Like many Hollywood hopefuls, Erin Cummings has a story. Hers began almost 15 years ago, when the transplant from Huntsville, Texas, landed in the whole new universe of L.A. Set on pursuing her dream of becoming a successful screen actress, she settled in a small apartment in Koreatown and, every night, stared out of a window overlooking the legendary Hollywood sign and imagined what might come of her ambitions. Several years and TV stints later, Cummings now occupies a larger condo in the fashionable neighborhood of Hancock Park but still has a view of the Hollywood sign—a landmark reminder of her early aspirations and determination to make it in the City of Angels.
This summer, Cummings will reach for the stars as Marge—her biggest role to date (possibly her breakout, she hints) on ABC’s The Astronaut Wives Club. Based on the best-selling novel by Lily Koppel, the series follows seven strong but very different women. As the backbones of their husbands—NASA’s Mercury Seven, the first astronauts to suit up for American spaceflight— these ladies are thrown into the spotlight, becoming royalty overnight, an unknown pressure to most of them.
As playing Marge is pivotal to both the show and Cummings’ career, JEZEBEL sat down with the actress to discuss the series, her love life and what the future has in store.
What can audiences expect to see in the first season of The Astronaut Wives Club?
Not only will viewers of a certain age be able to relive a very special time in history, but younger audiences will also get the opportunity to see the excitement... and at the same time, the fear that [gripped] America during the onset of the space race. It was a time when women were not given the opportunity to be astronauts, but to say that women did not make a contribution to the space race is simply not true. The Astronaut Wives Club shows how these women made an impact, from caring for the home to putting a face on for the rest of the world. They made a difference in the way they were allowed to.
It’s such a great time for women on television, with strong female-driven roles now available. What are your thoughts on this unique moment in Hollywood for actresses?
It’s exciting. You always hear these horror stories—[true or untrue]— regarding television shows that have predominately female casts, [with] jealousy and fighting. I feel like that stigma is going away. People are finally accepting the fact that women can work together and not have to be the prettiest or the most famous. ... What I love about our cast is that every single person is unique and different in her own way.
Speaking of the cast, have you become good friends with the other “wives” on set?
Absolutely. When people watch the show and see the friendships forming on TV, that really is mirroring what was happening in real life. We went to New Orleans to film the show, and there is something special about going on location—it’s summer camp- like. You bond together much more quickly and are stronger as a unit. It’s really wonderful to be able to watch these friendships developing on screen with ladies that I now consider personal friends and sisters.
As Marge, you play a secret divorcee whose ex-husband is an astronaut on the Mercury Seven mission. What can we expect from her?
When these men were chosen for the astronaut program, it obviously changed their lives, but by proxy, it also changed the lives of their wives. The ladies went from being ordinary military housewives to being American royalty [overnight]. And while that might seem exciting and glamorous—and for some of the wives it was—for Marge, it was a struggle. Keeping her divorce a secret so her husband could be an astronaut played on her own insecurities about her troubled past; unlike Marge, all of the other women came from a certain level of financial stability and education. But what I love about Marge is that you see her grow into a swan and find her footing throughout the show [despite her insecurities]. She’s very witty, sarcastic and funny, and... in a gaudy way, that could only come from a true broad.
How do you relate to Marge on a personal level?
When I was first presented the project, the head of casting for ABC allowed me to audition for the role that most resonated 47 with me. As soon as I started reading the script, it was never a question for me—it was always Marge. When I came to Los Angeles from Huntsville, Texas, I too felt like a fish out of water. I was very insecure because I didn’t have the training that a lot of other actresses did, and I didn’t necessarily have the same financial background as many in L.A., so I created a shell for myself—a shell of using humor to deflect, a shell of being the tough girl and someone that was unbreakable, but inside I was very insecure. I needed someone to believe in me, and I needed to believe in myself. As time wore on, I started learning more, and all of a sudden I found myself in this position where not only was I the television actress that I had dreamed of being, but I was also able to be someone people could look up to. So with Marge... she comes into this place of being an astronaut’s wife, feeling that she really does not belong, but ecides to make it her life and ultimately becomes the leader of The Astronaut Wives Club. I feel like I am very much like Marge, and it’s an honor to tell her story.
