The date was July 20, 1969, and half a billion people were gathered around their TV sets, watching Apollo 11's lunar module inch closer and closer to the moon. What had appeared light years away in the night sky was suddenly within human reach.
"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." And with those famous words, Neil Armstrong planted his footprint on the moon and made history.
His accomplishment was the culmination of a lifetime of triumph and courage. And it's the man and father behind the helmet who we meet in Damien Chazelle's new film, First Man.
Ryan, you play the man himself, Neil Armstrong. How did you relate to such a giant character in history?
Ryan: I couldn't identify with it, really. Neil, just in general, was a very singular person, and everyone who I spoke to who knew him said: "Good luck playing Neil", because, for many people – even those in his life – he was hard to read. He was a very deep person.
The film digs into Neil's background. Apart from the mission to the moon, what else is at play?
Ryan: For me, the other film that's also happening is about somebody who has to go to the moon in order to land on Earth. Someone who is searching for answers and meaning in their life and they're not answers they can find here on Earth. They're given the opportunity to look for those answers in the mysteries of the universe.
Claire, you play Neil's wife, Janet. As a wife and mother yourself, how do you think Janet felt about Neil leaving his family behind to take on a life-threatening space mission?
Claire: I think when Janet married Neil, she didn't marry him knowing he was going to be an astronaut, but she married him knowing he flew planes fast and very dangerously. But I think when it came to the Apollo missions, that's when it went up a notch and it felt a bit out of control. That's what the film explores: what drives people to do things that are seemingly sort of suicidal, in a way.
We don't know much about Janet in real life. Was she as strong and feisty as you play her?
Claire: You are what your choices are. Janet raised two boys pretty much on her own and she supported her husband. It got to a point where she was at home – she was also a swim instructor – and she said unless she was challenging herself every day, she felt she was wasting her life. So he was off doing his thing, but she did her thing and didn't just stay still at home. And I think that's possibly what attracted Neil to her – that she wasn't like every other woman of her generation. She had a belief in herself. She would have made a great astronaut! [Laughs]
Aside from how scarily flimsy the pods were that held Neil, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins, what else did you learn about Apollo 11?
Ryan: Well, I don't think I fully appreciated how dangerous these missions were; how primitive the technology was [back then]. I'm sure you've heard the analogy that there's more computing power in our phones than there was in those [space] capsules. And yet they managed to accomplish this seemingly impossible task.
First Man opened in New Zealand cinemas this week.
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