Published: Tuesday, 03 December 2019 19:02 | Written by SciFi Vision
Apple Tv’s series, For All Mankind, follows an alternate timeline of the space program, where the USSR beats the United States in putting a man on the moon, leaving the US devastated. The space race continues. After Russia is also first to send a woman to the moon, NASA recruits female astronauts into the space program.
After training and testing, NASA is left with four candidates: Tracy Stevens (Sarah Jones), wife of Apollo 15’s Gordo Stevens, Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) from Mercury 13, Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall), an engineer at NASA, and pilot Ellen Waverly (Jodi Balfour).
The four actresses recently talked to the media about their characters, the things they learned, their time working on the series, and more.
SCIFI VISION: So, it seems like this show has definitely tried to make things accurate in terms of the training and the missions and everything by the way it's portrayed. Did you get any training or go to NASA or talk to anybody, things like that, to learn more about the program and everything?
SONYA WALGER: I'm going to talk briefly; I play Molly. Yeah, we have amazing people that are available to us. We have Garrett Reisman, who's an astronaut who spent time in the Space Lab. He gave us massive insights; he spent three months out in orbit. We have technical advisors from NASA; we have all kinds of things available to us.
So, yes, I joined the cast at the last minute, so mine was a baptism by fire, but we've all had amazing resources made available to us, I think.
SARAH JONES: Yeah, I would agree with that.
QUESTION: Krys, how does it feel to be playing sort of the diverse side of something that didn't happen? Like, we're already going into revisionist history, and then to bring some diversity into that, how does that feel?
KRYS MARSHALL: Yeah, you know it's funny. I've been black my whole life, [laughs] so as I enter any role, I see it from the perspective of the character. So, no matter who I play, I always play a black woman.
So, when I began my work as Danielle Poole, I first started with who she is as an individual, who she is as a science minded woman, as an intellectual, as an academic, as a wife, as a participant in an office. I think about her as a whole human being. And that wasn't truly until I stepped on set, because, you know, as an actor, you begin your work long before you get to work.
So, it wasn’t until I stepped on set, and then I was in the costume, immersed in this very beautiful, very rich environment. It really does feel like you’ve been sent in a time machine back to 1959. Then I really began to feel the pressure and the isolation of what it’s like to be a black woman in an all white environment.
Obviously, throughout my life I’ve had that experience many times, but I think having been born in the late 80s and having experienced life growing up in the 90s, it’s been entirely different. So, whatever level of discomfort I’ve experienced that I’ve tried to translate into what Danielle’s experiencing, it still pales in comparison to real life feelings. You know, Danielle is twenty-four when the show begins, so she went to segregated schools. She was accustomed to drinking at separate water fountains. So, for her this opportunity is bigger than big, so big it’s something she had no idea she could even fathom it.
And, I, Krys, know exactly what that’s like. I feel that way about my time on For All of Mankind. I never imagined I’d have an opportunity to play a scientist, a geologist, an astronaut, an engineer. I just didn’t think it would be possible for me.
So, I recognize that in being a black character in our show there will be a level of pressure and expectation put upon me, but I also know that I’ve got a cast of great men and women around me, who support me. I’ve got an amazing showrunner who’s done a fabulous job telling the story so beautifully. So, all I can do is do my little part, so that’s what I’m doing.
QUESTION: My question is to all four of you. It’s about how is it to play women from the 70s...Is it different to play women from that time? If so, how?
SARAH JONES: I'm taking the reins on this one, because of the fact that we are introduced to Tracy's character being in a more traditional sort of all-American setup of that era. And then of course, we see Tracy decide to shift and claim some ownership of her life.
So, to play that aspect, I think was interesting, because the prejudice that Tracy dealt with wasn't really from the men, oddly enough, it was from the women. She gets it from Molly; [laughs] she gets it from Karen, and in some cases, rightfully so, in terms of how she was going to earn that aspect of her life. But I think that playing that and playing the prejudice actually coming from our own, from other women, was really interesting to explore.
And in what Krys was saying earlier, growing up in the 80s, there was less of that idea of having a career being sort of a novelty. We had the fortune that having a career was a very realistic and potential necessity, but to be able to explore that where it did become a choice and sort of seeing that that's still in a lot of ways prevalent, especially for women that want to be mothers, as well as having a career, it was all interesting to explore on my end.
JODI BALFOUR: I think Krys was sort of outlining the application on this part of what it means to be an actor really well, and the same can be said of this.
This area of what our job entails, which is to say that, even though we've come so far, and it’s 2019, we had a female Democratic nominee for president not so long ago, we’ve come leaps and bounds. There's still so many gender barriers, so much prejudice, so much sexism rampant in society today, and so, for me anyway, it's just about identifying my very personal experiences with that and translating them to to sort of to how that might be the case for Ellen and what that might have been like in 1969.
