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One Giant Step: Actor Skyler Bible on Playing Astronaut Richard F. Gordon Jr. in ‘First Man’

October 9, 2018Ben MK

The story of one of mankind's greatest achievements as told through the eyes of the people who lived it, First Man is a small-scale drama set against one of the largest-scale backdrops imaginable.

Directed by Damien Chazelle and starring Ryan Gosling as pioneering astronaut Neil Armstrong, the film sheds light on the hardships and personal struggles faced by Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy), as he's recruited to join NASA's space program. It's a journey that culminates in that momentous first step for all of humanity, but the movie is about more than just Armstrong. It's also about all the other astronauts who contributed — some of whom even gave their lives — so that the dream of setting foot on the Moon could become a reality.

One of those astronauts was Richard F. Gordon Jr. Played by actor Skyler Bible in the film, Gordon was Armstrong's backup pilot on the Gemini 8 mission; and I sat down with Bible before First Man's Canadian premiere at this year's Toronto International Film Festival to discuss his role in the critically acclaimed movie.

How did you come to be involved in First Man and what drew you to the project?

Bible: First off, it's Damien Chazelle, [who was] coming off of La La Land. And it surprised me that the Apollo mission hadn't been a movie before. Apollo 13 had, but at least the mission to the moon hadn't, so that was very interesting. And the fact that he took it up, and the whole cast too was incredible.

My agent sent me the breakdown for it, and I read for it. [Damien] wanted me to fly out to Atlanta, so I did that. And then I went into this huge room, just read for him, and, yeah, he loved it.

And what kind of research did you do for the role?

Bible: Everything. Everything, from watching documentaries to reading about [Richard Gordon]. And actually, I was able to contact the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and then was able to get a hold of Richard Gordon. I talked to him over the phone and he told me about his story and his time up there, and then a week and a half later he passed away. But the fact that I was able to talk to him and get his approval on me on doing the movie...

When I was talking to the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation CEO, she said he looked me up to make sure I was good-looking enough to play him. [laughs]

What was it like working with the dream team of Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling?

Bible: Just to step into that and just to be in the proximity was incredible — just to watch them work. I think it was one of Ryan's most deep roles. I just feel like he went really far into it. And on-set he was super-focused. It wasn't about the people that were there, it was about what was happening. And Damien would go through the shots with the cinematographer — they'd do one shot, two shot, done, and then we'd move on to the next one. It was just very quick, very professional, but very easy going as well.

Were there a lot of rehearsals involved?

Bible: There wasn't — [Damien] wanted it really natural, he wanted it really straightforward. He wanted it to feel almost like a documentary, like you were a part of it. But also, we were able to do what the character would do. Each take was a little bit different, a little bit tweaked. If you wanted something changed, he would say, "Try this." And then you would try it and he would say, "Try this." And it was very, very low-key, but very natural, very real.

How about the rest of the cast? What was it like working with them?

Bible: Just so professional. The level of professionalism was incredible. Usually, I'm used to working on TV, where it's "Cameras up, picture," and then you get into character, you say your lines. And you have time to work up to your character, you get in the mindset and all that. But on this set, it was "Lights up, pictures up. Go!" And, you know, we were having conversations about podcasts or whatever, and then it was instantly [time to be] in character, so it was very cool to see the difference in professionalism.

And that's another thing — with TV work, there's more time to develop your character over the course of an entire season, versus the two hours you have for a movie. So did your approach change, in doing this movie versus TV work?

Bible: I think it does. I just feel like, like you said, it's a lot quicker [in terms] of a development. But I feel like there's a lot more research that goes into it, so that you can portray as much of the character as possible in that small amount of time.

I [also] feel like there's less creative freedom. There is still some creative freedom, but I feel like when you're playing a real person you want to portray their characteristics, their personality, all of that stuff.

Can you tell me more about your experience filming the movie? What stood out for your during the shoot?

Bible: Just the meticulous attention to detail, I think was very, very interesting and very cool to see. It was very intentional, very meticulous. Even the type of food that was in the mission control room, that kind of stuff — [Damien's] attention to important details all accumulated to make one seamless story.

And what about filming the scenes inside the space capsule?

Bible: I had the jumpsuit on, I had all that stuff, the headsets from the '60s — and when we walked up to the full-scale model of the Gemini 8 capsule, with every notch and button in place, it was very surreal.

Chris Abbott, who was playing Dave Scott, and Brian [D'Arcy James], obviously, they did their research and knew what knob and what button, where it was and all that. But just to see everything in its place — and there were consultants and lab techs and people on-set that were actually there that worked on the Apollo mission. So we got to talk to them and get their insights. It was incredible.

What about the flag controversy surrounding the film — What's your take on that?

Bible: I agree with Damien and Ryan. I think that it is less an American achievement [than it is] a human achievement. You have American rockets and an American team and NASA, but if we can be leaders to the rest of the world and have it be a human achievement, I think that's the way to go. And Neil was a humble, humble guy. You know, "One step for man, one step for mankind." Instead of being separated, we can be [united] — I think that's a lot more powerful.

Last but not least, what are you working on next?

Bible: I am shooting a pilot, actually, right now. I can't say what it is, [laughs] but it should come out next TV season. It's a guest star type role, but I'm on a few episodes and it's gonna be fun. I know Damien's working on some other stuff as well, so [I'm] talking with him and all that.

First Man is in theatres everywhere October 12th, 2018.

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