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'Top Gun: Maverick' Star Glen Powell Unpacks How Tom Cruise Convinced Him to Do the Movie

Glen Powell's character, Hangman, embodies who Maverick used to be.

Scott Huver
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Glen Powell in 'Top Gun: Maverick'

Courtesy of YouTube

Glen Powell is about to have a moment. 

Granted, it's a moment that might have come two years earlier, when his latest film, Top Gun: Maverick, was originally scheduled for release before the COVID-19 pandemic upended the entertainment industry. But it is finally hitting theaters with excitement for the film at a feverish pitch, and the moment now seems righter than ever: Tom Cruise's long-awaited return to his most indelible screen role also promises to take Powell's career supersonic.  

As the uber-confident, competitive and ambitious Navy pilot Jake "Hangman" Seresin, Powell — who has been delivering head-turning performances in a succession of projects from Scream Queens, to Everybody Wants Some!, Hidden Figures, and Set It Up — exudes charismatic arrogance as he jockeys for mission leadership, taunts his fellow pilots, and squares off against Maverick's authority. These are qualities that may remind audiences of Cruise and Val Kilmer in the original Top Gun, and that movie propelled them into the Hollywood spotlight. 

"Tom and I sat down when I was planning on not doing the movie, and we talked out why I didn't want to do the role that was on the page. And he taught me about how he develops roles and how he develops movies, and convinced me," Powell tells Metacritic. "The phrase that he said was, 'What kind of career do you want?' And I was like, 'You; I'm trying to be you, man.' And he's like, 'Well, do you know how I do that?' And I go, 'Yeah, you choose great roles.' And he goes, 'No, I choose great movies. And I figure out how to make the roles great.'"

Here, Powell talks to Metacritic about setting aside his major Cruise fandom to share scenes with the film superstar, his role in re-making Hangman from its original conception, bunking with castmate Miles Teller in a cramped aircraft carrier cabin, and a perhaps surprising inspiration for the film: Casablanca.

(Full disclosure, Powell spotted a Casablanca poster in the background of the forthcoming Zoom interview, which is what spurred that part of the discussion.)

"Casablanca, man. It's actually ironic. That's a movie that was talked about on Top Gun quite a bit in terms of the classic nature of the storytelling, the elegant way in which they do such a good job of in that movie," Powell says. "And Tom always talks about it first off, the framing of that movie, and just the way the performances in that movie are incredible, and the way in which they plant the emotional architecture so that the third act is as emotional as it, as it is. And really that's a beautiful magic trick that movie plays. Tom referenced that movie all of the time."

That's fantastic; Tom has good taste! He's truly a screen icon, too. Tell us about figuring out how you were going to hold your own in scenes with him in which he's playing his most iconic film character. 

That's where the fan and the actor have to separate themselves in a really interesting way because I remember even in my screen test with Tom, when Tom started acting as Maverick, I remember being like, "Whoa!" It's an out-of-body experience. But I think one of Tom's superpowers is when you initially meet Tom, it's an out-of-body experience, but then I think one thing he does is he turns into your friend very quickly. 

He's very disarming. He's very human and doesn't ever wear any of that. Some movie stars constantly remind you that they're a movie star, and Tom does the exact opposite. Tom comes down to your level very, very quickly, and he makes it a collaboration in a team sport very quickly. It's not "The Tom Show" and everybody else; it really is a team sport and everybody's ideas are valued and everybody's performance is important. And I think that's what makes him different is, after that initial interaction, you get to settle into a groove in a way that I think is just truly unique. 

Tell us a little bit about filling in the blanks in Hangman, once you understood the role, and building him out because he really comes off as a character who has even more life than what we see on screen. 

It was a really interesting lesson because...the character was called Slayer. And there was just not a lot of redeemable aspects to him. I didn't feel like what you feel like with Hangman. I just didn't feel like there was a lot of life to him. There was not a lot of things that I could sink my teeth into. And I think for me as an actor, even if I don't agree with a character, I just have to love living in those shoes for a bit. Because that's what you do as an actor: you live on this set, you really have to enjoy thinking like that character and finding new things to explore. If you're not leaning into a character, then why would the audience? 

And I think one of the things that was really exciting to me was, again, in the first movie, for Maverick, it's a coming-of-age story. In this movie, it's a man facing his age story. And Tom basically said, after watching the original Top Gun, after our initial conversation, "What we don't have in this movie right now is somebody that embodies who Maverick used to be — who is the fun, the spirit of the original Top Gun, the unapologetic swagger of that movie, the guy who's just having a good time flying."

The stakes in this movie are much higher than the first one. So, a character who's flying, saving the world, but doing it with a smile, that was something that was needed. So, my whole thing was a character that believed he was the greatest weapon the Navy's ever produced and loved every minute of it, and that's how I approached every bit of it.  

