Eloise Mumford wants you to get out and vote. The actress is adamant about fighting against voter suppression and this is an issue front and centre when she phones us at the start of an incredibly eventful week of American politics. That topic led quite naturally into our discussion of her new Disney+ series The Right Stuff. Clearly, for Mumford right now, the right stuff involves getting to vote. She did a deep dive into what playing Trudy Cooper (and going a touch darker than usual for the extremely sunny Mumford), means for her both on the show and in a greater, real-world concept. There is a fair bit on which to reflect, which is wonderful.
The following is a (slightly) condensed and edited version of our extremely compelling chat with everybody’s buddy, Eloise Mumford of The Right Stuff.
Brief Take: What attracted you to this role, because it seems to me a lot darker than the roles you’ve taken in the past.
Eloise Mumford: Well, first off, the pilot script was one of the best scripts that I had ever read and that had been offered to me, it was just incredible. And you’re right, it’s darker…it’s a darker version of The Right Stuff [laughs] of The Mercury Seven, of the telling of this part of history. And in part, that was my little journey to it, because there was a lot of darkness about this. They were incredible heroes, it was one of the shining achievements of American ingenuity, but it came at a real cost to the personal lives of all the people involved. And there was a lot of bravery and a lot of risk and a lot of sacrifice involved. And so highlighting that part of it, at least showing it in conjunction with the glory of it all was what made it so exciting for me to be a part. And Trudy in particular, I mean, I just love her. [laughs] I found her a well of emotion and complexity to explore, and that part of it was really compelling to me. She carries a lot of sadness with her, I think that was not an uncommon sadness for women at the time, and honestly still a lot of women now. We buck up against so much inherent sexism as a culture and that was incredibly limiting, it continues to be limiting, in a way that there are so many women that are carrying that deep river of low level sadness, always. And I found it so interesting in playing her because there were so many of the scenes that were domestic, you know, she’s in the house cleaning up the dishes or in the kitchen or setting the table and all that sort of stuff. I found myself so sad whenever I was doing that and actually have to be holding it in my head, and I would actually have to hide it more [laughs] that it just made me bummed out for her, that she knew that she wanted to be up in the sky, but instead she was tethered to a life that was not particularly preferred. And then in contrast when she was near planes, some stuff in which I was out with planes, or out in the world and talking to other women, there was a sort of joyousness that I loved and I think that she sort of held those things. And you can hold both sadness and great joy and that’s what makes for interesting characters. And that’s just a more accurate reflection of what it means to be a human in this world. [laughs]
BT: How much do you think that the series is a bit of a less than sentimental look back at what was being presented at the time?
EM: I think that it’s a much more interesting way to look at history, right? And also to look at the current time. There’s such a difference between what we present to the world and what we are actually experiencing, right? at any given moment. And there’s always a sort of dance between those two things, and certainly, back in the late fifties, early sixties, there was even less transparency. And now with social media, I feel like there’s a little bit more of a trend towards…no-makeup selfies [laughs] and this is like the warts and all, this is what it’s really like. But even that is a performance in a way. But certainly back then, there was a sort of a level of perfection that was expected in the public eye. And they were some of the first…television was really becoming a big thing at the time. And they were being exposed to a sort of instant celebrity in a way that no one really experienced previously, and I think that’s one of the things that I love about this show, that it shows the shock of that and how much there was a great desire for privacy. And in a world in which they were doing something so incredible, there’s always going to be the part of it that shows how imperfect the people were, and that to me is the most interesting part of it. And it continues to be in the way that we are living right now. If you’re going to see something spectacular being done, I’d rather see the things that make it human and the ways in which it is flawed, because that always lets me appreciate what is being done all the more, that there is an imperfection there that allows the perfection of what’s being done to actually be appreciated. And that is something that really interests me, which is that interplay.
BT: You have certainly filmed in many different places, so have you ever thought about the instinct to fly and be a pilot yourself?
EM: I hadn’t really before we filmed this series and now I have this instinct a lot more. I think it’s something about stepping into the shoes of Trudy and seeing how much she loved it and really feeling that and letting that wash over me [laughs] has really given me a love for it. And now whenever a small plane goes, if I hear a small plane overhead, or look up at it, in the past I didn’t have a huge desire for it, but I would like to now. It still scares me, to be honest. It feels dangerous in a way that I don’t think that I am as brave as Trudy, I would like to be, but I don’t think that I’m quite as brave as she was.
BT: There are many fascinating performers involved in this project. Did you know anyone prior to shooting this series?
