Brett was part of the ensemble cast in Ron Howard’s 1995 blockbuster film, “Apollo 13.” Also starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise and Ed Harris, Brett played the part of Andy, the mission’s CAPCOM.
How he got the role…
I heard about the project through the grapevine and got my agent to get me an appointment, which of course, they said was difficult. They finally said, “Would you go do a pre-read for the casting directors?” and I said, “Of course I will,” and I did and they put me on tape and I read for Ron Howard and talked to him for a while and next thing I know I was told I had a part; that I would be one of the CAPCOMs. Then another actor decided that the role of CAPCOM 1 (I was going to be CAPCOM 2) wasn’t big enough for him, so he passed on the project, and so Ron said, “Let’s give that to Brett.” So that’s how that part came up and I actually thought it was going to be pretty much a voice, not a personality or character. I thought it was mostly going to be about the guys in space. To my delight, it turned out to be quite a wonderful part. It was basically the story about the men on the ground and the men in space and how they worked together to bring them home. So that’s how it happened.
In preparing for your role, did you listen to the actual exchange between the CAPCOM and the astronauts?
Yes, we listened to the tapes, and we had a two-week Mission Control school we went through. I had the actual Ground-to-Air Manual that had all the dialogue for the entire mission given to me. Yeah, it was necessary to hear how the men sounded, even though it was filtered through thousands of miles of space, but you wanted to hear what tension was in their voice or what kind of emotional state they might be in, or whether you could hear that in their voices. Then I also spent about two hours on the phone with the actual CAPCOM, Jack Lousma, about what they were experiencing. We created a fictional name for CAPCOM Andy. But there was a real astronaut. He was a wonderful guy. The CAPCOMs, traditionally, were the backup crews to that mission. They probably had been locked on to another mission that they would be the primary astronauts on, but they also had backup crews for everything. So they were the backup crew in case something went wrong with Jim Lovell. He was one of the guys that would have gone up.
About those colored knit shirts…
That’s what astronauts wore in those days. CAPCOMs are astronauts. The other guys were Mission Control technicians. That’s just generally what they wore. I stuck out because of all the beautiful colors that I chose! Yellow, minty green (laughs). They initially had me in a shirt and tie and I said, “Wait a minute,” and Dave Scott or one of the technical advisors said, “These guys were astronauts,” so the costumer went and yanked us out of our white shirts and ties and put us in the astronaut shirts. Rita Ryack, who was the costumer designer, was amazing. She goes, “No one will wear this shirt. It’s powder baby blue.” And I went, “I will!” She said, “You will?” And I said, “Sure!” (laughs) I think costumes are a great element to a character. And if you can get away with doing something really wild, why not? It gives you a little bit more character.
On talking into a headset versus to other actors…
Well, actually, I didn’t just speak into a headset. All the other guys in Mission Control were on a loop, so everyone could hear everyone else. So they could hear me. And also, I think it was because of Ed Harris’ schedule, we shot all the Mission Control stuff first, before they shot anything else, and that was like, five weeks of shooting and Tom and Bill and Kevin basically came to the set every day and were there for us in another room with headsets on. They would do their dialogue for us. We couldn’t see sometimes, things they would do up on the screen, things we were supposed to be looking at, like images on the Mission Control screen. We didn’t necessarily always see the stuff that was supposed to be there. But at least we had the actors. They were committed to the movie and that’s how great Tom and Bill and Kevin were. They’d show up and do their dialogue for us and be there for us emotionally.
So that was really special in the sense that everyone was really committed to the ensemble of the piece. No one was like, “Hey I’m the star, I don’t have to be there, I’m not getting paid yet.” When I finished shooting, I told Ron Howard that I would come in and do the CAPCOM voice stuff with the astronauts. And he said that he really appreciated that. And I went through, I guess, about three or four days, and he pulled me aside and said, “Brett, listen, there are a lot of guys that I hired that didn’t get to do much on the movie and they would really like to do this too, and would you mind?” And I said, “Hell, no.” So I did three or four days and then another actor would come in and do Mission Control voices and do my dialogue and whatnot and everyone felt like they were a part of something. Everyone was involved and that was one of the reasons why I think the process was so special and made the movie so special. Our two technical advisers, the two Jerrys, I called them, Jerry Bostick and Jerry Griffin, they were there and I remember at one point, Ed Harris pulling Jerry aside and saying, “Listen, I want you to describe to all of us what happened at this moment emotionally for all you guys. What the feeling was.” Then he would, and Ron would say, “Okay, let’s roll.” So we all had a story told to us about what was going on emotionally in their lives and then we would do the scene. One particular moment was when they landed. When you see, all of a sudden, the parachute opens and you know they made it through the atmosphere. And they all start cheering.
