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Ranking the That Guys in ‘First Man’

Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy are undeniably the stars of the Neil Armstrong biopic, but they’re backed by a deep bench of actors you’re definitely familiar with—even if you can’t remember exactly what for

Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

Damien Chazelle’s First Man, in the spirit of Steven Spielberg’s The Post and many more films with Oscar aspirations before it, has a deep bench of talented actors playing supporting roles. It’s obviously a nice thing for any movie to have—why not get all the best talent you can in one project?—but also a bit of a flex, like Jay Leno’s overcompensating garage. Still, First Man’s stacked roster is unique, because it has an abnormally large amount of “That Guys” playing astronauts and NASA employees.

What are That Guys? That Guys are actors who haven’t hit renowned celebrity status—like Ryan Gosling—but are definitely recognizable just because they’ve been around so much. For instance: It might take you a second to figure out what exactly you remember Shea Whigham from, but then it hits you: Right, that’s the guy who got owned in Kong: Skull Island. You know, That Guy!

Because of the sheer number of First Man That Guys—there are 10 by my count who meet this very specific, very scientific set of criteria—who try to make the most of their scant screen time in a film dominated by Gosling and Claire Foy, we’re ranking the That Guys. There are First Man spoilers ahead—though I should add that this stuff is also part of American history.

Bonus: Kyle Chandler

Apologies, I’m already cheating here, since Kyle Chandler is not technically a That Guy: Because of Friday Night Lights, he will forever be commemorated as Coach Taylor. But I just wanted to give Chandler a quick shout-out as astronaut and NASA chief of the astronaut office Deke Slayton for providing one of the best moments of First Man. In order to emphasize to the selected astronauts, including Armstrong, that their goal in space is unprecedented and bold, he drew the Earth on a chalkboard, then drew a line onto another chalkboard, drew the moon, wrote down the word MOON, and underlined it.

If you ever have to summarize First Man in a GIF, that’s all you need. Now, on to the That Guys.

10. Ethan Embry

Where You’ve Seen Him: Sneaky Pete, Empire Records, Can’t Hardly Wait

Who He Plays in First Man: Astronaut Pete Conrad

Why He’s Ranked Here: When Armstrong served as a backup pilot for one of the Project Gemini test flights, Conrad was flown into space, and vice versa. There just wasn’t a lot of overlap, and because the film rarely leaves Armstrong’s vantage point, the most Embry gets to do is look really concerned in mission control, which, to be fair, he does a solid job of selling since—and I can’t stress this enough—late ’60s space flight was absolutely terrifying.

9. Ciarán Hinds

Where You’ve Seen Him: Game of Thrones, The Terror, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Who He Plays in First Man: Robert R. Gilruth, NASA’s first director of its Manned Spacecraft Center

Why He’s Ranked Here: Hinds is the perfect actor to play the Serious Boardroom Type, which is a space (no pun intended) occupied primarily by himself and Chandler. But very little of First Man focuses on the bureaucracy behind NASA’s space race, leaving Hinds with minimal screen time, even by That Guy standards. At least he gets to say “At what cost?” which seems like a mandatory line in a movie where people risk their lives—and even die—trying to land on the moon.

8. Pablo Schreiber

Where You’ve Seen Him: Orange Is the New Black, American Gods, Den of Thieves

Who He Plays in First Man: Astronaut Jim Lovell

Why He’s Ranked Here: The name Jim Lovell should ring a bell: He was the commander of the fateful Apollo 13 mission, and was portrayed brilliantly by Tom Hanks in the movie about that mission. But Lovell’s character—and thus Schreiber’s performance—takes a back seat in First Man, where he’s also mostly relegated to mission-control work as backup commander to Armstrong for Apollo 11. It’s just by design, because that’s history—plus, it’s not like people don’t remember Lovell or what Hanks did with a meatier role. The only loss here is Schreiber not getting more to do.

7. Brian d’Arcy James

Where You’ve Seen Him: Spotlight, 13 Reasons Why, Friends With Kids

Who He Plays in First Man: Astronaut Joseph A. Walker

Why He’s Ranked Here: James’s character has a crucial function at the beginning of the movie, not only as a fellow X-15 pilot alongside Armstrong but as a sympathetic colleague after Armstrong’s daughter Karen dies from a tumor. It’s subtle but affecting work, which makes it all the weirder when Walker recedes from the plot.