EM: No, I didn’t know anyone. Lots of ‘small world’ things, like one degree away, but so many of the people involved have now become some of my dearest friends, which is an incredible experience to have had. They are the greatest group of people, and I don’t say that lightly. [laughs] They’re a really tremendous group of humans and we had so much fun working on this together. I think that what made it really special is it’s very rare to be with that many people who want so badly to get it right and to do it justice and I think that we all showed up with that sort of energy, a really deep determination to honour the people whom we were are playing and honour the story that we are telling in a way that made us all care about it so so so deeply. Not to mention that they are very fun people and we had a blast filming together [chuckles] in Florida, those two things combined, I feel really, really lucky. Also, they’re incredibly talented, like Colin O’Donoghue, who plays my husband, we had such a blast being on set together. As an actor, I think that’s one of the greatest joys, when you just look at a person in the eyes and you can just tell, like: “Okay, game on, let’s play”, and to me, that is what has always lit my fire about acting, and it was so much fun to get to do that with him and with everyone else as well.
BT: Where do you feel the greatest joy for you as a performer?
EM: I mean, honestly, [laughs] I love acting so much. It’s funny, it somehow still surprises me how much I love it, just because the industry is so hard and there’s so much of it that is really tough, and yet I get on set and I get in the moment with other actors and nothing, nothing thrills me more. I think that it’s that flow state that people talk about, [laughs] when you’re doing the thing that you really love and there’s moments and scenes in which you’re so locked in with the other person, you’re so present. Everything is so precious, but also so ephemeral. [laughs] It happens at a pace that you don’t even know when it’s over what quite happened and yet it’s just the feeling of being alive in the moment. I went to NYU for acting and studied the craft of it. I come from theatre. There is much preparation that goes into being an actor and much of my training is having all of the preparation done, then when you get in the moment, you can just let it go and trust that you just have to exist as a human in that moment, and I felt a lot of those moments filming this, in part because the writing was tremendous and also, the others were so much fun to work with.
BT: On that note, is all of this true, that you were inspired by a production of South Pacific, that you understudied Elisabeth Moss in Speed the Plow, that you were in a short film by Maggie Kiley with Jesse Eisenberg, all of these were really early inspirations of yours?
EM: Yep, yeah. All of those things are true. Yeah, I’ve been…I don’t know, there’s something about getting to try on other people’s lives. I feel like…we only get one lifetime, right? [laughs] And I mean, I think, who knows? I have had a hard time knowing which life I want to have or which person I want to be. And being an actor means you somehow get to try out all these other lives within one lifetime and that feels really fulfilling to me. To be honest, I always wanted to be a doctor, but I played a doctor in a pilot that I did and [laughs] I was like: “Oh my God! I’m getting to be…here I am! I am really going to be a doctor without having gone to 10 years of med school!” [laughs]
BT: Your show isn’t prescriptive, but who do you think actually has the right stuff?
EM: I thought a lot about that kind of question as to what is the right stuff or who has it, and for me, you can’t separate that from the time period. Because so much of what was going on at the time, and I hope that we reflect this in the show, because I think I think that it’s really important to learn from history in that way. That part of having the ‘right stuff’ was being a white man. [laughs] And if you were a person of colour or you were a woman, you may have very well possessed and I’m sure [chuckles] plenty of people did, the same grit and tenacity and bravery and all of that, the charm, whatever, that would have made you right for that moment and you were simply not allowed access. Trudy, you definitely see that in her storyline in this, but it also goes for people of colour. The space was very limited in who was allowed to occupy that space. I think that it’s important to reflect that part of our history because there have been great strides made in who we allow into the most powerful spaces. And yet we still have so far to go. I think that the first all-female space walk happened while we were filming. And that was really cool to watch but also really heartbreaking because it shouldn’t have taken this long. Right now as a culture, there’s such a reckoning about racism in this country and I think that it’s important to show that the great accomplishments that have happened in our history are great accomplishments and yet there was a lot more going on behind the scenes of who was allowed to participate in them and who wasn’t. I think that having a clear-eyed look at that is important for the way that we move forward as a culture.
BT: You worked with Grace Gummer in Standing Up, Falling Down and then Mamie Gummer in The Right Stuff in which she plays Mercury 13 potential astronaut Jerrie Cobb, is that right?
EM: [laughs] Yes! The thing is that when I found out about Mercury 13, which by the way, in doing research for this show, I remember the exact moment…there’s a documentary, it’s amazing on Netflix about the Mercury 13, and my mind was blown on it, that the women who were being tested were actually doing better at the tests than the men were and that the men got it shut down. And look, it’s not an unfamiliar story, it happened in the space race, but this has happened across history, it’s not a new story of women and people of colour being unrecognized for what they are contributing and also what they are allowed to contribute more, right? I am glad that our show touches on the Mercury 13 part of it and to see that this wasn’t that long ago. Like this was going on in my parents’ lifetime and it helps us examine how much it still is going on very clearly and we have a lot of work to do. We’ve come a long way and the progress that we’ve made has been on the shoulders of these incredible women and these incredible civil rights fighters and we need to continue to forward their legacy.
BT: What’s it like to be able to film in Cape Canaveral?
