'Hidden Figures': 10 of the Film's Stars and Their Real-Life Inspirations

9:13 AM 1/30/2017

by Kara Haar

The untold story of the three African-American, female mathematicians who helped win the Space Race even as they dealt with sexism and racism from their colleagues.

Hidden Figures - Still 3 -Taraji P. Henson- Octavia Spencer-Janelle Monae -H 2019
Twentieth Century Fox Films

Based on a true story, Hidden Figures follows the events of the U.S. and Russian race to put the first man in orbit.

Behind the scenes of one of the greatest operations in U.S. history, a group of African-American women (played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae) teamed up to solve mathematical equations for NASA. Set during a time of racial and gender inequality, the film tells the untold story of the three females' achievements, which restored the nation's confidence during the 1960s.

Hidden Figures is up for three Oscars — best picture, best supporting actress for Spencer and best adapted screenplay for Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi — in addition to earning other accolades including best ensemble at the SAG Awards.

The film focuses several real-life people in addition to including some fictional characters to help drive the storytelling. Below, read more about the cast, who they played and how the actors prepared for their role.

  • Katherine G. Johnson, portrayed by Taraji P. Henson

    A physicist and mathematician, Katherine G. Johnson worked with NASA in calculating trajectories, launch windows and the return paths for many famous space flights. Her background includes such projects as Project Mercury (the first man to fly into space), 1969's Apollo 11 (first flight to the Moon) and the Space Shuttle program (plans for a mission to Mars).

    At the time of her work, African-Americans and women were not respected in the workplace. In 1953, she was hired by NASA and struggled to receive equal recognition for her work. During her time at NASA, she worked under segregated conditions as a "computer."

    Still alive at age 98, Johnson lives in Virginia, where the movie takes place. She saw the movie and enjoyed it. "It was well done. The three leading ladies did an excellent job portraying us," she said, according to The Los Angeles Times.

    Taraji P. Henson, who portrays Johnson, said she felt pressure playing someone who is still alive and wanted to make sure she got it right. “And I owe her the truth and all of me,” Henson told The Hollywood Reporter. “I got to sit with her and started studying her mannerisms, and I asked her a lot of questions. What I did find that was parallel in our lives was math, which I hated.”

    It’s ironic Henson is playing a math whiz, as she told THR she was never good at math. “I failed pre-calc," Henson said. "Not calculus, pre-calc! The class that preps you for all the math you have to do.” 

  • Dorothy Vaughan, portrayed by Octavia Spencer

    A mathematician, Dorothy Vaughan was the first African-American woman to be promoted as a head of personnel at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, later known as NASA. She was the head of the West Area Computers, leading a group of African-American mathematicians through crucial space projects.

    Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, who plays Vaughan, told THR she knew math and science prior to the role but not to the level of a rocket scientist. “I understood her work to an extent, but she's a rocket scientist and there are very few people in the world who get that type of physics and can work interchangeably in the math disciplines,” Spencer said. “It's a small group of people, and my hat is off to them. I am not a member of that club!”

    Spencer said the cast wanted to present these women “in a truthful way” and “in the best light possible.” Since Vaughan died in 2008, the first audience she wanted to impress was the family, and she was proud to learn she did.

    “What I learned from playing Dorothy Vaughan is that I have a voice and that I have to use it for people who don't have a voice or whose voice is somehow subdued by whatever's happening in society,” she told THR.

  • Mary Jackson, portrayed by Janelle Monáe

    Mary Jackson was a mathematician and NASA's first black female engineer in 1958. She influenced the hiring and promoting of women in science, engineering and mathematics careers at NASA. Jackson died in 2005 at age 83.

    Grammy-nominated singer Janelle Monáe, who portrayed Jackson in the film, said she was proud to be a part of a story so many people didn't know about. "These [women] are our true American heroes," she told CNN. "It's because of them that we can have that as America. We can feel proud that we achieved something so extraordinary."

  • John Glenn, portrayed by Glen Powell

    John Glenn, an astronaut and engineer, was the first American to orbit the Earth and fifth person into space. He received the NASA Distinguished Service Medal and the Congressional Space Medal of Honor and was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. He died of a stroke on Dec. 8, 2016, at age 95.

    Glenn was unable to see the film due to his health but his family members were supportive. According to upi.com, the director of the film, Ted Melfi said, "So, his family kept saying: 'He can't right now, he can't right now. He really wants to and he supports the film.’”

    Glen Powell, mostly known for his role on Scream Queens, plays the role of Glenn. "He was a true American hero," he told Parade after Glenn died. "He saw a future for America that a lot of people didn't see. John Glenn had an essence that defined America."

  • Levi Jackson, portrayed by Aldis Hodge

    The husband of Mary Jackson, Levi Jackson is played by Aldis Hodge. Levi Jackson was a civil rights activist who struggled with his wife's efforts in pursuing a career as an engineer and balancing her home life.

    Hodge prepared for his role by reading Margot Lee Shetterly's book, also titled Hidden Figures, from which the movie was adatped. He's said he tried his best to give his character an accurate portrayal.

    "I tried to play up the honesty of his legacy just off the fact that he was a very kind-natured soul, as a family man," he said in an AOL web series interview. "He supported his wife — supported her in a very avant-garde way given the time frame. This is the '60s, so I loved what he represented and what they represented. So I was just trying to give some truth to that and made sure I did him some justice."

  • Col. Jim (James) Johnson, portrayed by Mahershala Ali

    Mahershala Ali has had a big year, with roles in two Golden Globe-nominated films (the other is Moonlight, for which he won a SAG Award). In Hidden Figures, he plays Col. Jim (James) Johnson, a captain and lieutenant in the United States Army. During the time the movie was based on, Jim Johnson is Katherine Johnson's love interest and later on becomes her husband. Married in 1959, the two still live together in Virginia. 

  • Karl Zielinski, portrayed by Olek Krupa

    Karl Zielinski, a NASA mission specialist, was Mary Jackson's mentor in the movie. (In real life, Jackson’s mentor’s name was Kazimierz “Kaz” Czarnecki, according to NASA) The character and real-life counterpart both display underemployed talent and undertake a long-term mentorship.

  • Al Harrison, portrayed by Kevin Costner

    Al Harrison is a composite character created for the film.

    During the shoot, Costner got kidney stones. "I was extremely ill," Costner told THR. "I was on morphine and Vicodin. But I kept filming."



  • Vivian Mitchell, portrayed by Kirsten Dunst

    Vivian Mitchell, played by Kirsten Dunst, is a fictional character representing the views and attitudes of some white women in the '60s. The character is a strict supervisor who challenges Dorothy Vaughn throughout the movie. Dunst admitted she was unaware of the story in an interview posted on Rotten Tomatoes. “I didn’t even know computers were people before they were computers,” she said. “I was blown away by the story, and that’s why I wanted to be a part of the film.”

  • Paul Stafford, portrayed by Jim Parsons

    Paul Stafford is a fictional character representing a number of white engineers at NASA for whom Katherine Johnson worked. A statistician and theorist, Stafford has no interest in giving up his white male privileges.

    Jim Parsons, best known for the TV series The Big Bang Theory, plays the role. “My favorite part of it is, it is really layered,” Parsons said, according to Rotten Tomatoes. “Space exploration was a very important human event.  You have a civil rights issue playing out with the way African-Americans are being treated. You have a gender equality issue playing out with the way women are being treated. It’s this triangle of three major things, three major things that are still with us today as a society.”