The Right Stuff has launched on Disney+ and one of the highlights of the series is Patrick J. Adams’ performance as John Glenn. Glenn may be one of the most vaunted figures in modern American history; he was not only an astronaut but a decorated fighter pilot, U.S. Senator, and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner. But Patrick plays him as he’s on the verge of making history as one of the Mercury Seven – and it’s some of his best work.
He does a wonderful job of showing us not only everything about John Glenn that made him a legend, but all of the mental and emotional challenges that went into those accomplishments, and also the importance of his relationship with his wife Annie Glenn (played by Grey’s Anatomy alum Nora Zehetner). It’s a moving, thought-provoking study of a great man, and we connected recently to discuss everything that went into it and just how much The Right Stuff meant to Patrick.
The Right Stuff is his biggest television role since he returned to Suits for part of its final season last fall, and it’s going to open some people’s eyes to what he’s fully capable of. If you only know Patrick as Mike Ross, get ready to take a new ride.
“It was really exciting, honestly,” he told me of why he signed on to the series. “I stopped Suits and then I took a big break, which I needed, and I was trying to figure out what the metric would be for what I would do next and what I wanted it to look like. There were a few things that came up that looked like they might be possibilities and it never quite felt like the thing, and I was worried that whatever the thing might be might not come.
“And then I heard about The Right Stuff and I just could not have been more excited and I knew that I had to be a part of it, no matter what,” he continued. “It was a story and a book and a film that meant so much to me growing up. I was ready and willing to do whatever they needed me to do.
“Thank God they wanted me to be a part of it, because if they didn’t I was going to break onto the set and do something myself anyway,” he quipped.
No breaking and entering necessary – it’s hard to imagine anyone who’s a better fit for The Right Stuff than Patrick J. Adams. You can’t cast just any actor to play someone as iconic as John Glenn, and aside from being talented, Patrick has the humility, the poise and the quiet strength to do the job. He also has an incredible work ethic, which came in handy as he was parsing through the incredible amount of information out there about Glenn to prepare himself for the role.
“it was a lot and I had to kind of organize myself a little bit as I began to dive in,” he explained. “It was a little overwhelming of how much information there was. At first I was sort of approaching it almost from mimicry, like, ‘Oh, do I have to do an impression of this guy?’ But the more I read, the more I just got so interested. I put away the idea that I had to play this guy for a second, and more just got to be a space nerd and a John Glenn nerd and just completely dive head in to the deep end of all things John Glenn.
“I was on the internet, I was reading every book I could get my hands on, I was speaking to people who had spent their lives studying the Mercury Program and John Glenn, and then ultimately found myself knee deep in hundreds of boxes of archives at Ohio State University, which ended up being the thing that really put it over the edge,” he added. “They had so many incredible things that I don’t think anyone has ever really seen before. Boxes of letters and journal entries and poems that he wrote, letters to the president, audio clips, video clips, pictures I’ve never seen before. That was really the moment where I realized that I had the opportunity to do something pretty remarkable, just by virtue of having access to so much unique information.”
He came into The Right Stuff very well-prepared, but then Patrick had to execute. As he delineated, learning a lot is one thing but turning all that knowledge into a cohesive part is another – and so is knowing when to put all that information aside and trust your own instincts.
“The biggest challenge after doing all that research was just letting it go and realizing that you just have to shoot the thing. I had to learn to not be precious and not worry about getting everything exactly right, but more just focus on what felt true in the moment,” he said, “This is a television show; we’re doing a dramatic reenactment of this story. So I had to let go of the idea that I had to be the perfect version of John Glenn, and get comfortable with the idea that this was just going to be my version of John Glenn.”
That transition was certainly a process – and not without its entertaining moments.
“The first thing that we shot was Jake [McDorman, who plays Alan Shepard] and I in front of the mirror shaving before him getting ready to go to his launch,” Patrick recalled. “A very small scene, should be easy. We’re just in front of the mirror shaving.
“We’d both done all this research and had all this conversation, and then we finally get there on the day and they say action and we both start shaving. And then we both just started laughing because we’ve done all this work – I can give you a TED talk on John Glenn, but here I am trying to shave like John Glenn and I feel completely out of my element. I have no idea what to do.
