We knew The Right Stuff was a blast (off), though lead Jake McDorman approached our discussion of the Disney+ series in a way we weren’t expecting. In a recent phone conversation, we discovered an instant rapport and were thrilled to hear McDornan share a remarkable amount of anecdotes and insights. Clearly, McDorman is a practitioner of the acting process and has the mannerisms, well, befitting of an astronaut, or at the least a test pilot. He takes the role of Alan Shepard to heart and we were reminded in the way he speaks a little bit of his work in the series Limitless as well as The Right Stuff.
The following is a condensed and edited bit of a deep dive into Jake McDorman speaking at length about Alan Shepard and The Right Stuff.
Brief Take: This series presents Alan Shepard as an extremely competitive person and wanting to win at everything. Having played him, do you see him that way?
Jake McDorman: Absolutely. There’s a competition in that. The space program, especially the Mercury program, was set up that way, only one of these people was going to be first. That was never going to happen again, and when they started the program, it was set to be the first person in space, period. Before the Russians kind of beat us to that flight. Along with all of these guys being a level of ambitious, competitive, that’s far and away above maybe the average person, it was also framed in that way as well. It was a competition to see who was going to be first. It’s a space race, there can be only one first, so, yeah! I do think that coming from a background as a test pilot and a lot of the research that all of us did, us being the cast, was kind of figuring out what…when I took the job, I didn’t know that astronauts were test pilots in the early days of the space program. Honestly, coming into it I thought that astronauts were astronauts, so this was an educational opportunity for all of us to realize what the inception of that program was like and how they decided, Bob Gilruth and Chris Kraft and everybody at what eventually became NASA, that they were going to pool their applicants from test pilots. Chuck Yeager and all these people idolizing Charles Lindbergh at the time and what those people were like, and I think that already to be a pilot was highly competitive. The ‘right stuff’ is this hard to define special sauce that Tom Wolfe talks about in the book and I think that a lot of it is ambition, I think that a lot of it is competitiveness, I think a lot of it is a relationship with fear, and it was definitely prevalent amongst test pilots before they were weighed down and focused towards the goal of being first in a political space race.
BT: How deep do you fall into the character with prep work and how competitive are you in real life?
JM: Yeah, I mean, sure, of course, I think that there’s already a level of competition in my career and in my personality. But as far as the research goes, man, it’s obviously a very well-documented period of American history. I think that coming into the job, I probably had a lot of people probably recognize John Glenn and knew a lot more about the Apollo program. I really got to immerse myself in the research of who were the (Mercury) Seven, Chuck Yeager, and immerse myself as much as I could in the time period. And Patrick Adams was the first actor that was cast out of the seven of us and to his credit, he did a really good job of putting us all in touch and an email chain in which we could pool our resources, from all the different books that these guys wrote or were written about them, to podcasts, interviews, newspaper clippings, articles, anything and everything that we could find in one place so that we all had a small community amongst the seven of us to share our resources and share what we heard and found and discovered and thought were useful. And for me, I think that obviously reading The Right Stuff the book was obviously a big part of it. And then I think Shepard’s book was….also Grissom, because obviously Grissom died in the fire I think before he was able to write a book…it might be Shepard and Grissom who both had books written posthumously about them that ended up being a lot more transparent than obviously someone writing an autobiography. Shepard’s biography ended up being a book that I know that a lot of the other cast read as well. It was called Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard, it was written by Neal Thompson. It covers his entire life from a young child until his death, and the space program is the majority of his life. That was really helpful, and then also taking on the responsibility of playing somebody that is real. I’ve done that before, I did that in American Sniper, and that always adds a level of respect and I guess pressure, but it doesn’t manifest in ways all the time that you would expect. The pressure for me, in this job at least, was wanting to incorporate enough insights that I found as I could into my research of the man, but at the end of the day you are servicing the character version to which you were drawn initially in the script. And because I hadn’t read The Right Stuff until going into this, I hadn’t actually seen the movie either, and I knew very little, if anything, about Alan Shepard. My first introduction to him was the script and I’m grateful for that. This doesn’t have to be the way it was, but it was for me, and it provided a clear kind of framework that after going and pooling all of the research that I could to which to return and subconsciously or otherwise to rehearsals and otherwise trying different things out, sift through what elements of research serviced this framework, and what didn’t service the story as a whole and the character of Alan Shepard’s role in the bigger machine that was the series. That was an awesome process. Actors have had to go through their own version of that any time they have played somebody who’s a real, living person or a period of history that has really happened in fiction. This was really my first in-depth approach at that, and I think that the method that surfaced was really exciting and educational and it was a really introspective kind of prep, more-so than I think on anything that I have ever worked.
BT: How do you play the contrast between Shepard and John Glenn along with Patrick J. Adams?
JM: Patrick is the best co-star which you could ever ask for. He loves the process and he is determined. He and I started meeting together before we even went to Florida, we talked about the project, talked about the people, and he came from a place that was so knowledgeable about it. I think that he was one of the first that was cast, and out of the seven, I might have been one of the last that was the cast. And he was helpful at hearing everything that was done so far and working to bring us…I think it was really clear that as much as the show is going to dive into the families of all these men and each and every one of these guys, that competition between Shepard and Glenn was key in the book and is one of the main storylines of the series, so he and I really quickly wanted to get on the same page. The showrunner Mark (Lafferty) had also told me at the time, when he pitched me the character of Shepard, that the arc would be the competition with John Glenn. As far as working with Patrick: that’s great. Patrick’s an incredible actor and really excited to roll up his sleeves and get into it and try things out. He and I clicked right away. The competition between John Glenn and Alan Shepard, they’re different in many ways and one of those I think really is why he ended up going into public service and becoming a Senator and stuff. He really understood public opinion and the celebrity that came along with this. I’m not saying that Shepard didn’t or the other guys didn’t, but Glenn really knew how to work that. I think that being somewhat of a celebrity before the Mercury program started, he understood how important it was to promote himself as a family man, a Christian man, kind of a role model that I think that he was genuinely. But the other guys became uncomfortable with that and having to live up to it. Once Life magazine started writing these guys as infallible American heroes, coming from this fighter jock, mad dog, whiskey, smoking, womanizing kind of background of living life on the razor’s edge test pilot didn’t really compute. I think that Glenn, Gus Grissom and Shepard were the only three astronauts of the seven that stayed married to their spouses for that time. Yeah, maybe you can say that Shepard wasn’t as devoted a family man as was Glenn, publicly. I still think that he was, he was a different kind of…yes, he had affairs and was fiercely private about his private life, where Glenn was super comfortable with letting the cameras into his house. Glenn wrote his book and Shepard was irked about the idea of a book written about him, and he didn’t have one written about him until he died, and that’s kind of a perfect snapshot of the difference between them. Neal Thompson was a journalist at The Washington Post who was commissioned to write Shepard’s obituary when he died. I think that he realized that there wasn’t a book about Shepard and he went on to write one. Yeah, the competition between them is that I think Shepard, especially the way that it is in our series, feels like he and Glenn are the same, it’s Glenn’s too scared to admit it. Glenn doesn’t want to appear like he’s ruthlessly competitive. Glenn runs into these moral impasses in which the version of himself he wants people to see versus the version of himself he is privately. Not that he’s not a devoted husband, a devoted father, he is those things. When you talk about what is the right stuff in this context, amongst these men, Shepard was a lot more brash and earnest about it should come down to who is the best pilot, and I absolutely am the best and am going to beat you. Where Glenn wanted to pretend that he wasn’t playing the same game. And it’s not until halfway through the season in our show, when that’s finally revealed. He exposed to the rest of them that he holds himself as an authority figure over them, they’re not equal to him. It exposes that root of you say that you’re this virtuous man and you are the things that you do, but if you’re being really honest, you have a superiority complex over all of us. None of that makes you any better than all of us, age or experience, we’re all going through the same experience. I think, ultimately, especially when it came down to that peer vote which certainly played a hand in who was in the flight order, only (Bob) Gilruth knows how much of an influence that had on the decision. It was something that blindsided Glenn, that all this work he could do to make the public one way was a lot more brutal than I think Glenn would have liked to have admitted amongst his peers. They’re very interesting and they spend a lot of time mutually respecting and mutually hating each other, even outside of the Mercury program. It was a lifelong almost sibling rivalry. There’s nobody else, they’re tethered together, the seven of them, which is one of the things of the show and this period of history that is really fascinating is that they’re all of a sudden catapulted to Beatles-level fame. And all of the context of this rigid competition in which they’re at each others’ throats, professionally. Yet at the same time, they’re all each other have, no one else has been through this experience, no one else has been catapulted to fame, no one else has the pressure of the weight of the world or any similar experience to which to relate. Unless they all sat down and smoked a joint with Led Zeppelin. They’re a family and all of them worked until they died even if they didn’t get along.
BT: What about acting? That’s also an extremely competitive business and yet you’re in Lady Bird, What We Do in the Shadows, Happiest Season, this project, and you have Dopesick coming up. You’re so busy in such phenomenal projects!
