It’s hard to tell what was more incongruous on the late November 2019 afternoon Collider spent on the Orlando set of The Right Stuff. Was it the people dressed as Dr. Seuss characters herding Universal Studios guests into the staging area for the theme park’s annual Grinchmas celebration, which also happened to be right next to the set’s catering truck? Or perhaps it was the giant roller coaster — the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, if you want to get specific — that brought loads of screaming tourists past the show’s soundstages every few minutes?
By the time Collider arrived at Universal Studios Florida — home to esteemed productions like the rebooted Deal or No Deal, Sharknado 3, and at least one NSync music video — National Geographic’s new Disney+ series, based on the Tom Wolfe book of the same name about the early days of NASA and the Mercury space program, had been filming for months, with just two weeks and one episode to go. While there, we spoke to more than a dozen people involved in the drama’s production, from co-producer Michael Hampton to the actors playing the Mercury 7 astronauts: Greek‘s Jake McDorman as Alan Shephard, Suits‘ Patrick J. Adams as John Glenn, Once Upon a Time‘s Colin O’Donoghue as Gordo Cooper, Underground‘s Michael Trotter as Gus Grissom, Tony nominee Micah Stock as Deke Slayton, One Tree Hill‘s James Lafferty as Scott Carpenter, and Mad Men vet Aaron Staton as Wally Schirra.
The first thing to know about the show, National Geographic’s first scripted series for Disney+: It takes its cues from Wolfe’s award-winning nonfiction book, which delved into the true story behind the glossy heroes introduced to America via Life Magazine, rather than the 1983 movie.
Said Hampton, “The movie is such a great, special, individual thing. That was one of the reasons we went back to the book — the movie is three hours long, but it barely scratches the surface of what the story really is. I feel like if Tom Wolfe wrote that book today, we wouldn’t even think about it as a movie, it would deserve to be a full series.”
Here’s what you can expect from the show…
Authentic Mid-Century Sets and Locations
Production designer Derek Hill and his team had about six weeks to build the sets and help transform real-life Florida locations into their mid-century splendor. They studied old photographs in meticulous detail to recreate offices and homes and Mission Control — though after the fact, he realized he could’ve toured the real-life Mission Control at Kennedy Space Center, a few hours’ drive from the Orlando soundstages — though small details were changed to make it easier to film.
“It’s as close as you’ll get. I’ve done several History projects and NatGeo is now jumped into that league of doing historically accurate stuff,” he says. “So to me, it’s the most important thing we’ve got going — following it as closely as possible. And then when we do make a change in the alteration, we let them know it didn’t happen exactly like this but it was this way.”
Gorgeous True-to-Life Costumes
Outfitting strapping all-American gentlemen in slick ’60s suits isn’t too difficult a task, though acquiring gorgeous vintage dresses for the actresses who play their wives — including Shannon Lucio as Louise Shepard, Nora Zehetner as Annie Glenn, and Eloise Mumford as Trudy Cooper — wasn’t quite as hard as it would’ve been without costume designer Hope Hanafin‘s own expansive collection at their disposal.
Harder, she reveals, was recreating the iconic space suits the astronauts wear.
“The spacesuits play a pivotal role in our world. This is a museum-quality reproduction,” she reveals. “We worked very hard with a company called Global Effects to get exactly the right patina. Everything is correct, except you couldn’t go to space in it because you would die. When they find you in the water they can [see you], that’s why it’s the bright color orange.”
Other features of the suits include plenty of zippers to successfully get in and out of it, plus boots and a helmet that needed special rigging to look accurate.
“The helmet gets plugged into air conditioning — otherwise, it fogs up,” she says. “It’s interesting, [in] most space movies you’ve seen [there’s] a light inside the helmet. That’s not what was real. It’s what DPs add to it to make it look very 2001.”
