About The Production
Uncovering a Private Life
Based on James R. Hansen's book "First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong,"
First Man reveals intimate insights into the global hero's private life and
previously unknown character-defining moments. After receiving a PhD in the
history of science and technology from Ohio State and spending more than 20
years writing and teaching about space and history, Hansen set out to write his
first biography. It was in the year 2000 that the author first reached out to
Armstrong and requested to tell the hero's tale. After two months, Armstrong-who
rarely agreed to interviews, much less entertained the idea of a lifelong
It would be some time after Hansen's initial request before the pilot gave
the go-ahead to pen his biography. "It took about two years for me to finally
get the greenlight from him," reflects the author. "Neil's family encouraged him
to do it. The crucial moment came when he invited me up to his home in suburban
Cincinnati-where he had lived for about 20 years-and we spent the afternoon in
his study talking for hours. I felt very positive, but even after this meeting
it took some time for him to fully get on board." Hansen saw the duality of his
subject as a fascinating one. "Neil could be in a cockpit making instantaneous
decisions but when it came to other things about his life, he was amazingly
cautious and deliberate."
Long prior to his in-person introduction to Armstrong, Hansen had conducted
hundreds of interviews for other subjects; it was that experience taking oral
histories that aided in gaining Armstrong's confidence. "One thing that became
important with him was his developing trust in you," Hansen explains. "Not only
did we grow up 50 miles from one another-he grew up in Ohio and I grew up in
Indiana, and went to school at Ohio State-but both our families had also grown
up on farms. In a lot of ways, we spoke the same language, in terms of regional
dialect. What we know of Neil is as this one dimensional, iconic symbol...but he
was a living, breathing, three-dimensional human being."
It was crucial to the production team not simply to tell a story about a hero
of whom we've seen many pictures and interviews, but to explore what drove him,
his family and colleagues at NASA to accomplish the unthinkable. "This is a
story about how hard it was, how much of a risk it was, how dangerous it was to
all of those men," says First Man executive producer Adam Merims. "Neil started
out in the Korean War as a pilot and then became a test pilot for the Air Force,
then ultimately for NASA. At that time test pilots would die with alarming
frequency, so many people in the early part of the story in his life were
killed; yet Neil stayed true to his path and achieved what was previously
Armstrong developed a close kinship to the author of his biography, who
serves as a co-producer on the film, and that indeed allowed the production to
move forward. "Neil had a great relationship with Jim Hansen, and he felt very
comfortable with the idea that Jim had captured in his book-and what he had
hoped to convey," says First Man producer Wyck Godfrey. "Neil thought that as
long as we followed the blueprint that Jim provided, he was comfortable with us
moving forward with making this film."
Although known for being a very private person, after meeting the filmmakers,
Armstrong agreed to a movie adaptation of his life. Fortunate to have been
introduced to Armstrong before he passed away on August 25, 2012, Godfrey
explains that there was no way to make this film without his blessing. "It was a
gratifying experience to be able to meet him," states the producer. "Neil was
very open to the idea of making a movie about his life. If he wasn't, we
wouldn't be here."
Bowen recounts the day: "I met him with his second wife at the Jonathan Club
in downtown Los Angeles, and he was going to be getting an award the next day.
It didn't become intimidating until you shook the man's hand; he had this
incredible grip. As you started to talk, you realized he still knew so many
details about that experience." The producer saw that interesting duality in
Armstrong about which so many comment. "He managed to warm the room up
because-in the middle of talking about these very complex things-he had a
wonderful, wry sense of humor and kept us on our toes. He was an incredible
Known by the public as a reclusive individual, Neil Armstrong was so much
more in the eyes of his family and the people who held him close. Younger son
Mark Armstrong hopes the film brings to light the person his father truly was.
"I hope people see him as a man who was faced with very difficult
circumstances," says Mark Armstrong. "A lot was asked of him, and he did his
best to do the right thing. That was always his mantra: to take each situation
and find the right way to handle it."
"He was just kind of a regular guy," adds Mark's brother, Neil's elder son,
Rick Armstrong. "For those who just saw him on the news might not know that, but
he was a pretty funny guy, too. When you saw him around his friends, he was a
completely different person than his public image. I'm hoping that the movie
will help bring that out."
