“I was playing a real person, Kari Sorenson, who had lost both his father and his stepfather in plane crashes,” actor Jesse Metcalfe recently commented about his role in the dramatic thriller On a Wing and a Prayer.

“And I came from a place where, you know, this guy hadn't really dealt with that emotional trauma fully.” Metcalfe continued. “He's sort of a strong silent type, has a bit of a sardonic attitude towards life, doesn't really take himself too seriously. Often people are afraid to be emotional. Often, people are afraid to seek therapy in dealing with past traumas because they feel like it's self-indulgent.”

To talk about the film, the prolific actor, who played heartthrob John Rowland on television’s Desperate Housewives for some 30 episodes, sat down with me in Atlanta. In On a Wing and a Prayer, Metcalfe stars alongside Dennis Quaid and Heather Graham. The movie is currently streaming on Prime Video.

Metcalfe’s serious turn in Prayer has him playing the hero who helped Louisiana businessman Doug White land a twin-engine Beechcraft Super King Air 200 when the plane’s pilot dies in mid-flight. The film, directed by Sean McNamara (see Soul Surfer and the upcoming Reagan biopic), is based on the true story of the White family, who found themselves pilotless in a soaring airplane. The amazing event made worldwide headlines in 2009.

To find the character, Metcalfe dug deeper than just learning how to spout out aviation terminology. From listening to recordings of his actual counterpart, he imagined what made Sorenson the right man for the complicated, life-and-death job.

“You know, now everyone is so aware of their emotional well-being, their mental health. But when Kari was growing up, it just wasn't like that. You know, people didn't express themselves in that way. But then you find later in life that you're unhappy, or you're taking things out on people that you love, or you're not opening your heart to people.”

In finding Sorenson’s emotional center, Metcalfe then concerned himself with understanding the meaning of the language of a trained flyer.

“I had to educate myself to a certain level, so I knew what I was saying and what I was talking about,” Metcalfe said. “If you just try to memorize a bunch of words that don't mean anything to you, it's nearly impossible. So, you have to learn what it means.”

Metcalfe’s job in making the character relatable was complicated by the fact that nearly his entire performance is staged in one location, Sorenson’s garage. And he only worked on the production for about a week.

“In this day and age within the industry, from a production standpoint, people like to really contain productions because it keeps the budget down. And this was a relatively contained production as well.”

The action in Prayer occurs mainly within the rogue plane's cockpit. It’s there that Doug White (Quaid) and his wife Terri (Graham) must rely on Sorenson to talk them safely down to the ground. And Sorenson became the unlikely hero by calling the Whites on an old flip phone (given that it was 2009) and trusting that it was possible to land the plane with an inexperienced person behind the stick.

While the story’s ending is well-known, On a Wing and a Prayer manages white-knuckle tension as the possibility of crashing looms large. Keeping up a sense of urgency was vital to Metcalfe’s approach. Making us feel some of the pressure was no simple task, especially when much of Metcalfe’s acting involved talking into a telephone. But the clock is always ticking as the uncontrolled plane flies over populated areas.

“There were a lot of challenges in crafting this performance, and the urgency was one of those challenges.” Metcalfe admits and points out the elements of the delicate balance in keeping things grounded for the viewer, “keeping the intensity, the urgency up within that contained environment within the world of these make-believe circumstances and not messing up the copious aviation jargon that I had to spit out.”

The old expression goes that there are no atheists in foxholes. And On a Wing and a Prayer, which opens on Easter weekend, is an unapologetic inspirational thriller that becomes almost universally appealing as soon as the action shifts to the airplane's interior. But the perceived limitation associated with the film’s faith-based genre underpinnings is something that Metcalfe is quick to address.

“We have been getting the best reviews from people about this movie, saying that they believe that it should have gotten a theatrical release. So, what I'm most proud of about this movie, speaking in macro terms, is that I think it really bridges the gap between faith, the faith-based genre, and mainstream cinema.”

On a Wing and a Prayer is now available on Prime Video.