"You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood. You don’t have anything under control!" Janet Armstrong yells in First Man after mission control turns off the squawk box that lets her hear from her husband during his flights. Outside of the launches — which are full of excitement fueled by nature and technology — this and another of Janet's big scenes are the most lively, character-driven scenes in the film. While Neil Armstrong was withholding and passive, Janet was forceful and practical. The movie might be about Neil, but Janet had no small role.
In the film, Janet is played by The Crown star Claire Foy, who turns her English accent into Janet's midwestern one, and, yes, puts a "bunch of boys" in their place. "There was so much that I learned about her that I really admired and loved," Foy says of the real Janet not long after First Man's release. "I think the thing I really, really loved about her was that she said that if she didn't feel she was challenging herself everyday that she didn't really feel that she was living her life."
And Janet faced a lot of challenges. "I think bringing up two children on pretty much your own is very difficult," says Foy. "I think bringing up on your own whilst also having to be the figurehead, the ideal American housewife, and dealing also with the fact that the man that you love may die at any moment, continually. That you see your best friend's husband, and your very close friends die, while you yourself have lost several people very close to you. All of those things. She had it all thrown at her really."
As hard as it is to imagine going to space, it's almost just as hard to imagine being a spouse left down on Earth. Neil (played in First Man by Ryan Gosling) was risking his life with every mission, but with every risk he took, he was putting Janet in the position of potentially losing her husband and her children's father. This on top of the fact that the couple had already experienced a major loss when their daughter Karen died after suffering from brain cancer at age two. It's easy to think, Oh, I could never do what Janet did.
"Well, I mean, you either do or you don't, is the thing isn't it?" Foy says. "There's no in between. You either get on with life or you don't. And I think she did what a lot of people wouldn't give themselves credit for doing, which is just to hope for better, to believe that all out all this misery and sadness and pain, something must be learned, something, surely, at some point, must come of it all."
One of the toughest times in Janet and Neil's relationship came when Neil was preparing for the Apollo 11 mission; the one that would get him to the moon. (They'd later divorce in 1994, per The Daily Beast.) He hadn't spoken to his kids, Rick and Mark, about the reality of the situation — that he might not return — and Janet, basically, made him, which is shown through a particular powerful scene from Foy. The actor says that this was something they knew had actually happened, because Rick and Mark — who she, Gosling, the film's director Damien Chazelle, and writer Josh Singer met multiple times — told them so.
"When you're playing a scene like that, when you know it's actually happened, I think you owe it to the reality of that circumstance to play it every which way you possibly can. So we just spent 14 hours just doing that scene over and over and over and over and over again in different ways, with different intensities, with different lines, to make sure that we felt by the end of it that we bled it dry." Foy adds, "I really loved doing it even though it wasn't particularly — it wasn't enjoyable, it was really challenging, but I loved getting the opportunity to play a scene like that."
First Man has faced some criticism for not showing enough of Janet and lacking in women's perspectives. And perhaps it could have shown more of Janet — Jezebel's Rich Juzwiak put forth the idea of the entire story being told from her point of view — but the film doesn't make her out to be just a complacent wife, either. And Foy believes First Man is telling Janet's story — at least more than we've heard it so far, nearly 50 years after the moon landing.
"On the surface a lot of people have kind of referred to her has just a wife, or just this, just that," Foy says. "But she just wasn't. Those women, they were constantly living their lives while the men were going to work, and it's just that no one wanted to particularly tell their story until now."
Unfortunately, Foy didn't get to meet Janet, who passed away in June, only a few months before the film's release. But she did get to listen to tapes of Janet being interviewed by Chazelle, and learned a lot about who she was inside.
"She never blew her own trumpet. She never expected for herself. She just did what she thought was right and what felt right to her, and that was that really," she says. "I really was so grateful to get to know her in that way."