“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Those historic words were spoken by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong, who along with fellow astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. were the first humans to step foot on the Earth's Moon back in 1969.
To this day, some think that the Apollo moon landing was one big hoax and part of some shadowy conspiracy. Others have put their own unique spin on it, including producer Steven Spielberg and the rest of the creative minds behind Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the third installment of the live-action Transformers feature film series. Its fictional account has then U.S. President John F. Kennedy authorizing a mission to the Moon but for a very different reason.
When the casting call went out for someone to fill Neil Armstrong’s space boots, actor Don Jeanes was among those who signed up. At first, though, he was not entirely sure what he was auditioning for.
“My agents had an idea what it might be for, but even they didn’t know for sure,” recalls Jeanes. “When I arrived at the audition there were all these other actors there who looked a lot like the Apollo 11 astronauts, which I thought was kind of strange. I got my first hint of what the project could be when the [script] sides began mentioning, ‘A giant robotic face.’
“Eventually I was called into the audition room. I read once for the casting director and she said, ‘OK, good, but Mike likes everything faster than that.’ I had no idea who Mike was, but I just went ahead and read the lines again. She said, ‘Perfect,’ and I left. Two weeks went by and I didn’t hear anything so I figured I didn’t get the job. But then a week later I got a phone call telling me I’d be playing Neil Armstrong in Transformers 3, which was being directed by Michael Bay.”
In Transformers 3, the Apollo 11 and its crew are sent to investigate the crash of an alien spaceship on the far side of the Moon. After landing on the Moon’s surface, Neil Armstrong (Jeanes) and Buzz Aldrin (Cory Tucker) make their way to the crash site where they discover the remains of the Ark, a Cybertronian spacecraft carrying a device capable of ending the war between the Autobots and the Decepticons. Prior to putting on his spacesuit and going in front of the camera, Jeanes did plenty of research on Neil Armstrong as well as gave serious thought to how he wanted to approach playing a real-life historical figure.
“I pretty much locked myself away in my apartment for two days just going over anything I could find about the Apollo moon landing on YouTube,” he says. “I also went to the Space Museum here in Los Angeles to get as close as I could to everything that went up into space. They have an orbiter there and I was amazed at how thin its shell is and how cramped it is inside. Basically it was like going to the Moon in movie theater seats,” jokes the actor.
“About two weeks before Cory Tucker and I got on-set, we were fitted for our spacesuits, which were designed directly from the actual Apollo 11 suits. They don’t breathe at all, are very hot and weigh about 50 pounds apiece even with the backpack gutted. So I started running in water to find out what it would feel like walking in a weightless environment. I also did a lot of heavy lifting to make sure I was able to carry that suit because I’d be wearing it for eight hours a day.
“As far as approaching the role, I didn’t want to get trapped into doing mimicry. Again, I tried to find as much Neil Armstrong footage as I could, but he didn’t do that many interviews when he was younger. So I did what I always do with a character and what I’ve learned over the years, which is to break it [the role] down and instead of mimicry, I tried to hold onto the fear of being so far away from Earth in an alien environment and what if you did encounter alien life on the Moon. That was a real possibility and I’m sure it was in the backs of their [Armstrong and Aldrin] minds. They could have encountered something that they had never seen before, so I feel like that brought a human element to my performance.”
Jeanes chuckles when asked what he remembers most about his actual time working on the Transformers 3 set. “We did some wirework for the scenes with us walking on the Moon,” he notes. “In one of the scenes we’re entering the alien ship and Michael Bay said, ‘Guys, you’ve got to look like you’re weightless.’ We were like, ‘Oh, OK,’ but at that point we weren’t attached to wires. So we had to watch where we stepped, because there was debris all over the ground of the set, act like the spacesuits we had on didn’t weigh anything, and look weightless, which was pretty amusing.
“My favorite scene is where the camera is panning across me and Cory standing on this giant moonscape set. Michael Bay was off-camera and feeding us lines that we didn’t know ahead of time we would be saying. I had this one line, 'These things are massive,' and Michael said to me, ‘If you get this and it ends up in the trailer, I’ll give you $100 bucks.’ Well, it didn’t make the trailer but it did make the movie, and I’ll take that over the trailer.”
Along with a number of stage roles, Jeanes has appeared in a variety of independent film shorts as well as on TV in the daytime drama Days of Our Lives and CSI: NY. He can also be seen in the sci-fi web series Alpha Planet and the upcoming feature film Ascension. Not one to sit still for long, the actor recently finished shooting another short film called Uriel, and at the time of this interview (early July) he was preparing for another job.
“I’m going to the Amazon at the end of this month for about three weeks to film a documentary,” he reveals. “In fact, I’m getting my yellow fever shot today. It’s going to be a great shoot and I’m really looking forward to it.”