EM: It is one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced in my entire life, being down there and getting to go to…well, first off, before we filmed this, I had never been to Florida. And it was so fascinating. I grew up in Washington, which is about as far away as you can get within the Continental U.S. and it’s such a wild, wild city. Being in Cape Canaveral and we went out there a couple of times before we started filming to do different tours and learn about different things. And getting to stand on the launch pad where they actually launched these rockets, getting to see how big, they had a replica of the Redstone Rocket, which is the one in which Alan Shepard went up. Getting to be in the actual bunker room in which you could see the actual computers that they were using at the time, which were ginormous, the whole room is a computer and it doesn’t have the same computing power as your iPhone. [laughs] But getting to be near all that stuff and getting to see how it’s both majestic and also flawed and real and human. And something about that was mind-blowing to me, it was so neat to see. And while we were down there, there were a couple of launches that for one of them in particular, I drove out to the beach and watched the launch from the Cape Canaveral beach. It was so cool. [laughs] I felt really lucky to be able to immerse ourselves in that way and I think that Florida becomes another character in the show, which I really love. You can really feel the vastness of it and the swampiness of it, in addition to the set designs and the costumes, which were just brilliant. Getting to immerse ourselves in that world was really special.
BT: How immersed were you in the role of Trudy? How deep did you go?
EM: I mean, as deep as humanly possible. I feel like getting to play Trudy really changed me as a person in a lot of ways, this role, because I find her so inspiring and I aspire to be like her in a lot of ways and I also feel a great sense of responsibility. She went on after….after Gordo was done with the program they immediately got a divorce and she went on to have a career in aviation, which I think is the coolest. She ended up fulfilling a lot of the dreams that she had which was a really beautiful ending to the story. And yet I feel a fire within me to carry forward the work that she started and the work of which she was a part. It was interesting, as I was saying we went out to Cape Canaveral and talked to a lot of test pilots and we did training in that sort of way. I was allowed to be a part of it, I was included because Trudy was a pilot, the other wives were not included when we went out to talk to test pilots and climb into planes and stuff like that. But I went with the boys to do that and it was surprisingly emotional for me because as I was sitting there with them and touring all these planes and the hangars, getting into these F-35’s, and it was so cool, I was sad for Trudy that she never would have been included in that way and I was really aware of that dynamic the whole time we were filming. I still feel it within me and I really hope that we get to go back and do a second season because it’s very alive and well within me. [laughs]
BT: Which shows have you been watching during this time?
EM: I May Destroy You on HBO was like my favourite thing that I have seen in forever. I loved that so much. It stuck with me in a way that I think about it a lot. Mrs. America, I really loved, and right now I’m very into The Vow [laughs] about NXIVM.
BT: Do you feel like with Standing Up, Falling Down and The Right Stuff, that you’re finally stepping into the things that you want to be doing?
EM: I feel…it’s always funny to be talking about your career, because I hope that I have no sense of where it will go, so I have no way to know [laughs] how to compare it. But certainly I feel so grateful to have worked on both of those projects. Standing Up, Falling Down was so much fun because Billy Crystal is….When Harry Met Sally is one of my favourite movies and he is a genius, obviously [laughs] and Ben Schwartz is great and that was such a fun experience and I felt very lucky to be a part of something intimate and special. On this show, I’ll say that I feel hopeful that I’ll get to play more characters like Trudy. It feels really cool to be stepping into a time in my life in which I am able to portray more of a lived experience of what it means to be human. The older I get, the more that I feel my own life experience really helps me in greeting all of these new characters. And all of the things that I find heartbreaking and have found strength to move through and all of the things that bring me joy and all of that, to bring that to a character and given the opportunity through the writing to really dive in to somebody who is complex, it feels really wonderful. Trudy feels like a total gift in that way and I hope as I move forward to get to play more women who are afforded the same complexity on screen that reflect what it is to actually be a woman in this world.
BT: Who have been some of your favourite scene partners?
EM: Oh my gosh, I feel really lucky that I have worked with a lot of really tremendous actors who’ve been joyous with whom to work in the moment and generous in the way that they show up. Going all the way back to Speed The Plow, when I went on with that working with Raúl Esparza and William H. Macy who were both incredibly kind and supportive to me, who was incredibly terrified in that moment. And then Dakota Johnson from Fifty Shades, really she’s a spectacular actress and her determination to bring such reality to every moment and such vivacity to every moment was so cool to watch and she carried it all with so much grace. I was really inspired by her and felt very lucky to act with her. And obviously, Ben Schwartz is so much fun to work with as well. Then in this show, everyone across the board, even in the table reads, there’s this feeling in which you are looking at each other all around the room and you’re feeling: “Oh man, I feel really lucky to get to show up to work with these people every day.”
The first two episodes of The Right Stuff are now streaming on Disney+