On recreating history…
The two Jerrys that were there…they were actually there in Mission Control on this mission. Because of their presence, it made it very real to a lot of us. And because the production designer and the set designer and the art directors worked so diligently on trying to recreate exactly what Mission Control looked like in those days to the point that Jerry would say, “I’ll be right back, Brett, I’ve got to go get a cup of coffee,” and he would walk over to a door and he’d start to open it and I go, “Where are you going?” And he’d say, “Ah, man, that used to be where coffee was in Mission Control.” And I’d say, “That’s Outside Stage,” (laughs) and he’d say, “I know, I know, I’ll go to Craft Services.” We had Dave Scott there, who was a real astronaut, and Jim Lovell visited a few times. Also, because I grew up in Houston, I was sort of weaned on NASA and the Apollo stuff. I know my brother was really involved with it and I was aware of it, so it seemed very real to me and like something I lived through before and wasn’t hard to recreate. The secret is to recreate it based on that character’s history and emotional past and what they’ve gone through.
On the mental state of astronauts…
That was one of the things that the real CAPCOM, Jack Lousma, said. When I talked to him, I said, “You know, come on, these guys…you’ve trained with for this mission…you were the backup crew and now they are lost in space, basically, and you’re the guy talking to them, and wasn’t there ever a moment where you just put your head in your hands and just cried or went out to your car and kicked your tires and screamed to the Heavens going, Why now? Why are you doing this to my friends? Like, a breakdown, or an emotional catharsis of some sort?” And he said, “No, we were all fighter pilots and we trained and flew jets and when you’re flying jets, the personality of generally most the pilots is, ‘You’ve got a problem? Let’s solve the problem.’ You don’t solve the problem…inevitably you push Eject.” He said, “That’s why we make good astronauts. We don’t panic. We don’t get totally wrapped up emotionally. We’re trying to figure out the physics and how we fix the situation.” And he said, “You’re an actor. And you’re going to play this probably a helluva lot more interesting then what I did in the first place because it wasn’t that interesting for me. It was really me doing my job, trying to figure out how to get these guys back. That was my goal. Period.”
What do you attribute to the success of maintaining the intensity in a story where everyone knows the ending?
Ron Howard’s film making. I had really dear, dear friends that said they didn’t want to see the movie. “I don’t want to see this movie, I know the ending, blah blah blah,” they said, and I said, “C’mon, man, see my movie. I’m in this picture. It’s a really cool movie.” And they go see it and call me up and go, “You know, I gotta tell ya, I sat on the edge of my seat, knowing that these guys survive, waiting for them to come through the atmosphere, to see that parachute open…” I mean, a friend of mine who worked on the movie didn’t want to see it and went and saw it and said, “I cried and cheered when the parachute opened. It’s amazing.” And I said, “Yeah, it’s the film making that makes it special.” It was Ron’s take on the whole thing, I think, that made it jump to life and made you care. One of the other things that made it work also is that even though we know the story, no one knew really what happened, how we got them back. It was a joint effort, and in the movie you realize that.
Shooting from the hip…
There was a line in the movie, that Ed Harris has, where he says, “I believe this will be our finest hour.” Missions in space are mapped out and there is a check list for every situation. “If this happens, this is what we have to do.” There was no check list. There was nothing they could do, and they had to figure out how to get these guys back without power, with lack of oxygen and I think they were even low on water and they had to throw the book out and start at ground zero and say, “How do we get these guys back with this information? This is what we have. We won’t have the power to get them here or won’t have the guidance systems.” Man’s ingenuity, his mind and intelligence brought these men back. And the courage of those three astronauts got them back. Computers assisted in trying to figure out certain data, but basically, it was men that pulled together and figured out a way, improvisationally, to get these guys back. Shooting from the hip, without any kind of prior testing. That’s what made the movie special and that’s what made the movie work. Because we didn’t know that, as laymen of the NASA world. We didn’t know what made this work and how they got these guys back. We thought, “Okay, they did that and they did this.” But this movie shows you bit by bit, how they did stuff.
