“Pan Am” follows stewardesses with more than the mile-high club on their minds

Believe it or not, there was a time when flight attendants were not the scowling, tired-looking droids you regularly see pushing that big old metal cart full of drinks and snacks up and down the super-narrow aisles of any domestic flight. Back in the 1960s, the flight attendants – or stewardesses as they were then called — for the now-defunct Pan Am airlines were like the supermodels of the air and were idealized for living the glamorous life of worldwide travel.

ABC is hoping to capitalize on that image of yesteryear as well as maybe tap into some of the buzz around the 1960s (a la AMC’s Mad Men) with its new series, Pan Am, which premieres next month in the plum post-Desperate Housewives timeslot on Sundays. During the recent Television Critics Association summer press tour, the cast and executive producers of Pan Am gathered for a panel to talk about the new show.

According to the ABC press release, Pan Am offers “passion, jealousy, espionage. They do it all and they do it at 30,000 feet.” Sound like a joke? It’s not! In fact, as evident in the pilot for the series, which stars Christina Ricci, Margot Robbie, Kelli Garner and Karine Vanasse, Pan Am is not played for laughs, though there are lighter moments amidst the drama on and off the Pan Am planes. Ricci, once nominated for an MTV Award for Best Kiss with Charlize Theron in the film Monster, explained how she is approaching her role of “rebellious bohemian” Maggie.

“I always remember in my performance that this is something that is exciting. And every time we step on a plane, we are excited just like the passengers are,” Ricci said. “And it’s glamorous, and these stewardesses were looked at as really glamorous sort of symbols. And it’s something that we have so much pride in, welcoming these passengers onto the plane, and they have so much pride in travel. And it’s something that, definitely, I always remember when I’m playing a scene on the plane and just to imbue everything with that sense of excitement.”

But how will women of the 21st century view a glamorous portrayal at a time when the women were known as stewardesses, a term that has now been replaced with “flight attendant?”

“For the stewardesses, there was this sense of excitement and freedom,” Ricci said. “There is sort of this misconception because, in reality, the job allowed these women to have a freedom that they weren’t really given in a regular sort of role in life at that time. Yes, they did have to pass through certain things, like the girdle checks and grooming checks, but by going through those things and having met the education qualifications and all of these other things, they were then allowed to travel freely and see the world in a way that other people didn’t get to see and to be in charge of their own lives in a way that women at the time weren’t necessarily regularly in charge of their lives. So, in a way, it’s sort of a misconception, which is something that really did attract me, personally, to this story. “

Robbie plays a beauty queen and runaway bride named Laura who follows her sister, Kate (Garner), into the world of being a Pan Am stewardess. She expressed that a lot of what women were going through in the 1960s is easily relatable to women today.

“From the perspective of a younger generation, we weren’t there in the ’60s and we can still relate to all the issues our characters are going through. They’re universal themes that can resonate with viewers from any generation. So as a 21-year-old, I still find the show extremely appealing and the issues very relevant,” Robbie said.

While the actresses may be a little too young to remember the hey-day of Pan Am, Executive Producer Nancy Hult Gains told her own backstory which explained how she came up with the idea.

“I actually worked for Pan Am in the late ’60s to mid ’70s, and it was such an amazing adventure and fun,” she said. “I always thought they would make great stories, and it was percolating under the surface for a long time, and then the opportunity presented itself about five years ago, and we started to develop it.”

Gains further explained what it was like being a Pan Am stewardess in the early ’60s, which sounds far removed from what most travelers experience in the world of air travel today.

“It was a time where we were treated as hostesses of a dinner party and it was a movable feast and the atmosphere in the plane was one of we would become friends with our passengers. We would know them by name,” Gains said. “We would know about the children, where they were going. We would help them plan their trips, deal with any concerns about currency or language or whatever. So it was much more like a quasi-diplomatic court. And because the flights were longer and took more time and there wasn’t entertainment or iPads or any of that, it was much more friendly and interactive — and the experience opened the world to us and helped us understand and appreciate those different cultures and customs and a lot of funny fish out of water moments as we learned to navigate through different worlds. And I think that informed us in ways that even my education did not.”

Of course, the inevitable comparisons to Mad Men came up during the panel but Vanasse, the French Canadian actress who plays the flirtatious Collette, had a simple answer as to how this show may actually draw more viewers than the AMC series. “Because it’s Pan Am,” she said with a smile.

Watch a preview of Pan Am below:

Pan Am premieres on ABC on September 25.