Spaceman gave Adam Sandler a new skill: ‘I never cried in front of a tennis ball before’

After Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, after Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected), after Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children and the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, film fans must be used to the idea of Adam Sandler as a comedian willing to step into dramatic roles. But they still haven’t seen him give a performance like the one he delivers in Netflix’s new science fiction movie Spaceman. His character, Czech astronaut Jakub Procházka, is painfully introverted, emotionally repressed, and above all, quiet. Sandler’s dramatic roles have mostly been about energy — sometimes restless, barely contained, often aggressive energy. Jakub is so muted and compressed, he seems like a trauma victim.

Also, he spends more than half the movie talking to a giant alien spider voiced by Paul Dano.

“I felt a little self-conscious,” Sandler told Polygon via Zoom, in an interview he shared with Dano. “In the beginning, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to convey! And I then I just sat and tried to feel whatever I was feeling, and just live it as much as possible […] just having as quiet a performance as I could.”

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Sandler says the role felt like a stretch for him specifically because of that muted energy. “My instinct’s not very quiet. In real life, I’m pretty jumpy — I get going quick. Things get me heated quite quick. So [director Johan Renck] was definitely trying to control me on this one, and bring something different to the performance.”

The film, adapted from the 2017 novel Spaceman of Bohemia written by Czech author Jaroslav Kalfař, is a solemn drama in the mold of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, or to some degree, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. The story revolves around Jakub’s disintegrating frame of mind after eight months alone in space as he investigates a glowing cosmic phenomenon that’s become visible from Earth. Meanwhile, his wife Lenka (Carey Mulligan), heavily pregnant and going through her own breakdown back home, decides to leave Jakub, and his handlers (Isabella Rossellini among them) work to keep him from finding out. And then the giant spider appears, and Jakub worries that he’s losing his mind.

Amid all this emotional drama, Sandler spent the movie dangling from a wire rig to simulate zero gravity and having intimate emotional conversations with a tennis ball on a stick — the standard-issue movie-set stand-in for a CG character that will be added later. Dano recorded his lines separately, in a studio environment. They were added to the movie later, along with his alien character, eventually dubbed Hanuš.

Hanuš the almost-human-sized alien spider clings to an inside wall on Jakub’s spaceship in Netflix’s Spaceman Image: Netflix

It wasn’t Sandler’s first role where he had to treat a stand-in object as a living character. “In Jack & Jill [where Sandler played both title roles, thanks to digital compositing], my twin sister was a tennis ball,” he said. “I’ve had moments. But not a full movie, and not a movie where I was on wires, and not a movie where I had to cry. I never cried in front of a tennis ball before. I mean, one time at the Jewish Community Center when we lost the match. But that’s when I was 7. A long time ago.”

Even when delivered with self-effacing, solemn gravity, that reflexive joke still feels like the kind of Borscht Belt comedy Sandler so often brings even to his serious roles. In Sandler movies like Uncut Gems or Judd Apatow’s Funny People, humor and drama mix and complicate each other. But Spaceman was an exception to that rule, according to Sandler.

“Johan was pretty adamant up top about not having any comedic instincts during this movie,” he says. “I just said, Let me just be this guy, to take what I read in the script and go from there. And Johan was pushing me toward that. I didn’t ever call him up and say, You know, I definitely thought of a joke that might work here. I just kind of said Let’s let me feel what Johan wants me to feel.”

While he and Dano rarely interacted during production, though, Dano says Renck brought them together beforehand to get a sense for how their characters would interact, to develop the tone he wanted for the movie.

Lenka (Carey Mulligan, in a silver tiara, flowing red wig, and green ballgown) stands close to Jakub (Adam Sandler), dressed as an astronaut in a yellow flight suit, as everything around them blurs in a scene from Netflix’s Spaceman Image: Larry Horricks/Netflix

“We did some Zoom rehearsals, which was actually a really good way to break the ice and just slowly warm into it,” Dano told Polygon. “We would just read through the script. It is its own thing, this movie, so you kind of have to figure out what you’re walking toward together, so that when you’re imagining it, you’re making the same movie. I came by the set a few times. But Adam — I don’t think it can be undersold that he was hung up by wires, talking to a tennis ball or a stand-in. It takes a really big commitment of the imagination to let yourself go where he went.”

Sandler, for his part, says Dano’s interpretation of Hanuš the alien was something he hung onto throughout production, even when they were working separately. “Paul, as a person, the way he was playing it, just his voice had an impact on me,” he says. “And whoever was reading the lines with me when Paul wasn’t there was trying to exude that calmness, and that spiritual wisdom.”

Dano says both of them relied on Renck to “guide the different pieces,” in terms of making sure their separate performances felt consistent and connected. “There are a lot of trust falls that happen when you’re making a movie,” he says. “Or doing a play. Or doing anything like this, really. So you have to trust the fall.”

Spaceman opens in limited theatrical release on Feb. 23. It will stream on Netflix starting March 1. Polygon will have more about the movie closer to the Netflix release, including an interview with Johan Renck, explaining why he wants Sandler to play him in the inevitable biopic.