Seeking the Brave Few:
Damien Chazelle Joins
Although producers Wyck Godfrey and Marty Bowen had been developing First Man
for some time, it would not be until they met Oscar-winning director Damien
Chazelle that the final pieces would fall into place. This was after the period
in which Chazelle created Whiplash and during pre-production of La La Land.
Relays Godfrey: "We told Damien about the character in the story, and he fell in
love with it and came aboard to help us. From there, it all moved quickly."
Alongside his fellow producers, Chazelle would seek out Oscar-winning
screenwriter Josh Singer to craft the screenplay. Chazelle was struck by
Singer's singular take on the protagonist's arc, feeling their writer
instinctively got what was most fascinating about their hero. "Damien wanted to
treat the story like a thriller," Godfrey notes. "He wanted to defy expectations
about what it took to successfully land a man on the moon, and put you in the
shoes of what it would have been like at the time-with all of the technological
barriers facing these guys."
Chazelle's request of the team was to ensure that anything seen on screen was
authentic to the time period and these brutal missions. Months before
pre-preproduction began, he and his collaborators were workshopping scenes,
spending time with the Armstrong family, as well as others who understood this
His fellow producers agree that Armstrong's reality was more terrifying than
fiction. "That goes to the aesthetic of the film," reflects Bowen. "We've all
seen films that are done in space, and when you think of space you think of
technology, computers, digital formats and computer graphics. Damien's goal was
to try to make this as visceral as possible, and in order to do that the film
had to feel as analog as possible. The challenge of this film, the thing that is
so exciting about it, too, is how do we put an audience in that cockpit? How do
we make them really feel-not just see, but feel and witness this incredible
A common refrain heard during pre-production and shooting was 'we have
computers in our pockets that are more powerful than the ones that got us to the
moon.' "We forget that when they were trying to put a man on the moon, we didn't
have the technology we had today," Bowen says. "We hoped to put the audience
through that experience and show the detail that was required by thousands of
people working toward one goal. If any of them messed up, it would end in
Chazelle's fascination with the messiness of mastery drew him to Armstrong's
story. As well, his interest in injecting into a massive period movie-one filled
with action set-pieces-a genuine sense of raw spontaneity felt like a natural
evolution. While the director admits that type of filmmaking is usually
impossible within the constraints imposed by scale or big technical effects, he
felt that a tight collaboration with Gosling-extending to their bond with their
fellow production team-would make it feasible.
"Before I began work on First Man, I knew the textbook narrative of the
mission to the moon-the success story of an iconic achievement...but little else,"
Chazelle says. "Once I started digging, I grew astounded by the sheer madness
and danger of the enterprise-the number of times it circled failure, as well as
the toll it took on all involved. I wanted to understand what compelled these
men to voyage into deep space, and what the experience-moment by moment, breath
by breath-might have felt like."
Intrigue of the fascinating details and by Armstrong's instincts drove
Chazelle to dig deep and research. "To grasp, I had to explore Neil's home life;
this was a story that needed to hinge between the moon and the kitchen sink, the
vast expanses of space juxtaposed against the textures of quotidian life," he
continues. "I chose to shoot the film in verite, playing fly-on-the-wall to both
space missions and the Armstrong family's most intimate, guarded moments. My
hope was that this approach could highlight the heartbreak, joy, lives lived and
lost in the name of one of history's most famous goals: setting foot on the
Although the director initially saw the movie as documentary in style,
Gosling pushed him to take that term more literally. The First Man star asked
his director to present a full picture that would capture every little detail,
as well as all the in-between moments, that led to the moon landing. Sums
Chazelle: "Ryan pitched it as 'the kitchen and the moon,' which in turn became
the mantra I used to describe First Man to every department head, every
craftsperson and performer in the film."
Known for developing historically ignited and riveting scripts including
Spotlight and The Post, when he was commissioned to pen First Man,
Oscar-winning screenwriter Josh Singer went to work researching a new kind of
hero. The writer describes his process: "I was able to dive in and do more and
more research with the family, with the astronauts-with people like FRANK
HUGHES, who was a Gemini and an Apollo trainer and who is incredibly
knowledgeable. This is what I love to do as a screenwriter: thoroughly immerse
myself in a world and learn as much as I can...and then try to put that on the
Singer admits that he was fascinated by just how relentless Armstrong was in
pursuit of a signature goal. "He can fail and fail and fail and he's going to
get back up again and again and learn from his failures, which is also the NASA
program," he offers. "If you look at his career, even as truncated as it is in
the script, you know the X-15 has its problems; Gemini VIII had life-or-death
problems, not to mention the LLTV he had to eject from." He pauses,
thoughtfully, "Given the trials he faced, he doesn't sound like the ideal person
to land on the moon. But when you think about it, those trials made Neil exactly
the right person to land on the moon."
