First Man: Local artist Chris Calle portrays dad in new film
Some boys dream of becoming their dads. A few grow up to be just like them. And then there’s Ridgefield illustrator Chris Calle, who might be the first man to have the privilege of collaborating with his father professionally while also portraying him in a major Hollywood movie.
Calle, who plays his father Paul in the upcoming film “First Man” about the historic Apollo 11 moon landing, said the journey from sketchpad to the silver screen began late last year during an email exchange with a producer from Universal Studios.
“Rick Armstrong, Neil Armstrong’s son, is a good friend and he clued me in that they were making this movie about his dad, and soon enough I got this sort of informal email from asking permission to use my dad’s sketches from the morning of the launch in the film, which I granted them,” said Chris Calle.
Paul Calle, one of the first artists chosen by NASA to document the U.S. manned space program, was the only illustrator allowed to capture Armstrong and his fellow Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins as they prepared to launch on July 16, 1969.
“Next thing I know, I received this very formal email that said director Damien Chazelle wanted to hire an actor for the part and they were asking me permission,” Chris said. “I gave them approval but wrote a few paragraphs suggesting they hire someone who knew Paul, knew how he worked, and had access to his old drawing pads. I signed off with something to the effect of, ‘I can come down any time.’”
Sure enough, Chris got a call the next day from the producer and his fate as a Hollywood actor was sealed.
“I didn’t know how to act but I know how to draw, so I thought there was actually a pretty good chance when I sent the email,” he recalled. “I just figured if they really wanted to be authentic, then why wouldn’t they give the part to Paul’s actual son? It made sense to me.”
Chris, who moved to Ridgefield in 1991 and has lived here ever since, flew down to Atlanta in December 2017 for a single day of shooting. He was almost sure his scenes would end up on the floor of some editing room.
“I have no lines in the movie, and I probably only have like six seconds of screen time, but I have a friend who went to the Toronto International Film Festival and saw the film debut there. He confirmed that you can see me sketching the guys in two scenes … There’s a good pretty good lesson here: If you never ask for things, you can never get them.”
‘Most nervous guy in the room’
Paul Calle was one of just seven men in the room as the three Apollo astronauts ate breakfast the morning of July 16, 1969
“My dad was in there with [Director of Flight Crew Operations] Deke Slayton as the crew ate steak and eggs,” Chris Calle said. “More people funneled in as they began the process of suiting up but it was just him and the astronauts and not many others at 5:30 that morning.”
“My dad was the most nervous guy in the room,” he added. “He wrote that on the back of one his sketches … He also wrote, ‘I can’t believe I’m here.’ In that moment, he wasn’t thinking about his role in history. He just wanted to do his job and he wanted to get the sketches right.”
While Paul doesn’t appear in any of the NASA photographs from that morning in 1969, Chris said that Chazelle — fresh off his Best Director win for “La La Land” at the 2017 Academy Awards — wanted the character to be seen drawing in his film.
“My dad had always told me of that day that he was right next to the NASA photographer — that they were working in tandem with one another,” Chris said. “His approach was to be as unobtrusive as possible so I approached the character the same way he lived it. But Damien wanted the audience to see me sketching — he really wanted me to be in the scene interacting with the other actors, and I couldn’t have been more amazed at how cordial he was throughout the process. He’s really a genius. He has one of those minds that’s always going and that picks up on every little detail.”
Unlike his dad 50 years ago, Chris felt no nerves on set.
“Damien came right over and thanked me and said how honored he was to be working with Paul’s son,” he said. “Everyone who was working on it — from the costume people to the sound people — was excited that I was there. They were as excited as I was, which really made things easy for me.”
Ryan Gosling, who worked with Chazelle on “La La Land” and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, portrays Armstrong in “First Man.”
Chris Calle said the movie star took the time to look at the sketches he drew while filming and listened to him talk about his process — and heritage.
“He was so pumped that I was there which was an amazing feeling.”
It paralleled how his dad felt with the astronauts half a century ago.
“My dad, even though he was nervous, always felt that he was one of the group — that they were trying to accomplish a common goal,” Chris said. “I felt the same way on set and the crew really made me feel part of the team even though I wasn’t there for very long.”
He filmed the two scenes his character was in and stuck around to watch the crew film two others that day before heading back home.
He didn’t leave the set without a few signatures as souvenirs.