“That was a real moment where we both had to stop and go, we just need to do this. We need to get out of our heads and get into our bodies. So it was just a process of letting go, enjoying the process, and trusting that the research that we had done with would be there when we needed it.”
But all the Mercury Seven drama is just one half of The Right Stuff‘s story. As history buffs know, what happened outside of NASA for those astronauts was just as critical, with their marriages suddenly facing this unknown and their wives becoming national celebrities in their own right. We see John and Annie Glenn’s incredible relationship as well, and that’s another part of the series that Patrick does very well with. It’s not just another TV marriage – the scripts allow us to see both sides, and Patrick is great (as usual) at giving his co-star Nora plenty to work with and an equal chance to shine. Their dynamic as actors feels like a partnership, just like the marriage they’re depicting.
“It was such a gift,” Patrick said of crafting the Glenns’ marriage. “Of all the things that John Glenn accomplished in his life – his incredible career not just as an astronaut and a pilot, but as a senator – I don’t think there’s anything that makes him more fascinating and such a beautiful man and such a gift to play than his relationship with his wife Annie. I think their relationship was truly something remarkable.
“One of the great things I found in the archive were three giant boxes of letters between the two of them, from the time he went to boot camp all the way through the Korean War, and the love, deep love, that they had for each other and his commitment to her. They were best friends, absolute best friends, teammates in every respect, and without her he was nothing and he knew it. He put her on such a pedestal.
“It was such a gift to to embody that part of it and to bring that relationship to life,” he added, “and Nora is also such a gift and so easy to work with. She did such beautiful work on the show that those were some of my favorite scenes, just getting to be with her and our family in our little house and trying to imagine what that would look like.”
Looking at what Patrick brings to The Right Stuff, there’s an additional resonance to the project on a big-picture level. It’s been almost a decade since that breakout role on Suits, and he’s come a long way over those years. He’s now not just an actor, but also a writer and director, and he’s also gotten married and started a family. He’s in a different phase of his own life than he was playing Mike Ross, and so portraying John Glenn particularly fits him now – when he has the additional maturity and life experience to fully realize the role and connect with it in a way he might not have before.
“It could not have been a more right time, right project,” he enthused. “Not only because I was so in love with the source material, but it really brought me back to something as a kid, like a reminder of what it was to just be so excited about a story, without any sense of ownership. As I get older as an actor, it’s like well, I want to be a part of it. I need to be a part of telling that story. This put me right back into just being a kid in my room reading a book, and nothing but pure imagination and enthusiasm and excitement about an incredible story. So it was just exactly what I needed for this next step for my career.
“It was getting out of my head about trying to get something that would get me more jobs or my profile or whatever, all that stuff. It was just about getting excited again and getting interested in losing myself in a world and the story, and getting to be a shepherd or a steward of this incredible story, of this incredible life and giving it to a new generation of people.
“It’s such a gift. And it’s really made me realize that that’s what this work should always be if possible,” he concluded. “So it’s sort of given me a new North Star in a way.”
That energy for the work, and genuine love for the real people behind the story, radiates in every one of Patrick’s scenes in The Right Stuff. You can’t fake emotional investment. No matter how talented an actor you are, there’s a certain truth that emerges when you are completely connected to a role, and that can never be faked. For that reason and many others, this series should give audiences a greater appreciation of not only John Glenn but also Patrick J. Adams.
He’s wonderful at what he does, but he also does it with such honesty and compassion. He may not be making American history, but we need more actors like him who are willing to invest so much – not just time and effort but emotion – in what they do. And there’s something special in watching him get to be a major part of bringing a subject he loves back to life. That’s a special story in itself.
“I’m just so excited,” Patrick told me. “This story, these people, it has meant so much to me in my life. And I’ve always felt that it was a story that was criminally unrepresented in culture. Beyond the film of The Right Stuff, we just don’t really talk about the Mercury Seven and haven’t had the opportunity to explore this story. I hope people come into it ready to learn something remarkable about these people that did this impossible thing so long ago.”
The Right Stuff is streaming now exclusively on Disney+.