Research, Research, Research
Aside from Wolfe’s book itself, there’s no shortage of information about pretty much every person involved in the beginning stages of the space program. Says Staton, who’s no stranger to the era after portraying a ’60s ad exec for years on Mad Men, “I think we’re lucky to be playing people who were all not only very intelligent but concerned with their legacy so they wrote a book. Almost all of them wrote a book about their lives and their perspective. There are so many first-hand accounts online that you can find. You can go as deep as [you want] if you’ve got [a smartphone] in your pocket — at any point you can find more and more information.”
Adams, who plays war hero John Glenn, had hours and hours of audio recordings on his phone so he could listen and perfect Glenn’s speaking voice.
“There’s good and there’s bad about playing a guy like that,” Adams says. “The good as an actor is there’s no end to the resources that I have at my disposal to learn about him. Granted, those resources are what he wanted you to know about him, which is not always necessarily the most valuable. With any show you kind of want to get below that stuff and you want to figure out what makes people tick and stuff they didn’t want you to hear about. But I got to spend a day at the archives at Ohio State University poring through endless boxes of material about this guy. There’s no shortage of stuff online. You could spend a full month just looking at stuff on YouTube about John Glenn.”
On the flip side, though, is the responsibility of playing somebody who’s not only well-known, but universally beloved and historically important. Says Adams, “We are exploring all sorts of different aspects of these characters on this show. You want to do it justice, but you also don’t want to be such a slave to the perfect heroic image of a guy like John Glenn, that if you stray a little bit, you’re gonna piss people off, or feel that somehow you’re doing a disservice to who the guy was. In my opinion, you’re helping to round out the story even more, the more you explore those parts of his character that maybe he wasn’t advertising as much.”
Childhood Dreams Come True
The nation was captivated by watching massive rockets launch into space in the 1960s, but that awe is universal. For Trotter, stepping foot on set to film on the rocket launch pad — one of the real-life ones on Florida’s Atlantic coast that NASA has used for decades — was incredibly cool.
“I just remember getting on set that day — and this was just last week — and just looking up at it and the lights and everything like that,” he says. “It’s wish fulfillment, this job. I can’t think of another role to get that would please my 10-year-old self. That was a moment to me [where] I was looking at it as an actor and simultaneously an adult and a 10-year-old at the same time being like, ‘this is just cool.’ We were at an Air Force base on Cape Canaveral, so right on the launch pad. This whole season has been an instance of you get [to set] and you’re in the world. I think that’s also what’s been so great about actually being in the space where it happens. I can’t articulate it.”
He continues, “We had a tour of the launch pads and got to see pads 4 and 5, where they went up. I personally got to go to 34, which is where Apollo 1 was. We got to see the original block house with all the old computer systems for when we shot up our first rocket, the Vanguard. You’re sitting in the exact spot where this happened. It’s hard to wrap my head around, and it still is, the insanity of what these people were doing. They’re learning as they go. And that’s one thing if you’re learning how to do an origami, but it’s another thing if you’re trying to figure out how to put a man on top of a ballistic missile and shoot him up into space. Not only on top of that, it’s a war of ideology that’s going on, too, with the Russians. So then you have the hopes and the fears of an entire country placed upon your responsibility and your responsibility is to do something as crazy as going on top of a rocket.”
Dangers of Hero Worship
The public image of the Mercury 7 was that of a group of sharp-jawed, corn-fed, all-American men working hard for their country. And while that was generally true, there were dark sides to the astronauts as well: Shepard was a serial cheater, Cooper and his wife were separated before he began training (they reunited so he could participate in the program), and most of them weren’t afraid of a good time.
But that’s where The Right Stuff came in — Wolfe’s book helped dispel the myths around their squeaky-clean image, and the show will do the same.
Says Stock, “I think our show is really trying to show a balance between [the fact] that these guys were revered as heroes, but they were not upstanding moral citizens. They were human beings who made mistakes, and it doesn’t make them any less impressive. But it’s also willing to ask the question of, like, wait, why do our heroes also have to be paragons of morality?”
