The space race has long been an intrigue for Hollywood. From Apollo 13 and Hidden Figures to First Man and Gravity, there is a wealth of movies and TV series orbiting around the U.S. space program. Disney+’s The Right Stuff, an eight-episode drama series based on Tom Wolfe’s book of the same name, is the latest retelling of America’s first group of elite astronauts, the Mercury 7, and the ups and downs they and their families faced as they race against the clock to rocket into the deep unknown.
For Suits alum Patrick J. Adams, who plays former U.S. Senator and NASA astronaut John Glenn on the series, his obsession with space began in childhood when his father handed him a copy of Wolfe’s book. He devoured it instantly and has since revisited the best-seller at various points in his life. (Wolfe’s book was previously adapted into a 1983 movie. Ed Harris played Glenn.) “It had such a huge effect on me,” Adams told ET over the phone. “I’ve read it at different parts of my life and it’s always showing me something different. It’s about so much, not just the Mercury program but about passion and about hard work and about wrestling with your demons and about pushing yourself beyond your own limits. It’s a remarkable way to explore all of these things that definitely meant something different to me at every stage of my life.”
“My fascination with the space program and these guys and this world began with this story and how Tom Wolfe told it,” he said. “To be able to, at this stage in my life and career, be asked to come in and be a part of reintroducing it to a new generation, to a new group of people who may have forgotten who these people were or never have known in the first place. It’s a huge honor and a great responsibility.”
Recently, Adams spoke with ET about how he’s embracing a life without distractions in quarantine, what he’s taken away from playing John Glenn on The Right Stuff and the future of the delayed Broadway revival, Take Me Out.
ET: What has the last year been like for you since wrapping Suits in 2019 and coming onto The Right Stuff?
Patrick J. Adams: When I was done with Suits, going back even a little further, I was ready to not be doing anything for a little while and I got a lot of really good quality time at home and got to reset a little bit. I was in this magical spot then, when I could be going back and forth between this new job, and getting to wrap Suits, even though it was a very stressful period of time going back and forth between shooting the final episode of Suits and being welcomed back into that world. Then getting to come down to the new family that I was working with in Florida on The Right Stuff. It was very, very exciting. We worked all the way up until December on this show and it was a full-court press. I was deeply passionate about the subject matter and really energized and finally came home at Christmas, kind of in that post-show depleted, left everything on the field. Then I went to New York to do a play, Take Me Out, the revival of the Richard Greenberg play, and of course, as we all know, March happened to the world. We were a couple of weeks away from beginning previews in New York and everything shut down. We made our way back to L.A. and hunkered down in our house and did what everybody else did. It was trying to figure out what our new normal looked like, the whole time doing a little bit of post-work on this show and waiting for this moment when we finally got to share it with the world. It’s a surreal, exciting thing that we finally get to share it.
What has this time been like for you in terms of what you’ve learned and discovered about yourself during this surreal experience that we’re all going through?
I think it’s really a good question. Every day is sort of a new feeling for me. I’m very easily distracted. I can fill my life with no end of distractions that can keep myself very busy. I can keep myself entertained. In the process of doing that, kind of lose sight of the things that were more important. My wife Troian [Bellisario] and I started a family, we have a little girl who just turned two. The greatest gift she’s given me and given us is a constant reminder to pay attention to even the smallest details. If we had been living our normal, running around like chickens with their heads cut off the whole time, we would have been missing so many of these small, little moments with our daughter. This a horrible time for so many people, but in trying to find the silver lining of it for us, it’s reduced the distraction. It’s forced us to take a look at what is important and to create a healthy, sustainable routine that doesn’t involve a lot of other people or constantly trying to work. But really about checking in and keeping in touch with each other and our daughter and doing the work that we set out for ourselves. Finding a hobby, finding things to keep us busy in a healthy, happy way, but creating a routine where we come back to each other at the beginning and the end of every day, and try and check into our gratitude as much as possible.
I feel like my mindset has definitely shifted during this time, just out of necessity. It sounds like that’s similar to what you’re experiencing.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s just been a very simplifying time. At a time that’s frustrating because we like simple, but I want big and complicated and loud and spontaneous. I love to travel and I’m always like, “Let’s get on a plane or book a trip.” A lot of that stuff is not a possibility now. It’s forcing me to be like, “OK, what’s happening right in front of me? How can I dig into this more? And how can I be really grateful for what I do have?” Because you never know what sort of calamity is going to strike at this moment; it’s a very scary, destabilizing time. I’m trying to use gratitude as my North Star at the moment and if I feel myself slipping too far into grief or anxiety, I just try and take a look at the things that I have to be grateful for.