“Damien signed my sketch pad and then I asked him if he thought all the guys wouldn’t mind,” Chris said. “I have a teenage daughter who was psyched I was going to be in this Ryan Gosling movie and he was nice enough to sign something for her. He was just a real genuine guy.”
If that wasn’t enough Chris’ daughter, Arianna, was lucky enough to meet her favorite Hollywood star during the premiere of the film at the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. last week.
“We were on the red carpet and Damien came up to me and gave me a big hug and said to me, ‘I hope you liked what I did with your scenes,’ and that’s when it hit her that they really knew me and cared about my role in the film ... He really wanted to honor what my dad had done during this great moment in our country’s history,” Chris said. “I see now why Damien wanted me in that scene. These men sat down and had breakfast like everyone else does every morning before embarking on this journey into space. It’s these extraordinary men doing ordinary things and that shows the human side of the story really beautifully I thought.”
Arianna got some more memorabilia — and a great story to tell her friends — thanks to her dad’s role in the film.
“She had two quizzes at school on Friday so we had to drive back that night to make sure she’d be in class the next morning but I figured I could ask and see if Damien would write her an excuse note for school, and he did it,” Chris said. “And then Ryan did it, too. Next thing you know the screenwriter Josh Singer was writing one. He wrote, ‘Please excuse Arianna today. She was earning extra credit at the Air and Space Museum last night.’ Of course she wasn’t excused by her teacher but I’m sure she did fine … She won’t remember the grades on those quizzes; she’ll remember the premiere for the rest of her life.”
Back to the ’60s
As child of the 1960s, Chris said he grew up a big fan of the NASA space program and space exploration.
“My dad was very much my role model growing up, and one of the many reasons he was someone I looked up to and wanted to be when I grew up was the fact he was always doing cool things like working with NASA,” Chris said. “One of my fondest memories from my childhood was when I was five years old or so and my dad got [astronaut] Gordon Cooper’s spacesuit shipped to our house.”
Paul wanted to do a painting of just the space suit — not of Cooper in it — as a tribute to the end of Project Mercury.
“It’s crazy but back then these things were not thought of artifacts,” Chris recalled. “My dad would leave it hanging in the hall closet and my brother and I would climb in and put on the gloves and the helmet. We were totally obsessed.”
He said revisiting the decade in the film was a fun experience, and that he even brought his own artifact to the set.
“They set me up with a costume and a haircut that was fitting for that period. They brought me in watches and sweaters — there was so much detail, it was incredible,” he said. “But the one thing they didn't give me that I bought was my dad’s belt. You definitely can’t see it in the movie but I was wearing his belt under that bright blue sweater. I figured why not bring it, and they absolutely loved the authenticity.”
Chris Calle has designed more than 30 postage stamps for the United States Postal Service and hundreds more for countries as diverse as Romania and the Marshall Islands. He’s also had his stamp designs sold and used by the United Nations.
His stamp portfolio includes two stamps that pay tribute to Apollo 11 mission.
In 1989, he depicted Armstrong and Aldrin planting the American flag on the moon for the 20th anniversary of the mission. Five years later, for the 25th anniversary of the moon landing, Chris jointly designed a stamp with his father — the man who had designed the iconic First Man on the Moon stamp in 1969.
“My dad was one of eight artists in the NASA fine art program in ’60s,” Chris said. “He had breakfast with the astronauts the morning of the launch and did so many other cool things while working for NASA but one of his favorite memories was designing that 1969 postage stamp. I think he thought of it as a career highlight, as many others do.
“You don’t have to be a stamp collector to know that image,” he added. “It’s famous and getting to even be part of it, 20 and 25 years later, is something I’ll always appreciate. Getting to collaborate and jointly design the 25th anniversary with him is one of my favorite memories because we kept the Calle name in the stamp and Apollo history.”
In a career full of many highlights, it’s fitting that only one other accomplishment could topple the 25h anniversary stamp.
“I think it’s got to be portrarying my father in this film and doing exactly what he did 50 years ago on screen,” Chris said. “He felt to document this moment was such a great privilege and I feel the exact same way...
“How many people get to portray their parent in a major movie? It’s such a rare opportunity that I’ve been blessed with, and I know if my parents were still alive they would have just found it so much fun. I laugh every time I think about it.”