In Ridley Scott’s upcoming sci-fi flick, The Martian – based on the novel by Andy Weir – Damon plays a botanist working to farm the building blocks for life on the surface of our barren planetary next-door neighbor. After getting separated from his team during a massive storm, the finds himself stranded on the lonely planet.
After “the instruments on his suit” convince Damon’s crew that he’s dead, Scott says they decide to hightail it back to Earth, but “discover two and a half months later that he s alive.” Unfortunately, he won’t be that way for very long, “because frankly he s got 28 days to live – and that s if everything goes well for him,” the Prometheus director adds. So, “instead of him collapsing into terror – He knuckles down and actually starts to work out” how long he can survive.
Jessica Chastain, another Interstellar alum clearly still bitten by the space bug, is set to join the cast as mission commander. Kristin Wiig is also in the mix, playing a NASA spokeswoman, and Jeff Daniels will take on the role of mission control.
“Through Interstellar and watching the fun that Annie [Hathaway] and Matt [Damon] had playing astronauts, I thought I really want to do that,” Chastain tells PEOPLE. “It was about two weeks later, Ridley called me and asked me if I would play an astronaut in his next film, The Martian – I jumped at the chance of course.”
To research her role, Chastain spent time at the famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where she met and learned from the people behind the Curiosity Rover. She even got to spend some time on the red planet, via virtual reality:
“I got to see all the maps of Mars, and participate in an 3D virtual reality perspective,” she says. “It was incredible, as soon as I put the glasses on, I felt like I was really there on Mars. Whether I looked left or right, it felt like I was there with actual images all around me. It was a fantastic way to imagine what it would be like to be on that planet.”
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And for anyone thinking this is an alien movie in disguise – a la 2000’s Red Planet – Scott assures PEOPLE Damon’s character is “thinking about how to save his life on Mars,” not searching for little green men. If the movie poses David Bowie’s question, “Is there life on Mars?” the answer is yes, and but it’s just Matt Damon.
The Martian lands in theaters just in time for Thanksgiving, November 25th.
For more of our exclusive sneak peek from The Martian, pick up PEOPLE’s next issue, on newsstands May 29. And check out even more on EW.com.
• Reporting by ALYNDA WHEAT