In "The Astronaut Wives Club," debuting tonight (June 18) on ABC, viewers meet the seven women who stood behind America's first spacemen as the space age literally got off the ground in the early 1960s.
The flip side of "The Right Stuff," the series follows Louise Shepard, Betty Grissom, Annie Glenn, Rene Carpenter, Jo Schirra and Trudy Cooper as they strive to hold down the homefront while also supporting their husbands Alan, Gus, John, Scott, Wally and Gordo on NASA's Project Mercury missions.
Marge Slayton, the seventh of the spouses, is thrust into the same spotlight as the other wives but faces additional hurdles given her own past and the path that her husband, Deke, will follow to reach space. As he becomes the chief of the astronauts, "Mother Marge" takes lead of the wives' club.
Actress Erin Cummings, who portrays the Marge Slayton in the ten-episode series, spoke with collectSPACE about reconvening the "Astronaut Wives Club" for television and how the the cast reflected their characters' bond 50 years ago. This is part two of our interview, part one is here.
collectSPACE (cS) "The Astronaut Wives Club," although based on the real history of the spouses (as told by author Lily Koppel in her 2013 bestseller by the same title) is not a documentary. It's more of a docu-drama, taking at least some license with the women's stories. Were you aware of where your character "Marge" diverted from real person?
Erin Cummings (EC) There's a certain degree of creative license taken in the story – specifically having to do with the wives – and a big part of that is that their lives weren't documented, or at least not documented in a factual way, as much as the men were.
For example, it's been well documented that Deke Slayton was grounded because of a heart murmur. That storyline, as it plays out on the show, has Marge concerned some of her own background played a part in that. That is not in anyway to suggest that it actually did.
It is more about Marge's own insecurity over if it could've played into that and how her concern, that fear, consumes her, to the point where she thinks for a moment it actually did and that it is her fault.
: Marge finds strength, and provides the same for the other spouses, in the so-called Astronaut Wives Club that she comes to lead. Did a similar bond develop among the cast members in the course of making the series?
EC: It is interesting how that dynamic developed.
[Early in the production] we were going between shooting in Los Angeles and New Orleans. (At first, it was going to be Houston and then it was decided not to use Houston and it was between Los Angeles and New Orleans.) And while many of us are based in Los Angeles, and we would have loved to have stayed in one place and not have to relocate, being able to all move away — it was almost like going to summer camp.
Many of us lived in the same neighborhood, even in the same building. Dominique McElligott, who portrays Louise Shepard, lived just down the hall from me. And Odette Annable, who plays Trudy Cooper, and Bret Harrison, who is Gordon Cooper, they were actually roommates because they're very good friends in real life and their spouses are very good friends. The four of them were super close, so they were roommates and lived in the same building.
And Desmond Harrington [Alan Shepard] lived in the same building. So it was not uncommon at all for Dominique and I to be in our pajamas and head down to Odie and Bret's apartment and play card games and hang out. And Joanna Garcia Swisher and her husband lived not too far from us, so they held a party at their house. Almost the entire cast came to that.
We became very, very close.
cS: It sounds a bit like life imitating art imitating life...
EC: In a way, it was. We were walking distance from the French Quarter, so we would all often walk in a group – just to make sure we were all safe. The boys were all very courteous and kind, making sure all the ladies got home safe. It was a little old school, but we sometimes fell into those patterns of our characters.
cS: Marge became "mother" in the Astronaut Wives Club. Did you play a similar leading role among the cast?
EC: I arranged for all of us to go on a swamp tour. So we went and fed alligators, which was very exciting and very nice way for us to all have a unique kick off to what would be a wonderful little five month family.
: Did that sense of family extend to your experience on set?
EC: There are always those stories about casts that are predominantly women and they try to paint a picture that all the women fight for who gets to wear the prettiest dress and who takes the longest in hair and makeup. But this really wasn't like that.
First of all, our wardrobe designer did a brilliant job making sure that we were specific to our character. Despite being a cast of seven white women, we are quite different from one another in attitude and different things. And so it was wonderful to be in an environment where the women were celebrating one another.
Being in a male-dominated industry, which the TV industry generally is, to be on a show with seven women, with a female showrunner [Stephanie Savage], and with female directors, it created an incredible dynamic. Really, for the first time, I and many of the other women felt like we had a voice. And when we had the Apollo wives come in, who were wonderful strong recurring characters, every once in awhile they'd go "Wow! This is really not like any other set – I feel like I can talk here." And we'd say, "You can. Your opinions are valid. Your voice has merit here." And to be quite honest, I don't always feel that way all of the time.
It was, overall, a really powerful experience, not just for me, but for most of the women, if not all. We're very proud of that. We're proud that we were not only able to tell the story in a compelling way but also create a sisterhood, on and off the camera. I think when you watch the show, you will really see those bonds of friendship playing out.
"The Astronaut Wives Club" blasts off Thursday night (June 18) on ABC, giving viewers a look at the other "right stuff" — the women behind America's first spacemen.
