So, I ask Kaley Ronayne, are you buds with Leonardo DiCaprio now? “It is so funny that everybody asks me that now,” laughs Ronayne, the Southfield-born, Plymouth-reared actor who landed a key role in the much-anticipated limited series The Right Stuff, commissioned by the National Geographic channel but premiering exclusively this fall on Disney+. DiCaprio’s Appian Way production company is one of the creative forces behind the series. He’s one of six executive producers.
“I’ve never actually met Leo,” she confesses. “I don’t think any of us have. I’ve met some of the other producers who work for his company, and I think the people he brought on, the producers and writers, are just amazing. They created a really dynamic story. But the cast had this running joke: ‘All of this is just a birthday present for Leo.’”
The Right Stuff, based on Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book of the same name (and adapted into a 1983 big-screen epic starring Ed Harris and Sam Shepard), tells the story of America’s first astronauts, dubbed the Mercury Seven, who became a cross between the Avengers and The Beatles overnight in the public’s mind while waging a fierce internecine battle to become the first American in space. Ronayne, 30, initially was asked to audition for one of the astronaut’s wives, but casting directors thought she had the right stuff for a meatier part.
She plays Dolores “Dee” O’Hara, NASA’s first aerospace nurse, who became medical liaison and confidant to the Mercury Seven and their families. “She is a total badass,” Ronayne says. “She was a second lieutenant in the Air Force in the 1950s, which was not common for women at that time, and was assigned to Cape Canaveral to support the Mercury program.
“She was a pioneer, just like these men were pioneers. It’s so wonderful to read interviews with her because she was very loyal to the astronauts and they confided in her. They considered her an ally. It was a very competitive program, and if they were having any health concerns, she was able to help them discreetly without jeopardizing their chances to go up in space. She took care of their kids when they were ill, or if their families needed anything. She’s awesome.”
O’Hara is still living — she’s 85 now — but Ronayne wasn’t able to meet her due in part to the eight-episode series’ tight shooting schedule. The production was filmed on location in Florida at Cape Canaveral and in Cocoa Beach, where the Mercury Seven lived. “They wanted to keep it historically accurate because it’s National Geographic,” Ronayne says. The production concluded last December, months before Florida became a hot spot for COVID-19. “It was great to spend the whole fall and part of the winter there,” she says, “and we wrapped just before all of that stuff went down, so we were very lucky in that respect.”
Any luck Ronayne has experienced in her career she made herself. Her parents, Brendan Ronayne and Donna MacDonald, opted to live in Plymouth after graduating from University of Michigan, and Kaley eventually attended Mercy High School in Farmington Hills. “I did all the plays at Mercy — all of them,” she says. “I was getting great roles, and I loved being on stage.” A summer at the prestigious Interlochen Center for the Arts further sharpened her passion, after which Ronayne made her mom drive her “to audition for at least a dozen acting schools.”
“Driving your daughter across states while she practiced monologues in the car is a time I look upon fondly,” MacDonald says. “The journey was exciting, yet daunting: daunting in the sheer number of individuals trying for a small allotment of spots, exciting to see what opportunities lay ahead. It’s fascinating how some people are hardwired knowing what they want to do in life. As a parent, you just want your child to land where they belong.”
Ronayne was accepted by her top choice, Boston University, into a program that included a semester’s study in London and auditions for agents and managers on both coasts. She settled in New York — within driving distance of her large family back in Michigan — pounding pavement and performing off-off-Broadway while working toward breakthrough roles.
Fans of Gotham, the dark, malevolent TV series adaptation of the Batman mythology, might remember Ronayne in her recurring role as seductive heiress Sasha Van Dahl.
“I had such a blast on that show,” she says. “It felt like Halloween all the time, walking around those spooky sets. The clothing, furniture, decorations, everything was very Gothic. It was like being a kid again, just playing in that world and being evil.”
Catch Kaley Ronayne in The Right Stuff on Disney+ now.