Micah Stock as Deke Slayton, Jake McDorman as Alan Shepard (second from left), Aaron Staton as Wally Schirra, Michael Trotter as Gus Grissom, Patrick J. Adams as John Glenn, Colin O’Donoghue as Gordon Cooper and James Lafferty as Scott Carpenter in THE RIGHT STUFF | ©2020 National Geographic/Gene Page

Micah Stock as Deke Slayton, Jake McDorman as Alan Shepard (second from left), Aaron Staton as Wally Schirra, Michael Trotter as Gus Grissom, Patrick J. Adams as John Glenn, Colin O’Donoghue as Gordon Cooper and James Lafferty as Scott Carpenter in THE RIGHT STUFF | ©2020 National Geographic/Gene Page

In Part 2 of our exclusive interview with actor Jake McDorman, he talks more about portraying real-life astronaut Alan Shepard in Disney+’s new series THE RIGHT STUFF. Based on Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction book about the beginnings of the NASA space program, the first season of THE RIGHT STUFF focuses on the Mercury 7 mission. The series premieres on Disney+ on Friday, October 9.

ASSIGNMENT X: Of the various astronauts’ achievements, is there one that you particularly would have liked to have done yourself – first man in space, first man on the moon, longest in orbit?

JAKE McDORMAN: I’ve got to say, hitting a golf ball on the moon is pretty flashy, and that’s Shepard. I don’t play golf, really, but I think that that’s so in line with his personality. I don’t know. In playing Shepard, I’ve realized just what a unique relationship with death and danger all these guys have, and fear. [laughs] I don’t know if that’s “the right stuff,” if it’s just trained me to realize, “Wow, these are incredible opportunities to portray these men,” but I certainly don’t have that.

AX: What would you say is their relationship with fear?

McDORMAN: Oh, my God. It’s one that is really foreign to, I think, any of us. It’s just something that – to me it feels like it’s a constant presence in their everyday to day life as a test pilot that it becomes a neutral feeling. It’s like somebody subjected to a level of pain on a daily basis. It becomes a neutrality. They just interpret it as data, or information. And if you don’t die, and they talk about this in the first chapter of the book THE RIGHT STUFF, that when so many test pilots are just dropping like flies, in the show, I think it’s the third episode, where Shepard says, “The average life expectancy of a Navy test pilot is twenty-three percent. So any test pilot you’re talking to is above average.” And that plays right into that cocksure fighter jock attitude in life. Yeah, the second you let fear occupy any kind of space in your brain is the second you’re going to your funeral. So they all have it, but they manage it in a way that, to me, is unique.

AX: THE RIGHT STUFF has a pretty big regular cast. Are there any of your fellow actors that you particularly enjoy sharing scenes with?

McDORMAN: Well, Patrick Adams [who plays John Glenn] is an incredible actor. From the actors that I was in scenes with, I had the most real estate with Patrick to really open it up and see where we could go. So that was a joy. In Episode 5, there’s a confrontation between John and Shepard that was an entire day of filming. So that’s twelve hours, one scene, me and Patrick, with the rest of the Mercury 7 kind of caught in the middle of it. And that was just an actor’s playground. So, I’d be remiss if I didn’t put that first. I think both he and I really enjoyed working together.

But also Shannon Lucio, who plays Louise Shepard [Shepard’s wife], is just an incredible actor. From the get-go, she and I would go through our progress reading Shepard’s book, and talk about how they met. There were a lot of different nicknames that he had for Louise that were in LIGHT THIS CANDLE [the Shepard biography by Neal Thompson] that we’d incorporate into the show, so it was really fun to have a partner in crime there, and trying to work as much of the research into the material as we could. So working with Shannon was great, Shannon and Patrick, but all of us had a blast.

AX: What do you think Shepard’s attitude was towards his marriage? Because, apart from John Glenn, all of the Mercury 7 seem to be having lots of extramarital sex, but Shepard does not seem to be having any kind of a problem with being a devoted but unfaithful husband, in contrast to, say, Gordon Cooper [played by Colin O’Donoghue], who is agonizingly conflicted.

McDORMAN: Right. Of the seven, it was just John Glenn and Alan Shepard – and Gus [Grissom, played by Michael Trotter], who died early – who were still married to the same woman all the way until their deaths. So they found a way for that to work, they found their own definition of “normal.” [In the case of the Shepards], they met, and Alan went off to work on aircraft carriers during World War II, and he talks about this a little in his book, but I think at the time, where we were socially, and also because of it being wartime, there was kind of an agreement between certain relationships that was like, “Oh, well, when you’re off putting your life on the line,” it was a don’t ask, don’t tell situation from port to port-type thing that just carried over into their marriage after the fact. But what I think that made it such an interesting contrast from, say, John and Annie [Glenn], who were high school sweethearts, that Shepard was this tomcat fighter jock when he was away from home, and the tradeoff was, it never got to a place where it embarrassed Louise, and if it did, there would be hell to pay.

