James Lafferty Talks Playing Dream Role in Disney+’s Space Series ‘The Right Stuff’

Actor James Lafferty shared with AfterBuzz TV what it was like to step into the shoes of an American hero, astronaut Malcolm Scott Carpenter. 

Exploring space as an astronaut is the stuff childhood fantasies are made of, but for actor James Lafferty, playing one on TV was the dream.

“The child in me has always wanted to play an astronaut, and I don’t think I ever let myself believe that it would actually happen,” he told AfterBuzz TV.

Lafferty had his dream-come-true when he was cast to play real-life astronaut and Naval officer Malcolm Scott Carpenter in Disney+’s new series The Right Stuff. The show tells the true story of the first human spaceflight program and original astronauts, the Mercury Seven, of which Carpenter is a member.

What is the right stuff?

Lafferty says that Carpenter is considered to be slightly less experienced than the other pilots, with less test pilot hours and no experience flying combat missions.

“Scott Carpenter doesn’t really seem like he has the right stuff because he doesn’t have that alpha, Type A personality that it takes to be a pilot of the highest caliber,” he said. “But there are a lot of other elements of his personality that make him a really interesting precursor to what the modern astronaut is, which is a capacity for wonder and an appreciation for science, and just an overall curiosity.”

To understand Carpenter’s passion for space and develop his own interpretation of the legendary astronaut, Lafferty read his book For Spacious Skies, which he co-authored with his daughter. He noted that it helped him garner insight on who Carpenter was in and out of the space program.

“I learned that he was a little bit of a wanderer in his youth and didn’t quite know what his true calling was until it was placed on him with the Mercury Program,” Lafferty said. “I think the reason he got selected for this program was because of his constitution.”

“He’s someone who really thinks a lot about what the space program means for humanity as a whole. He’s really interested in the mysteries to be unlocked in the cosmos, as opposed to being more operationally minded like some of these other pilots.”

Becoming a hero

Fulfilling his dream of playing an astronaut came with the added pressure of portraying a national hero in The Right Stuff.

“They’re really big shoes to fill,” Lafferty said. “Scott Carpenter and all of these pilots, they weren’t just pilots; they had the minds of engineers and they had the constitutions of warriors in the sky. They were willing to risk their lives every single day for what they do.”

Since the inception of the space program more than 500 people have gone to space, so it’s easy to forget how many unknowns these frontier explorers faced–something Lafferty had to consider when stepping into Carpenter’s shoes.

“Flying a experimental aircraft was one of the most dangerous jobs ever invented. That stuff really intimidated me for sure. How do you really let all of that come through and how do you do it justice?” he said. “But what I think really made me relax into it was realizing how much I felt that we had in common in the way that we see the world and how much of his journey I’ve actually seen in my own family’s journey, certain people from my own family who have found their calling later in life.”

Lafferty got a chance to really ponder who Carpenter was within one scene in the beginning of the series, where pilots under consideration for the Mercury Program were tasked with writing essays answering the question, “Who am I?” Lafferty says that all of the actors wrote some things down for their characters in that scene, though we don’t see what they wrote in the show.

“I think part of the reason Scott was selected for the program was because he wasn’t afraid of answering those questions,” Lafferty said. “He enjoyed the psychological challenges that made you look at yourself and divulge the things that make you who you are.”

“I imagined Scott to be very straightforward and to be very upfront with who he thinks he is,” Lafferty continued. “I think at that time Scott considered himself a husband and a father and someone who was looking for more in life; someone who was looking for a real purpose and a meaning.”

Part of the team

Despite Carpenter’s sheer passion for his work, he was not selected to be one of the first astronauts in space (though he would have his turn later on). In playing him, Lafferty got to explore what it was like to be surrounded by pilots with superior experience to him.

“I think there’s a lot of awe that he feels with being in such rare air with such an amazing company, and I think that can bring out a little bit of insecurity in somebody and make them feel like they don’t necessarily know if they belong here,” Lafferty explained. “But at the same time, I do think that Scott had so much joy and appreciation for the experience of being a part of the program. There was a certain part of him that was simply just grateful to be there, that never thought he would reach a point in his career where he would be doing something that no other human being has ever done.”

Carpenter’s disposition is on full display in a poignant scene between him and fellow astronaut John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams), when Carpenter is demoted and goes to him for help.

“I think you’re a good man, better than the rest of these guys,” Glenn tells him. “And yeah, I think that matters, or at least it ought to.”

Lafferty says that statement from Glenn gets at the heart of his relationship with the other members of the Mercury Seven.

“When Scott hears John say that, it’s validation in a way,” he said. “It’s like your big brother, like somebody that you really, really look up to and identify with, telling you that you are enough; that you are going to be just fine, even if you’re going to stumble along the way.”

“I think that was a big lesson for Scott, and recognizing that maybe early in the program, he’s not going to be a centerpiece, but he can still use the things that he’s best at to become a really important part of this program.”

Though Carpenter wasn’t the focus of the first mission, Lafferty hopes in a future season of The Right Stuff he can portray his own flight to space.

“For Scott’s flight, there was a moment that was scarier than any other of the moments in any of the flights in the Mercury Program, and there was actually a lot of controversy surrounding it,” Lafferty revealed. “I just think there’s a lot of drama to play there and selfishly, I want to see that flight explored for the character, for the legacy of Scott Carpenter, and also just because the little kid in me wants to pretend to go space.”

Hope for the future

Throughout the first season, the show draws on many overarching themes: from politics, the value we place on family versus work, to conquering big dreams. For Lafferty, he says he relates most with what his character relates to: finding your place.

“The thing that I connect with the most is trying to find out where you fit in when you’re starting something new,” he said. “I come from a background of team sports. They were a really, really important part of my adolescence and the way that I grew up, and I’m always fascinated by how people work together to make incredible things happen.”

Lafferty says he believes the message of The Right Stuff rings even more true in today’s world.

“John Glenn has that great line early in the season where he says, ‘It feels like every inch of the world has been picked over.’ I think that’s exponentially more true today,” he said. “It’s cool right now to take a beat and look back at a time when there was so much uncertainty in the world at large. There was so much uncertainty about the nature of the planet that we live on and everything surrounding us, but we still managed to pull together and get through all of it and explore all of it together.”

In a time where there are so many unknowns, Lafferty says there’s hope to be found in the story of a group of people who persevered through the uncertainty.

“That was the context of the world at the time that the story happened; everything was really scary. And I think people cling to a hope of exploration and a shared dream. I think that shared dream got this country and probably humanity through some really tough times,” he continued.
“For me, it just speaks to the importance of remembering that we are all in this together and that when we have shared dreams and work together, amazing things will happen.”

You can now stream all eight episodes of The Right Stuff on Disney+. Keep following AfterBuzz TV for continued coverage and more interviews with the cast throughout the season!

About the Author

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Meagan Lynn

Meagan Lynn is a host and writer at AfterBuzz TV, actress, and social media manager. Outside of AfterBuzz, you can find her hosting and producing Ten Minute Talks. She loves singing, listening to inspirational podcasts and consuming copious amounts of movies and television shows.