Let’s talk about The Right Stuff. Had you always connected with John Glenn when you read Tom Wolfe’s book?
You know, not really. My own specific personality, if you’d asked me before this project, I’d be like, “Hey, I think I’m probably more like one of the other guys.” I certainly like to have fun and probably would’ve gotten caught up in all that before — the distractions. So all of the fun in the world and enjoying being famous, enjoying the celebrity, and going fast and being spontaneous, dangerous, those are certainly things that I could identify with. But I think there’s a part of me, at the time I took this job, I was starting to re-identify with, which was this quieter, more introspective, not afraid to stand on the outside of the group or to be a little different. I’ve always taken my work really, really seriously, and want deeply to feel that I’m being of service in the project that I’m a part of. So there was something about, as I was researching John out of a serious amount of fear, and that I was actually so different from him and that I would somehow get it wrong, I began to identify these places where we overlap and places where maybe I wasn’t owning that part of my personality. The job and this role in a lot of ways changed my life. As we were filming, I embraced those parts more and more and more and more in an attempt to get to know this guy better.
As a show wraps, a lot of times you put it down and go back to who you were before, and this was a job that’s really stuck with me. We then entered into this very surreal time where all of those qualities that I felt I learned to play in John Glenn, they’re serving me in a way that I never could have imagined in dealing with this very strange, chaotic time. It’s been a transformational process in that John taught me a lot about not being afraid to be yourself and understanding that we’re all put on the planet with a particular set of skills, and our job is to get out of the way and work as hard as possible to make sure that we are stewards of that skill-set and we bring them to bear in the world around us and our family.
You changed your look and did accent work to play John. What was that process like physically transforming into your character?
After spending so many years on Suits, which is a very specific show where my job was to be a version of myself essentially, I was excited that suddenly I had the opportunity to really do something I’d never done before, to take a big swing. I had to be careful about the impulsive instinct to mimic John Glenn or be some perfect version of him because that just didn’t feel like that was in the cards. I think I’m still learning a lot about my craft to how I approach what I do and approach my character, but there were some things that I felt needed to happen. John had a very unique-sounding voice, and he had, of all the seven, he had a very particular look — his hair and the way he held himself was… He was the one that didn’t fit. Not in a bad way, he was always… your eye went to him because he looked so different than the rest of them. So I wanted to embrace that. He embraced it with the bow tie, a look not a lot of people could have rocked. And I think he did it for a very specific reason, which was, “I want your eye to go to me when the camera turns on.” That was an essential part of who he was, and I wanted to run with the ball in my preparation and make sure that I was doing whatever I could just to embrace that difference and hope that we could tell his story through those changes.
There’s also a wealth of information and video footage of him. How did you determine, “OK, this is something that I will use. This is something I won’t use,” to inform your performance?
Early on, my first run of research was I think what anybody would do, which is just getting on the internet, reading whatever books that I could find and watching whatever videos I could on YouTube. And I certainly did start to get overwhelmed there because I was just like, “This is just a lot of stuff. I don’t know what to do with this.” It felt surface level to me, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to get past that or if it was sort of my approach was wrong. It wasn’t until I discovered Ohio State University’s John Glenn Archives, and online they have these oral histories that he dictated — something like 23 hours of oral history that take us from his very early days in Ohio through the military, through the Mercury program, then into his Senate life. I downloaded the whole thing. I put it on my phone, and I listened to it without the need to remember every detail or take anything specific from it. I was like, “Just sit with this guy like you would sit with a friend. Just listen to him talk, listen to him tell you a story, and just trust that things will settle as they need to. Whatever it is that I need to hear will settle in and I’ll remember it. And other stuff you won’t. There’s no way to get it all. You’re not going to get him perfect.”
I got to spend a couple of days there [at the archives] and I got to meet people who knew him because he was very involved with curating those archives. I got to sit and read letters that he and his wife, Annie, had written. I got to read journal entries. I got to read private stuff of his. And I suddenly found my enthusiasm and excitement for just learning this stuff became more important than how can I use it to my advantage as an actor. I just felt like this reservoir that was filled up with a ton of stuff about him, pictures I’d never seen before, and when I got to set, I had to learn to let it all go and be like, “I don’t know what’s going to be helpful today,” and trust that there was enough information in there, that there was some piece of his voice from those oral histories or from his flight — something would come across [my brain], I would grab a piece of that and find that, for some reason, that what was speaking to me that day.