The season will also focus on the rivalry between Golden boy Glenn and hotshot Shepard, whose fierce competition to be the first American man in space is documented throughout the book.
“Life Magazine had this sort of perfect version of these American heroes, and they didn’t want to get into the dirt of it,” says Adams. “It’s not like we’re there to create sensation or are just trying to air the conflict because we think it’s more interesting — and it is more interesting because it’s more human — it’s just also more true that all these guys were in competition; that these two guys particularly were really gunning for that first slot.”
Inner Workings of Astronaut Selection
While American schoolchildren all learn plenty about the Apollo program (the one that brought man to the moon), the Mercury program is far less well-known.
“The Mercury program isn’t something that we spent a lot of time on in school, at least me personally,” says Lafferty. “And so for me, reading The Right Stuff was an amazing crash course in this time, and the genesis of this whole era.”
After diving deep into research — the Mercury 7 had a group chat just for research material they thought would be helpful for one another, and they and the rest of the regular cast members who relocated to Florida for the duration of the shoot had one for memes and GIFs, says McDorman — it was particularly interesting for the men to learn about the earliest days of the program and how the astronauts were chosen before anyone really knew what kinds of skills they would need. The first group was chosen out of the nation’s most elite test pilots, but that soon evolved.
“They were really making it up as they went along and to me, that was really fascinating because a lot of mistakes were made along the way,” Lafferty says. “I think there’s also a lot of humor to be found in people just sort of poking around in the dark for the right answers when you’re talking about something as huge as going to space. The way that the criteria by which they were selecting these guys wouldn’t be the criteria by which they select astronauts these days — I just had never really considered that. I’d always thought that, you know, astronauts have always been astronauts. You always had to be a scientist as well as a pilot. But they didn’t need scientists back then. They just needed pilots.”
The Women Behind the Men
“The main focus on this season with Gordo is his relationship with his wife, Trudy,” says O’Donoghue. “They were actually separated when he got the call to go to NASA. You couldn’t be accepted as an astronaut unless you were either single or in a healthy marriage, as they saw it back then. So they actually lied about being together up until the Apollo program, when he sort of left and then they got divorced pretty quickly after that.”
Meanwhile, Shepard’s wife Louise stuck around despite knowing plenty about her husband’s extracurriculars. Says Lucio, who plays the beleaguered homemaker, “She knew what she was getting into right off the bat. Alan, ever since he was a young kid, had this reputation, but he gave her something that trumped all of that. And that was feeling special, and feeling like, ‘Wow, this guy makes me realize we can do anything. Anything he sets his mind to he accomplishes and I’m a part of that and I’m a piece of that. He wanted me and he got me.’ So I don’t think of her as being powerless. I think of her as being willing to make a lot of concessions to get what she wants.”
She continues, “I think it’s easy to look at what Alan does behind her back and think, Oh, is this woman an idiot? Is she a victim? Is she just weak? Does she just not have a voice? And I just disagree completely with all those things. It was a different time and so we held ourselves to different expectations but I would like for people to walk away and realize that she had a tremendous amount of power. She just exercised it in a different way than many of us would today. And she had a lot of self-respect. She was not a pushover. She was very influential in life. They ended up having this beautiful love story to their lives. They were in it together to the end, and she died within a month of him passing away.”
And as much as the Mercury 7 formed a brotherhood, their wives all formed a sisterhood as well. The Astronaut Wives’ Club formed when the women realized that the only other people who could understand what they were going through with their husbands on these dangerous missions were the other women in the same position.
“They really became a kind of sisterhood,” says Lucio. “As close as the men got, the women got that close, if not closer, as well, because they they knew what it was like to be in that position and the rest of the world had no clue.”
New episodes of The Right Stuff hit Disney+ every Friday through Nov. 20, with two episodes debuting on launch day, Oct. 9. For more, check out Drew Taylor’s rave review of the series.