Movies like “Apollo 13” or the HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon” have given modern audiences a taste of what it was like to experience the space race in the ’60s. Daring astronauts, clever problem solving men on the ground, a race against the Soviets – it all makes for dramatic television. But there’s another side to that time period: the women the astronauts left behind when they traveled. These wives were basically celebrities, and, for many people, represented a very public face of happy marriage. Of course, behind the scenes, the story was a little different, and that’s the story “The Astronaut Wives Club” seeks to tell. JoAnna Garcia Swisher stars as Betty Grissom, wife of Gus Grissom, and says despite the difference in era, she found some unexpected parallels to her own life.
How does Betty react to her husband going into space?
I think it’s obviously terrifying, but it’s important to remember these women were military wives. Betty had to see her husband off to war before and that certainly had its own set of stressors and fears attached to it. They were very strong and very capable of handling the unknown and being prepared for the worst. I think in the particular circumstance there were so many pressures that were put on them. I mean, when their husbands were sent off to war, they didn’t have to keep a certain household in a certain way. It was a very real situation so I think that the addition of all of the expectations that were put on these women added to the complete fish out of water experience, and certainly for Betty. She definitely wasn’t the most polished of wives. She was known for speaking her mind and saying her piece.
Does it change your performance at all to know what’s coming up for these women, and particularly someone who had something tragic happen?
Gosh, I feel like I want to tell you all of these things.
Don’t ruin it!
I won’t ruin it. I don’t know if I’m allowed to! Betty definitely had a side to her that was incredibly intuitive. She had a lot of intense feelings about things.
Of all the wives, she does seem the most concerned about the danger.
Yeah, and I think that hopefully in watching the show, you can kind of understand why she has those intense feelings of doom. Without going into detail about why she has those feelings and that sort of thing, because we didn’t really tell that side of the story, but definitely, she very much follows her gut. She’s very committed to the things she believes in. That’s very much who Betty is. She is very concerned. She definitely goes there in her mind.
The show also has a lot of period details, like the very 1950s food all the wives were serving.
Oh god. I don’t even know how people survived back then. They’re all very authentic recipes. Betty was a lover of creative foods. So I always looked forward to shooting launch parties or get-togethers because I was always interested to see what Betty would bring to the table. It was always going to be interesting and creative. I can’t believe people ate like that. I was like ‘is this for real?’ I was even more blown away that sometimes it tasted really good. I’m not always proud to say that.
So you tried some of it?
Oh absolutely, we ate and drank our way through the show, all of us. Whether we were on set or not. I mean, we shot the show in New Orleans and we all enjoyed what New Orleans had to offer. And on set, you know, a little pop of champagne never hurt anybody.
There are definitely some creative meals served up.
Some meatloaf cupcakes —they were actually quite amazing.
What’s in a meatloaf cupcake?
It’s actually phenomenal. It’s a muffin tin filled with meatloaf baked with a mashed potato icing toping and it is spectacular.
That just feels like a very American dish.
Why not add a really cute spin to it? It’s perfect for launch party.
As someone who’s been a professional actress for a long time, did you feel a sense of identification with Betty’s experience with the press and fame?
It’s funny, because I think that this day and age we’re a little bit desensitized to the media and the idea of becoming an instant overnight success. It’s something that happens a lot with reality television and the different lives we follow. We follow so many different lives from different walks of life. So I think the shock value wasn’t so much there for me because everything happened so gradually for me in my career. But for these women, there wasn’t any frame of reference, you know? There were icons and famous people and actors, musicians, politicians and famous people, but these regular people didn’t one day live an anonymous life and the next day have their faces put on the cover of a magazine because, without being too dramatic, they were going to be American royalty.
So you had a little more time to get acclimated to the press than these women did.
Honestly, I think I related a lot to it as a baseball wife. It’s a huge part of my life. I’m married to a baseball player [Nick Swisher of the Cleveland Indians]. I never really knew that particular experience would ever directly apply to my career. But I do really know what it’s like to move to a new city because of your husband’s job and rely on brand new friends and brand new women from all different places in the country and in the world with all different beliefs and ideology. Everyone has a different frame of reference but you all come together to support each other because that’s what you do. I really appreciate my friendships through that, through the good and the bad and the highs and lows of your husband’s career, you flock to each other and support each other. Because it’s really hard to understand what it feels like if you’re not in it.