Doing his homework…
Ron Howard was really great. He would come up to me and say, “Tonight, when we wrap, look at the Ground-to-Air Manual.” And he would ask me to look up particular problems they had and bring him some of the more interesting stuff. So I go home that night and look at the Ground-to-Air Manual and I pull up three pages. I’d write out dialogue…stuff that I thought was interesting, and I’d hand it to him and he’d read it and go, “That’s not good. This is good, this is good, that’s not good…okay, great.” And I go, “What do we do?” and he said, “We’re going to shoot that in 20 minutes.” And I go, “Ron, I can’t learn all this technical data in twenty minutes.” And he said, “Well, do what you can.” So I would sit there with a piece of paper and do mathematical equations and then write a line of dialogue and then another line of equations…so I had dialogue written everywhere (laughs) and then he’d roll. And the way you talk to these guys, they’d talk back and you’d say, “Okay, uh, 13….” and you’re not really looking at anyone…you’re thinking or looking at your own screen in front of you and I could have stuff written there. So I’d get my dialogue that way. We had the benefit of the actual Ground-to-Air Manual, which was really helpful. And also, Ron’s editing expertise in terms of what worked and what didn’t. That all became vital to the success of the picture.
Working with “the guys”…
We’d play poker in between takes. That was fun, but sometimes we would stay on the headphones and talk about what kind of cars we drove or whatnot…there was a funny instance once, when one of the actors said, “Yeah, I drive a Beemer, I drive this, I drive that,” and someone asked Tom Hanks, cos he was on the loop with us. “Tom, what do you drive? A Mercedes? What do you drive?” Because, you know, we all know how successful he is and how much money he has. And he goes, “I drive a van! Do you have three kids? You gotta drive a van!” (laughs) I mean, that’s just classic Tom Hanks. But, the poker games were fun. I didn’t play that much, though. I’m not a huge gambler. I’m too Irish (laughs).
Would he have gone up in the Vomit Comit?
Yes. I went to Houston, actually, for my high school reunion while they were shooting on the Vomit Comit. I went down there with the publicist, who was one of my best friends, Andy Lipschultz, and we played golf out at the Woodlands and I said, “Can I get up there?” And he said, “No, there’s no way they’re going to let you. They hardly have room for Ron and the camera.” There’s just no room. They do twenty-five runs in the morning and twenty-five runs in the afternoon. They do G-Force pulls over the Gulf of Mexico and go straight up and then go down and you have twenty-five seconds to get whatever footage you can. So they pull out of it and reset and do it again. I’ve done it before in a friend of mine’s private jet. He flew us up in northern California and the pilot, who used to be with Western Airlines, said, “Hey you want to do a G-pull?” And I said, “What’s that?” He said, “Push off your seat and do a somersault.” He went straight up and then went straight down. You lose gravity. When you’re falling, you rise out of your seat. But the stupid thing was, the guy who owned the jet has vodka and bourbon and all this stuff in bottles in the back in those crystal things with little tops that lift off…well they all lifted off and spilled (laughs) and we left it to the pilot to explain that to the owner. So yeah, I did a somersault, or part of one. It was pretty cool. But it was weird having no gravity.
On co-starring with his wife…
“Apollo 13” was a coincidence. Ron hired both of us separately. It was upsetting to me because I remember, when I got hired, Michelle hadn’t gotten hired yet and she was devastated. And then two or three days later she got the call and she got the part too. She actually worked longer on it than I did, in terms of weeks and stuff. But the movie is more about the men in the capsule. And the men on the ground. Jim Lovell’s wife is vital to the story, Kathleen Quinlan’s role. The other thing, about working with the men, a lot of the time when we were shooting, there would be Kathleen Quinlan and the kids and the wives of the astronauts and all these extras sitting in the glass-encased gallery. So there were women there. It wasn’t like it was all guys on the set. But the women got cut in the movie. Michelle ended up with three lines in the movie. There was a lot more stuff at home. Michelle stayed with Kathleen Quinlan because she was her best friend, stuff like that. I had five or six weeks on the movie and she had seven weeks.
