ends up?
At first, I was really confused. I think at this point, anyone who loves the epic storytelling that television allows has this expectation of, Okay, some crazy stuff is going to go down. Somebody’s going to die or more than one person. And I think around episode six or seven, I started to wonder, Is it going to be Margo? She’s been playing this epic cat-and-mouse game with the Soviets and with Aleida and everything else that’s going on with her actual job. I kind of thought that this might be it.
Getting the last two episodes, I was very excited for other story lines that I wasn’t a part of because I thought the way those were going to play out was really exciting, and watching how it all came together was — chef’s kiss — so good. But I was really confused about Margo’s choice to go to Moscow, to engage with the Soviets, because of the moral compass that the show has established for that character. That was part A for me: Why would Margo choose to go there? And then part B is, Why would Margo choose to go work with the Soviets when she’s seen how they squeeze people in order to get people to do what they want them to do? Especially having been in the hotel room with Sergei as he’s being strangled. That was really hard to wrap my head around.
But then I talked to Matt and Ben a bit, and they said, “Well, Margo’s greatest love is what she does.” There’s actually this really beautiful quote that I just came across in a New York Times Magazine article about Michael Mann, where they’re talking about the movie Heat. They say that juice is in the action, and I felt like my whole body lit up when I read that quote. Because I was like, That’s why Margo goes to the Soviet Union — because the juice is in the action for her! It just took a long time to come around to that. I never felt the need to push back on that choice because the writers are really good at what they do, and at a certain point you have to trust the choices that they’re making on a grander scale. But that was really tough.
At the same time, now looking at our scripts for episodes one and two of season four, oh my God. It’s just a buffet.
I love comparing her to a Michael Mann character because they are so defined by what they’re good at and this sense that their motivations are always tied to those skills. With Margo’s choice to go to the Soviet Union, it does feel like she’s mimicking what Wernher von Braun did, coming to the United States to continue doing the work that he was doing despite hurting people. Margo was mirroring that choice by betraying Aleida.
As a viewer, did you feel like you saw any moments of humbling or hubris in relation to the penny dropping for Margo for how she viewed von Braun and his choices when she was younger?
There are two moments I think of. One of them is your line delivery to Sergei about getting used to living in a new place. I do feel like Margo is a little chastened in that moment. She has made the choice and now she sort of has to live with it, and she’s also a little bit humbled and aware that it will require different kinds of work from her — personal work that I think Margo does not do that often. And I also think in the finale speech, she is grateful for what the space program has given her.
But this is a question I should be asking you! What kind of emotional journey did you want to put her on in the finale?
I feel like it was really important to start asking those questions from episode four. Once she realizes that Aleida is starting to recognize that something is off, and once she’s seeing that the Russians didn’t do such a great job in buttoning up the final problems with the engine, and there’s all these ramifications of having shared their nuclear engine when it was unfinished. I felt like it was really important to start asking those questions then because it’s an important component of her understanding of the relationship between herself and Aleida. I’ve been acting for a bit now, and the ways in which I approached situations when I was pretty new and how I approach it now, they’re just different because with experience comes a different outlook. I felt it was important to start layering that in small ways. When Aleida is ready to blow up things or throw the grenade in a situation, Margo is playing a different game.
Game isn’t even the right word. Sometimes I find it challenging to talk about what Margo is doing because I feel like I don’t have the eloquence to get right to the heart of it. But she’s looking at something that’s a lot more complex because of the feelings she has about how she treated von Braun in the past but also the understanding and forgiveness, if I can say that, of, I see his predicament from a different side now. He was a man and a human in a very difficult situation in which I don’t know how you make a choice. And in some ways she’s set up certain boundaries for herself, like, He chose his work over the lives of other human beings, and I would never do that, but the ways in which that ends up playing out are, well, you might also have to sacrifice the thing that you love most. Because by making this choice and giving this information, you have now opened yourself up to being blackmailed.
So I think there’s a thoughtfulness, and things land on her in a different way in season three once she’s kind of under the gun with Aleida. I get emotional thinking about the ways in which Margo treats von Braun in the first season, when she doesn’t yet have that understanding, versus how she reacts or the ways in which things land on her in season three.
I’m curious about the headspace you got into for Margo being eight years into whatever her situation is within the Soviet Union. What was filming that 2003 flash-forward like?
There were a few gifts that I had in that moment. One was, I was shadowing our brilliant director on the last two episodes, Craig Zisk, so I didn’t have a lot of time to overthink what we were doing. Two, it’s really helpful that I didn’t know what was coming because I think, in that headspace, it allowed me some freedom to approach that scene. Lastly, our current geopolitical landscape is pretty complicated when it comes to our relationship with Russia. Just starting to unpack all that stuff, it was really interesting to think, What is it to be in a new place that is completely different on every level?
