The National Geographic series The Right Stuff (available to stream at Disney+) tells the story of the early days of the U.S. Space Program and America’s first astronauts, the Mercury Seven, as the newly-formed NASA embarks on the monumental and awe-inspiring task of sending the first man into space. Project Mercury recruited and trained astronauts from a handful of the military’s best pilots, including Major John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams) and Lieutenant Commander Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman), and the Mercury Seven became instant celebrities and heroes, as they worked toward extraordinary historic achievements that would inspire the nation.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Patrick J. Adams talked about why The Right Stuff got made him want to return to work after the end of Suits, all of the research materials he had on John Glenn, his most surreal day on set, and what he hopes viewers take from watching this story. He also talked about whether he has any plans to team up with his wife Troian Bellisario again, how he feels about the journey that both he and his character took on Suits, and whether he’d ever want to revisit that role if they could get the band back together again.
Collider: When another show came your way, what was it about this that made you want to return to the job of television regular again, after so many hours on Suits?
PATRICK J. ADAMS: That’s a great question. I knew that I would one day want to get back to work but I certainly was, at the end of seven seasons of Suits, ready for a break. I didn’t have much of a game plan, other than I was wanting to go home and relax and be with my family. I’d spent so many years apart from Troian and just knew that I needed that time to recoup and figure out what I wanted to do. I had a few opportunities to look at things and we considered them along the way but a lot of it felt very similar. I tried not to get too worried that I wasn’t gonna get energized and excited again, and just enjoy the time for what it was. And then, I found out they were making the show, and it was before I even knew that I could get an audition for it. I just heard that it was getting made and I felt everything in me light up like a Christmas tree. I was like, “Let’s go. That’s the thing. I don’t know what role I’ll play but let me do anything.” I’d been so inspired and in love with the book as a young man, and then the film. The story itself was just so important to me that I would have done anything. So, it was nice to feel, after a long break after Suits, that I could get excited and passionate about something again.
After spending the time on Suits, where you had a job that you knew you were going to and you knew what you’d be working on, you were back to finding the next job and having to go on auditions again. Was it weird to get in that head space again?
ADAMS: It was weird and it was tough and it was hard and it was filled with the unknown. In any respect, that’s pretty scary. My life went from being very known, and knowing what I was gonna do next, tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year, which was all pretty predictable, to having no idea. At first, that was pretty scary. I tried to just lean into it and enjoy it and rest and take that time to think about what I would wanna do next. But certainly, at times, it felt like, who knows, maybe there is no next. You don’t know what that thing is. Maybe that was it. One day, when I leave this earth, that thing next to my name is just Patrick Adams and, in brackets, Suits. That’s it. That’s a little scary to think about. But I tried not to fall too deep into that fear and just trust that, when the time was right, I would get stoked about something. There’s something that happens when you know how much work goes in the show. When I joined Suits, I was so young and I didn’t really even know what was involved. I didn’t know how much work it was. I didn’t know what that looked like over a long period of time. Not that I would have done anything differently but it certainly was a rude awakening to understand that level of commitment and hours, and the amount of time and energy and love that you have to pour into something like that. Knowing, I naturally was a little bit more careful about, “If I do this again, I’ve gotta really care about it, deep in my core. It’s gotta be something that I’m burning to be a part of.” That is what worried me. I was like, “Are my expectations too high? Am I waiting too long? Is that too lofty a goal?” You just have to keep chipping away at it. And that might become more of a routine in my career but at this point, man, I’m so glad that I stopped and took the break that I needed because if I had taken any of the other things that came along, it wouldn’t have been this. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is what I was supposed to be working on.
And then you decide to play this iconic national hero, so how did you approach that? Did you consult with any relatives or colleagues of John Glenn or did you go talk to Ed Harris about his performance in the movie?
