‘The Right Stuff’ shows how military test pilots were the heroes America needed
A new Disney+ series is a throwback to an aspirational time in U.S. history that proved ordinary humans can achieve extraordinary feats.
"The Right Stuff" takes viewers back to America's space race against the Soviet Union, with the U.S. placing its hopes on the capabilities of seven astronauts — all military test pilots. Two men at the center of the Mercury Seven are Maj. John Glenn (played by Patrick J. Adams), a revered Marine test pilot and committed family man, and Lt. Cmdr. Alan Shepard (played by Jake McDorman), one of the best test pilots in Navy history, according to a press release.
McDorman is no stranger to high-profile military characters. He previously played Navy SEAL Ryan Job in "American Sniper." Though McDorman wasn't looking for crossover in the two roles, he says there are parallels.
"What I got out of reading "The Right Stuff" and also reading "American Sniper" … was this relationship to fear. I mean these are people who have a very unique relationship to fear as far as any average person, like myself, could understand. To be able to act efficiently and make smart, calculated decisions under circumstances that would have any of the rest of us acting impulsively or recklessly or too reactionary is certainly a parallel," he said.
"The Right Stuff" explores how the astronauts' lives were put on full display, in a manner described as America's first reality TV show — including with "government-backed PR and publicity" to elevate the Mercury Seven, McDorman says. He adds that a joy and a fear exist when portraying a real person from history.
"When you feel that real presence of people that knew this person, loved this person, along with the public perception of a person — you know it both can breathe down your neck but it can also really inspire you, because it's just this great responsibility to have. And honestly, it really doesn't change my approach to the work too much, and I think if you let it, it can just spin you out and kind of sabotage you. So, I kind of use it as just another layer of excitement to view into the research process," he said.
McDorman and his fellow cast members had a wealth of research to lean on for the pre-production process, he says, but Alan Shepard was also a private man — he was among the astronauts that didn't write his own book. The other component of McDorman's preparation for the role entailed in-person experiences.
"As far as the physical training part of it [the role], none of us did as much as we wished we could have — there was probably an astronaut bucket list that we all have," he said. "We didn't get to do the most exciting parts of astronaut training physically but educationally, by far, we did. We shot in Coco Beach, we shot in Florida where all of this stuff happened. We got to meet real astronauts at Kennedy Space Center and tour the entire facility; we got invited to the 50th anniversary of the moon landing … and just kind of soak in this environment firsthand before we started."
"The Right Stuff" takes viewers back to a unified time in history when Americans rallied behind a common goal of developing a space program. McDorman recommends adding it to the must-watch list for the intersection to strides made this year.
"I'd say directly, the historical aspect is fascinating and if you really want a bookend with this year, the first manned SpaceX launch that happened in 2020, and now this show coming out months later, which is the inception of the American space program. You really get to see the start and finish and scope of that entire timeline with this show. It's a story that even though it's a famous book and was adapted to an Academy Award-winning movie, I still think for a lot of people — myself being one of those people at first — it's relatively untold. I think most people my age, and especially people younger, are familiar with Apollo 11 — Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, those guys — so learning about two space programs before Apollo, starting with Mercury and learning how the whole space program came to be and how far behind the Russians we were, you know we were reacting to them successfully putting satellites in orbit," he said.
The Disney+ series also examines the astronauts' families, who became instant celebrities. Among those under the microscope was Louise Shepard (played by Shannon Lucio), a wife and mother who refuses to let her husband's [Alan Shepard] transgressions affect her home.
Lucio said she was attracted to the project because the story takes a deeper, clear-eyed look at this cast of characters who came together to try to do something that was dangerous and unheard of at that time. But the private nature of the Shepard family made getting inside of Louise's head more difficult, Lucio added.
There is an effort by show creators to put the roles of the wives at the forefront, especially because Lucio points out these families were forced to present a "perfect Americana life to the public" while grappling with the realities of their lives privately.
"The show really focuses primarily on three astronauts: John Glenn, Alan Shepard, and Gordo Cooper, and then it also puts a good focus on their wives — and really what each wife was struggling with during this chaotic time when the spotlight was really on them. It does focus, not just on how they were there for their men to support them through this, but what was personally going on for them," Lucio said.
Shannon Lucio as "Louise" and Jake McDorman as "Alan"
The couple's relationship, as an example, was complex because it was born out of love, but "Alan was a known philanderer, almost from the moment they were married and throughout most of his life," Lucio says. Still, Louise remained by his side so that the family could remain whole and he could continue being Alan Shepard.
Lucio says "The Right Stuff" offers an opportune message for current matters facing the nation.
"The story is an inspiring one because it takes these people who are deeply-flawed, but very ambitious and also noble and honorable, in some respects, and it throws them together and they're all jockeying for this position to be the first. But at the end of the day they realize this is so much bigger than them. This is for America. This is for humanity. This is for trying to push what we are capable of further, and I think that right now, especially with what's going on and how divisive our country in particular is in this moment, coming together and accomplishing something that is unthinkable is a story I feel needs to be shared and watched right now, for the sake of our souls," Lucio said.
Other members of the cast include Patrick J. Adams as "Major John Glenn," Colin O'Donoghue as "Captain Gordon Cooper," Eloise Mumford as "Trudy Cooper," James Lafferty as "Captain Scott Carpenter," Nora Zehetner as "Annie Glenn," Eric Laden as "Chris Kraft, Jr.," Patrick Fischler as "Bob Gilruth," Aaron Staton as "Wally Schirra," Michael Trotter as "Virgil "Gus" Grissom," Micah Stock as "Deke Slayton," and Josh Cooke as "Loudon Wainwright, Jr."