Based on author Lily Koppel's bestseller, the ten-episode docu-drama opens with NASA's Mercury 7 astronauts and, central to this series, their spouses, as they are thrust into the spotlight in the early 1960s.
The wives – as well as their high-flying husbands – landed on LIFE magazine's covers, which provides the initial plot point for "Astronaut Wives Club." But the accompanying articles only painted the "happy, proud and thrilled" view of the wives' story. The series (and Koppel's book before it) seeks to tell the more complete tale.
At the center of the astronaut wives club, on screen and in real life, was "Mother" Marge Slayton, the wife of Mercury astronaut Donald "Deke" Slayton. On TV, the late Slayton is played by actress Erin Cummings, who is no stranger to period pieces, having previously appeared on ABC's "Pan Am" and AMC's "Mad Men," but took her first stab at the space program's history through this role.
Cummings spoke to collectSPACE about reconvening the astronaut wives club for the small screen.
collectSPACE (cS): How did you approach your portrayal of Marge Slayton, given you did not have access to her or Deke (Marge died in 1989; Deke in 1993)?
Erin Cummings (EC) "It's an interesting conundrum when you are playing a real person, in balance of doing research while at the same time creating a character as is the case with Marge Slayton. There is just so little information that is known about her, that it allowed for a certain amount of creative license.
And so in creating Marge, I really took the little information we had and created a character that I think would honor her and that if she was alive today she would enjoy herself being portrayed as.
cS: Did you have any resources from which to pull real-life details?
EC: Every once in awhile, we'd get little bits and pieces of information. For example, when [author] Lily Koppel came to the set, she told us these stories about what the others wives had said about Marge.
There was also the moment when the daughter of one of the astronauts from an Apollo mission came to visit the set and I just happened to sit down opposite her at lunch.
She shared that her mother always looked highly of Marge because she took over as head of the astronaut wives. Marge was really the one who helped acclimate all of the wives into this new role that they would be playing. She was instrumental for these women to making the transition from housewife to astronaut wife.
That conversation was very emotional for me, as it really hit me then — this is a real person and even though she is not alive to see the portrayal, it's the first time that I really understood the value of what we're doing in that a woman who has been erased from history books is finally being showcased to America. That made we very proud of what we are doing.
cS: So describe Marge Slayton, not necessarily the real-life woman, but "The Astronaut Wives Club" character you brought to life on screen.
EC: Of the seven wives, Marge is the one who carries the most secrets and baggage from her past. In the beginning of the season, we will see her struggle with that, and really struggle with her identity, her belief in herself, and that she deserves the platform that she and the other wives have now been given.
I think it is a common struggle when people feel they are a fish out of water and especially for Marge, the things from her past that really aren't due to her own fault, really come back and cause issues, not only for her, but also for her relationship with the other wives and her relationship with Deke.
Ultimately, she will come to terms with these things, and I think that's what enables her to become the leader she is for these women. But in the beginning, it was certainly a great challenge for her.
She can also be counted on for a sense of humor and a heavy dose of sarcasm. I consider her to be the comedic relief of the show. Even though the show itself is at many points quite light, Marge is always a good person to turn to when someone needs to lay on thick sarcasm and call out the obvious.
cS: Given that the series centers (at least at first) on the Mercury program, comparisons have, and continue to be made between it and the movie "The Right Stuff." Do you think that is reasonable?
EC: I think the correlation between "The Astronaut Wives Club" and "The Right Stuff" is appropriate, given that we're telling the opposite side of the coin.
While we see glimpses of the wives in "The Right Stuff," it really was about the incredibly heroic thing that these men were doing, and that story absolutely needs to be told. But to discount the other story, that what was happening on the home-front and unfolding before America's eyes in the magazines, that is also a story I think needs to be told.
I didn't have really have much of an opinion one way or the other about the Mercury missions before this, but what drew me to this story was when I read the script I saw the way these women were, not to repeat a phrase, but a fish out of water. I thought it was a story that so many people can relate to.
I love that the story goes into not only the competitive nature that these women had with one another over whose husbands were going on a specific mission, but also the fear, the trepidation, the excitement about being in front of the public eye, and then also the problems that can cause when you go through something like that in your life.
The show is a little bit lighter than I had initially imagined. I think in my head I go straight for the dark stuff, which I love, but I also understand that when you're telling a story appealing to a wide demographic that you want to try to make it as light and enjoyable for people while also mixing in those moments of anticipation.
cS: How does the lighter nature of the series play off what was the very real drama of the early space race?
EC: The recreation of the launches with the incorporation of actual footage, I think that is a powerful thing to show because it's not just like we're telling this fake story about things that did not happen. We are really recreating that intensity and excitement of something that had not been done before.
So I am very excited about that, and I am also excited to have been able to learn more about the history of space exploration.
Return to collectSPACE Thursday (June 18) for part two of our interview with Erin Cummings about how the cast of "The Astronaut Wives Club" came to imitate their real-life counterparts, on and off screen.