‘On a Wing and a Prayer’ comes from director Sean McNamara (‘Soul Surfer’), and although the story—which follows a pilot dying mid-flight and an inexperienced passenger landing the plane—seems far-fetched, it’s based on the true story of the White family. Doug White (Dennis Quaid), his wife Terri (Heather Graham), and daughters (Jessi Case and Abigail Rhyne) were flying home from a funeral on Easter Sunday in 2010, when the unexpected happened to their pilot. After getting in touch with Air Traffic Control, it’s Doug, who has very little experience, who ends up landing the plane.
Assisting with this “miracle” is also Kari Sorenson, a pilot, who was at his home in Connecticut when a friend who worked in Air Traffic phoned him to help talk to White, and ultimately, save his and his family’s life. To dive a little deeper into the story, which details the real people who helped the White family, Heather Graham and Jesse Metcalfe sat down to talk about their characters and what really happened on that day to help avoid a tragedy.
What pulled you both in to want to work on this project?
Metcalfe: The fact that it’s a true story makes it intriguing, and what was even more intriguing for me is the character that I play, Kari Sorenson. He’s from my home state of Connecticut, and I was surprised that I had never heard the news story prior to reading this script, but it was a really well-crafted. I loved the emotional arc of my character and I just thought it would be a great role for me to take on.
Graham: I loved that it was a true story and I was excited to work with Dennis Quaid again. I think I just liked the idea that when you think all hope is lost and you’re in the worst situation, sometimes things do work out. And it’s such a hopeful message with the idea of these people that wanted to help them survive and help them land the plane.
Were you able to talk to Terri and Kari? Terri just seems to stay so positive even when things seem fatal, and Kari really does have an emotional arc when you learn about what happened to his family in this short event.
Metcalfe: That’s why I found playing him very intriguing, because he had a lot of baggage and he had a lot of past trauma that I feel like he hadn’t really—or at least the way the script portrayed it, that he hadn’t really fully dealt with yet. Helping the White family to survive enabled him to heal from some of that past stuff. I found that incredibly interesting.
I looked up Kari, read a lot of interviews that he did after these events, watched some video on him, and sort of gathered what his personality was like. He was just a very real guy, you know? A reluctant hero. I feel like he had sort of a sardonic aspect to his personality, so I tried to incorporate that in my portrayal of him.
Graham: I got to talk to Terri White, which was very cool. We FaceTimed and I recorded her talking because I wanted to capture her essence. She just has this really charming accent and she’s very spiritual…She told me that she felt like angels were holding up the wings of the plane. I just thought that was beautiful how she said that. And I was very happy that she saw the movie and was happy with it, because of course you want the real people to like how you portrayed them.
Heather, what were those scenes like to film when you’re in the plane and its simulating a rocky flight and landing?
Graham: Well, the plane was on this kind of carriage that they would shake. So we’d be in the plane, and they’d start shaking it, which helped as an actor instead of just you trying to make yourself freak out. And then we had to walk down the plane while the whole thing was shaking… It was a very small plane and a small space, and we were all just really scrunched in there.
And Jesse, how do you bring out the intensity of this situation when your character is not on the plane, but, he’s on the phone trying to save this family’s life?
Metcalfe: It’s tough, you know, we’re working in challenging situations to maintain energy and maintain the emotional stakes and make this all seem as realistic as possible—and that’s what we do, right? I’m pleasantly surprised when I first screened the movie to see how well it all came together, considering that I never saw Heather or Dennis on set once during shooting of the movie.
Is there anything about the true story that really jumps out to you in terms of how surprising it is was?
Graham: There was an article that just came out about how impossible it is to land a plane if you don’t have the training—they’re like basically saying it’s impossible. So the fact that they managed to land a plane is really remarkable.
Metcalfe: Yeah, if you think you’re going to jump into the cockpit of a plane and land it without any training, you’re not going to.
Graham: They say that flying is easy… landing is hard.
So what was it that day that saved this family? Was it prayer, was it bravery, was it people stepping up to try and help any way they could?
Metcalfe: Well, it certainly was a miracle, and I think with everything you said—it was all of the above. I feel like this movie is just as much about depending on other people and the people around you as it is about faith and relying on some unseen, benevolent force. That’s why I say this movie kind of bridges the gap between a mainstream movie and a faith-based movie because one, it’s based on true events, and two, it’s about a lot more than just a message of faith.
Graham: I’ve been through moments in my life where I just couldn’t figure out in my head how to deal with something difficult. So having an idea that there’s this higher power that you can turn things over to and just have faith, it is a very hopeful message that I think most people have to deal with it at some point in their life. I think if you think you’re about to die, that’s the moment that you’re going pray. Even if you’re not religious in that moment, you find something.
What have you taken away from working on ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’?
Metcalfe: I took away a much greater respect for aviation and for pilots after playing this role. I had no idea how complicated flight actually is.
Graham: Just believing in a higher power for me, in nature, and to just connect to that more often.
Catch ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’ on Amazon Prime Video April 7.