I had a little bit of experience with that when I studied abroad in Ireland my junior year of college. I very naïvely went into that thinking, They speak English, Irish people are super-friendly and funny. That’s such naïve, sophomoric thinking about different cultures. The moment the plane touched down, it was like, What am I doing? I know nothing about living here. And every single day there was a version of, I have no idea how I’m going to do this. Everything was different even though I didn’t have the language barrier. I leaned into that experience, and thinking about how complicated our political relationship is with Russia right now, and what it is to be in a place where you’re so isolated for eight years: How much do I understand, and how much has become less painful and less foreign, and how much is still quite difficult?
All of that was kind of in the mix with the one word that the writers gave me on the page, which was “determination.” And I know what that is for Margo. She’s never, ever been a person who gives up. That’s one of the things that I feel like is such a core throughline for he in every single season. When everyone else thinks that something is impossible, Margo just keeps pushing. Keeps working the problem.
You were on The Americans, and I wondered at the end of this episode, Is Margo Martha? Alison Wright’s character also ends up in the Soviet Union potentially against her will. I’m hoping there’s a shared universe where you two meet each other on the street.
That’s hilarious. Every time a new Russian cast member would arrive, I would say, “It’s The Americans on For All Mankind, starring Lev Gorn and Vera Cherny!” There are so many people from that show that ended up on For All Mankind. Every time one of them would arrive, I would wonder, When are we going to get Costa Ronin? Or Annet Mahendru? Honestly, can we put a bug in Ben and Matt’s ear to ask, “Can we get Alison?”
For Martha, it’s really, This is the only way. For Margo, I think she really is considering, Do I choose the American justice system and potentially never doing this again? Or do I choose pretty much jumping off the cliff into a free fall and hoping that the parachute releases at some point? For Martha, there’s that incredible scene where Matthew Rhys, Philip, takes the wig off, and that scene is imprinted just behind my eyes. The moment of realization is just so different — for Martha, she realizes what has been happening all along. She knew there was something off, but the penny finally drops in that way. For Margo, all along it is a choice. Margo chooses to share the information about the O-ring. Margo chooses to continue talking to Sergei beyond that. Margo chooses to create this alliance, this work-around. Margo chooses to share the nuclear-engine design.
That moment in the elevator, where Margo is looking up — for me, that was really a moment of, No matter how pissed off I feel at this person for what he’s done and this impossible circumstance in which he’s betrayed me and used me, I also know that they’ll kill him. That’s a choice I make: Do I betray my country, or do I essentially pull the trigger by not sharing it? Margo is making choices every step of the way, making the best choice she can in terrible circumstances, and Martha is a casualty.
Going back to the finale, did the Soviets have anything to do with the bombing, or was it coincidental that Margo was leaving that same day?
The Soviets did not have anything to do with the bombing, but I think you should also talk to Matt and Ben about that because who knows? There’s stuff that pays off later. Somebody just tweeted me about the Kirkland connection between season one and season three, and there’s all kinds of stuff like that that plays out on the show.
Is there anything from season four you can share? Even just a vibe to expect?
Without giving anything away, I think anybody can look at the beginning of season three and just think about what’s here that wasn’t here in season two, and the same will be true but in a different way for season four. The very beginning of season three, that first episode, a lot of new faces, a lot of new frontiers. There’s a lot of familiarness, but just like Ron Moore, and Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi and Maril Davis — our EPs — just as they’ve promised, the show keeps getting bigger and bigger.
Do we want to circle back to the first question?
I’ve been thinking about that as I’ve been rambling about other things. When you listen to the opening credits, it really is hopeful. It somehow encapsulates the promise of all the things that space exploration and the pursuit of space exploration can bring, all the hope that I feel like John F. Kennedy was trying to instill in the American people when he said, “We will put a man on the moon.” And I think that Margo, in a lot of ways, embodies the push and pull of all the forces working against her as well as all of the idealism and fuel behind the curiosity of exploring the unknown. Not because it has anything to do with what it will bring the U.S. but because it’s about exploration and understanding something bigger. And she ties together so many different aspects of the show, both the actual groundedness of everything that is happening on Earth and is the foundation of the space program and how we get there.
I don’t think it elevates Margo beyond any other character. I think all of the characters, especially having just watched the end of season three, every single one of them has something really different and interesting about them that contributes to the whole. But there’s something kind of unique about Margo. I won’t say who, but when we were all at Comic-Con, a couple of other people and I were saying, “If you could play any other character other than the one you’ve been cast as, who would you choose?” And they offered up two choices, and one of the two was Margo, and I was like, I get it. She’s one of the most fascinating and interesting people I’ve ever been lucky enough to play.