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'Astronaut Wives Club' blasts off: Co-star talks creative license, cast sisterhood

ABC's "The Astronaut Wives Club" limited event series launches on Thursday, June 18, 2015 at 8/7c. (ABC/Cook Allender)
June 18, 2015

— In "The Astronaut Wives Club," debuting tonight (June 18) on ABC, viewers meet the seven women who stood behind America's first spacemen as the space age literally got off the ground in the early 1960s.

The flip side of "The Right Stuff," the series follows Louise Shepard, Betty Grissom, Annie Glenn, Rene Carpenter, Jo Schirra and Trudy Cooper as they strive to hold down the homefront while also supporting their husbands Alan, Gus, John, Scott, Wally and Gordo on NASA's Project Mercury missions.

Marge Slayton, the seventh of the spouses, is thrust into the same spotlight as the other wives but faces additional hurdles given her own past and the path that her husband, Deke, will follow to reach space. As he becomes the chief of the astronauts, "Mother Marge" takes lead of the wives' club.

"The Astronaut Wives Club" featurette. Click to enlarge. (ABC)

Actress Erin Cummings, who portrays the Marge Slayton in the ten-episode series, spoke with collectSPACE about reconvening the "Astronaut Wives Club" for television and how the the cast reflected their characters' bond 50 years ago. This is part two of our interview, part one is here.

collectSPACE (cS) "The Astronaut Wives Club," although based on the real history of the spouses (as told by author Lily Koppel in her 2013 bestseller by the same title) is not a documentary. It's more of a docu-drama, taking at least some license with the women's stories. Were you aware of where your character "Marge" diverted from real person?

Erin Cummings (EC) There's a certain degree of creative license taken in the story – specifically having to do with the wives – and a big part of that is that their lives weren't documented, or at least not documented in a factual way, as much as the men were.

For example, it's been well documented that Deke Slayton was grounded because of a heart murmur. That storyline, as it plays out on the show, has Marge concerned some of her own background played a part in that. That is not in anyway to suggest that it actually did.

It is more about Marge's own insecurity over if it could've played into that and how her concern, that fear, consumes her, to the point where she thinks for a moment it actually did and that it is her fault.

Erin Cummings and Kenneth Mitchell as Marge and Deke Slayton on ABC's "The Astronaut Wives Club." (ABC/Cook Allender)

: Marge finds strength, and provides the same for the other spouses, in the so-called Astronaut Wives Club that she comes to lead. Did a similar bond develop among the cast members in the course of making the series?

EC: It is interesting how that dynamic developed.

[Early in the production] we were going between shooting in Los Angeles and New Orleans. (At first, it was going to be Houston and then it was decided not to use Houston and it was between Los Angeles and New Orleans.) And while many of us are based in Los Angeles, and we would have loved to have stayed in one place and not have to relocate, being able to all move away — it was almost like going to summer camp.

Many of us lived in the same neighborhood, even in the same building. Dominique McElligott, who portrays Louise Shepard, lived just down the hall from me. And Odette Annable, who plays Trudy Cooper, and Bret Harrison, who is Gordon Cooper, they were actually roommates because they're very good friends in real life and their spouses are very good friends. The four of them were super close, so they were roommates and lived in the same building.

And Desmond Harrington [Alan Shepard] lived in the same building. So it was not uncommon at all for Dominique and I to be in our pajamas and head down to Odie and Bret's apartment and play card games and hang out. And Joanna Garcia Swisher and her husband lived not too far from us, so they held a party at their house. Almost the entire cast came to that.

We became very, very close.

cS: It sounds a bit like life imitating art imitating life...

EC: In a way, it was. We were walking distance from the French Quarter, so we would all often walk in a group – just to make sure we were all safe. The boys were all very courteous and kind, making sure all the ladies got home safe. It was a little old school, but we sometimes fell into those patterns of our characters.

cS: Marge became "mother" in the Astronaut Wives Club. Did you play a similar leading role among the cast?

EC: I arranged for all of us to go on a swamp tour. So we went and fed alligators, which was very exciting and very nice way for us to all have a unique kick off to what would be a wonderful little five month family.

The cast of "The Astronaut Wives Club" formed a sisterhood on and off set similar to their counterpart characters. (ABC)

: Did that sense of family extend to your experience on set?

EC: There are always those stories about casts that are predominantly women and they try to paint a picture that all the women fight for who gets to wear the prettiest dress and who takes the longest in hair and makeup. But this really wasn't like that.

First of all, our wardrobe designer did a brilliant job making sure that we were specific to our character. Despite being a cast of seven white women, we are quite different from one another in attitude and different things. And so it was wonderful to be in an environment where the women were celebrating one another.

Being in a male-dominated industry, which the TV industry generally is, to be on a show with seven women, with a female showrunner [Stephanie Savage], and with female directors, it created an incredible dynamic. Really, for the first time, I and many of the other women felt like we had a voice. And when we had the Apollo wives come in, who were wonderful strong recurring characters, every once in awhile they'd go "Wow! This is really not like any other set – I feel like I can talk here." And we'd say, "You can. Your opinions are valid. Your voice has merit here." And to be quite honest, I don't always feel that way all of the time.

It was, overall, a really powerful experience, not just for me, but for most of the women, if not all. We're very proud of that. We're proud that we were not only able to tell the story in a compelling way but also create a sisterhood, on and off the camera. I think when you watch the show, you will really see those bonds of friendship playing out.

"The Astronaut Wives Club" premieres tonight (June 18) at 8/7c on the ABC television network.

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