Right off the bat, it’s established how different John Glenn and Alan Shepard are in personality and perspective. How did you and Jake McDorman create that contentious dynamic on set?
Jake is such a talented and committed actor. We immediately got together and just said, “Look, whatever you need, I’m here. Whatever I need, you’re there.” We knew right off the bat, we had that level of support from one another. When we got to set, it was fully supportive and it was like, “I want to do a take where I’m going to do this,” “Go for it. Try that,” “Hey, I would really like a version where I tried this.” We’d talk about the scene. We had a really good relationship with Mark Lafferty, who was our showrunner. We were welcomed into the process in a way that was productive and helpful, and that we took very seriously — and it was playful. When the cameras were on, it was, how can we best serve the story in this moment? These two guys, there was so much that separated them and yet there was also so much that they could agree on. For us, we saw an exciting opportunity to explore two people who were passionate about not just space travel, but flights are what drove them. It’s what they woke up for in the morning. But they also have their absurd amount of ambition to be the first. To watch their two completely different ways of coming at that same goal and then watch them finally crash into each other, and not have it end there but then how we deal with that? I felt very lucky to have Jake as a partner-in-crime. To some degree, they’re the unofficial leaders of the group, and they’re both vying for the respect and admiration of the rest of the group. You got one guy doing it by getting them the hotel room and making sure there’s a lot of beautiful women around all the time. Then there’s the other guy who’s making sure that they’re taken care of with a Life magazine deal and they’re getting paid. They both have important qualities in a leader and it just becomes who’s going to win over the other.
There’s a scene where you’re playing the trumpet. Is that really you playing?
(Laughs.) I was very cocky. I had learned in my research that he played the trumpet. That would be so much fun to really take the time to learn it. When I got to Florida, they said, “We’re going to probably do a trumpet thing.” I said, “Great. Let’s get a trumpet teacher right away.” I got set up with a guy and was like, “All right, all I need to do is learn to play one song. How hard can it be?” We got the trumpet guy in a room and told him, “I think I want to learn to play this one thing by myself.” And he looked at me like I was crazy. He said, “Why don’t you just try and make a sound out of that trumpet?” I put my lips to it and blew as hard as I could, and immediately realized that I would not be playing the trumpet for real. It’s far more complicated than I gave him credit for. So no, it wasn’t actually me playing. But it was me playing the fingering of the song properly. But the recording itself was a professional trumpet player.
Was there a memorable moment that you had on set that sticks out in your mind?
I don’t know if it made it to the final cut of the season, but there was a day where it was just me alone shooting on the launchpad that Glenn actually launched from, which is still out at Cape Canaveral. It’s all overgrown and it’s not maintained or simply not used as the launchpad anymore, so it’s all starting to fall apart. I got to be out there for a few hours before the cameras and the lights showed up and the sun was setting and I was standing at Cape Canaveral completely alone and it’s vast out there. It’s so big and empty and beautiful, especially if the sun’s setting, and I got to walk around and listen to music and stand on that launchpad. I felt very moved to be able to be there privately and have that before we started shooting. It felt like the perfect representation of something so legendary and so important — something so remarkable happened at this spot on the planet. And here it is falling apart and slipping into the past. It made me feel like, this is why you make a show like this, this is why you tell the story because otherwise these things, they just fade into the past and get forgotten about. It gave me a renewed sense of why this was a valuable thing to be doing.
You mentioned the Broadway play Take Me Out. You were gearing up to open right before everything got shut down in March. Are you hoping to go back to it at some point when it’s safe again to resume theater shows? (On Oct. 9, it was announced Broadway would remain shuttered until May 2021. Take Me Out had been eyeing a March 2021 reopening earlier this summer.)
I would love nothing more than to be a part of it, being we had such a great time working on it. I know people back at Second Stage Theatre are working hard to make sure it’s on the docket. I know everyone’s committed to it, know what the timeline is, so when we start to get a better sense of what that’s going to be, it’ll certainly be a part of the conversation. I think I speak for everyone in the show, everybody’s fully committed doing everything they can to make sure they’re in a part of it when the time is right.
What else do you have coming up?
That was it. All my time was on Take Me Out. Crossing our fingers that [The Right Stuff] finds a good audience, and that people are as excited about it as we are. Hopefully we’ll be going back into work to tell the second chapter of this story, which for me would be very exciting because I’m not sure when or where, but in the future, that it would happen. We’d get to support John Glenn’s flight [around Earth]. It would be a dream come true to get to be a part of telling that story. Fingers crossed, it will be the next thing I do.
New episodes of The Right Stuff drop Fridays on Disney+.
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