Jake McDorman stars as the legendary astronaut Alan Shepard, one of the Mercury Seven who would end up being the first American in space. Alan’s journey along with the rest of the Mercury Seven is being explored in the Disney+ series The Right Stuff. While we can only see Jake as Alan, he told HollywoodLife EXCLUSIVELY that he didn’t even originally audition for the role of Alan Shepard.
“Honestly, it wasn’t my decision to go for this particular role,” Jake told HollywoodLife. “I actually came in and read for Gordon Cooper [played by Colin O’Donoghue]. At the time that I did that, there was another actor that was tentatively scheduled to play Alan Shepard. So I read the script with Gordo Cooper in mind and just peripherally kind of got to see Alan’s role in the whole thing and kind of that competition with John Glenn [played by Patrick J. Adams]. I remember being like, wow, that’s an awesome character, but so far from me as a person.”
The first moments of The Right Stuff’s first episode set the scene for the rivalry between Alan and John Glenn, who was the first American to orbit the Earth. Alan accuses John of going behind his back and says they don’t have to pretend like they’re friends behind closed doors. While John was very comfortable in the spotlight, Alan very much shied away from it. He wanted to solely focus on getting into space.
“I think the thing that really irked Shepard about Glenn, and this is why they kind of were at opposite ends of the spectrum here, is that Shepard I think never lied about what he wanted,” Jake explained. “Even though he compartmentalize these parts of himself, like infidelity and parts of himself from his family and the rest of the astronauts, when it came to work he was just unabashedly competitive and wanted it to be about who was the best pilot. While John was off entertaining questions like ‘what kind of underwear do you want to wear in space?’ and that stuff was just noise to Alan. He wasn’t very adept at it either. But even more so I think it just got under his skin because he saw that John, even though he is a moral man, he doesn’t drink, he’s a family man, he’s a committed husband… All those things are true, but it’s not like him going off and being cute to the press isn’t a tactic to put himself before the other guys. For John to coyly play that off and be like, no, I’m just trying to do what’s best for the program. It’s like, no, don’t do that holier than thou, this has nothing to do with you. Like, at least we’re honest. We like to drink, we like adventure, and goddamm*t we want to be first, and you’re pretending like you’re not even playing the game. You’re playing it behind our back. So that just really hurt him. If you look at it on paper, it’s just another way of being viciously ambitious on John Glenn’s part. So they were the same, but I think the kind of image of John being morally superior and therefore thinking is superior is what really got under Alan Shepard’s skin.’
Even though the men of the Mercury Seven were almost like a “foster family of like-minded fighter jocks,” Jake stressed that “there could only be one first. So it was inherently competitive, while at the same time, I think there was an innate brotherhood these guys had.”
The Mercury Seven became famous before any of them had ever gone to space. Jake opened up about why that bothered someone like Alan Shepard. “If you were a musician or an actor of the time or an artist, you would know that a certain amount of your work is going to be public and your life is then going to be public. But just to be catapulted to Beatles level fame before you’d even done the thing I think was really uncomfortable for a lot of these guys except for John Glenn,” Jake told HollywoodLife. “John Glenn came in pretty savvy at navigating the press. He was already a little bit of a celebrity and had been on TV. I think he understood that managing public interest through publicity was paramount to keeping the space program on track. If people lost interest, they were done. They got ridiculed by even Chuck Yeager himself and some of their peers. When they found out that they’re not going to be in a cockpit, they’re going to be in a capsule where they actually took Ham, the chimpanzee, and put him in space before Shepard, I think that just perpetuated that image of, look, a monkey could do it. The fame surrounding an event that had yet to take place I think was a paradox that really, really kind of f**ked with them.”
After getting the role of Alan, Jake noted that Alan’s “duality” was something that “jumped out right away” to him. “He and Louise his wife stayed together until his death, and the only other couple from the Mercury Seven where that was the case was John Glenn,” Jake continued. “I guess it was also the case for Gus Grissom, but he died in the fire in Apollo 1. So for everyone else who made it into old age, it was only Louise and Shepard and Glenn and Annie who stayed together. It was pretty well documented that Shepard had a lifestyle that didn’t seem compatible with a stable marriage, yet somehow it was. So this duality of the life of the party, fun guy, but devoted husband, devoted father, methodical professional, all those kinds of elements seemed so contradictory to all be going on within one man, let alone one man who was catapulted to global fame and celebrity without any warning. That was the part of him that seemed really interesting to play for me, how you compartmentalize those different kinds of versions of yourself but have them all feel like they’re the same guy.” New episodes of The Right Stuff are released Fridays on Disney+.