But yeah, it's certainly concentrating the experience and getting specific within the context of the show, at NASA, where up until when the women were brought into the program, almost exclusively, with an exception of course here and there, they were almost exclusively white men.
So yeah, I mean, none of us are strangers to what it's like to be a woman in the world. I mean, it’s really about loads of research, getting specific about 1969 in Houston, Texas, and this work environment and going from there.
KRYS MARSHALL: I want to just dovetail off what Jody said and kind of take it in a different direction, which is that I think one of the most beautiful things about our cast, and what I think, I hope, translates onto the screen, is that we're all just so different. Hearing Jodi talk about her process of, you know - I'm going to brag on you Jodi. She's been reading the autobiography of Sally Ride, and she's done more studying about this story and this time period than anybody I've ever met. And it's so funny, because we're in the same show. We're both doing our damnedest, but my way into it is much more a child kind of way going into it.
And I think for me, there are physical signifiers that make me feel so Danielle that they're hard to describe. I think, for me, stepping into a pair of too tight kitten heels and a pair of pantyhose...and the skirt that’s tight, and that whole physical aspect of getting two hours of hair curled perfectly and 1000 bobby pins, and, you know, full face of makeup and clip-on earrings, made me feel so in the world. It's just so funny, there're so many ways to kind of dive into the world of what it's like to be a woman in 1969. And I think, for me, for sure, a big part of it was the costume and the shoes and standing in that world. For me, it made me feel very buttoned, very watched, very observed, and like a woman in that time period.
SARAH JONES: Krys, I'm with you on that. It's interesting how the clothes and that alone can sort of feel so constraining. I mean, even like the undergarments. I'm like, oh my god, a woman definitely didn't design this. This is absolute bullshit. [laughs] Pardon my French.
QUESTION: I'm loving the series so far, and I was just curious as to what it was about the script when you first initially read it - this is for all of you - that kind of drew you in and that made you realize that this was going to be something that was a special production?
SONYA WALGER: I didn't have anything to go on, except for a scene, and one scene, because I was auditioning for a guest [role]. So, I went off good writing in the scene and the excellent pedigree of everyone associated with it, from Ron Moore to Joel [Kinnaman] to Matt [Wolpert] and Ben [Nedivi], who’s work on Fargo I'd loved. But for me, it was a leap of faith, and it was, you know, one good scene and the opportunity to play someone, very, very far from recent people who I’ve played. I play someone who does not lead with how she looks or how she relates to men in any way that is sexual, or about her appeal. It’s leaning into the exact opposite of that. So, for me, it was less about the whole world of the show, because I really knew nothing about it, and it was more about the entirely personal interest in playing someone so very different from anyone I've played recently.
JODI BALFOUR: I'll jump in on the back of that, because I feel very similarly, and I think beyond the writing - I think I did have the first three episodes, in fact, I know I had the first three episodes, but as you’ve all probably seen by now, that didn't give me a whole host of things to work with, because we only just get to meet the rest of the women in episode three.
So, I was very nervous, to be perfectly honest, not knowing what was coming down the pike but fell in love with the creators when I had a wonderful conversation with them and could really hear their passion and their conviction about the worthiness of the story. And then it all just became about the character. They sort of talked me through what Ellen's journey might look like.
And truthfully, more than so many other things which are equally exciting, I think the most exciting thing was similarly to what Sonya said, just to play a woman who is not sort of defined by her relationship to men. That was really exciting, that and, of course, the sort of insane learning curve that would be inevitable to play an astronaut.
SARAH JONES: I would say I was more drawn to the concept of the world of For All Mankind and what that message was, which after having a meeting with Ron Moore and Matt and Ben and Meryl, the notion that maybe if we had had some perceived setbacks on an international stage as a country, and in terms of what our ideas were about, you know, goals that we quote unquote as a country could attain and could achieve, maybe if we hadn't achieved those as quickly as we set out to achieve them, it would have forced us to take a step back and potentially to grasp as a society first. Because we would have had to have been more inclusive of figuring out what that solution was, as opposed to sort of doing the same, approaching things the same way with the same people and patting ourselves on the back.
I was only given the first two episodes, so the idea of playing a wife was a bit of a leap of faith to take on, because the writers sort of explained what Tracy’s trajectory was, and I just had to kind of trust that. So, it was sort of the combination of working for Ron while also...believing in the in the sort of overall theme, you know, which I just rambled about. [laughs] So, that was that was sort of what drew me in.
KRYS MARSHALL: Much like Sonya, I came into this process very last minute. Julian Levy, our casting director, called me in on Monday for a totally different TV show, written by Lena Waithe, which was about lesbians in their twenties. So, I came prepared for that and was wearing a sun dress, and as I left that audition they said "Hey, do you have a second? Do you mind reading this thing about NASA?" and I said, “Sure.”