ADAMS: Well, the good thing about playing someone like John Glenn is there’s no shortage of stuff about him. This guy’s life is impeccably well-documented. I started on the internet, scouring YouTube and Google. I looked for every image I could find. I then was linked to Ohio State University, where there’s a lot of stuff online and his archives are there. I started downloading a lot of audio there. I found this audio of his oral history, that I think is about 23 hours long of him dictating his oral history. So, I found myself with a lot. Then, I was on the archive online and I realized that’s an archive. That’s a place that has stuff. I was just accessing what was available online, which was 1% of what was actually the archive. So, I got in touch with them and managed to reserve a time to go there and sift through dozens and dozens of boxes of stuff, with old pool photos and journal entries and letters and old audio recordings.
There was just an enormous amount of stuff that John and Annie [Glenn, John’s wife] had kept from their lives together, and that was when things snapped into place for me. Being there, holding a journal that he had written in, holding his pilot’s license in my hand, getting to look at pictures that I don’t think have ever been published before, that was where I felt like I was suddenly getting an insight into a guy that very few people had the opportunity to spend that much time with him, and in that much detail. That’s where the preparation, I feel like, really began. There was some vocal coaching and a certain amount of trying to mimic a person that you can do before it starts feeling flat. I hit that wall, and as soon as I did, I had this whole reservoir of information on John Glenn that I could get really, really excited and inspired by.
When I was shooting the show, if I felt lost and I didn’t know what I was doing in a scene or why I was talking to this person, I’d just flip open this giant book or go through all of the files on my computer and I could find it. I would remember that poem that John wrote while he was in the Korean War, or I would remember that photograph between him and Scott Carpenter [the second American to orbit the earth]. There would always be these little details that that would help me find what I’d need and, lo and behold, it would work, every time. I just tried to create my own encyclopedia of John Glenn, essentially, and then use that to my advantage when I felt lost.
What was the most surreal day on set?
ADAMS: There were so many. Probably putting on the space suit for the first time was pretty surreal. That wasn’t really on set but similar. The most beautiful, surreal moment was when we were shooting a couple of days, just me, out on the launchpad for John Glenn’s flight. It’s not a part of the Cape that’s very well maintained with scrub brushes. There are weeds all over the place. The ramp itself is actually in pretty bad condition. You’re not supposed to walk very far up it. It’s coming apart. That’s not taking care of it because there’s so much going on out there that they can’t possibly afford to maintain every little bit of history. So, I was walking around waiting and I got there before even the lights and the cameras showed up. It was just me, and the sun was going down and I could easily walk around that pad in its decaying fashion and just take that in. It felt like a part of history. I felt so grateful and honored to be able to be the steward of this story of this man’s life to a new generation. It felt like the perfect metaphor for this entire story and program, which is that it’s forgotten. Life has moved on from the Mercury astronauts. We’re doing incredible things at SpaceX. I could see one of the SpaceX launch pads from John Glenn’s pad and went, “We’ve come so far from this moment, and yet we’ve forgotten about these guys who were there at the very beginning and responsible for all of this.” I felt, in that moment, a great honor and a sense of responsibility that I get to be a part of telling this story and helping people to learn about who these people were and what exactly they did.
By the end of the season, what do you hope viewers will take away from having watched the series? What would you like them to take away from this story and learn about these men?
ADAMS: I just want them to learn anything about these men, honestly. When I began this process, I talked to my nephew, who’s 18, and I said, “Do you know who John Glenn is?” And he was like, “No.” People don’t remember these people, and that happens. History moves on and people forget people. I just love the idea of being a part of reminding people who these people were, what they went through, and what it would have taken to do something like this. Specifically, in this day and age, doing the impossible is not impossible. If you get enough people, no matter how much they disagree with each other, and no matter how much they want to beat each other out or manipulate one another for position, when push comes to shove, you do the impossible and make the world a better place by working together. That’s something we desperately need to be reminded of right now. If anything, I hope at this particular time in history, as we’re coming up on another game-changing election, people watch a story like this and remember what truly makes this country great and feel inspired to do something about it.
The last time I spoke to you was for Clara, which you did with your wife, Troian Bellisario. Do you have any plans for future collaborations with her, in front of or behind the camera?
