It wasn’t rocket science, but that doesn’t mean it was easy: To bring Lily Koppel’s book about the wives of America’s first astronauts to TV, executive producer Stephanie Savage had to condense their stories into a 10-episode miniseries and take viewers from 1957 to 1971, a span of 14 years, which meant doing a ton of research. “For the last two years, all I’ve done is watch YouTube videos of astronauts,” she says. “I kind of went down the rabbit hole.” JoAnna Garcia Swisher, who plays Betty Grissom, says the diligence paid off. “In a way, we were able to time-travel,” she says. Here, the creator and star of The Astronaut Wives Club highlight five ways the show took viewers through more than a decade of history.
Dressing to Express
Costume designer Eric Daman, who has worked on Gossip Girl and Sex and the City, set the women apart by using a different color palette for each of them: Garcia Swisher, for example, wore sunny yellows and warmer hues, while Odette Annable, who played Trudy Cooper, wore darker greens and blues.
STEPHANIE SAVAGE: We talked early on, it’s something we did on Gossip Girl too, to lock in for each of these seven women, a particular silhouette, some signature details. Jo [played by Zoe Boyle] has her pearls and her white shoes, Betty has her charm bracelet, Trudy has her little necklace with a plane on it because she’s a pilot, and they each had their own palette as well, which is going to help the audience lock into each of their characters and not get confused.
JOANNA GARCIA SWISHER: Betty didn’t always have the fanciest clothes. I wore some vegetables on my dresses for a time, which was really funny… We were on a group text and we would all be like, “Wait ‘til you see what I come out with!”
Because the press obsessed over what the real astronaut wives brought to potlucks when they watched their spouses’ launches, the show did too. In episodes when the wives gathered, Savage would highlight the questions reporters asked about the recipes, which includes plenty of casseroles.
SAVAGE: The art department had a whole library of cookbooks upstairs in the production office, so when we needed to have some dialogue referencing actual recipes, they would run up there and pull some of them from the cookbooks and go through them. And we had an amazing food stylist who went completely crazy in the best possible way in terms of preparing all of those dishes.
The cast and crew avoided anachronisms by double-checking the histories of everything seen on screen, from squawk boxes to makeup products. If a trend or an object hadn’t yet been invented, the crew would have to rethink what appears.
GARCIA: With our makeup specifically, I remember asking my makeup artist, “Do I get to wear lip gloss this week? Like this year? Was this the year when lip gloss was introduced?” And the whole Cleopatra trend! After Cleopatra came out [in 1963], women were so impacted by that aesthetic that eyeliners and colors and the look, whether people wore toenail polish, just little things like that. We were in the hands of the incomparable Eric Daman, and he had such a role in this era of moving through time and having a vision for each individual woman.
SAVAGE: There were a lot of technological things, like, “When did they have this?” When I had first written the Alan Shepard [played by Desmond Harrington] mission, I had Louise [Shepard, played by Dominique McElligott] listening to the squawk box and then I realized, “Oh, they didn’t have that until much later, so that has to go.”
In some scenes, the series literally immersed its actors in the past using clever transitions, like fading from black-and-white to color, inserting a montage of news reports from the time, and in the second episode, creating a particularly tricky sequence that spliced the actresses into archival footage of a ticker-tape parade.
SAVAGE: All the NASA footage is in the public domain, and it’s so beautiful, it’s really stunning. They did such an amazing job of chronicling everything having to do with the program, so we wanted to integrate that footage and newsroom footage into the show and make that part of the fabric, and make that part of the collage feeling.
The women make up the core cast, but Savage says the show has one more uncredited player: the sky. This meant fewer interior shots, which helped the series transition quickly through time without having to build set after set that reflected all the shifts.
SAVAGE: The way we approached shooting the show, we really wanted to make sure we were outside a lot. We talked about the sky being a character of the show, so we’re not having a show that was all interiors and all shot on set. It was a real challenge, calibrating those changes, so we were on location almost 80 percent of the show. I mean, we’d show up in these neighborhoods, and the streets would be dressed and the cars are in the driveway, and you’d open the door, and it would be like walking into, for me, into my grandparents’ houses. And it felt great to be bringing it to life like that the whole way.
An edited version of this interview ran in Entertainment Weekly issue #1367, on newsstands Friday, June 5.