THE RIGHT STUFF Key Art | ©2020 National Geographic

THE RIGHT STUFF Key Art | ©2020 National Geographic

In their privacy, and when he came home to the family, he switched gears and was an all-in family man. Somehow, that arrangement seemed to work for them, or her, or at least kept them together. I can’t speak to what it was like behind the scenes, certainly now. But yeah, that was one of the things that me and Shannon and [executive producer] Mark Lafferty would talk about all the time. Because there’s an element of that, especially paired with Shepard’s celebrity, that comes with his job, that would only exacerbate the issue and have scrutiny on the marriage. How on Earth, when he’s off gallivanting around so flagrantly, did this work? What was the tradeoff? What did Louise get out of this? What did Shepard put into it? And honestly, the more research I did, I think he’d be completely lost, and just a nightmare of a human being, without Louise to bring him back down to Earth. That was the arrangement. I don’t know how it worked, but it seemed to, all the way until the end.

AX: Do you think that Alan Shepard admired the other astronauts, or did he just view them as the competition that he shouldn’t have had to endure?

McDORMAN: No, I definitely think he did [admire them]. A lot of these people he continued to work with throughout his entire life, especially Deke Slayton [played by Micah Stock] and [NASA flight director] Chris Kraft [played by Eric Ladin] – well, I guess Chris Kraft isn’t an astronaut – but I definitely think he respected them. John, I think, and especially the way we portray him in the show, was a particular frustration to Shepard. Because Shepard will suffer no fools, and he respects hard work. He’s somebody who is methodically obsessed with doing his job the best he can, and whether that comes from ambition or competition, it’s almost irrelevant. That’s just the way he’s hardwired. He expects a lot out of himself as a pilot. And so anybody he meets that doesn’t put in the same kind of time and effort, I think, would drive him insane, or he’d just write them off and not care about them. But Wally [Schirra, played by Aaron Staton] and Deke and Gus, and even John, I think he thought he was better than them – I think they all thought they were better than each other. That kind of comes with the territory. They all thought that they should be first, they all thought they were the best pilot since Charles Lindbergh. But no, I don’t think he looked at them as obstacles, like some sort of sociopath would [laughs].

I think, honestly, he admired John in a lot of ways. John had strengths where Shepard didn’t, and vice-versa. I think his perception of John’s lack of earnestness, in [Glenn] playing the character [of the all-American ideal] – even though John was a moral man, John was a Christian man, he was a great family man, all those things are true, I think Shepard recognized him kind of inflating those [aspects] for his own benefit publicly, and that really made him frustrated. Shepard was open about his ambition, he was open about how much he wanted it, and how hard he had worked to get it, where he felt that John was more calculating.

AX: Can THE RIGHT STUFF go for another season? Do you get all way to the end of everybody’s careers, or is there room for another season?

McDORMAN: Yes, absolutely. The Mercury Program only began, really, with Shepard’s flight. All the other astronauts – John Glenn does an orbital flight, so that kind of rounds out the Mercury, but the way that the show was pitched conceptually to me was that, we start with Mercury, and it goes a little after that, but the bulk of the book is the Mercury Program. Obviously, [the book also has] Chuck Yeager in there, which we didn’t cover in our show, because we wanted to focus on the [Mercury] Seven. But yeah, hypothetically, this would be the chronology of the space program, less about these specific seven astronauts – obviously, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton, John Glenn, are people whose names come around NASA, into the shuttle missions with John, and Apollo missions with Shepard, but I think our show would open up to introduce [more missions]. It’s more beholden to the space program’s evolution, and less so about specific astronauts.

Micah Stock as Deke Slayton, Jake McDorman as Alan Shepard, Aaron Staton as Wally Schirra, Michael Trotter as Gus Grissom, Patrick J. Adams as John Glenn, Colin O’Donoghue as Gordon Cooper and James Lafferty as Scott Carpenter in THE RIGHT STUFF | ©2020 National Geographic

Micah Stock as Deke Slayton, Jake McDorman as Alan Shepard, Aaron Staton as Wally Schirra, Michael Trotter as Gus Grissom, Patrick J. Adams as John Glenn, Colin O’Donoghue as Gordon Cooper and James Lafferty as Scott Carpenter in THE RIGHT STUFF | ©2020 National Geographic

AX: Do you know if you’re going to be back on WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS in Season 3? They found a way to bring you back in Season 2 …

McDORMAN: Oh, my God. I hope so. I mean, I got my head cut off at the end of Season 1, so I didn’t think I’d be back in Season 2, right?

AX: And what would you most like people to know THE RIGHT STUFF?

McDORMAN: I think that these people did an extraordinary thing, but they’re ordinary in their being human. At the time, I think the effort to make them seem like these infallible superheroes was an internal calculation of, “How can we maintain public support and momentum to keep the public’s interest?” And it translated into these guys being [portrayed as] superhuman. And they did a superhuman thing. But at the end of the day, they’re fallible just like everybody else. And I think that might be a good thing that we get to explore in the eight hours of this first season.

Related: Exclusive Interview with THE RIGHT STUFF actor Jake McDorman on new National Geographic series – Part 1

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Article: Exclusive Interview with THE RIGHT STUFF actor Jake McDorman – Part 2

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