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Interview: The Right Stuff’s Nora Zehetner

by Charles Trapunski

At the conclusion of a busy press day for Nora Zehetner in support of The Right Stuff (to put it in perspective, this was early afternoon in Los Angeles), she took some time to have a fun chat with Brief Take on Zoom. Although this was our first time speaking to each other, Zehetner very warmly spoke about Annie Glenn and how it is, in a way, a departure for the talented thespian. It’s a familiar track in another fashion though (read on). Above all, Nora Zehetner rocketed to the top of the list of exciting actors to watch out for.

The following is a condensed and edited and transcribed version of a fun Zoom video interview with the vivacious Nora Zehetner of The Right Stuff.

Brief Take: The role of Annie Glenn feels like such a difficult one in that you have to play it in a very particular way. How did you craft your portrayal?

Nora Zehetner: Uh…with my hands clenched. [laughs] And constantly going: “Was that okay? Was that okay?” I was honestly terrified the whole time to be playing a real person who is remarkable and then also with the stutter, I was so anxious about getting that correct and representing people properly. It was such an amazing opportunity, I was so excited about it. It was funny, though, because I got the script and the audition a day and a half before I had to go in and I had this long scene, it was a scene between Annie and Trudy Cooper, which is actually in the second episode, but a very truncated version of it. I also had to sing a song in it and I do not sing. Actually, I am learning now. And I learned guitar. And I just learned how to sing and play a full song, which is the highlight of my quarantine, it’s very exciting. [laughs] But it was terrifying. And then I got the job and I was so excited about it, and then I was like: “Oh my gosh, now I have to do it”. And it was one of those things that the whole time I was doing it, I was like: “I think this is right, I feel good about it, but who knows?”.

BT: What leads you when seeking roles?

NZ: Telling good stories and getting to delve into…I never really want to play myself, it’s not really very interesting to me. Nor do I ever get hired to play [chuckles] usually like “the girl”. I don’t know what that says about me. But it’s also about who chooses you, and I’ve been so lucky that it’s really talented filmmakers who do choose me and I get to do those things and get these kind of complex characters, but it was fun to play Annie because if you have gone back and watch a lot of things that I have done, I tend to play the bad person. A lot! Which is so much fun, because in life I’m terrified of offending anybody. At any given moment, I do the thing in which I spiral, [laughs] I shame spiral [chuckles] after I’ve gone to an event or something, and I go: “Oh my gosh, I said that thing“, or I embarrass myself, I don’t know. It was such a joy to play this person who is inherently good, and lovely and grounded and warm.

BT: The production value on the show is incredible!

NZ: Yeah, it’s stunning, right?! It’s beautiful.

BT: Do you think that this historic time is looked at through a contemporary lens or is reflective of its time period?

NZ: I think that it’s both because when you’re there and you’re on set, you’re not thinking: “What does this mean now?”. Because I think that you can’t do that, I think at the same time. But from a storytelling point of view when we are reading the scripts and we’re talking to the creator….because otherwise why tell the story again? The movie won a bunch of awards, people love it, there’s no point of telling the story unless you’re going to reexamine it through the lens of 2020 and how the women were kept back and what they put up with and what they went through, and I think all of that is so important and I think really interesting. I think that it’s nice that we’re starting to explore that and hopefully we’ll delve much further into that in season two. It’s hard. There’s so many characters that you’re setting up and so many storylines. I thought that we would do the ‘Annie stutter storyline’ this year and we started to do it, but I am glad that we didn’t do it halfway. Next year will be John Glenn’s launch and I know that we’re really planning on delving into that. I’m really excited about that, because she had an 85 per cent stutter and to be thrust into the public eye in the first place as a military wife, in which it is all about conforming and keeping your head down and doing everything very appropriately, to see this icon out in the world, I can’t imagine that for anyone, but then also to have this on somebody with a speech impediment is really bonkers, there’s so much to her character.

BT: How do you do a sense of justice to a real person and a good person?

