Kristen Stewart To Play Astronaut Sally Ride As Amazon MGM Studios Nears Limited Series Deal For ‘The Challenger’; Amblin, Kyra Sedgwick’s Big Swing EPs With Stewart; Maggie Cohn Writing

EXCLUSIVE: Kristen Stewart will make her TV series-starring debut in The Challenger, a limited series in which she’ll play Sally Ride, the astronaut and physicist who became the first American woman to fly in space. She did this as part of a NASA space shuttle astronaut class of 1978 that was the first to be diversified and not comprised of all white men.

Kyra Sedgwick’s Big Swing Productions developed and brought the project to Amblin and is executive producing with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners and Stewart through the latter’s Nevermind production label. Amblin’s Darryl Frank and Justin Falvey are also exec producers.

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Maggie Cohn will serve as the writer and showrunner; her credits include American Crime Story, The Staircase and Narcos: Mexico. This has been the hot property on the TV auction block this week, and Amazon is close to tying it down.

The series is based on The New Guys, a book written by Meredith E. Bagby, who partners with Sedgwick and Valerie Stadler in Big Swing. They are also executive producers.

In some ways, this has the tapestry to tell the successor story to The Right Stuff, which was based on Tom Wolfe’s book about the culture clash that occurred when the cockiest world’s best fighter pilots jumped into the space race that America was engaged in with the Russians. Bagby tells the story of a group that was called by their predecessors ‘The F*cking New Guys,’ as NASA sought to diversify its pilots and crew for the space shuttle program. Ride was the first woman and the first member of the LGBTQ+ community to fly into space. Also in that program was the first Black and Asian American astronauts, and a married couple. They passed all the rigorous tests to become top of the class, and egos, ambition and romance were part of the cultural clash. They were also quite brilliant.

In 1983, Ride became the first American woman to fly on the space shuttle, and became an instant celebrity. That joy was short-lived, however, when three years later the space shuttle Challenger blew apart 73 seconds into its ascent, killing all seven members of the crew. Ride then became the only astronaut to become part of the Rogers Commission, a presidential commission to investigate the disaster, and it later came out that she pinpointed the problems with O-rings that became stiff at low temperature, and that turned out to be the reason for the explosion. Ride died from cancer at age 61 in 2012, a true American hero.

The hope will be to get this ready to time the series in proximity of the Challenger disaster anniversary. That happened 38 years ago, on January 28, 1986. For Stewart, this continues a career evolution which started after the Twilight Saga films, in which she has established herself as a most watchable actress with range.

In a moment where not a lot is selling in the marketplace, how does a plum package like this happen? Sedgwick explains this was a truly homegrown project, and not one that happened overnight:

(L-R) Kyra Sedgwick, Meredith Bagby and Valerie Stadler
(L-R) Kyra Sedgwick, Meredith Bagby and Valerie Stadler

“This is something we’ve worked on at Big Swing since 2017, me, Meredith and Valerie, about this new class of astronaut recruited by NASA in the early 1970s,” she said. “Sally Ride was among them, and the focus is this newly recruited wild, feral group of astronauts who were all very diverse. And then on an Oppenheimer track, it also tells the story of the Rogers Commission that investigated the Challenger disaster that Ride took part in. Growing up in Florida, Meredith Bagby was obsessed with space and the shuttle, and she also watched the Challenger explode. Meredith got hundreds of hours of interviews with the members of that class, and we have relationships with all those living astronauts and they will be part of our brain trust on the show.

“She wrote the book and it went on the bestseller lists,” Sedgwick told Deadline. “We wanted so much to tell this story as a limited series. Our goal at Big Swing is to tell familiar stories with a new perspective and point of view. I had a relationship with Maggie Cohn, and she fell in love with the book. Valerie had this dream of having Kristen Stewart, and after more than a year of trying to get Kristen this book through back channeling, she read it and she fell in love. Getting Kristen and Maggie was incredible, for a company nobody really knows yet. We are three girls with a dream.

“Then we thought, what better than to bring in Steven Spielberg to help tell this awe-inspiring story of the astronauts who inspired space travel for a new generation? They helped us prepare the pitch that went out to the marketplace, and it has been extremely competitive and we are close to a deal.”

Making Stewart the centerpiece was also interesting in that TV was not an obsession for her.

“She has never done television, but when she read this she became obsessed with telling the story of Sally Ride from her own unique perspective that I won’t even try to paraphrase because she is so eloquent about it,” Sedgwick said. “She was so stunning in these pitch meetings and that was a huge part of why it has been so competitive. She’s so compelling and was so rabid about telling this story about an American hero who had to hide who she was, in that time.

“Who better to play Sally Ride than one of the great actors of her generation? As they say in Hollywood, passion wins the day. Her passion for being an executive producer is vast. As dogged as we were about getting the script to her, she has been that dogged about getting it sold in the marketplace.”

Even though Sedgwick herself is most closely associated with the role of the closer, it was Stewart who played that role in the pitch process.

“Right now when everyone is saying that nobody is buying anything, she would not listen and nor would we because if we had listened to all the times we were told this would be too hard, we would never have gotten this off the ground. Amblin spoke first, Maggie was great, and then they passed it to me, I was the one to pass to Kristen and was the one who got to kvell about her because I’d just seen Love Lies Bleeding. We were all in it to win it.”

Auction was brokered by WME (which reps Stewart and Amblin) and CAA (which reps Sedgwick, Big Swing and Cohn).

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