Michael Peña brings to the big screen the awe-inspiring true story of the first migrant farm worker to go to outer space
And the reason, he tells PEOPLE, is pretty simple: he had seen Peña wearing an orange space suit just like his in 2015’s The Martian.
“I said, ‘He has experience already. He's been an astronaut!’” Hernández, 61, remembers telling writer-director Alejandra Márquez Abella and producers of A Million Miles Away (in theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime Video Sept. 15). “Luckily, they listened to me and they did contact Michael and he agreed to it.”
Abella, 41, tells PEOPLE that the process of adapting Hernández’s memoir, Reaching for the Stars: The Inspiring Story of a Migrant Farmworker Turned Astronaut, started with dream-casting Peña. “There was not another option in our minds. Michael is just the biggest Mexican-American star there is, and that was the correct choice, I think, from the beginning.”
Plus, she says, “When you think about an astronaut, you never think that he could be like your uncle.” The filmmakers had found in Peña an actor who “looks like you, talks like you, or has just a familiar vibe.”
Hernández agrees there’s an everyday relatability to the Ant-Man star. “I'm normal-looking,” he jokes. “You don't want an Antonio Banderas because people won't have empathy with that person!”
“You get the audience to engage and pull for the underdog,” he says. “If [an actor is] normal-looking like me, then they're going to pull for him, right?”
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Hernández becoming, as he points out, “one of 500-and-some-odd people, of seven billion,” to see Earth from outer space lends itself well to the Hollywood treatment. Born in California to Mexican immigrants, he became the first itinerant farmhand to enter outer space in 2009, as a flight engineer on NASA’s Space Shuttle mission STS-128.
A Million Miles Away might have audiences wondering which details are true to Hernández’s life. Thanks to his collaboration with Peña, Abella and her filmmaking team, most are.
For example, he achieved his lifelong dream of NASA’s astronaut training program in 2001 on his 12th application after 11 rejections, and once covered a dishwashing shift at the Houston restaurant of his wife Adela while wearing his space suit. (One detail not captured: Hernández’s childhood love of Star Trek. “I'm a Trekkie,” he proclaims. “I thank William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and Gene Roddenberry for that because they inspired a whole generation.”)
The movie also depicts Hernández’s youth spent harvesting lettuce, strawberries and grapes across California with his immediate and extended family. For Abella, those humble beginnings were key in illustrating the mentality and work ethic that fueled the astronaut’s journey to the stars.
“People think about big achievements in migration communities as things that happen despite their origins,” she says. “And I wanted to portray this story as one of, you become who you are because of your origins.”
She adds that moviegoing audiences don’t often see biopics about ordinary Latin American people achieving extraordinary things: “This is the whole experience of life — in José's story of course — but it's also the Latino and the Mexican American and the Mexican experience, that you don't get to see on the big screens a lot.”
That’s why Hernández considers A Million Miles Away “a great honor” and hopes it “inspires and empowers people.”
“It's the epitome of reaching the American dream: if you come to this country and work hard, get yourself an education, good things will happen to you. People always tell me, ‘You are the luckiest person in the world.’ And my response to that is, ‘It's funny how the harder I work, the luckier I get.’”
A Million Miles Away is in theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime Video Sept. 15.
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