NZ: I don’t know. I honestly did the best that I could. Patrick (J. Adams) had a chance to go to the John Glenn Foundation in Ohio and go through the archives and he found this stack of love letters between them. And one year was this thick of papers stacked together that they wrote each other when they were married and he was newly at war. And their love story to me, [sighs] she’s just a beautiful person. I found her incredibly inspiring and I hoped that when the show came out, I would find some way to get in contact with her, and I am very sad that I missed that chance. But she was 100! To be 100 and she was still doing new things in her eighties. In her eighties, she was lecturing a college class and she said that she started crying because she realized her dream of being of a teacher in her eighties. I want to be like that.

BT: What was it like to film this series?

NZ: [laughs] Well, we went to Orlando, Florida, so that was fun. It was a pretty quick turnaround from when I got the job to when we when we went down there and started, I think that it was a month later or something. I did a bunch of research in between those times and then we went down there and we got to go to Cape Canaveral, we shot at Cape Canaveral and that was incredible. Otherwise, when you walk on set and you’re in the costume and you see the amazing job that Derek R. Hill, the production designer, did and you really do feel like you are in different time, but then when you go off set, you don’t realize the scope of it all. And then we finished, I was home I think after Thanksgiving and it was strange to have this big lag before it is coming out.

BT: How much of this story did you know and how much did you learn as it went on?

NZ: I’m still learning. I learned a lot about Annie and John, but I still don’t know…there’s so much, and it’s really fascinating and there is a lot of resource material, more for the astronauts, there’s not as much on the women. There’s The Astronaut Wives Club, which I actually read, because I was on it. [laughs] The Astronaut Wives Club as a different astronaut’s wife, as Marilyn See. But in general, I find it completely fascinating. There’s so much I don’t know about the space program, I’m continuing to learn and really enjoying that and that’s been such a fun perk of this job.

BT: Had you worked before with Patrick J. Adams? How did you go about crafting your wonderful dynamic? 

NZ: We knew each other, we have mutual friends, so we would also encounter each other at a party or something, but we had never really bonded or had a personal conversation. And he did this web series that Sharon Horgan produced (Pillow Talk), and I did an episode with him. That was fun, that was the first time and I knew him and I knew he was on Suits, but I really didn’t know him as an actor, and I was like: “Oh my gosh, he’s really good!” And it was fun when I got this because I auditioned and they called me as I was driving away from the audition and they said: “Will you come back and chemistry read tomorrow with Patrick?”. And I messaged him and I was like: “Hey…[chuckles] I’m coming to play your wife”, and it was nice, it made me a little more comfortable to read with him, but he’s just…we’re different in life. But for some reason we work together really well. He’s so present as an actor, which a lot of people aren’t, really. Very generous and very present and when he looks at you, I felt like he was John and I was Annie and we were love. And we were…so close on set, it was a really lovely thing.

BT: He’s from Toronto and you shot in Toronto for Designated Survivor.

NZ: Yeah. And in the dead of winter. [laughs] There was this time that I was going to shoot a scene inside and they moved it outside and I was like “They should have titled this episode ‘The Spy Who Came In from the Cold'”, but I did not come in from the cold and I was always outside freezing. It was always the coldest morning and they were like: “Oh, we knew it was going to be the coldest morning when we were coming into town”. I’ve been there in the summer, too, and it’s definitely not cold.

BT: The 1960s feel like a perfect fit for you. You frequently play characters from this era, right?

NZ: Yes! [laughs] I feel like I’ve been there more than any other time. I’ve done a lot of period films and tv shows and I love doing them. Aside from women’s rights and the politics and the discrimination, I do love different time periods because of the kindness, the manners, the style. There’s loveliness to all of it: writing letters and going to see music as opposed to sitting on my phone and scrolling through Instagram.

BT: How did you feel watching the series and seeing that it is hard-hitting?