It’s great for both of us. A lot of times what happens is I will get a part on a movie and we’ll go away on location…like we were in New Orleans when she did “Orleans” or for instance, “Legacy.” On “Complex of Fear,” we’d be there and they would be trying to locally cast some role and I’d say, “Listen, my wife is here and she’s a marvelous actress. Michelle Little.” And they’d go, “Wow, she’s here?” And I said, “Yeah, why don’t you read her?” On “Legacy,” Chris Abbott and I were talking when we did the pilot and I said, “If this goes, and I have to move my whole family, it would be nice to find something for my wife to do on the show.” So she said, “I’d love to meet her and see her tape.” So I sent her the tape and then when we came back from Virginia, she came over and met with Michelle after she had seen her tape and said, “My God, I know your work. You’re a wonderful actress. I’d love to have you do something on the show.” Then she called up and said, “Well, there’s a guest star she can do or she can do this recurring role of the tutor to your daughter.” And I said, “Well, let’s do something that’s recurring because one episode is like, eight days, versus, if we’re going to be here for eight months, she can do something every once in a while.” So, she ended up doing that.
On reading the novels written by former astronauts…
I’ve read the book that “From the Earth to the Moon” was based on. And I have “Moon Shot” and I think I read part of it. But no, I didn’t spend a lot of time doing that. I thought the Ground-to-Air Manual was a hell of a lot more interesting. Also, we had Dave Scott there, who had been on three missions and who I later played in “From the Earth to the Moon,” and he and I are very close and got to be good buddies. He gave me what I needed to know. I have the most profound respect for that man. I feel very fortunate that I can count him as a friend of mine.
What color Corvette would you have chosen if you had been an astronaut?
Probably black or red. Black, probably. Course, being in the Texas heat, that probably would have been a real stupid idea (laughs). Maybe white, I don’t know!
A private moment with Tom Hanks…
I remember the day I was there to do off-screen dialogue for Tom and those guys and I knew it was my last day because we were going to let some other guys do it, and I remember I said, “Where’s Tom?” I wanted to thank him, because he had been very gracious toward me, and they said, “He just went to his trailer,” and I went and knocked on his trailer and he said, “Yeah?” And I said, “Tom, it’s Brett,” And he said, “Open up!” So I opened the door and there was no one there. Then all of a sudden this head poked around the corner and he said, “Hey man, what are you doing?” And I said, “I just wanted to thank you for being such a great guy and for being so supportive. This has been a wonderful experience and I want to thank you.” And he said, “Aw, no problem man, you’re great, thanks a lot, you’re terrific…thank YOU! And I said, “Well, thanks, Tom…what are you doing?” And he said, “I’m going to the bathroom, what do you think I’m doing?” (laughs) He had just sort of opened the door and his head was sticking out down the hallway. The bottom line is that’s the kind of guy he is. He’s not pretentious. He’s not someone that goes, “Who are you? Get out of my space.” He was a team player. I think he’s the Jimmy Stewart of our generation.