6. Shea Whigham

Where You’ve Seen Him: Kong: Skull Island, Take Shelter, Boardwalk Empire

Who He Plays in First Man: Astronaut Gus Grissom

Why He’s Ranked Here: Whigham is scarily good at playing gruff characters who generally seem like bad hangs—watching the third season of Fargo, I feared his face was stuck in a permanent frown. Grissom is very much like this—at one point delivering a very terse “just do your job” in the middle of astronaut training—to which I say: Yeah, this was a good casting choice.

5. Lukas Haas

Where You’ve Seen Him: Inception, Witness, The Revenant

Who He Plays in First Man: Astronaut Michael Collins

Why He’s Ranked Here: Collins is the least commemorated member of the Apollo 11 mission—he’s the command module pilot who orbits the moon while Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin get to explore its surface for a couple of hours. (While space exploration already makes Collins part of an elite few, it seems rather dispiriting to essentially be the guy who’s missing the party by waiting in the car.)

4. Christopher Abbott

Where You’ve Seen Him: James White, It Comes at Night, Girls

Who He Plays in First Man: Astronaut David Scott

Why He’s Ranked Here: Scott was the other pilot on Armstrong’s Gemini 8 mission, which led to perhaps the most harrowing sequence of the movie. In layman’s terms, shit went south shortly after their spacecraft successfully docked with an unmanned spacecraft, leading the two of them to rapidly spin out of control and nearly lose consciousness. Even with most of their faces obscured by astronaut gear, Abbott and Gosling convey both the subtle fear and resolve required to, well, not perish in space. We don’t see much of David Scott after that, but hopefully he took a vacation.

3. Patrick Fugit

Where You’ve Seen Him: Almost Famous, Gone Girl, Outcast

Who He Plays in First Man: Astronaut Elliot See

Why He’s Ranked Here: In the film, See is a civilian pilot (like Armstrong) and one of Armstrong’s friends, which is an impressive feat in and of itself: The dude was a capital-R Recluse, and getting a full sentence out of him requires about as Herculean an effort as getting onto the moon. It makes it all the more tragic when we find out offscreen that Fugit’s character died, crashing his jet while training for a Project Gemini mission. It’s an affecting moment, the first of many signs that the rewards of space exploration might not be worth the human cost.

Ryan Gosling, Corey Stoll, and Lukas Haas in ‘First Man’
Ryan Gosling, Corey Stoll, and Lukas Haas in ‘First Man’
Universal Studios

2. Corey Stoll

Where You’ve Seen Him: House of Cards, Ant-Man, Midnight in Paris

Who He Plays in First Man: Astronaut Buzz Aldrin

Why He’s Ranked Here: Two things: Stoll is a terrific actor, and his casting had me immediately concerned for Buzz Aldrin. Stoll excels at playing dicks—there is a lot wrong with Matthew Weiner’s new series The Romanoffs, but Stoll gives an impressive performance as the world’s worst husband. Unfortunately for Aldrin, that came to light with the actor’s work in First Man—which paints the astronaut in an unseemly light. When the aforementioned See is killed, Aldrin wastes no time at the funeral talking about how this immediately improves everybody else’s odds at making it to the moon. It’s as insensitive as it sounds—and perhaps Armstrong’s most impressive show of restraint is never asking Aldrin if he wants to catch these hands. At least the Buzz Aldrin of today is directing his snark at Donald Trump.

1. Jason Clarke

Where You’ve Seen Him: Chappaquiddick, Zero Dark Thirty, Mudbound, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Who He Plays in First Man: Astronaut Ed White

Why He’s Ranked Here: White is the first American who walked in space, and in First Man, one of Armstrong’s neighbors. Like See, White is a friend who repeatedly tries to break through to the emotionally repressed Armstrong, and while he doesn’t make much progress—Armstrong is a perfect embodiment of the Silent Generation and the damaging effects of not being able to properly grieve—it’s an empathetic turn that’s wonderfully realized by Clarke. White’s story ends in tragedy when the first Apollo mission never even leaves the ground: A cabin fire kills White, Grissom, and Roger B. Chaffee. In a movie filled with dangerous, dramatic stakes, it’s White and his team that are tragic representations of what happened when we first reached for the stars.

First Man is one of the best films of the year, a big blockbuster with a quiet ferocity. It’s an achievement that should warrant mountains of praise and Oscar recognition for director Damien Chazelle, stars Gosling and Foy, as well as composer Justin Hurwitz (the moon landing track is an absolute banger). But we shouldn’t forget about the That Guys, guys who brought a big game to tiny roles, and added one more bullet point on résumés that seem to encompass just about everything. So the next time you think about Christopher Abbott, you too can say: “Right, That Guy from First Man!”