‘Hidden Figures’ tells the true story of the women of NASA: Speaking with Director Ted Melfi

Coming to theaters later this year from Fox 2000 Pictures and director Ted Melfi is a film from the book by writer Margot Lee Shetterly telling the true story of the exceptional women of NASA who were “Hidden Figures.”

It is the 1960s and the United States is racing Russia in an attempt to put a man into space. Looking at every possible way to make that happen, three women are about to shake things up.

Taraji P. Henson is Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer is Dorothy Vaughn and Janelle Monae is Mary Jackson and these women take the task of putting astronaut John Glen into orbit.

With minds that are akin to human computers with their skills in mathematics and engineering, this isn’t the only thing they will accomplish. Crossing gender, race and professional lines, these three women left their mark on history and now we will all know them too!

At the San Diego International Film Festival, Melfi brought the story to a panel discussion with first look footage. It was an opportunity for the audience to hear the director speak about the story and how the film came into being.

Melfi was also responsible for the screenplay along with Allison Schroeder. This isn’t the first time he has taken on that dual role as he also wrote and directed Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy in the 2014 brilliant “St. Vincent.”

I had the pleasure of speaking with Melfi about “Hidden Figures” and what it took to bring that piece of history to the silver screen.

Jeri Jacquin: Good morning Ted, thank you so much for speaking with me today about your film.

Ted Melfi: You are so welcome, Jeri.

JJ: I had never heard this story before, what inspired you to become involved?

TM: When I first read the proposal by producer Donna Gigliotti and had the same reaction as everyone else of “How is this possible? There is no way this is a true story.” I started to dig into it and understand that it was a true story of how NASA had a team of women putting our guys up into space, I was floored.

I mean I have two daughters and they are still being told in this day and age, “Don’t worry about learning the math.” I find that shocking especially since we are trying to lift them up and show them that they can do anything a man can. This story inspired me and there way no way I could say no to making this film.

JJ: Especially since it is part of history. A lot of girls were told even when I was younger that math wasn’t important to learn.

TM: It is a shame that we minimized women in science, math and engineering, and the truth is they are as good if not more so having the mind for it.

JJ: I think maybe a little more patience too.

TM: Yes!

JJ: When choosing the cast, what drew you to these three women in particular?

Taraji P. Henson plays Johnson, seen here taking notes from director Ted Melfi.

Taraji P. Henson plays Johnson, seen here taking notes from director Ted Melfi.

TM: I have been in love with Taraji P. Henson’s work ever since the film “Benjamin Button,” and in that film she blew me away. My wife and I saw it together and said, “Who is that actress?” that was playing Brad Pitt’s mother in the film. I was blown away by her passion, strength and raw power and honestly. Then you watch her in the role of Cookie in the television series “Empire” and that woman from “Benjamin Button” was now Cookie in “Empire.” I knew that she had this incredible range in her and I knew she would be the perfect off-beat choice of Katherine Johnson. I wanted to go for it and she was so inspired by the challenge and took it on. She is absolutely amazing and inspiring in this role.

JJ: And Octavia Spencer?

TM: Octavia, I mean there is nothing that I can say enough about her as Dorothy Vaughn.

JJ: I was actually thinking the same thing. I mean, what more can you say about her?

TM: I know, Octavia could play absolutely anything you could throw at her and it would be fantastic. She is one of the greatest actresses of our time in my mind. That one was a no brainer.

Janelle Monae playing Mary Jackson and we wanted someone different, unique and exciting for this character. Janelle is exciting and passionate and wild and inspired and takes dramatic turns. She always makes wild choices with her work and it shows in this performance as well.

JJ: It’s the beautiful trio to be sure.

TM: Yes, Taraji brings the quiet introverted brain of the group. Octavia is the foreman and the maternal leader of the group and Mary is the wild child who always has to be reminded that it’s 1961.

JJ: You have Kevin Costner in the mix, who seems to be the buffer.

TM: Kevin Costner is one of the most unique men I’ve ever met in my life. He brings that integrity and work ethic into every thing he does.

His character, Al Harrison, represents the glue that kind of holds the teetering space program together. He balances the science and the math along with the business and imaginative people.

Back in 1961, in the Jim Crow South, he is dealing with racial tensions in the workplace. It’s not that he is unaware of what is happening as much as he doesn’t care. He is about the mission. In his mind the mission and the math of what they are trying to do trumps race and sex of a person.

JJ: I hope that people get that there are so many issues in this film, not just one specific issue. How was that for you as a director covering it all?

TM: It was exciting, to be honest with you. To me, the 1960s was an explosive time in history. The space race was happening, the Cold War was happening, Civil Rights issues were happening, the Kennedy assassination was happening, Martin Luther King assassination was happening…

JJ: See, that’s what I mean, so many, many issues!

TM: They are all running parallel to each other as well. The Freedom Riders bus protested to Washington D.C. the day before Alan Shepard launched his first mission into space. That should tell you the parallels between these two races and how they basically started to achieve success together in tandem is mind boggling. To pack all of this in one movie was an enjoyable task and to be able to get to say something about who we were and who we are and what we can become as a country when we work together.

JJ: Did you find that you had to do a lot of your own research to allow yourself to get deeper into the film?

TM: Oh yes, I did endless research. I researched every detail of the movie. I dug into a mass amount of books and documentaries about all of this. The Discovery Channel had a series “When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions” (2008) and I dug as deeply into Civil Rights as I did NASA. I re-watched the PBS series “Eyes on the Prize” (A documentary that documents the Civil Rights Movement from 1952 to 1965) about how it all occurred. I did tons of photo research as well.

In regards to the math, I learned everything from the ground up from like trajectory calculations, etc. I kind of became a dangerous expert of it all.

JJ: When you are talking about the mathematical side of it, how did Taraji handle it? I mean, she’s writing equations on the board so fast!

TM: Taraji, being the mathematician, consulted with the same person I did from Rudy Home who received his PhD out of Morehouse College. He trained Taraji and she memorized the math having so much time with him.

Taraji might actually be a genius on her own. What she can do I have not seen that often, memorize something and understand it in a very short period of time. She did it effectively and efficiently in one take.

JJ: I realize there is so much in this film to experience, but as the director, what would you want viewers to take with them after watching the film?

TM: See the film to be reminded of how great American has always been and how when we work together, regardless of race, sex or creed. There is nothing that this country can not achieve together.

JJ: It’s so very well said and very true, thank you Ted!

This director has a straight vision for this film and with an absolutely stellar cast that also includes Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kimberly Quinn and Olek Krupa. “Hidden Figures” is a part of history that will be amazing to watch.

“Hidden Figures” — meet the women you don’t know behind the mission you do!



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About the Author

Jeri Jacquin

Jeri Jacquin covers film, television, DVD/Bluray releases, celebrity interviews, festivals and all things entertainment.