How did you prepare for the role?
Since these women stood in the shadows of their husbands, they were essentially eliminated from history books. The little that was written about them came from a skewed point of view—a false image that NASA created to portray the perfect American housewife. There was very little research to be done, so I chose to model Marge after 1940s film heroines that I grew up watching. I went back and watched old movies, like His Girl Friday with Rosalind Russell, and paid close attention to the heroines’ speech, gait and mannerisms. I created a character that embodied 1940s tough-glam.
The fashion is so amazing on the show! Has it been a dream to sport all of the fabulous ensembles?
The fashion is incredible. Eric Daman is our wardrobe designer— he’s fantastic. Every outfit was chosen very specifically. I really credit Eric for helping create Marge’s character for me, even down to the way that she was dressed. He really did a phenomenal job and I need to have him come to my house and say, ‘No, honey, we are not doing that.’
What’s a day like on set?
A lot of fun and a lot of [laughs]. On set we found very creative ways to pass the time, and I am sure that the sound department found out more about us than they ever wanted to. Between takes, we would talk about all sorts of things, and it was not uncommon for the ADs [assistant directors] to constantly be shushing us. It wasn’t that we weren’t focused on our work; we were playing seven women that were becoming best friends, on and off camera.
What do you consider your breakout role in Hollywood?
I don’t think I have had a breakout moment yet. I feel like I have just kept my nose to the grindstone, and my work has gotten me more work. There wasn’t a moment where all of a sudden everything changed. My first TV role was as Prostitute No. 1 on Star Trek: Enterprise—I had two lines. From there I had a couple of lines on a soap opera, then one scene on a TV show and then my first guest-starring role. Everything built upon itself little by little. People will say Spartacus is what I am best known for, but I did that six years ago. While it certainly opened doors for me, it did not change my whole life. I don’t really feel like I have had a breakout role [yet]—I think Marge could be it. It is certainly a role that I feel best allows me to show my talents. And if this isn’t it, I am perfectly content not having a breakout role. If I can be the kind of actress that just continues to work well into my 80s, then that’s really a sign of success.
You spent some time in Atlanta filming the pilot of Detroit 1-8-7. Do you have any favorite spots in the city?
I have now filmed two projects in Atlanta, and I love the opportunity to go back and work in a city with such flavor and vibrance! My go-to places to stock up on Southern cuisine are The Flying Biscuit for the Flying Fried Green Tomato BLT; Daddy D’z BBQ Joynt, especially on nights when a blues band is playing; and Vortex, for the ambience and their Tasmanian Devil Burger. My longtime favorite is the Coca- Cola museum—supertouristy, but where else can you sample sodas from around the world?
Your charity, Mittens for Detroit, is near and dear to your heart. How did it come about?
When I was working in Detroit on Detroit 1-8-7, my first ABC series, my cousin Kathi and I were handing out candy for Halloween, and two young girls came to the door. One was shivering and crying, clutching her cold bare hands. Kathi and I invited the girls inside to get warm and gave the shivering girl a pair of gloves. I instantly saw how one simple act of kindness could change the course of events for one human being. So I woke up the next morning and thought to myself, I want to collect gloves for those in need. Four months later, Mittens for Detroit had collected and distributed almost 10,000 pairs of gloves. Since I founded the charity in 2010, we have given out more than 100,000 pairs of gloves to local Detroit charities, schools, shelters and churches. I would love to see Mittens for Detroit branch into other cities in America.
What does your future look like?
I actually just got engaged to fellow actor and musician Tom Degnan! My next big role is going to be a wedding planner-slash- wife. He and I are looking forward to having children, and I am so fortunate that we are in an age when women can have it all. I have also been cast in the new ABC miniseries Madoff, which [stars] Richard Dreyfuss as Bernie Madoff, and Blythe Danner as his wife. I will be playing [Madoff’s] secretary, who was by his side for 15 years prior to the scandal. She had no knowledge of what Madoff was doing; she invested all of her money with him and lost everything. She eventually turned over his whereabouts, information and contacts to the FBI. To be able to work with two legends is such an honor. I welcome any other blessings into my life, but between getting engaged and working with an Academy Award winner [Dreyfuss], right now I am doing pretty good.