JM: Oh man! Those are projects that I absolutely love. I love all of those people: Taika (Waititi), Jemaine (Clement), Clea (DuVall), obviously Danny (Strong) with Dopesick, everybody…oh, Greta (Gerwig), all of those projects, super excited. I think that the longer that you do this, at least from my experience and this is really just coming from my experience, the more people that you meet, you find out who genuinely loves the process, like Patrick (J. Adams) does. Patrick is someone who is like instant, simpatico, super-close lifelong friend because the people who really love the process, that put the process above prospect, I think that you find an interesting kinship with them and hopefully it attracts those kind of people. All of those things that you mentioned, all of things on which I try to work now, first I am a fan. These are the types of projects that I liked watching when I was a kid, a lot of these people in some respects are people I was a fan of when I was a kid. Michael Keaton in Dopesick and Jeff Daniels in The Newsroom and stuff like that. There’s a level of competitiveness to the same reason that we were saying with the space race: there can only be one person for this role or this show or whatever it is. But it’s not about getting that role as much as I think people might think that it is. The opportunity is exciting and auditions are opportunities to work. Whenever I’ve worked on something that I think is so cool that everybody that I meet on that project almost has the right to be a complete pretentious asshole, because I think that they’re all so rad. That’s never proven to be the case. Every time the higher profile the project, the more prestige that comes with a project, everybody who is working from crew to cast alike, are super happy to be there. How Bradley Cooper was with his work ethic, it’s infectious, it’s important, I don’t think it’s always been the case in Hollywood. I think that assholes were rewarded for way too long and there’s just no fucking room for it now. If you don’t love what you do and are excited to make it better and want to work as a team to have the thing be the best that it can be, I think that you have a limited shelf life in this business. I really do! And that’s the one common thread I would say for all the people that you just named who I love working with, that’s the vibe on all those sets, going to do Dopesick after working on The Right Stuff, the commonality is how much they love the process and how much they want to work together in real life while playing a small role in a much bigger thing. Once you get older and you do it long enough, it’s less about “If I don’t get this part, I am going to go back to wherever I came from” competition and moves more into maintaining relationships with people with whom you feel kindred creativity because you’re all trying to service the same best parts of your industry.
BT: How much do you think that your series is looking at the sixties through the lens of what is happening now?
JM: Yeah, look, you’re always going to have more real estate in eight hour-long episodes to tell a story than a movie. I think that the production value of television has caught up to the film industry in a lot of ways and that goes with technology. Looking at the story that’s quote “been told before”, having more time to tell it and looking at the nooks and crannies of these people’s lives is beneficial. As it pertains to what’s going on right now, I would say that it’s a couple of things. With the Life magazine publicity side of holding these people up and maintaining a position that might be a juxtaposition to who they are in real life is almost an inverse of what we have now. The celebrities and people we hold up now, we want to know everything about them unfiltered, undoctored, unmanipulated. I know that we’re also going through one of the biggest ages of misinformation that ever existed. With the Internet and transparency and technology on the Internet, I feel like often compared to heroes of the 1960’s and 1950’s, you’ve got to know everything about a person. It’s not able to be as curated when everybody’s got cameras on their phones. I think it’s interesting to look at the timeline and evolution of that when you throw back to these world famous seven people that weren’t necessarily anything like the image that was being publicized. Because the image went hand-in-hand with the public approval that was going to continue to fund the space program. It was very important from NASA’s and the U.S. government’s point of view that these people be indestructible superheroes, right on par with Captain America or Superman. Because they were going to get us to space. And if at any point, Americans stopped caring or thought they were bad people, we’d lose the race. Having such a coordinated curation of public image compared to what we have now, I think is an interesting parallel. Also, the idea of making real change requires everybody working together in the same direction. I think we’re on the heels right now of a lot of apathy and a lot of things that seem insurmountable, both politically and otherwise. This serves as a reminder that if everybody could stay focused and participate and stay actionable, working together can accomplish things that are otherwise impossible.
BT: What do you think is the best way to be involved and get to know you? Does the work speak for itself?
JM: I would love for the work to be able to speak for itself, yeah. I come from a generation, I assume that you do, too, that we know what it was like before social media and access to everything about you. I oscillate with being comfortable with aspects of that and repelled by aspects of that. I think we’re learning now after having lived in the way that we’ve used to…what has it been, 12 years since YouTube or something?, some kind of unexpected fallout, some unexpected thinkings of being completely unregulated and wanting to know everything about everyone and sharing everything at any given time. And the older I have gotten, the more I do want the work to…the longer I’ve gone and the more I have grown up in this, how important it is for me to work on things that I would like to watch. You don’t always have that agency as an actor, especially. It comes from working at a certain level of the business for a long time and even privileged to say that I might have a little bit of that agency, but as I have tried to work on things that I think represent the kind of artist that I am inside, that it would translate to the credits beside my name. Because these are all projects which I am proud of. I’m proud of the people who I work alongside, I’m proud of the people that I work under, and that’s been the case for most of my adulthood. And that’s been an effort and a conversation in a lot of different circumstances, but it’s gotten to a point now that I hope that as an artist that it does define me.
The first two episodes of The Right Stuff are now streaming on Disney+