NZ: It’s hard for me to watch anything which I am in. It’s hard for me to watch myself, I also think that I am a terrible judge of anything that is happening, to be honest. When I read the script, I thought it was one of the best pilot scripts that I had read. It was a beautiful, beautiful script and what I liked about it and it has changed a little bit since its inception, but it’s such a slow burn and people weren’t painted to solely be heroes and you got to see the messy side of them. And you essentially encounter one of the characters on the floor, literally on the floor, in a pile of broken glass. You see him go from there to here and Annie goes like this along the way. It’s interesting because Annie and John really do have this beautiful love story, in which I’m sure there are times when they get annoyed with each other, but it’s such a solid bond and I feel like they’re the heart.

BT: Do you have a favourite of the astronauts?

NZ: John! I mean, John, obviously! [laughs] Who else?! Who else would it be?

BT: The show also points out that the women took a long time to be recognized.

NZ: Yeah, it was crap. The women actually tested better than the men but they decided that they didn’t want them to go up, and in fact, a couple of the astronauts including John Glenn and Scott Carpenter went and testified and said that they did not think that women should go to space, and I’m sure he’s since changed his mind, but at the time they didn’t believe in it. And the women were as capable then as they are now and it’s really unfortunate that they didn’t, but I think it’s because of them that future female astronauts did get to go up. It’s progress. There is still far to go in a million different ways, yeah.

BT: How has the show deepened for you since in an extremely strange year and using technology to cope right now?

NZ: Oh, my screen time is abysmal, awful. I think that technology was amazing in the beginning when you didn’t see anybody and you didn’t leave your house and getting on group Zoom calls I think propped people up, and I know that it helped me, and that’s something that you wouldn’t have been able to do before. I think that it has been a really nice way to keep in touch with people. And obviously, technology is important with a lot of the things that are going on politically to keep us informed and aware of what is actually happening, because there’s obviously different stories being told.

BT: What kind of shows have you been watching?

NZ: I actually started watching The Morning Show last night, because I saw the first episode and I didn’t have Apple TV and I obviously didn’t love the first episode, and I started watching it again and I love it now, it’s super fun. I have been watching stuff like I Will Destroy You, it’s super good. I watched The Great, High Fidelity, I want to do The Sopranos, I’ve actually never done The Sopranos, I’ve got a plan. I’m watching The Boys right now, it’s really annoying me that they are only releasing them once a week, I’m like: “Ahhhh!!!” The episode, the last one that came out is so good. It’s just so smart. They could have made it a superhero thing, but they made it so smart.

BT: Brick didn’t get the attention at the time that it should have.

NZ: No, it didn’t have this kind of appreciation. It did as well as a little movie could do considering it was made for $400,000 and it had no stars in it. But it is funny because the reviews at the time were not great. They were fine, I think it was about 70 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes and then afterward, everyone references it. Even the same people who reviewed it so-so, then…you know. When I was read the script, I was like: “I don’t know” and then when I met Rian Johnson and worked with him, I was like: “Oh, okay, this is going to be really cool”. And Steve Yedlin, the D.P., was incredible.

BT: You’re really pushing the boundaries for Disney+ making a show for all four quadrants. 

NZ: Somebody on our show, they were giving us about one episode a week and you get it to watch it in a day and they are very particular, but he for a certain reason was able to get all the episodes again afterward and screen them for his family, his sister-in-law’s family, a whole group of people, and it was an age range from teenagers to senior citizens. And he said that it played really well to everyone. I guess that’s the good thing about being on Disney+. Who knows? It’s obviously one of their first shows and it’s not like a Star Wars thing.

BT: In your love scene, you still could get away with a little.

NZ: Yeah. Yeah. You still see a bum.

BT: What would you like an audience to look out for in this series? 

NZ: I loved watching everybody else’s performances because I thought that they were all incredible. I think that it’s so exciting, it’s such an exciting time because I think that for younger people, you don’t think what it was like for the first people to actually go to space. I was born in 1981 and I grew up with it and it was really exciting – people still going into space, but you knew that it had been done. I want people to see that journey and what it was like, and I think that everybody’s journey is really fascinating. I don’t think that you have to be a space buff in order to enjoy it because it’s a very character-driven exploration of that. It’s nice to be able to delve into the families and hopefully be able to continue to delve into them more, because I think that it makes you more invested into what’s happening.

The first two episodes of The Right Stuff are now streaming on Disney+

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