After delving into the challenges Armstrong faced and discovering profound
details about his life, Singer was confident there was a cinematic story to be
told. "The individual who survives these difficult events and gets stronger and
can move on...who is that guy?" he asks. "It struck me that this was ultimately a
movie about sacrifice and grief and the wounds we bear. How do we get past those
wounds and carry on? What does it take to be able to do something as incredible
as what Neil did?"
Singer found a curious definition of this pioneer through his choice of
careers. "There is an expression that engineering is the obviation of
failure-meaning that what an engineer does is test and test and test and find
where something fails and fails...so that then it succeeds. If you look at Neil's
career, he was always pushing up against failure, and then moving forward and
succeeding," recounts Singer. "What we wanted to get at is that this is very
hard. When you lose a buddy, it's not just something you look at your watch and
go fly again. You lose a buddy, and it hurts. You lose a daughter, and it's the
worst thing in the world. The real strength is being able to move on, even
though you have wounds and that pain. The real strength is failing, and picking
yourself back up."
Although the outcome of the Apollo 11 moon landing is well known, the
rigorous and dangerous steps leading up to the mission-as well as the endurance
and determination of the man who took the first step-are to most, a mystery.
"For the most famous event in world history, it's shocking how little known the
particulars of the event actually are and how little is known of the man who
took those first steps," says Chazelle. "It blew my mind that an event of this
magnitude hasn't been portrayed in a feature film before. We want to emphasize
how scary it was to go up into space; it literally was like a rickety tin can or
The director's goal is to give audiences a firsthand perspective of what it
required to train for this type of mission, as well as be the one inside the
first cockpits of this type. Alongside Singer and Gosling, Chazelle was inspired
to capture just how visceral, difficult and terrifying this journey was...as well
as the sacrifices required to become the first man on the moon.
"There are many other stories that tell about the moon landing, but I wanted
to know what it felt like in all the years leading up to that first footstep on
the moon-as well as what it felt like to be that man who put the first footprint
on the moon," says Chazelle. "Only a handful of people in history have ever gone
to the moon, and Neil Armstrong was first. Even more importantly, it's an
emotional story of a guy who's trying to be a father and husband while
undergoing this cosmic journey."
It was key for the filmmakers to expose the man who left the first footprint
and reveal the truth behind his private persona. "One of the many challenges of
trying to figure out how to do this story justice was that Neil was a very
soft-spoken character who refused to conform to classic hero tropes," shares
producer Isaac Klausner. "He didn't give a lot out emotionally; he was very
reserved to the public. It was a big puzzle to figure out how to get real access
to Neil and the way to tell the story...where you feel like you learn something
about this man without betraying who he was."
With the support of the Armstrong family, Chazelle, Singer and the producers
went to work bringing the American hero's story to the big screen. The film,
which spans from 1961 to 1969, gives audiences a clear vision of what happened
behind the walls at NASA-as well as a look inside the notoriously private
Armstrong's personal life.
It was crucial for the team to note that, although he was deeply serious
about his work, Armstrong had a sharp sense of humor. "He was great with his
kids," offers Godfrey. "There's an aspect to him that we hope to reveal and
convey-one of a fully rounded human being. The pressures during this decade were
extraordinary, yet he kept his head down. It took that kind of perseverance and
dedication to accomplish what he ultimately did. Damien has always been focused
on obsessive characters, and you find in his movies a level of intense obsession
that is very captivating from a dramatic standpoint."
After the passing of Neil Armstrong in 2012, the support of his family on
this project was paramount. "I met with Josh Singer back in 2015 once I knew
that he was working on this movie," says Rick Armstrong. "I wanted to see what
approach they were going to take to decide whether or not this was a movie I
wanted to be part of or not. I was impressed with the amount of research that
Josh has done and the commitment to accuracy,"
After discussions with Chazelle, the Armstrong sons had the confidence to
move forward. "I subsequently met Damien, and the same thing was true; that
would be a real important thing for Dad," adds Rick Armstrong. "The fact that
they wanted to try to make as accurate a movie as possible was a good thing. So,
we wanted to make sure they had all the information they could get to be able to
Gosling as Armstrong:
The Performer Boards
Although Gosling and Chazelle collaborated extensively on La La Land, their
pre-production and duration-of-photography work on First Man-extending to its
postproduction-was on another level. "Ryan and I have more than simply an
'actor-director' relationship," says the director. "That's what accounts for the
documentary feel of this film. When I first discussed First Man with him, I saw
it as a 'mission movie.' He's the one who interpreted it as a story of grief."
It wasn't simply the two weeks of pre-shooting rehearsals with Gosling and
the actors portraying the Armstrong family, it was the number of scenes for
which director and star would come up with scene improvisations together.
Chazelle ended up shooting many of these sequences, and it turns out that
multiple scenes made it to the final print of the movie.
Chazelle was very impressed by what his star contributed creatively. "Ryan
found 'Lunar Rhapsody,' the theremin track Neil loved-and one that he played
during the Apollo 11 mission," Chazelle recalls. "Plus, he discovered, 'Egelloc,'
a musical that Neil wrote in college, as well as one of his interviews about the
Earth's atmosphere-which became the basis for a speech that Josh wrote for
His producers knew Gosling could deliver the intense focus and quiet ferocity
required of the first man to set foot on the moon, but they were surprised by
how seemingly effortless it was for their star to embody a complex subject.
"What struck me about Neil was how reserved, restrained, and un-showy he was,"
explains Chazelle. "He was not the prototypical cowboy or fast-talking pilot. He
was a man of very few words-the quiet person who sits in the corner but who
immediately takes gauge of everything: the smartest person in the room."
Chazelle's partnership with Gosling during La La Land allowed him to
experience the actor's range, especially his deft sense of underplaying a scene.
"Neil always insisted there was nothing special about him," continues Chazelle.
"He said he was just one of many, and circumstances enabled him to be the first
man on the moon. There was this normality to him, and Ryan's style is so subtle
that he was able to do justice to that."
Perhaps one of the toughest critics of the production was one of the few
people on Earth who knows the most about Armstrong. Fortunately, Gosling passed
muster with Hansen. "I can't think of another actor who could do it better than
Ryan," praises the author. "Ryan has some of the same introspective, cerebral,
quiet, modest qualities that Neil had. But at the same time, he is a brilliant
actor who can also take the Armstrong character and-through his own
understanding of who Neil was-bring out elements of Neil that we might not have
seen unless you were really close to him."
Hansen proved an invaluable resource to Gosling as he prepared for the role.
"Ryan met Neil's sister June after I explained how important she was to my
understanding of Neil's character, especially the effects of his little girl's
death," shares Hansen. "Ryan sat in the same farmhouse that I interviewed Neil
in and spoke to June and with one of Neil's boyhood friends. He listened to
stories, asked questions, and has met Neil's sons, along with other family
members. He has fully immersed himself in this role. He's certainly done his
homework, and through the brilliance of his acting he's going to bring Neil
Armstrong to life."
It was the intersection of Chazelle's take and Hansen's book that intrigued
the actor. "I think as soon I learned what the moon was, I learned that somebody
named Neil Armstrong walked on it," Gosling says. "He was synonymous with the
moon but I realized, after reading James Hansen's book First Man, that I knew
very little about either one of them. On an emotional level, I was surprised to
learn just how much loss Neil and his wife Janet experienced before and during
those historic missions. On a practical level, I don't think I fully appreciated
how dangerous those missions were. How claustrophobic and frail those space
capsules were: how primitive the technology was by today's standards."
As was his director, Gosling was drawn to just how difficult Armstrong and
his cohorts' world was, and the tireless work it took to accomplish this
juggernaut achievement. "I've always been interested in the extremes of a
story," he states. "What is unique to this story for me is just how extreme
those extremes can be. I can't imagine a greater duality than that between the
intimacy and singularity of the Armstrongs' personal life and the infinite
nature of space that it's intertwined with. These astronauts were using their
comparative flashlight of scientific knowledge to contend with the infinite
mysteries of the universe and, at the same time, taking out the trash and mowing
their lawns back on Earth."
Time and again, Gosling has proven his commitment to his art-as seen in his
preparation for his Oscar-nominated role in La La Land, when he learned to play
the piano in just three months. Likewise, during his preparation for his role in
The Notebook, Gosling spent two months soaking up the culture of Charleston,
South Carolina, and, just like his character, actually learned to build
In First Man, Gosling proves his dedication in time spent studying to portray
the global icon. For the production team, director and star are inextricably
linked in their shared passion for perfection. "Ryan has a commitment to doing
excellent work," sums producer Bowen. "He is keenly aware of the legacy he's
leaving behind and often, likeminded people find one another in material that
they can connect with. It makes sense that Ryan and Damien want to work
together. When you watch La La Land, the character that Ryan plays is someone
who's obsessive about his craft...because Ryan's obsessive about his craft."
Gosling brings a special something to his roles, commends Bowen. "It's his
humanity. It's his understanding of sentiment...and not sentimentality. So often
people want to overwhelm you with their emotion. It's the truly great craftsmen
who know how to dispense it in a way that keeps you leaning in."
The respect for the production's leading man extended to the countless crew
members and support team who worked with Chazelle and Gosling during the shoot.
Frank Hughes, who served as a Gemini and Apollo astronaut trainer, trained
Gosling in a manner similar to how he worked with Armstrong back in the 1960s.
"Ryan is dedicated to his craft," offers Hughes. "I'm amazed. We would spend
time just looking at the control panels of the Gemini, and in starting out with
the Apollo, and going through and learning every switch and its purpose. He'd
get inside the cockpit and I'd show him where hands would be, where his eyes
would scan when he's assessing a situation."
Gosling admits that becoming Neil Armstrong would have been impossible
without the help of numerous collaborators. "I was very privileged to meet with
Janet Armstrong before she passed away. I was also very fortunate to talk with
Neil's two sons, Rick and Mark, and spend time with Neil's sister, June, at
their farm in Wapakoneta, Ohio, where Neil was born. The Armstrong Air & Space
Museum, and both NASA's Cape Canaveral and Houston facilities, opened their
doors to me. There were also experts on set daily to advise on the specifics of
every mission we were trying to replicate. I also had almost constant access to
author James Hansen and his book First Man; a work of more than 700 pages of
meticulous research. I've never had so much help researching a role or been
involved with so many people who were so enthusiastic and happy to provide it."
Gosling's fascination for Armstrong and the men who were his cohorts
permeated the production. "My first instinct in preparing for this role was to
learn how to fly. Neil was flying before he could drive; it seemed an integral
part of who he was, so I thought I should start there. At a certain point in my
training, I was asked to force the aircraft into a self-imposed 'stall,' and I
had a moment of clarity. This was a terrible idea. I understood in that moment
why Neil was destined to be one of the world's greatest pilots and why I was
not. Like many other astronauts, Neil began as a test pilot. It takes a certain
kind of person to knowingly get into an aircraft that has never been flown and
take it to its breaking point, for the sole purpose of finding its flaws so that
we might move our understanding of aeronautics forward."
One of Gosling's biggest fans on set was the actress who plays his on-screen
wife. "Ryan is warmth personified," sums Claire Foy, who portrays Janet
Armstrong. "He doesn't have to work very hard at that, I don't think. He's
incredibly likable as a person, and that's the thing with Neil. I don't think he
was antisocial or rude; he wasn't conventional. He didn't do what everybody
does, which is try and make everyone else feel great about themselves...and if
there's an awkward silence, try and fill it. Innately, Ryan is kind-hearted and
generous and warm and genuine...that's just naturally what he brings to the
Foy Leads the Supporting Cast
Among the family members portrayed in First Man are Janet Armstrong, played
by Claire Foy, Pat White, played by Olivia Hamilton, and Marilyn See, played by
KRIS SWANBERG. To prepare for her role, Foy explains that she, like so many of
the cast, turned to author Hansen: "Jim gave me the tapes that he had of Janet
from when he interviewed her. She was promoting the space program and supporting
her husband, and she was sort of a mouthpiece for NASA as much as any of the
other women were."
Unfortunately, Foy was unable to meet Janet Armstrong in person, due to
inclement weather, which kept Armstrong from visiting set in Atlanta. Janet
passed away on June 21, 2018, at the age of 84. The actress was impressed by the
steadfastness of the woman she was portraying. "You had to take everything she
said with a grain of salt because her external support was also heavily impacted
by a time that was incredibly stressful, overwhelming and emotional for these
women," Foy says. "Like all the astronauts' wives, they are in the background of
history. Nobody spent time investigating what it was like to be them until much
Born in Stockport, U.K., Foy admits she was aware of the Apollo 11 mission
and that it was successful, but not much more than those facts. "Once I came to
the United States I quickly realized the significance of what an important
moment of American history it was and the lives of these men," says Foy.
Speaking on why she wanted to take on a project like First Man, Foy reflects:
"Sometimes, the quietest stories are the ones that are the most compelling. This
is a story of a man who did something absolutely extraordinary."
For Foy, this story is not about just the mission, getting to the moon or the
space program. "It's about Neil as a human being and what it means for a human
to make such extraordinary strides for humankind," she offers, "and what pushes
them to put their life at risk for the rest of humanity. It's worthwhile looking
at the person who was at the center of that, as opposed to just thinking about
what you've been fed for the past 50 years about what this person's done. It's
about looking back and asking the cost to that person's life."
First Man marks the first time that Foy has worked with Chazelle, and she
appreciated the director's focus. She reflects: "Damien knows what he's doing,
and he gets everybody excited about it. He is so excited by this process of
filmmaking and by creating things that it means you feel like you're invested in
every part of it. He opens it up and gives you the authority of your
character...and allows you to try different things. He will always keep going
until he sees what he wants."
Her director explains just how easily Foy dovetailed into the production and
embodied our heroine, the person whom he feels had the harder part of the
Armstrong equation, going on the mission with Neil herself, all the while trying
to keep the family together. "I initially started watching Claire, as many
people did, on The Crown," recalls Chazelle. "This is a total 180 in terms of
role-different country, different temperament, different era. She just nailed it
so completely that people who knew the Armstrongs would come by the set and be
suddenly a little gobsmacked for a second. 'Is that Janet?'"
Her frequent scene partner was moved by her gifts as well. "The Armstrongs
certainly upheld the image of the traditional American family publicly, but
Claire never approached any of our work together as though that also defined
Janet and Neil's private dynamic," offers Gosling. "She was constantly exploring
new ways to communicate not only the complex dynamics inherent in any marriage,
but also the experience of someone living something so singular, that it's hard
to even imagine, let alone relate to."
To prepare for the role of playing Pat White, Hamilton explains that spending
time with the families whose stories she was helping to tell was one of the more
crucial aspects of preproduction: "The most impactful thing in my preparation
was when I went to Dallas and met with Bonnie White, the daughter of Pat White.
Then I spoke with Eddie, Jr., their son. I learned a lot from those interviews;
just being in the presence of Bonnie was profound and very insightful."
The actress reflects the attitude of the entire production when she gives
just how critical it was to get to know the survivors. "It's important that we
represent the tight bond these families had while deployed to these different
parts of the country for their training and while working at NASA," she says."
The performer saw much in the story of a man who was misunderstood by the
public: "A lot of people would like to say Neil was unapproachable and closed
off, but with his friends and with his family he could be lovely person. We
portray that sense of community and warmth that he shared."
Casting the Astronauts
When it came to casting the astronauts, filmmakers focused on finding strong
character actors who could captivate audiences while creating a likeness to the
people they would represent. "Each of them gives an incredible sense of
intelligence and strength and competency," notes Klausner. "This is in keeping
of the approach to treat this as though we are watching original documentary
footage from inside these people's homes from the time of the Gemini and Apollo
Project Gemini was the training ground for the moon missions of Apollo,
essential in getting NASA ready for the moon landings. Ten crews flew missions
on the two-man Gemini spacecraft, and the Gemini missions were flown from March
1965 to November 1966-between the Mercury and Apollo programs.
Among the nine men selected for Project Gemini were Neil Armstrong (Ryan
Gosling), Ed White (Jason Clarke), Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber), Gus Grissom
(Shea Whigham), Pete Conrad (Ethan Embry), Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), David
Scott (Christopher Abbott), Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Richard F. Gordon (Skyler
Clarke would play Ed White, who accomplished the first American Space Walk in
1965 during the Gemini IV mission. Destined for this role since birth, Clarke
jokes, "I was born July 17, which was the day they set off for the moon. So my
father and mother always used to tease me because my father wanted to call me
Much like Gosling, Clarke responded to Singer's screenplay and readily signed
on. "After reading Josh's script, it was clear that this was always going to be
quite a special film about, arguably, one the greatest achievements in mankind's
history," the actor offers. "It was always this sense of achievement-the sense
of what we are capable of-and Ed was a crucial part of that."
Gosling wasn't the only actor lucky enough to speak with the families of the
astronauts portrayed in the film. Clarke also had an opportunity to sit down
with the White family, including White's son Ed Jr., and his daughter Bonnie
White (now Bonnie Baer). "There's quite a lot of material on Ed out there," the
actor says. "He was the first American to walk in space, so there's that
footage. Whether it's Rick and Mark, whether it's Bonnie and Ed Jr., or the guys
who showed us around NASA, we felt special. They're including you in something
very precious to them. I feel very lucky that they were willing to open their
doors to us."
Brought aboard to portray Jim Lovell, another one of the nine Gemini pilots,
as well as back-up commander to Neil Armstrong for the Apollo 11 lunar landing
mission, was Pablo Schreiber. Lovell became a household name after Tom Hanks'
portrayal of him as the commander in Apollo 13.
In First Man, we primarily see Lovell as the capsule communicator during the
Gemini VIII mission with David Scott and Neil Armstrong. Schreiber appreciates
the fastidious detail that his director brought to every facet of the work. "One
of the great things about this project has been my education in the whole
program," he gives. "Damien is one of the most vigilant and prepared people
I've ever worked with. As soon as I was on board he sent me a long email with
all of the vast research he had done, which was invaluable in terms of getting a
sense of the time period and these missions."
Producer Godfrey explains that Gus Grissom was ultimately the astronaut that
most people thought would be put in command: "They felt like he was the guy. At
the time, the Apollo 1 crew was perceived to be the ones who would ultimately be
going to the moon."
In Shea Whigham, the team found their Gus. "Gus was gruff, tough, old-school.
He almost growled his words out," continues Godfrey. "Shea has that quality and
that swagger. We wanted that as a counterbalance to the other characters who
were from the next generation."
Having grown up in Florida, Whigham explains he was familiar with the NASA
program; in fact, he was able to watch the launches near his home: "Oddly
enough, I grew up about 30 miles outside of Cape Canaveral. I had the chance to
see every launch of the Space Shuttle." Spending his youth watching the launches
instilled a curiosity in Whigham. "It was every kids dream to look at the moon
and say, 'I'd like to try to go there at some point.'"
To play the role of Pete Conrad, who served as commander on Gemini XI-and
continued on to the Apollo program as commander of the Apollo 12
mission-becoming the third man to walk on the moon, was Ethan Embry. For the
actor, this was the first chance he's had to portray a historical figure.
"There's a biography written about Pete Conrad called 'Rocketman,' that I
read a few months before we started," says Embry. "Being able to sit and read
300 pages of the factual information that make Pete who he was made my job
easier but more terrifying at the same time. You know exactly who he is, so you
want to do the best you can to portray that."
In describing the role of the young astronaut Elliot See, Patrick Fugit
offers: "We've got astronauts like Pete Conrad and Ed White who are sort of the
jocks of the space program, and then Neil's in there a bit isolated as a
civilian. Neil and Elliot were the only civilians in the new nine astronauts
that came in for Gemini in the beginning, so they create a rapport that isn't
common between Armstrong and his colleagues."
Fugit appreciated that Singer's script explored this unique friendship,
forged between the two men who shared much in common. The actor notes: "There is
a particular focus on the camaraderie within the neighborhood that the
astronauts live in. In such a competitive environment, it's heart-warming and
important to show that these men had each other's backs and that there was a
brotherhood; they were like a big family."
The primary Gemini mission highlighted is David Scott and Neil Armstrong's
ground-breaking Gemini VIII mission where they were the first to link two
spacecraft together in Earth orbit. This milestone would prove vital to the
success of future moon landing missions.
To play Scott, Armstrong's co-pilot for the Gemini VIII sequence, the
production brought on actor Christopher Abbott. Due to a craft malfunction,
Gemini VIII began to spin uncontrollably during the docking sequence and Scott
lost consciousness; however, thanks to Armstrong's quick thinking, he was able
to stop the spin and return the vessel safely back to Earth.
Admittedly Abbott wasn't familiar with the Gemini program prior to his
research for the film, but in his research he quickly understood the gravity of
the event. "For the Gemini VIII mission, I didn't know until I researched how
important it was and how much the Gemini VIII flight held the future of NASA in
in the balance," offers the actor. "While it wasn't technically a full success,
the fact that they recovered and got back safely-and were able to dock with the
Agena-propelled NASA and these astronauts to continue their mission to the
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