And Apple is notoriously clandestine about all of their projects, so I hadn’t heard a single word about the show or anything about it. So, I went out into the courtyard, and I read the two pages, two scenes, eleven pages total, was immediately overwhelmed, and thought "Oh Jesus, there’s no way I’ll get this, but let me just do my best." And so I took about twenty minutes to go over the material, came back in, did my thing, and then found out that evening that I’d be starting two days from then.
So, it was a real whirlwind. Like Sonya said, I didn’t have a real chance to read all the other episodes and dive into what this world would be like. It was very much as she said, a baptism by fire.
But I think my initial experiences coming on to set were just being so warmly welcomed by our cast and by our executive producers and writers, and my feelings of the sort of imposter syndrome of "there's no way in hell I can do this" quickly went away, and I realized that I would be able to lean on these guys; I'd be able to trust them. I felt, again, taken care of and supported by them within the first seconds of me stepping on to set, and so we just took it from there.
QUESTION: My question is for everyone. How did For All Mankind change you as an artist?
SONYA WALGER: Well, I've never had to do wire work in a space suit before, so I think it may have changed me physically. [laughs] It changed me in that way, I think, truly; I've never had to do anything that's been as physical as this role. Taking on that challenge and meeting it and finding ways to deal with it has been really great. I've had to dig deep, and I have genuinely not loved some of it, but I have loved at the end of the day feeling like, wow, I did that. I did that, and I didn't spend a day wearing heels, holding a clipboard, nodding while a man spoke dutifully at me, which has been frankly overdone. I spent the day swinging from a rope pretending I'm on the moon, and that's a pretty amazing opportunity as a woman of 45 at this stage of my career.
SARAH JONES: She did it with flying colors, by the way.
SONYA WALGER: I think in that way, the show has changed me, opened my eyes to what I'm capable of doing.
KRYS MARSHALL: I’d like to jump in on this, because, for me, I think the show changed me so much, definitely as an artist, but also as an actor in this industry. I think that the last two to three years have been a real topsy-turvy for the entertainment industry, for both women being seen as equals behind the scenes, and about pay parity, all of those things. And I would say, factually, that and this production is the first time I've ever felt like my voice truly held weight. In my past experiences, they were all lovely productions, but I never truly felt like I could speak up if there was something that I didn't like, or a scene that I felt didn't ring true to the voice of my character.
And I think that is a testament to the environment that our showrunner and our producers create. I think it's about the way in which our cast engages with one another. I think that we have an amazing group of directors who have created an environment where it's okay to speak up and say, "Hey, you know what? Can we talk about this for the next ten minutes? I want to bend your ear, because I don't feel good about this."
And so for me, whether this show carries on for seasons on seasons or who knows what, that I take away from this experience a sense of empowerment that I'm allowed to step into that power and say, "This feels good; this doesn't," for that I am forever grateful for this experience and for the show.
SARAH JONES: I'm going to piggyback on Krys a bit and talk about the sort of camaraderie that this cast had, and the support that we've been giving each other has been really special.
I don't know if it has necessarily changed me as an artist, but I cherish it tremendously. And I think it enhances this idea that when you are within a cast of people that are kind and respectful and supportive of each other, there's more room to take risks, and that's much more exciting and fulfilling on the job.
Personally, I would say this season there were some personal notes within Tracy's storyline and my own personal life that were borderline eerie where I was like, "All right, are the writers tapping into my phone? What's going on here?" So, exploring that and coming at it, as honestly as I could, left me pretty raw at times.
And again, I don't know if it changed me, but if I pulled it off where the one watching it feels something as well, and feel the rawness within them as well, then it's something to continue doing. And I suppose having an outlet, a sort of cathartic healthy outlet, where I happen to get paid at the same time, is quite a blessing.
JODI BALFOUR: I don't know that it's changed me as an artist, but it's certainly taught me a whole lot as a human being. And one of my favorite things about acting, which Krys highlighted in her all too generous recognition of this, is the acquisition of knowledge, is learning things that prior to a job I didn't know. And up until 2018, I barely knew thing about space, admittedly. I just really was so ignorant. It wasn't really a major area of interest for me. So, beyond what we learned in school, I didn't know much at all.
So, there has been an enormous amount of learning that I've had to do just to be able to make sense of the world we're occupying on the show and what's coming out of my mouth sometimes. And I generally like to lessen the divide as well between things the character knows that I myself don't know. So, all of that has been really fun and absolutely fascinating. And yeah, a really exciting thing to "have to do" for my job.
