National Geographic’s The Right Stuff premieres Oct. 9 on Disney+ with a two-episode premiere. The series, based on Tom Wolfe’s iconic novel of the same name, tells the incredible true story of the early days of the U.S. space program, specifically the seven original American astronauts, and the race to put an American in space. Colin O’Donoghue stars as Lt. Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, the youngest of the Mercury Seven.
HollywoodLife talked EXCLUSIVELY with Colin about playing one of America’s first astronauts. The role came his way at the “last minute,” but the Once Upon A Time alum admitted that the circumstances were “freeing” for him in a way. He also discussed Gordo’s complicated relationship with his first wife, Trudy, and bonding with his fellow co-stars.
Most of us know the Mercury Seven astronauts. Why was Gordon Cooper the one you were drawn to the most?
Colin O’Donoghue: Well, to be honest with you, the pilot script for this was just the best pilot I’ve ever read. He’s such a complex character. And in this story that we’re telling, I was really drawn to him. In the end, I was very lucky to get to play the character because somebody else had been offered the role, but it fell through, so I came on very last minute. But I was absolutely thrilled. There’s such a complex relationship with his wife, Trudy, played by Eloise Mumford, who is absolutely stunning in the show. It was great to investigate not just American heroes but more of their family, their home life, and how essentially becoming the most famous men on the planet affected their lives.
Especially with Gordon and Trudy, it’s really fascinating to see how they dealt with everything behind-the-scenes while he was very much in the spotlight.
Colin O’Donoghue: Yeah, back then as a test pilot, let alone joining the space program, you couldn’t be divorced. It was completely frowned upon. You could drink a full bottle of whiskey in the afternoon and hop in an airplane, but you couldn’t get divorced. I think they saw it as some sort of flaw in you, which was so crazy. So they were separated when they had to get back together. They were together, but they weren’t, you know what I mean? It’s kind of a crazy story.
There’s so much information about the Mercury Seven from decades worth of books and documents. Where did you even begin to start your research process into Gordon?
Colin O’Donoghue: I think I came in three days before we started shooting, so it was so last minute now. I’d read the book, The Right Stuff, and then it got to a point where I sort of didn’t have any time to investigate. I started to watch interviews and all that kind of stuff when I knew that I was going to be playing the role and reading up as much as I could on him and on the program. You kind of have to go with what’s on the script and base the character around what’s on there. It’s hard because I didn’t know a month beforehand that I was definitely going to be doing this and able to delve into his record, which normally I would. But in some ways, it was kind of freeing then because I didn’t owe him anything. I could play the character that was written on the script, and I didn’t have the added pressure of trying to do an almost caricature version of who he was. It was a good thing because I think when you begin to get tied down with that side of things, that can actually be quite detrimental to performance. So it was very freeing.
You came on very last minute, but your American accent is amazing. Have you always had that in your back pocket?
Colin O’Donoghue: Thank you very much. It’s funny because I live in Ireland and grew up in Ireland, but we just grew up watching American TV and American movies and listening to American music and stuff. I’ve always loved since I was a kid trying to do different accents, so it was just something that was kind of there. And then you work on specifically trying to make it sound from a certain region or whatever. I’ve been lucky that I guess I had a bit of an ear for doing an accent, which was good.
If you were in that time period, would you have wanted to go to space?
Colin O’Donoghue: I would think I’d rather go to space now if you know what I mean. Back then, nobody had ever been to space at that point when they signed on to the program. Essentially, they agreed to sit on top of nuclear rockets without the nuclear core or whatever and get sent up in space where nobody knew, once you left the atmosphere, what was going to happen. They knew absolutely nothing about it. But that was the mentality of the test pilots. They were already the most successful test pilots, but two out of three test pilots at the time died because they agreed to get into planes that had never been flown before. They were the guys writing the manual, and they were the guys pushing it to the absolute limit to see where it was going to break. I think it was just a completely different kind of mentality. But no, I probably would not want to go into space back in 1959 and 1960.
Speaking of mentality, what was it like to get into that headspace of those life and death situations and now knowing the outcome of what was going to happen when you went into space?
Colin O’Donoghue: My family was in Ireland, and I was in Orlando on my own [with the cast]. We became our own family, but in some weird way, you’re able to throw yourself into it a little bit more because you don’t have to come home, and you don’t have to break character or whatever. I wasn’t walking around talking like Gordon Cooper all the time, but it is easier for you to sort of find that mentality and kind of live in it. But it’s more just about people that you work with. The majority of my stuff was with Eloise, and we gave each other the freedom to be able to play. Sometimes that’s more important than anything. Eloise was a really good dance partner, for lack of a better term, but she was willing to fight and go for things with me. I was very lucky.
What was it like to go back in history and explore that groundbreaking time period with your co-stars?
Colin O’Donoghue: It was incredible. We were so lucky, largely in part to Patrick J. Adams. Before I came on, they’d all arrived in Orlando, and Patrick set up the WhatsApp group. I think when you’re shooting on location, it’s easier for you to become like a family unit. We really did become that. It was such an incredible cast and such a great group of people. We were all so supportive of each other, which is sometimes quite rare. It wasn’t just the seven guys, you know, I’m including Eloise, Shannon [Lucio], Nora [Zehetner], Patrick Fischler, and everybody. It just was a fantastic ensemble. It was great spending time with so many incredible actors.