On working with Ed Harris…
Ed Harris was exciting to work with. I’ve known Ed over the years and there was something he did, it may be hard to describe for print, but they were shooting and they were taking a long time setting it up. They had rehearsed it and Ed is a very intense man, in a quiet way. But he can, on occasion, voice his emotions. And I remember they were doing this thing and Ed was getting antsy and he was behind me, catty-corner to me as the director to the mission. So he was in his spot, and I was in my CAPCOM spot, and when you sit down, they can’t see you, the camera and all the crew. You can see each other, but they can’t see you. I remember sitting there, and all of a sudden, he stood up and slammed his fist down on the desk in front of him and said, “C’mon, dammit, can we go?” And they were like, “Yeah, ok, fine, fine!” And his watch broke when he hit the desk and they said something about it and he said, “Screw the watch! Screw the watch, c’mon, let’s go!” And Ron said, “Yeah, roll it, roll it, let’s roll!” And they rolled and got it, and it was this great moment when the camera pushes in on him, and when they finished, Ron said, “Cut!” And everyone was completely quiet and Ron said, “Ed, you happy?” And he said, “Yeah.” And Ron said, “Great! Print it, let’s move on!” So, Ed sat down and pulled out one of his Camels, tapped it on his desk, put it in his mouth and lit it. I sat down and looked over my shoulder, and he saw me, did a double take, and I was looking at him like, “What the hell was that?” (laughs) And he finally sees me and he looks at me, and he’s real intense, and then he does this little grin and does this little “hee, hee, hee” laugh. So he did it on purpose, to get it going. He was amazing. When he did that to me, I laughed. I have the utmost respect for Ed Harris. He’s just one of those great actors. I just love Ed. He’s got a great heart on him and he’s also married to a fabulous actress, Amy Madigan.
Something to talk about…
Prior to shooting “Apollo 13” I had gotten the script, “Something to Talk About,” and read it and wanted to go in on the role of Jamie. Well, they wouldn’t see me. The casting director said, “Brett’s not right,” and I don’t know exactly what the reasons were, but my agent said they couldn’t get me in. So a month passed, and I’m shooting “Apollo 13” and Dennis Quaid, who is going to play Julia Robert’s husband, called me from somewhere where he’s shooting a movie, and I was talking to him and he’s on the satellite phone and he said he was getting ready to do this movie and I said…
“Yeah, I know, I tried to get on for that role of Jamie, but they wouldn’t see me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Well, they wouldn’t see me. I wanted to read for Jamie.”
“The horse trainer guy that almost steals my wife away from me?”
“Well, why wouldn’t they see you?”
“I don’t know. I’m sure it’s cast by now. Don’t worry about it.”
“They haven’t cast it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Whoever plays this role should be someone who I think would be able to steal my wife away from me…and you would! You would steal my wife away from me. You’re charming and good looking…”
Blah blah blah (laughs).
“I’m going to call them.”
“Dennis, you don’t have to do that.”
“I want to.”
“…well, alright. See what you can do and if you can get me in, I’ll go read for it.”
Thank you, Dennis… (laughs)
A little help from Ron Howard…
So I get a call the next day. I’m on the set of “Apollo” and they want to see me on “Something to Talk About” the next day. Now, I’m shooting both those days. So they fax me to the office, twelve or fourteen pages of dialogue and they want to see me the next day at 11:30. So, we wrap that day and Ron’s standing there and I said, “Ron, can I speak to you for a minute?” And I said, “Look, Lasse Halstrom is doing this movie with Julia Roberts and they want to see me tomorrow at 11:30 at Warner Brothers.” Now, we were at Universal, which is right around the corner from Warner Brothers. And I said, “I don’t know what to do. I’d really like to do this audition.” And he said, “Well, you should! Hold on for a second, let me look at the schedule.” So, he sits down on the couch (we’re in the set that’s Jim Lovell’s house, where we had that big party scene), and he says, “I tell you what, tell them you’ll make it, and if we’re running late, and I haven’t gotten you out of here by 11:30, I will personally call Lasse Halstrom over at Warner Brothers and tell him it’s my fault and that you’re on your way, but that we had to finish the shot.” And I said, “Okay, great.” I mean, he was really great. He changed the schedule for me, basically, and then said if he screwed up, he would call the director, which was really nice and beyond the call of duty.
So I stayed up until about 3:30 in the morning, working on dialogue, working on scenes, and then got to the set at seven, worked all morning and at 11:15, Ron said, “Get out of here, Brett. Go to your audition.” I go over there, sat down, read the scene for the director and writer, Callie Khouri, and the producer, Paula Weinstein, and they seemed to love it and then they called back later that afternoon and said, “Halstrom would like to see you on Saturday (this is like, a Thursday).” And I said, “What for?” And they said, “He’d like to video tape you.” And I said, “Why didn’t he videotape me in the audition?” (laughs) And they said, “Well, you need to go to his hotel and they’re going to videotape you there and then they’re going to send the tapes to Julia.” I guess she had cast approval. So I said, “Okay.” So I went and did it, and I got the part and that was all basically because Ron Howard literally bent over backwards for me and gave me a way out to go to the audition. That shows you a little bit about who Ron Howard is. He’s a really cool guy. I can’t say enough about him.
