Pioneering Black astronaut Ed Dwight and trailblazing pilot Betty Skelton are likely to feature in the second season of the Disney+ adaptation of The Right Stuff — if it gets the green light.
Producer Jennifer Davisson told Yahoo Movies UK that these people are among the new crop of famous figures whose story will be told if the show, tracing the history of the US space program, is able to return.
Read more: Everything coming to Disney+ in October 2020
Davisson said: “There are a lot of wonderful characters who we couldn’t fit into this first season.
“It’s okay because time was on our side in terms of the historical timeline, so they can come in now.
“Ed Dwight, who was supposed to be the first Black astronaut and trained with them, is someone who, if we’re lucky enough to do season two, will be a big part of it.
“There’s a woman by the name of Betty Skelton, who was this really incredible, dynamic female racing and aerobatic pilot. I think we’ll get to tell her story.”
Dwight and Skelton both took part in NASA training, but were not chosen to take part in any of the manned missions into space.
Read more: 10 ways movies get space science wrong
The series follows the Mercury Seven astronauts — including iconic figures John Glenn and Alan Shepard — and is based on the 1979 book by Tom Wolfe, which also inspired an Oscar-winning 1983 movie.
Davisson said the decision to tell the story through a TV series rather than a film enables for more detail and more time spent with various characters.
She added: “We are afforded the luxury, given what TV has become, to really sit in with the characters.
“We only get through a real small portion of Project Mercury and so we have so much more story to tell just about Mercury.
“You’re really able to get to know these characters, these families and what the real struggles were on a personal level to get to where they got.”
Watch: Trailer for season one of The Right Stuff
Read the full interview with Jennifer Davisson, in which she discusses co-producer Leonardo DiCaprio’s involvement with the show, casting iconic American heroes and the benefits of making a TV series instead of a movie...
Yahoo Movies UK: Why is now the right time to go back to The Right Stuff?
Jennifer Davisson: We get asked that question a lot and, in some ways, this is the easiest one to answer. It was such a specific moment in American history — and really world history — of what was happening and what was going on. There was so much fear and so much certainty and this was this moment where we sort of defined what we’re capable of. The idea of being able to go into space was just that of comic books and science fiction, but these guys believed they could and should do that. And they did.
I think that, in a moment when we have so much of our own uncertainty and feeling desperate and all over the place, to look back and remember that when we can come together as a global community, we can achieve great things together. It’s a good moment to remind ourselves of that.
We felt that way a year and a half or two years ago when we started, but it’s amazing how resonant it is now. Over the summer, we talked about it endlessly as we were finishing post. We need to come together as a community to show what we’re capable of.
Even last year, with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the Space Force, it felt like there’s a surge of interest in space again.
Totally, and it’s funny because I have spent most of the pandemic here at my house doing post on the show and watching rocket launch after rocket launch. But yet, when we sat and watched the SpaceX launch [in May 2020], it was like goosebumps. It’s still, even now after all this time, such a sense of adventure and such a sense of heroism.
You’re nervous for these people inside this little capsule. You don’t know them. You know maybe a little bit about them. But you know that what they’re doing, they’re doing for everybody. They’re doing something that there’s such a small percentage of people who have ever had the ability to do it. It is very much, I feel, our modern day superheroes.
Read more: James Gray on space travel in Ad Astra
I think there’s so much renewed interest in space. There’s a lot of reasons. I think technology is begging us to go further and our own human curiosity is doing the same. But I also think we’re looking around and saying “we can do more and we can do better”. Exploration becomes something that I think we do in desperate moments and I think that’s a little bit of what’s going on.
The Right Stuff, in all of its forms, is about the men more than it’s about the big, splashy space theatrics. How important was it for you to preserve that in this new show?
That was really our entry point. Everybody knows, I think, that we got there at the end, even if they don’t remember who it was. But for us as a company, we really start with classic anti-heroes. Who are great men and what are the great men that they do?
Instead of just having one guy, we have seven guys who for very different reasons believed they were the ones who could go up to space. And why? What is the make up of a person who believes they can do that and come back safely? I still don’t know. We’re still trying to figure it out.
But that really is the spine of the story — how a person can physically train their bodies to be able to do these things but. way more importantly, to mentally prepare. What in you has got that much arrogance, that much confidence and maybe a little bit of stupidity? I would never believe that of myself, but they did and they were right, so maybe that makes me the one who’s a little bit foolish.