ADAMS: There’s nothing in the pipeline right now, other than raising our daughter, which is a serious collaboration. That, you might say, is our most important collaboration. There’s nothing professionally on the docket right now but we’re both starting to poke our heads up from this surreal insanity we’ve been living in, to try to figure out what our next steps are going to be. She’s got a couple of things that she’s working on, which I’ll just be supporting from the sidelines and cheering her on, but you never know. There was a period of years there where we did a ton of things together and we both were like, “Let’s hit the pause on that.” It’s a lot when you’re doing your life together and going to work together every day, so we took a quiet pause. I’m sure when the right thing comes up and we feel like it’s the right time, we’ll be very lucky to have each other as co-workers.
Now that you’ve had some time away from Suits, how do you feel about your time on that show and the journey on that show that you and the character both took?
ADAMS: That’s a great question. I don’t think I’ve spent nearly enough time really sitting with how remarkable that whole circumstance was. I feel nothing but gratitude. I will say that gratitude is something so important for me to check into now because, in the process of shooting something for that long, after that many years, you can lose touch with the gratitude. And I did, for long periods of time. It became predictable. When you know the job is there, you can inherently take it for granted at times and not realize how blessed you are to have that opportunity, and I certainly would be guilty of that. So, when I look back on it, I think I just was so grateful to have that experience. I learned so much doing that job. I learned so much about what not to do, for myself. I learned that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and to pace yourself. I learned to be really respectful to all the people you work with. Not that that’s something I ever struggled with but it’s important to maintain that, at all times. Something like that is so rare. When you get along with that many people and you make this little family, you spend the better part of a decade together getting to be creative, and you get to go through everything together, it’s a really rare gift that I am able to now look back on with such an immense amount of gratitude. I hope that the next time I get to be a part of something like that – and hopefully there will be a next time – that lasts that long or that has that wide an appeal to the world, I can remain even more grateful throughout the process.
If there were ever an opportunity to do a Suits movie and Meghan Markle decided to come back and you could get the whole band back together, is that something you would ever want to revisit, or do you feel like Mike Ross is tucked away now and it’s not something that you would go back to?
ADAMS: I can’t believe it but that’s literally the first time anyone’s asked me that question. I have no idea, is the answer. First of all, I would love to be on those phone calls with Meghan’s reps. That would be fun. I’d love to hear how that conversation goes. I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to the idea. I love each and every one of those people dearly and we had a lot of fun together. It would be interesting, for sure, to see what it would be like now that we’ve all had a big, long break, to see what new energies come into it and new ideas. Like anything, I think it would come down to what the idea was, what [showrunner] Aaron [Korsh] wanted to do, and what the story would be. But I have no doubt that [we], with Aaron at the helm and the amazing people that we made that show with, would come up with something pretty great. So, I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to it, on the surface. I would love to spend more time with all of us.
I always wonder what a cast would want to do, especially after having some distance and getting some perspective on things. Do you risk going back and messing with that, or do you just leave things how they are?
ADAMS: I don’t know. I’m in a different place than so many of the people in the show because I left early, after seven years, and they had two more. I had that experience of getting to go back for a moment. At the end, that was wonderful to just get some space. I felt like I got to go home and recharge my batteries. And then, I got The Right Stuff and I was going back and forth between this new job that I was so excited to be doing, to shooting the last episodes of Suits. It was just such a perfect set-up for me. It was really like moving from one thing to the next, and I loved being there. For me, I’ve had more downtime than any of those people, so you’d have to talk to them and they could still use another year or two before they think about that. I can’t imagine that anybody would be deeply opposed to the idea of getting the band back together, if the idea was right and people were interested. I don’t know, maybe the ship has sailed and everybody’s done with Suits. But if it was something that people were excited about, it’s certainly something I wouldn’t say no to.
The Right Stuff is available to stream at Disney+.
Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter of Film, TV, and Theme Parks for Collider. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaRadish.