‘The Right Stuff’ Star Patrick J. Adams on Playing John Glenn in the Disney Plus Series
Ever since his father handed him a copy of Tom Wolfe’s seminal book “The Right Stuff,” Patrick J. Adams has been in love with the idea of going to space.
As a young teenager, Adams devoured Wolfe’s retelling of how a scrappy new federal agency called NASA recruited seven military pilots in the late 1950s to be the first American men to travel into space — known as the Mercury Seven. He subsequently read everything else he could about the space race, in print and online, not to mention watching the Oscar-winning 1983 feature adaptation of Wolfe’s book starring Ed Harris and Scott Glenn. And now?
“If I had the money to put my down payment on a Virgin Galactic flight, I would do it immediately,” Adams says.
So, when the actor, fresh from his seven-year run on the hit USA drama “Suits,” heard that National Geographic was mounting a new series adaptation of “The Right Stuff” with Warner Horizon and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way, he made no secret of his passion to be a part of the show. Then the program’s producers told Adams that they were keen on him playing John Glenn — arguably the best-known member of the Mercury Seven, who went on to become a four-term U.S. senator from Ohio — and his enthusiasm hit some unexpected turbulence.
“I just didn’t think I could do it,” he says over Zoom in October. “It’s probably my own raging lack of self-confidence or something. But I was just like, there’s got to be someone more heroic to play the hero, you know what I mean?”
Adams nonetheless reined in his nerves enough to read for the role, and found himself afterward conversing for 20 minutes with the producers about how Glenn’s unique media savvy helped him navigate getting pushed into the spotlight. Naturally, Adams got the part, and is now about to conclude the eight-episode first season on Disney Plus on Nov. 20.
“I think I saw it as a learning opportunity and a chance to grow,” he says. “And it certainly has been that way, more than anything I’ve ever done.”
He poured himself into researching Glenn and the Mercury program far beyond the scope of Wolfe’s book, including spending two days at Ohio State University in Columbus to read through the John Glenn archives. He connected to Glenn’s love of poetry, especially by Robert Service — known for his exaltation of the Yukon Territory, where Adams, a native Canadian, had spent a formative summer. He read love letters between Glenn and his wife, Annie, written during World War II and the Korean War. He papered his trailer with old photographs of Glenn, and constantly referred to an ever-growing notebook filled with observations and facts about his subject. He found a letter Glenn had written to his children right before his launch into space, just in case he didn’t make it back.
“It’s that sort of thing, which I’ve never seen printed anywhere, and I’m holding the piece of paper it was written on,” he says. “I don’t know, something just happens there. I felt this deep gratitude for it.”
Adams even downloaded the 23-hour personal history Glenn recorded about his life to help him nail down Glenn’s tricky Midwestern accent. “There have been other films and portrayals of him that are not so specific to getting his hair and his accent exactly right,” Adams says. “But for me, it was important to differentiate him from the rest of the group because he was different. At first it was a point of pride for him. And then it became actually quite problematic.”
The arc of the first season of “The Right Stuff” tracks the complicated relationship between Glenn, a media golden boy and devout Christian who remains resolutely faithful to his wife, and fellow astronaut Alan Shepard (Jack McDorman), a hard-partying womanizer, as all the astronauts jockey for the coveted slot to be the first American launched into space. To Glenn’s utter dismay, despite his professionalism and public profile, the decision of who gets to go up first ultimately comes down to a peer vote among the Mercury Seven, which Glenn loses handily to Shepard.
“[He] struggled so mightily with just being one of the guys,” says Adams. “That lack of confidence, and then having to rise to the occasion and make the confidence up — that’s heroic to me. That’s the hero, the guy who feels like he doesn’t fit in [and] it’d be a lot easier to try to play the role, but he doesn’t quite know how to do it. And so rather than sabotage himself, or to give up some part of himself, he just embraces that this is who he is, for better or worse. That appealed a lot to me. I’ve always felt a little bit like the outsider.”
His family moved around when Adams was young, and he never quite figured out how to root himself in a way that made him feel like he belonged. “And as a result, I was pretty easily bullied, and sort of just learned to hide,” he says. It wasn’t until he discovered his high school theater program — around the same time his father handed him that fateful copy of “The Right Stuff” — that Adams says he began to find his own sense of confidence.
As much as “The Right Stuff” personally resonates with Adams, however, at its core it’s still about a bunch of straight white men with literal American flags on their chest — not, on the face of it, a show that feels particularly in tune with the current moment. It’s a reality Adams readily acknowledges.
“Luckily, there’s no shortage of source material for us to tell far more diverse stories and to get into the minds and hearts of the women of this story,” he says. “They’re already pretty compelling, but we could certainly spend a lot more time with them than we are. … There’s a lot more stories to be told in this world.”
Despite its shortcomings with regard to representation, Adams still sees “The Right Stuff” resonating as profoundly with where we find ourselves today as reading Wolfe’s book did for him 25 years ago — if not more so.
“We are living in what feels like an extremely hopeless time,” he says. “And part of what makes it so hopeless, for me, is the lengths to which institutions and corporations seem to go in order to divide us, to have no common ground — it’s just hateful. The more I learned about [The Mercury Seven], they had every opportunity to fall into that same pattern. They famously didn’t get along in lots of ways, but they came together to do something which at the time was quite literally almost impossible. I turn on the news every day now, and you just have every example of people that can’t accomplish the most basic things because we can’t talk to each other. So, for me, I think this story is worth people’s time because it’s a reminder of what we are capable of, if we can start speaking to each other. I think this was a pretty remarkable example of that in this nation’s history.”
Adam’s conviction is born of his total submersion into Glenn’s story and the larger story of the space race, the kind of deep dive the actor relished after deciding to leave “Suits” two seasons before the show finished its run last year. “I loved [the show], but after seven seasons, I’d just sort of lost that thing that made me excited to go to work — to do something new,” he says. “And here I was with this huge amount of resources that could spark that in me. So, I took seriously the desire to show up to work and feel like I had something important to do that day.”
Adams’ last years on “Suits” coincided with his co-star Meghan Markle’s courtship with and eventual engagement to Prince Harry of the British royal family. Adams has nothing but good things to say about that period — “She was in love, so she actually was really happy, and that made it fun to be at work” — but more to the point, the experience provided him a window onto how to navigate a different kind of media spotlight.
“As everything started to get written about her, especially some of the nastier things, and she was having to put up with that — I was like, you guys are picking the wrong woman to mess with,” he says. “I don’t speak to Meghan [now], not for any reason other than our lives are in different directions. I can only imagine it was a very, very, very difficult time for her. But I also know she’s one of the strongest women I’ve ever met. She was not going to suffer fools, and she wasn’t going to be easily intimidated. I just felt like, you don’t really realize who you’re dealing with. She’s very, very savvy, and she knows what she’s doing.”
If it seems like there are unlikely parallels between Meghan’s experience and Glenn’s, Adams sees them too.
“I’ve never been through the maelstrom of media like Meghan was forced to go through. But I imagine the way you survive it is by focusing on what you’re there to do,” he says. “Especially now, no matter what you choose to do, there are going to be people trying to tell you all the reasons why it’s wrong, or why you’re a bad person. The only choice we have is our reaction to what happens. I learned that lesson working on this [show] too: What are we here to do? What’s the job?”
For now, Adams’ job is waiting to hear whether Disney Plus will renew “The Right Stuff” for a second season, which would mostly likely depict Glenn’s space flight as the first American to orbit Earth. In the meantime, Adams has dedicated himself to the next best thing to actually going to space: He’s been taking flying lessons.
“I’ve always talked about ‘Oh, I’d love to go to space,’ and never thought about the ways that I could actually accomplish something close to it in my own life,” he says, grinning ear to ear. “I don’t think I ever would have followed through with it were it not for this project. I’m going to have my fifth class today. It’s just changed my whole game. I’m loving it.”