Eric Ladin revealed what it takes to play a real-life person and how America’s first astronauts became the first reality television show stars.
“Listen up: I don’t care if your nerves are frayed to a nub or you hate my guts. What matters to me in this room is that you care.”
This is what NASA engineer Chris Kraft says to his mission control center minutes before their first ever launch on July 29,1960–or what we can imagine he said, thanks to the new Disney+ original series, The Right Stuff.
Based on Tom Wolfe’s 1979 novel of the same name, The Right Stuff chronicles the true story of the early days of the Space Race and the journey of the original astronauts, the Mercury Seven, as they skyrocketed to space–and to international stardom.
Positioned at the helm of the mission was Chris Kraft, the authoritative and disciplined flight director of Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight program in the United States. Stepping into the commanding shoes of Kraft is accomplished actor Eric Ladin.
“Kraft would hold his men accountable, but at the same time, hold himself equally as accountable,” Ladin told AfterBuzz TV. “I think he felt like when he got to work, because of the nature of the work that he did, he needed to remain serious because you can’t really make mistakes in the profession he was in. Mistakes cost lives.”
Preparing for the role
With taking on the role of Kraft came a heavy load of research for Ladin, who says that preparing to play a historical figure is quite different from how he prepares for other characters.
“With a fictional character, you have the luxury of making up a lot of stuff and usually along with the writer, coming up with your own backstory if it’s not written in the script. All of those things will influence the way you approach the work and the story,” he explained. “With Chris and with playing other real people that have walked on earth–and I’ve had the luxury of playing a lot of them over the course of my career–you have a lot of information that’s available to you.”
Ladin combed through that information, reading not just Kraft’s biography but also the biographies of his colleagues in the space program, while also watching interviews Kraft did to study his physicality, mannerisms and speech patterns.
While Kraft passed away last year, Ladin was able to consult with his colleague Robert Yowell, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. space program who served as the show’s technical advisor, ensuring both the show and Kraft’s story were being told authentically.
“I was able to not only talk to Robert a little bit about Kraft, the man, but more importantly when he was there working with us on set, I could talk to him about the scene specifically; whether or not he believed that this is the way Chris would react to a certain situation,” Ladin said. “Or in this given scene with these given circumstances, do we think we’ve achieved a believable way that Chris would handle that? And then given what he said, I could then go talk to the writers and adjust accordingly.”
Ladin says he knew the show had “the right stuff” from the second he read the pilot script. He was also a fan of the subject matter having taken on space-themed roles before, most recently as real-life aerospace engineer Gene Kranz in For All Mankind on Apple TV+.
“It was a story that I was interested in and one that I wanted to continue to tell,” he said.
Ladin is no stranger to historical dramas, either. One of his many notable acting credits is a stint on Mad Men, a series which fellow The Right Stuff castmate Patrick Fischler also appeared in. Fischler plays opposite Ladin as Robert “Bob” Gilruth, the first director of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center. Ladin credits their past friendship with making them great scene partners.
“I think our chemistry from the very beginning was pretty strong,” he said.
Getting to know Chris Kraft
The two NASA heads’ relationship is an integral part of the show and the Mercury Project. In the first episode when they sit down to review potential astronauts for the Mercury Seven, Gilruth says “They’re all incredible,” to which Kraft counters, “And they’re all terrible.” Ladin says that it wasn’t Kraft’s role to balance out Gilruth as much as it was his nature.
“I think Chris was always going to be extremely careful, and I don’t think he allowed himself to get too excited about anything,” Ladin said. “I think he used that as a mechanism to protect himself from making poor decisions.”
Kraft’s serious demeanor can be attributed to mounting pressure from Washington, the race against Russia to get to space first, and the life-or-death task of strapping a man to the top of a nuclear missile and lighting the fuse–all while the world watched it play out on their television screens. But Ladin said Kraft’s personality is what made him up for the task.
“Chris was a guy that I think that if you asked him to make the perfect bowl of oatmeal, he would’ve stayed up weeks making sure that that happened to the perfect quality,” he joked. “If he was gonna build an Adirondack chair, it might take him six months to do it, but my God, it was going to be the best freaking Adirondack chair ever. I think that’s just who he was as a person.”
Beyond his sometimes stony exterior, Kraft shows how deeply he cares for the program in the scene in the mission control center ahead of the first test launch, when he tells his team what matters most to him is that they care.
“More than the astronauts looking to protect, which of course he was, it was really the guys in that room. And what makes that scene so important and this episode for Chris is a bit of an arc,” Ladin said. “He says that to them because he needs them to understand that he’s in the same position, and he knows mistakes are going to be made and that’s the point of running simulations, but what he can’t have is people not taking it seriously because there’s a man’s life at stake.”
Ladin says in a second season, he’d like to see more of Kraft’s heart.
“He’s a husband and a father, which hopefully we will get to see more of in season two. He has a lot more to him.”
Not too different from today
One of the many balls Kraft is juggling throughout The Right Stuff is the burgeoning celebrity of the Mercury Seven. The team of original astronauts were considered “America’s first reality show,” and Life Magazine was tasked with telling their story as the country obsessed over the men’s every move. Ladin compares astronaut Alan Shepard’s struggle with media attention to today’s influencer culture.
“The persona that Life Magazine wanted to put forward, or the persona that so many people want Instagram to put forward, was something different [than who he was], and so he was kind of learning how to balance that,” Ladin said. “The only difference between that and today is that instead of having an Instagram account in his pocket, he basically had somebody doing it for him, even though he didn’t want to.”
From celebrity to politics, many of the themes in The Right Stuff draw parallels between 1960s America and today. Ladin says that above all, he wants viewers to be entertained when watching the show, but hopes they can take something away from the message, too.
“It’s really nice to watch a show about a time in which America achieved some pretty amazing things, and working hard together,” Ladin said. “Political, religious beliefs aside, when these guys were able to do what they did, every American was in front of their television set watching, and every American was rooting for them to succeed. And that’s really nice and that feels very far away right now.”
“I think it’s a nice hour of television to watch in that regard. Whether or not our show can kind of spark that in people, I don’t know,” he continued. “It’s something that we can easily get back to; we just have to make the choice to do it.”
The first three episodes of The Right Stuff are now available to stream on Disney+, with new episodes releasing every Friday. Keep following AfterBuzz TV for continued coverage and more interviews with the cast throughout the season!