That is our entry point to everything and that’s really what our story is about. Space is where we go, but the men are how we got there.
You said you’ve all been beavering away on this over lockdown. It’s impossible not to notice Leonardo DiCaprio’s name in the credits. How involved has he been on the project from start to finish?
Leonardo and I have been partners [as part of company Appian Way productions] for a long time — 13 or 14 years. He’s very involved, as much as I’m very involved. We’re in constant communication about what is going on. He obviously is a huge fan of space and loves more than anything a really good, complex character story. He’s very present, very aware and very excited about the show.
We were talking about the men just then and, as you alluded to, these are very complex people. How difficult was it to find the right actors to play these people — especially those like John Glenn and Alan Shepard, who are American icons?
Well it’s funny because we thought John Glenn would be the toughest to cast. Just because he’s the most iconic, he looks very specific and everybody knows what he looks like. We thought we were going to have this burden with him. Then, really early on in the process, Patrick Adams walked in. To be honest, and he knows this, I didn’t watch Suits and I only tangentially knew who he was through other media.
But he walked in and sat down and just had that really specific thing that Glenn had. Glenn was such a good person and he projected that and made you feel comfortable and confident. But yet, Patrick had that other side too, which was maybe a hint of darkness and a hint of “I’m better than you”. It was just a ribbon through his performance that we saw and said: “That’s John Glenn.”
So he was the first person cast and we were able to build around him. For Alan Shepard, who we sought of naively thought there would be a lot of people to latch on to for it, ultimately we really struggled. You need someone that’s got all that charisma and all that bravado and all that kind of danger. But at the same time, he has to be able to flip to the dark side on a dime, which is really difficult.
Jake McDorman was somebody who was actually coming in to read for Gordo [Gordon Cooper]. He came in and gave an okay reading for Gordo but, through that reading, we realised that he was Alan Shepard. He was one of the last to be cast. So we got it totally wrong. It was the inverse. But they both give such amazing performances.
Then Colin O'Donoghue, who plays Gordo, was the absolute last, last person to be cast. That was the hardest part to cast by a mile. We had this problem with an actor who we had cast and then lost at the last minute. I had met Colin years and years earlier and he sent in a self-tape and I was like “this is good”, but we were pretty far down the line with another actor.
The minute that fell apart — five days before we started shooting the pilot — I walked into this big room with the showrunner and the director and I said “let’s pull up Colin O’Donoghue’s tape” and the minute we saw it, it was like a gasp. He showed up on an overnight flight from Ireland, dizzied and unsure and thrown in to the deep end of the pool. I think it actually turned out to be so beautiful and perfect. They are three really incredible legs to the stool.
Obviously, the last time The Right Stuff was adapted, it was a film. Why was TV the right medium for it this time?
It seems so obvious. The book has so much. It’s such a long story and there are so many rich, incredible characters to cover. I love the movie, which is three hours long, but even when you go back and watch it you go “I wish I knew a little more about what happened here”.
Back then, television wasn’t what it is now. We are afforded the luxury, given what TV has become, to really sit in with the characters. We only get through a real small portion of Project Mercury and so we have so much more story to tell just about Mercury. You’re really able to get to know these characters, these families and what the real struggles were on a personal level to get to where they got. In a film, you could only almost brush the surface.
That leads me on to my final question. There’s so much story left. How do you feel about more seasons? Is it happening?
I hope so! If everybody watches it! We have definitely started talking about season two and we have a lot of really amazing ideas. We have a really fantastic creative team in place to get it started. There are a lot of wonderful characters who we couldn’t fit into this first season. It’s okay because time was on our side in terms of the historical timeline, so they can come in now.
Ed Dwight, who was supposed to be the first Black astronaut and trained with them, is someone who, if we’re lucky enough to do season two, will be a big part of it. There’s a woman by the name of Betty Skelton, who was this really incredible, dynamic female racing and aerobatic pilot. I think we’ll get to tell her story.
Then, of course, these guys. We’ve still got to get six of them up there. They all had very different flights. Their flights had their own drama within them. The next flight we have to deal with is Gus Grissom and his flight was actually a giant failure for NASA, so we can’t wait to do that. We’re ending in such success and now we want to go back and show the other side, of how things can fall apart. We’ve got a lot of story to tell, moving forward.
The first two episode of The Right Stuff will premiere on Disney+ from 9 October.