Spoiler warning: This interview reveals plot points of “The Flight Attendant.”
Merle Dandridge wanted to be a flight attendant. More specifically, she wanted to play one — the accidentally treasonous flight attendant Megan on the HBO Max hit “The Flight Attendant.” The part eventually went to Rosie Perez, but Dandridge’s audition was so memorable that the production brought her back for another part entirely, that of F.B.I. agent Kim Hammond. Dandridge has no regrets about missing out on Megan, since Perez gave such a “radical performance,” she told The Playlist. Well, maybe she has one small regret: despite being on a show shot in such locations as pre-pandemic Rome and Bangkok, her character was stuck in mostly one spot, New York City.
“I’m the F.B.I. agent that stays in the United States on a job where everyone else gets to travel the world,” she said with a laugh. “I had to live vicariously through everybody else. I kept hoping that when Kim was starting to figure things out, she’d jump on a plane and go to Rome. But no. She’s calling everyone else to alert them.”
Perhaps now that the series – originally designed as a limited run – has been renewed for a second season, Agent Kim Hammond will travel the friendly skies in the next madcap adventure. For now, Dandridge is appreciative that the role was radically reconceived to fit her, given that the F.B.I. agent was an older white male in the book of the same name by Chris Bohjalian. The producers could have stopped there, just changing the gender and race and leaving it at that. Instead, they thought about what it would mean for a Black woman to have a younger white male as a partner, and how her different lens would affect the investigation. Said Dandridge, “There were so many things about Kim that had to be rebuilt, as far as her past, what she was about, and where she came from.”
For her part, the actress contributed a larger backstory, deciding that Kim came from a military background and had become one of the best fighter pilots in the Navy. “There is a specific energy in somebody like that,” Dandridge said. “She has a fire under her. She made her way to the top, to be trusted with a government vehicle like that.” From there, she decided that Dandridge has been recruited by the F.B.I. “It wasn’t a career move, like most of the people she’s working with,” she said. “They sought her out, so again, that’s a very different energy. She’s thinking, ‘Well, you brought me here for a reason, so I’m going to come at this from my point of view.’”
Kim clashes with her partner Van (played by Nolan Gerard Funk) on several fronts, mostly because Van wants to get “a gold star,” Dandridge said. “He wants to close the case and call it a win.” Kim, however, doesn’t see it that way. “She’s able to see some of the other nooks and crannies that might have been missed,” Dandridge said, “because as a Black woman, she has different experiences that make her more sensitive and open to other possibilities.”
Production paused during the pandemic shut down this spring, but when shooting resumed in the fall, Dandridge found that the writers thought about Kim Hammond’s position in the F.B.I. even further. “All these things came to light this summer, about systemic racism and violence,” Dandridge pointed out. “And I think they were all sensitive to the fact that it struck a deep chord in me.”
For her first scene on her first day back, Dandridge found herself taking Van to task for his white male privilege. “You couldn’t not address it,” Dandridge said. “And she had an opening to deliver it with a spoonful of sugar.” The monologue not only helped define the character, but also made the actress “feel very seen” by her coworkers. “They were paying close attention to what would be the experience of a Black woman in this space,” she said. “It’s one of those hard-earned silver linings to this year.”
While the added monologue came as a gift, there were several scenes involving her character that was lost in the final cut. Originally, “The Flight Attendant” explored some of Kim Hammond’s personal life, “how her relationships are a mess,” Dandridge said. (Could that have helped the F.B.I. agent connect to her person of interest?) One particular relationship – Dandridge won’t say which — had ended at the expense of Kim’s career but proved to be instrumental in securing information for the investigation. “You really could feel the heartbreak,” she said.
Dandridge felt the omission of that scene and the addition of the monologue in which Kim gets to talk about her experience as a Black woman was the right choice. “It gave so much context, so much heart, and so much purpose to the character,” Dandridge said. “It’s timely. It moves the story forward.”
Come season two; there will always be room to bring back that heartache, let Kim “put her fiery military chops to work,” and let the F.B.I. agent earn some frequent flier miles. Said Dandridge with a laugh, “Get me on a plane to Rome! Anything!”
“The Flight Attendant” is available now on HBO Max and you can watch the first episode for free here on YouTube.