Getting the scoop on Robert Duvall…
Ron’s also the one that told me about Bobby Duvall. When I got the part, I said, “So, what’s it like working with Duvall?” And he said, “Well, Bobby Duvall insists on the truth.” And I said (laughs), “Could you be a little more specific?” And he goes, “Well, he insists on the truth in life and in his work.” So I was like, “Cool, man.” And I ended up getting along really well with Bobby. We became quite fond of each other while we worked together.
The other thing about “Apollo 13” that’s really nice is that my wife and I’s lucky number is 13. And we had tried for about four years to have a baby and we couldn’t. We did all these different procedures to try and have children until my wife said, finally, that she couldn’t do it any more. She couldn’t do the process anymore. It’s hard on the body. And I said, “Well, honey, let’s adopt, then.” And she goes, “You’d be willing to do that?” And I said, “Yeah! There are plenty of children in this world that need families, so let’s adopt a baby.” So we talked to a friend of ours who has three adopted kids, and he said, “Brett, after about four days, I thought that kid looked just like me.” He said, “It doesn’t matter. They become your children.”
What does blue mean?
So we started the adoption process. We met a lawyer in Santa Barbara, and we were getting ready to do the adoption procedure. About this point, Michelle kept saying to the makeup and hair woman, “Man, I feel funny. I’m kind of dizzy.” And the makeup lady, Joy, said, “You’re pregnant,” and Michelle said, “No, I’m not.” Well, I was out training. I was out running five miles a day, trying to get ready for the movie with Julia, because I wanted to be in good shape, and I said, “What does a pregnancy test cost?” And she said, “Twenty bucks.” And I said, “Well, I’m going for my run. Go buy a damn test and let’s see!” (laughs) So I went for my run and when I came back, she was sitting on the couch and was quiet and I said, “What’s the matter?” And she said, “It was blue.” I said, “What’s blue?” And she goes, “The pregnancy test.” And I go, “What does blue mean?” And she goes, “It means I’m pregnant.” So, we went to the doctor and he said, “Yeah, you’re pregnant.” He said to come back in two days and we’d do another ultrasound. We came back in two days and I went out with my friends that night and the doctor called her that night after the ultrasound and said, “It’s not a viable pregnancy.” And that broke Michelle’s heart, after two days of being pregnant. He said the fetus hadn’t grown. It wasn’t even the size of a fingernail and he said, “You should go to an ultrasound specialist.”
Houston, we have a heartbeat…
So, we basically fired that doctor and I was furious. So I left, and ten days later Michelle went to see the ultrasound specialist. Now, I was out on the plantation with Julia doing a rehearsal for the dance sequence and I left the dance hall and called Michelle. So I asked her, “What did the doctor say?” And she took a long pause and goes, “I heard a heartbeat.” And then eight and half months later our daughter was born.
At the “Apollo 13” premiere…
So, when we went to the premiere of “Apollo 13,” Ron was walking by and Michelle was very pregnant at the time, like eight months pregnant (laughs) and Ron walks by and I said, “Ron! Ron!” It’s dark in the theater and he stops and I whisper, “Come here!” And he said, “Who is it?” And I go, “It’s Brett and Michelle.” And he comes over and I said, “We just want to thank you.” And he said, “What for?” And I said, “Our lucky number is 13 and Michelle got pregnant on your movie, and I keep wondering who the father is, Ron.” (laughs) That was the most special thing about “Apollo 13,” the fact that my wife got pregnant on it. Then we had this daughter that blows my mind on a regular basis (laughs).
Some final words…
All I can say about this film is that it was an amazing experience for me. It turned out to be something that was far more important in my career than I imagined it would be. And I have Ron Howard to thank for that, and Tom Hanks, who later hired me to do “From the Earth to the Moon” because, I think, of my work on “Apollo.”