It was the 1960s and the Space Race was well underway. America heard all about those first NASA astronauts and flights, while their loyal wives stood smiling in the background.
It’s 2015. Move over guys, it’s the women’s turn.
“The Astronaut Wives Club,” ABC’s summer drama series — based on the book by Lily Koppel — tells the stories of seven of these women who went from military spouses to American royalty with each Mercury countdown.
And two of those women are played by Louisiana actresses in the 10-episode, New Orleans-shot “Wives Club.”
Azure Parsons inhabits the role of Annie Glenn, wife of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, while Erin Cummings plays Marge Slayton, wife of Deke Slayton, NASA’s first chief of the Astronaut Office.
In portraying Annie Glenn, New Orleans-born Parsons first tackled Glenn’s stuttering disorder.
“I did a lot of research,” Parsons said. “I wanted to hear what she sounded like. I wanted to be true to Annie Glenn as much as I could humanly possibly be.”
Parsons found there was almost no video of Annie Glenn.
“There’s a tiny clip after John’s launch, it’s very brief, she says, ‘Oh, I’m just happy, I’m just really happy.’ It was so sweet the way she said it,” Parsons said.
Fortunately, video aside, Annie Glenn’s severe stutter was well-documented.
“They said she often looked like she was cold, her jaw moved so much trying to get words out,” Parsons explained. “She’s such a remarkable human being. She has so much strength and grit and resolve underneath this kindness and sweetness. She’s really an inspiration.”
And getting to play this remarkable character back home in New Orleans was wonderful, she said.
“My mother and my sister still live in Louisiana, and I got to go visit my dad and grandmother up in Alabama,” Parsons said. “New Orleans will always be my home, and I ended up renting an apartment that was right by City Park, which is my favorite place in the world.”
Parsons also spent time in Louisiana last year in a role on the Shreveport-shot, WGN drama series “Salem,” set in 17th-century Massachusetts during the town’s infamous witch trials.
“That was very immsersive because they built this entire set in Shreveport that was the Salem town,” Parsons said, “and you really felt like you were in it.”
Like Parsons, Lafayette native Cummings researched Marge Slayton, but turned up very little.
“These women stood in the shadows of their men who had ‘the right stuff’ and were certainly heroes, but they also were swept under the rug of history,” Cummings said. “They were forced to portray the perfect NASA housewives, and, therefore, these stories of them that were told are not necessarily accurate portrayals of who these women actually were, what their hopes and dreams and fears were.”
Cummings did learn that her character grew up extremely poor in Los Angeles, and with an alcoholic father. She decided her Marge would have two distinct sides — sassy and strong in front of the “club” and a bit gentler, more vulnerable with her husband or one-on-one with one of the other women.
“I love Marge. I loved her from the minute I read the pilot. There was never a doubt in my mind that that was the character I wanted to play,” she said. “I think every actress on the show does a phenomenal job on her role, and I am just thankful that this is my role. Every person was really perfectly cast for the role they portrayed.”
The cast spent about five months in New Orleans, between late September 2014 and February.
In addition to shoots in the city, other scenes took place at a 1960s-looking motel in Slidell, and along the beach in Gulfport, Mississippi.
Some houses and yards near the New Orleans lakefront became the astronauts’ neighborhood with little alteration.
“New Orleans is such a great city to film in,” Cummings said. “The people of New Orleans have so embraced the television and film community. We really, as a cast, took our time and enjoyed the things that New Orleans has to offer.”
With actors hailing from across the globe, Cummings took it upon herself to organize a swamp tour for everyone.
“Because those are things you’re just not going to be able to do anywhere else in the world in the way you can do them in New Orleans,” she explained. “They got a chance to see a great American city that has such a distinct personality.”
In the process, the cast also gained a new perspective on those pioneering astronauts’ support systems.
“Someone made a comment, ‘Who cares about the wives? There’s nothing interesting about their story. The story is about the men who went up, that’s what’s interesting,’” Cummings said. “And I think, ‘Well, tell that to the hundreds of thousands of men and women who sit at home making sure that the bills get paid, the dogs get fed, the grass gets cut, the children get taken care of, that life continues so that a hero can go be a hero.”
Look for Cummings in the upcoming ABC miniseries “Madoff,” starring Richard Dreyfus, as swindler Bernie Madoff, and Blythe Danner as his wife, Ruth. Cummings plays Madoff’s secretary Eleanor Squillari. She’s also had roles in “Mad Men,” “Halt and Catch Fire” and “Spartacus: War of the Damned,” among other shows.