KRYS MARSHALL: Jodi, you're not alone. When we started the show, I told my husband, "Oh, I am going to do the show, and it's about the Cold War. Where did the Cold War happen? [laughs] Was it in Moscow or was it in St. Petersburg? Like where was it concentrated?" And he said, "Oh, honey, you have so much work to do." I thought the Cold War was a physical, like, with machine guns kind of war. So, there you go.
SCIFI VISION: Other than the script, was there anywhere or anyone, either maybe a historical figure or even just a character from something, who you took inspiration from or thought of as you were building your characters that you kind of put into it?
SARAH JONES: Mine’s quick, Anna Lee Fisher. She's the first mother in space. That was mine.
SONYA WALGER: Mine was Jerrie Cobb, who is someone that Molly was loosely based on. Jerrie was someone who was a female pilot who joined the Mercury 13, which was the initial foray that NASA made into attempting to put women in space. Thirteen women were chosen and trained, and then the entire project was folded for, in theory, lack of funding, but really, lack of belief that women could pull it off.
Jerrie recently died, and episode four was actually dedicated to her.
So, my research was based largely on Jerrie and all the women of Mercury 13.
KRYS MARSHALL: My character is very loosely based on Mae Jemison, but what's wild, is that in our story, because the Russians beat us to space first, we take a turn in a much more progressive world where women continue forward. And so, in real life, there was not an African American female to make it to space until 1992, which is devastating. How long after space exploration began does that occur? And Danielle Poole goes to space in 1972, a full twenty years earlier.
So, some of my work was based on Mae Jemison and her story, but then also, I'm very influenced by the music of the time period. So, as I worked on the character and kind of creating the bible of who she is, I listened to Gladys Knight and Diana Ross and Ray Charles and just great Motown and jazz and swing and, you know, early Stevie Wonder. That kind of early 70s, late 60s R&B really influenced me and sort of created the bones and the marrow of who she is as a woman.
JODI BALFOUR: As Krys mentioned, I read the biography of Sally Ride recently, but other than aspects of Ellen's private life, there isn't a lot that's directly borrowed from Sally. But certainly that was my jumping off point, and I sort of became obsessed with her in the process and have ended up really stealing lots of bits and pieces from what I imagine and what was sort of decently written about in Lynch's biography of her. Just about sort of the inner workings of a woman in this environment. So, probably Sally if I had to name someone, but then lots and lots of just imagination and what the writers had written.
QUESTION: I have one question for Sonya. I'm particularly interested in the episode in which you actually go to the moon. There is one scene where Margot tells Molly that she's the first woman to go to the moon, and it kind of sinks in to Molly that it's not just about her, but there's an entire gender out there that's rooting for her. I want to know how you played that role and what inspired you to pull that off.
SONYA WALGER: It was a very emotive time shooting that particular section. Dr. Blasey Ford was giving her testimony at exactly that moment, as we shot that episode. And I have rarely felt so charged as a woman to go out and execute my role, to go out and feel heard, and that it was, and continues to be, an incredibly important time as a woman to stand up and let your voice be heard and to take your place.
There's a moment as me and Joel (Edward Baldwin) walk towards the rocket, and he's leading, and then he falls back so that Molly can walk down that corridor and be applauded by the women. And I found that particular scene probably one of the most moving scenes I've ever played. It felt so important. It felt so emblematic. I felt I was playing something so much bigger than me, or me trying to get a scene right.
At that particular moment in history, I felt like I was taking a bow for all the women behind me. In the space program in particular, more than anything I can think of, we stand on the shoulders of giants. And Molly being the one that actually gets to go to the moon is only just that she is standing on her tippy toes on top of everyone else who got that before her. And I found it very, very emotional to be playing Jerrie Cobb, to be fulfilling a dream she never got to have.
Jerrie in her 70s went to go and visit Elon Musk and visit the Space Lab, Space X, and showed up in her fight suit in order to be shown around it. She did not come as a tourist to visit Elon Musk. She didn't come to congratulate him, she came to find out how she could get to the moon still, in her seventies.
So, I don't know. It was and continues to be a freighted moment to be a woman and to be a woman who is speaking out and telling the truth and continuing to fight for what she believes in. So, I think all of that, that's a cocktail of an answer to give you. But all of that went into that particular episode for me.
SARAH JONES: I have to just add to what Sonya was saying, which I feel like we've all had this discussion, including the guys on the show, but there was something, I felt this odd sense of pride and responsibility the first time that I tried on the flight suit and the space suit.
...Which was so bizarre, because obviously I did absolutely nothing to achieve, you know, putting on those suits and walking around with the NASA emblem, or the slightly tweaked version of the NASA emblem and taking on that sort of elite, superhuman that is the astronauts not just in the US program, but internationally.
I don't know what it was, but I've certainly felt this odd sense of pride and responsibility when I put those on, and every time I put them on too; it was so weird. So, I can only imagine how the astronauts must have felt the first time they tried on their suits.