And one of Tom's great notes over the course of that character was he goes, "Hey Glen, you're a humble dude. I need you to enjoy the sound of your own voice a little bit more." And it really unlocked a lot with that character. And yeah, I'm just really grateful, because Tom put a lot of time and thought into my character. He would even watch movies; he would even call me and be like, "Hey, I just watched this movie. Have you seen this movie?" And I'm like, "No, I haven't seen this movie." He goes, "Watch it tonight. Let's talk about it tomorrow." And he'd be like, "So, you see how the guy frames himself in the doorway, do you see the way he moves? It's like water, it's smooth, it's slow motion. It's all this stuff."

And I've never met a movie star that is not concerned about their own performance more than anyone else's. And that's what makes Tom different is it really is just a team sport. He just wants everybody to win. So, I feel very, very lucky that I got to create that performance with Tom. 

Speaking of team sports, tell us about the camaraderie — and, I'm sure, some competitiveness — that happened between your ensemble. Did it mirror the way that we see these guys bond and also strike some sparks with each other on screen? 

I think one of the things that is unique about this movie is truly when you get a group of actors together, you don't really know how they're all going to mesh. Actors can be weird people. This group of young pilots is one of the nicest, considerate, entertaining, hilarious. … They had the right mentality. This was not an easy movie to shoot all the way through. You're living on Naval bases, on [aircraft] carriers, you're away, the days are long. Sometimes it can be grueling, but everybody put every ounce of themselves in it and did it with a great attitude.  

And there was no personal space. I'm bunking with Miles on the carrier. Miles knows everything about me. I know everything about Miles. And we would go to and from these military bases in sprinter bands. And you talk all the way there, you have a blast. This group is truly some of my new best friends. And I just feel lucky that we all got to kind of share this journey together and authentically like that.  

One thing that Tom identified in all of us is a competitive spirit. I think if you don't have that spark, your performance won't make it in this movie. I think that spark is something that Tom likes, and in other people too, but they all root for each other. They are all great wingmen and women in that way. 

Aside from the acting opportunities that you got on this movie, stepping into the world of Naval aviation, what were the "wow" moments as you got to soak in that whole real Top Gun world while you were shooting? 

God, it was just so many across the board! I remember watching Tom racing with an F-18 — literally just all posting up with lawn chairs on the flight deck and just watching Tom race an F-18 on a motorcycle over and over. These are F-18s that are just taxiing and taking off, and he's racing every single one of them. And you can feel the speed in the movie, but Tom is a maniac on a motorcycle! We would leave in jets to go to locations, and Tom would beat us there on his motorcycle. So, the need for speed is truly alive and well with Tom Cruise. That hasn't faded at all.  

And I think those moments that really blow your mind are moments where you are getting to do something that no actor alive will ever get to do. In terms of flying 500 knots through canyons at 50 feet, going inverted, pulling crazy amount of Gs. And the Navy, because the Navy is such a supporter of this movie, let us do things that they don't get to do with their planes all that much. So, even they were pushing the limits on what we could do. They're not playing around these $80 million toys the way we are. 

What I found to be really incredible is the pilots in this movie, who are the best pilots in the world, are looking at Tom; Tom Cruise is running these briefings and going, "Hey, so, I want to do this with an airplane. I want them to spiral down towards the ground." And they're like, "I don't think that's possible." Tom's a pilot, he knows the physics, and [director] Joe Kaczynski is a brilliant physicist and scientist, and he understands the physics. So, with those two brains, to understand the cinematic nature of how to do this, plus the Navy brain of what we're actually allowed to do within the scope of the Navy, it was a really interesting team effort. And these pilots were just giddy after these flights, getting to pull some of these maneuvers. 

I think that's what really blew my mind: it was going to play; making is playtime. 

Top Gun loomed pretty large in your household growing up and was a pretty big touchstone for your father. What did it mean to do this film, and to see you doing this through your dad's eyes?

At the U.K. premiere, I got a little emotional. I was literally at the after party and Tom is talking to my dad and they were just laughing. And Tom was telling him stories about the original Top Gun and just all this stuff and about his family. And it was just this moment where I literally had this flash of me as a kid, and Tom is my dad's favorite actor — hopefully second to me, but I don't know! He's a guy that loves Tom and loves his dedication, loves his passion for his job. 

And that's what my dad always says, "Chase passion, chase what you wake up thinking about and wanting to do." And Tom represents that. And it's in the movies he's made and you can feel that fire burning through his entire filmography. And to watch my dad and Tom laughing, it just literally made me go, "This is why you do it." To work with your heroes is great, but for your heroes to bond with your family and to share in that experience, it felt very full circle for me. So, I'm just grateful because Tom is just the most generous of people, but sometimes you wonder if he knows the effect that he has on those moments. But that was a moment in which I truly got choked up, because I was like, "This is as good as he gets." It really is. 


Get to know Glen Powell:
As aforementioned, Powell was previously in Scream Queens (Metascore: 59), Everybody Wants Some! (83), Hidden Figures (74), and Set It Up (62), and he also voices Dave on Netflix's Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous.