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‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Breakout Glen Powell Made a Cocky Fighter Pilot His Own After Losing Different Role

The actor was originally up for Miles Teller's role, but as he tells IndieWire, choosing to play the big-talking Hangman allowed him to shape his instantly iconic part as he saw fit.

Glen Powell in "Top Gun: Maverick"

Glen Powell in “Top Gun: Maverick”

Paramount Pictures

Glen Powell has been waiting for this moment. And waiting, and waiting. In the summer of 2018, the Texan actor, best known for roles in Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!,” Best Picture nominee “Hidden Figures,” and Netflix’s breakout rom-com hit “Set It Up,” was up for a major part in the long-simmering “Top Gun” sequel. Powell was in contention for the role of Rooster in Joseph Kosinski’s “Top Gun: Maverick,” the film’s second lead (second, of course, to returning star Tom Cruise) and the son of Anthony Edwards’ dearly departed Goose from Tony Scott’s 1986 original film.

He didn’t get it. (The role went to Miles Teller.) He did, however, get something arguably better: a different role in the film, a breakout part he was encouraged to really make his own. The way Cruise explained it to Powell, Lieutenant Jake Seresin (call sign: “Hangman”) is on hand to tap into the spirit of the first film. He’s a bit like Val Kilmer’s Iceman, really, a cocky fighter pilot whose big-talking style tends to obscure the fact that he’s usually right about things. And, maybe, just maybe, he even gets the chance to save the day.

Four years later, the film is finally arriving in theaters. Bolstered by strong early buzz, glowing reviews, and a starry Cannes premiere, the bombastic actioner seems poised to dominate this summer’s moviegoing season. For Powell, who seems to have made it his signature to totally steal every film he stars in, it’s yet another breakout part. And, damn, was it worth the wait.

Ahead, Powell tells IndieWire all about his first memories of the original film, the wild training Cruise himself helped design for the film’s “young guns,” the flying day he still hasn’t told his mom about, and how trying to figure out his character’s call sign led him to turning the role into something very personal indeed.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

IndieWire: What is your first memory of seeing the original “Top Gun”?

Glen Powell: My first memory of seeing the original “Top Gun”! You know how your parents hide certain movies from you? And they break them out whenever the time comes, whenever they want to share them with you? I remember my dad, when I was 10 years old, he broke out the “Top Gun” VHS and was like, “It’s time, son.”

I liken this to a dad wanting to play catch with his son for the first time. It’s something he obviously cared about and something that meant a lot to him. And just the way that a dad looks over at you while you’re watching “Top Gun” for the first time, hoping you react the way they want you to react. There’s obviously a lot of pressure on that moment, but I reacted exactly the way he wanted me to.

How do you feel about the film now?

I thought that movie is magical. It’s lasted for a reason. And over the years, as I’ve watched it, many, many times and shared it with many people, it hasn’t lost a bit of that magic. I think to return to it was kind of a daunting idea, definitely daunting for Tom, who I know was hesitant to do it because retreading on the movie that made him a movie star is a lot. How to beat it? How to return to that tone?

I think what’s incredible about what we did in “Top Gun: Maverick,” we took that tone, updated it, made the aerial sequences even more extreme, and took a character and a story and really found a way that was new and fresh. I just think the timing, especially with the technology, the IMAX cameras in the back of these jets and putting real actors back there, I think we raised the bar in every way.

“Top Gun: Maverick”

Paramount Pictures

What was it like the first time you met Tom Cruise?

He’s truly one of a kind. You and I both have been around Hollywood and movies and actors, and rarely do your heroes live up to your expectations. And Tom is one of those guys who’s just so special. Movie stars tend to push themselves away from the pack, and he’s a guy that really cares about everybody, all the young guns in this movie, he really made sure that we looked as cool as possible on camera, were taken care of, listened to, and had an amazing ride.

Even after the wrap, which is another time where movie stars tend to push away and forget about you, he’s continued to read scripts we’ve written, help guide our careers, and be there just to check in on birthdays and holidays and all those things. He’s one of a kind. I can’t say enough nice things about him.

He put you young guns through a ton of training, three months of work, actually going up in the planes. What was that like? 

Tom is obviously Mr. Preparation. The guy will work for months for a 32-second bit in a “Mission: Impossible” film. As he’s gotten more and more political capital in Hollywood, he’s defined himself as being the guy who is able to convince people to do things practically. The one thing that Tom is just all about is: How is the audience going to react? That’s all that matters to him. So if by doing a stunt practically, you can help the audience feel more invested in a character or feel in peril for characters and what they’re going into, give them an experience they’ve never seen before, that’s all he cares about. Every movie, he wants to give audiences something in a theater that they’ve never seen before.

He’s the greatest movie star we have, I don’t know if there’s another person on the planet that could commit the Navy to put actors in the back of F-18s and make us all feel good about it. The TLC that he had, in terms of knowing his experience and how brutal it was to fly in the back of an F-14 on the first one and making sure that we didn’t have to endure the same thing he did. He put together an entire flight program! By the time we got up in the F-18s, we looked like rock stars.

What was your favorite day of training? What was the scariest day? Maybe they were the same day.

There was a day that I definitely didn’t tell my mom about, which was a day in which we were flying through this thing called “Star Wars canyon.” It’s a low level run. You’re flying somewhere between usually 30 and 100 feet off the ground. And you’re flying through these canyons, and the terrain in the canyon changes significantly. Meanwhile, in order to get ground rush off of the lens with these IMAX cameras, you have to fly as close to these walls as possible. When you go inverted, you have to make sure that canopy looks like it’s about to hit a cliff edge.

So all of these shots in the movie are designed to have the audience feel like you’re in peril. And sure, we’re flying with the best pilots in the world, but it doesn’t take much for a plane to dip a few feet and for you to feel like you may be a smoking hole on the side of a mountain. I didn’t want my mom to be worrying that day.

I did a low level flight over the water and, bird strikes are a thing! If you hit a bird with a jet, there’s not much you can do. Then you have to hopefully eject in time and all those things. But that’s why we, with the Navy, we went through so many safety protocols. It’s not just, Hey, you’re a passenger in the back of a jet. You have to be as knowledgeable about that airplane as a Naval aviator, so that if you do get put in sort of a hairy situation, you can come out the other side. We felt safe the whole time, but there are definitely some days that were scarier than others.

Glen Powell and Lewis Pullman. at the premiere of 'Top Gun: Maverick' held at USS Midway on May 4th, 2022 in San Diego, California.

Glen Powell and Lewis Pullman at the premiere of “Top Gun: Maverick”

Christopher Polk for Variety

Was there a day of shooting the film that really stands out in your mind as like, “I’m going to remember this forever”?

There was this one day, I remember, it was a scene in the bar and it was Jen Connelly and Tom, but I’m also playing darts with Coyote [Greg Tarzan Davis]. It was the introduction of my character Hangman. There’s a bit in the movie where I basically hit three bullseyes in a row.

During one of them, you’re not looking! Your eyes are covered in the last one, right?

My eyes are covered, and I throw the dart, and was pretty close. And then I hit two bullseyes in a row, even after Greg covered up my eyes. And Tom, he lost his mind. He thought it was the coolest thing in the world that I just hit a no-look bullseye. So to get Tom’s approval like that was pretty awesome.

The other thing that happened that day, which is pretty cool is — there’s always technical difficulties on a set, things go down, and lenses break, or power goes out, whatever it is — and that day, they had camera issues. And I just got to sit with Tom at the bar as they were waiting to set up the cameras, talking to him about the making of one of my favorite movies, “Rain Man.” Just the development of his character and how he and Dustin [Hoffman] kind of created those characters together and how far they could push certain things and what that movie meant to him. For me, that’s just one of the greats, and just getting to sit at a bar with your hero, dressed as Maverick, talking about how he created a moment that I think will live in film history, it was a special one.

We get to know so many of the characters in these films through their call signs, which provide quick insight into who they are and how they see themselves in this world. Did you have any input into your call sign? 

Yeah, I did! I did get to have input in my call sign. I actually auditioned for Miles Teller’s role, Rooster. And I didn’t end up getting that role, and I wasn’t really sure I was going to do the movie [when they offered me this other role], and I got to have some great conversations with Tom and Jerry and Joe and Chris McQuarrie. Sort of the promise they made was, “Hey, you’re going to get to have agency over who this character is.”

I remember Tom giving me some advice, or him kind of thinking out loud to a degree. He said, “Look, the first movie was a coming-of-age story. This is a man facing his age story. We want you to represent the original ‘Top Gun.’ We need that sort of swagger. We need that fun, that unapologetic ego in this movie. We want this thing to play on the attributes that we think make you special. We want this to be whatever you want it to be.” So the original call sign was Slayer [laughs].

In the first Naval briefing they gave us, they said, “This is the difference between a Naval call sign and an Air Force call sign: Naval call signs are like ‘Peanut,’ ‘Skipper,’ blah, blah, blah, fun call signs that are about people kind of screwing up. It’s usually an embarrassing story. Air Force call signs are stuff like ‘Slayer,’ ‘Spine-Ripper,’ ‘Laser.'” And I was like, “Oh my gosh, they put my call sign in the Air Force example. I’ve got to change this call sign!”

So when I got to kind of build out this character, my first order of business was to make sure that his call sign was, first off, a Naval call sign, and secondly, it represent a call sign that I could be proud of. After talking to guys in the original “Top Gun,” they said, “Hey, they’re going to call you this for the rest of your life, so you better like it.”

I went down to North Island, San Diego for a bit and kicked it with Naval aviators. There was this one guy whose call sign was “Noose,” and that happened because of an embarrassing story that happened to him when he was in sixth grade at a school dance. That story was like one of the funniest stories that I ever heard. So “Noose” became “Hangman,” but it was really a collaboration between me and Joe Kosinski, Tom Cruise, Chris McQuarrie, and Jerry Bruckheimer.

Jay Ellis (second from right) takes a group selfie with Bashir Salahuddin (L), Charles Parnell (R), Glen Powell, and Joseph Kosinski at the premiere of 'Top Gun: Maverick' held at USS Midway on May 4th, 2022 in San Diego, California.

Jay Ellis takes a group selfie with Bashir Salahuddin, Charles Parnell, Glen Powell, and Joseph Kosinski at the premiere of “Top Gun: Maverick”

Christopher Polk for Variety

Were there any other options before “Hangman” you liked?

I ended up meeting this guy at [the] Tailhook Association Symposium, who shot down a Syrian fighter, and he’s the only active pilot that has had an air-to-air kill in the past 30 years. He’s sort of who [that part of] my character’s based on, the guy who is walking into the bar and he’s a little bit of a legend himself, so that there’s some common DNA with him and Maverick.

But the legend with “Hangman” is that we wanted to go, “Oh, he shot the guy through the canopy, which is like a headshot.” There was a time in which my call sign was actually “Headshot.” I even have a picture of it printed on a helmet, but I’m really glad my call sign is not “Headshot” anymore. We went through probably a list of, I don’t know, somewhere around 25 or 30 different call signs.

Next up, you’re starring in the fact-based “Hitman” with your “Everybody Wants Some!!” director Richard Linklater that you also co-wrote, what can you tell us about that?

Rick and I just finished writing that script together that I’m really, really excited about. That’s going to be his next movie. We’re kind of putting the finishing touches on some stuff, but we should be shooting that this fall. It’s awesome. You’re really, really going to love it. It’s something that we kind of cooked up over the pandemic and then here we are. It’s just something that like, is everything you love about Richard Linklater, and yet also something he’s never done. So I’m really, pumped about it.

Paramount Pictures will release “Top Gun: Maverick” in theaters on Friday, May 27.

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