On January 4, NBC will air “Blackout Effect,” starring the award-winning actor, Eric Stoltz as an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board who is determined to learn what caused a computer glitch that led to a midair plane collision and the death of his girlfriend.
In a chilling reminder that life often imitates art, just a few weeks before I was to talk to Eric Stoltz, there was a report that air traffic controllers lost all communications with pilots flying aircraft over Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York Ohio and West Virginia when a backup system failed during a power outage.
Unlike the film, there were no collisions. But as Eric said, “We can be grateful for that, of course. But, unfortunately, I’ve learned that these blackouts happen more often than most of us are aware of. As a matter of fact, I witnessed one myself when I was with an FAA man at a traffic control center. It was terrifying.”
There are some who say that if the public knew the full story behind these events, there would be a crisis of confidence that could cause people to stop flying altogether.
“I don’t know that that would happen,” Stoltz said. “However, for me, the melancholy truth is that while I’ll still fly, I don’t feel I’ll ever fly with the same confidence I used to have.”
Still, isn’t it true that air travel remains the safest form of travel?
“It’s true,” Eric said, “that the United States has the safest system compared with any other country. But that’s like saying that while it’s safe to eat fish - or so, we’re told - we still have all these chemicals in the waters that certainly reduce the level of safety. So, it’s all relative, and we shouldn’t take any comfort in the fact that so far, these blackouts haven’t led to midair collisions. What we don’t know is how many were avoided because pilots were able to take effective evasive action.”
Eric’s character in “Blackout Effect,” John Dantley, is a man who seems oblivious to anything but his pursuit of the truth. How does an actor bring out the human being in such a driven man?
“You think about the pain he’s suffering. Some people would retreat into some corner where they could grieve alone. What he’s done is use his pain to keep him focused on his search for the truth. To me, that makes him very human.”
“Blackout Effect” has been compared to “The China Syndrome” which dealt with the prospect of a meltdown in a nuclear power plant. It led to the nuclear industry reassessing what they once considered their “fail-safe” systems.
“I see this movie (‘Blackout Effect’) as a wake-up call for the public to demand that things be changed,” Stoltz said. “Basically, it comes down to the fact that we’re all relying on outdated technology. They’ve even traced some outages to power plugs that have shorted out because they’re so old. Computers that are controlling the vital radar and traffic centers that were built in the ‘60s have not been updated because it costs money.
“And,” Stoltz added, “the government does not want to spend money because there haven’t been enough accidents that would push them into action.”
It’s been a busy time for Eric Stoltz. Among his recent films are “Pulp Fiction,” “Memphis Belle,” “Jerry Maguire” in which he did a cameo role, “Anaconda,” “Inside,” and the just-wrapped “Mr. Jealousy,” the third in a series of films he produced and starred in. The movie was made during the day while he was appearing in evening performances of Chekov’s “Three Sisters” on Broadway.
Finally, Eric Stoltz was a teenager when he played Cher’s facially deformed son in “Mask.” Does it bother him that despite compiling a long list of distinguished credits over the years since “Mask” was released, he’s still so strongly associated with that movie?
“No, it doesn’t,” he said. “I think any actor would feel honored that people would want to remember a performance. It was a wonderful film and a wonderful role, and I’m grateful that I had a chance to do it. That’s what makes being an actor so rewarding. You not only get a chance to play a lot of different characters, sometimes you get a chance to play someone very special.”