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‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Star Monica Barbaro Is More Than the Franchise’s First ‘Female Pilot’

When the actress was cast as fighter pilot Phoenix in the sequel, she told IndieWire she was ecstatic to craft a character who didn't exist only in relation to men.

Monica Barbaro plays "Phoenix" in Top Gun: Maverick from Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.

“Top Gun: Maverick”

Scott Garfield

Top Gun: Maverick” star Monica Barbaro got a taste of what it might be like to be a “female pilot” when she was cast in Joseph Kosinski’s “Top Gun: Maverick” nearly four years ago. “[The news stories were] like, ‘Monica Barbaro will be playing a female fighter pilot.’ No shit!,” the actress said in a recent interview with IndieWire.

Much like her character in the Tom Cruise-starring blockbuster, Naval aviator Lieutenant Natasha “Phoenix” Trace, Barbaro is one of the few women in a testosterone-heavy environment, but her gender isn’t the focus of the story. It’s about how a highly skilled group of young pilots — one of whom happens to be a woman — band together for a wild mission that hinges on their intelligence, skill, and daring.

For dancer-turned-actor Barbaro, “Top Gun: Maverick” was a wild dream come true, complete with a part she was encouraged to make her own, the kind of training she lives for, and the chance to (quite literally) turn the tables on her very amped up male co-stars.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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

Monica Barbaro: I was in college and I was visiting some people in San Diego and they were quoting the film: “You’re going to Miramar!” as we were driving by Miramar. “What’s Miramar? What are we talking about?” And they were like, “You haven’t seen ‘Top Gun’?” So of course we watched it that night.

I remember being like, “Wow, this is so ’80s, and also so great, so fun, just really a time capsule, but also somehow completely timeless in its energy.” I was transitioning into becoming an actor at the time and I never even fathomed I would be in a sequel, playing a pilot no less.

When you first got called to audition for “Top Gun: Maverick,” what were you told the part was?

Well, first off, it was called “Island Plaza,” but everyone immediately was like, “This is ‘Top Gun 2.'” I knew it was a pilot. To be honest, the character at the time was written more as a woman who feels every minute of every day like she has to prove how masculine she is. And luckily, it did not stay that way. It was a lot of fun to audition that way, but it shifted over time and I got to fly with some incredible women who really helped shape who this character was.

How did that work?

It was a lot of getting to be in these military spaces and walking into various squadrons and immediately seeing a couple of women and being like, “Hi, I’m here to ask you questions.” That was incredible. One of the first things they said was, they would love to just be “pilots.” You don’t need to delineate that it’s a “female pilot.” Even when I was cast, [the news stories were] like “Monica Barbaro will be playing a female fighter pilot.” No shit!

Learning that about them and then also watching them in these spaces, it just became very clear, very quickly that no one’s doing that. No one’s playing this game of like, I’m as macho as I can be just so the guys take me seriously. I think when men do that, people don’t take them seriously, so why would they with a woman?

Everyone was just such a huge advocate for this character. One of our consultants, call sign “Chaser,” he took a lot of care of the Phoenix character. He said, “When we first integrated women into the combat fighter pilot community in the ’90s, we didn’t do a great job.” They weren’t particularly welcome in most spaces, and so it was really important to him to represent the women as they are today. They’re strong and they fought really hard to be accepted and respected.

Danny Ramirez, Monica Barbaro, Rainey Qualley and Lewis Pullman. at the premiere of 'Top Gun: Maverick' held at USS Midway on May 4th, 2022 in San Diego, California.

Danny Ramirez, Monica Barbaro, Rainey Qualley, and Lewis Pullman at the San Diego premiere of “Top Gun: Maverick”

Christopher Polk for Variety

Were there times when you had to change something in the script to feel more genuine to you?

There were lines that [I would read] and I sort of looked around and was like, “Oh, I’m the only woman in this room. I’m the only woman who has access to the script right now, so I have to say something about how this character is being presented or the way she sort of presents her own perspective on being a woman.” And they always let me [do that], and they thanked me for saying something.

It’s very much created by those guys, but it was collaborative in that way. They saw me and wanted to bring what I have to the table.

There are a few moments when Phoenix’s gender is referenced, but the character making those comments is seen as being a jerk for doing that. 

It’s Hangman who gives her shit a couple of times, and I think there were actually a few more [lines] that we filmed and there was conversation about potentially taking them [all] out. I was a real advocate for keeping that in [the film], because I think — even though in large part, what I saw around the fighter pilot community was respect for female counterparts — I mean, we’re women. We know. We know there’s going to be a comment somewhere. There’s going to be some guy in a room who thinks it’s OK to make a joke or say a thing in a certain way or make a joke and then be like, “Sorry!” to the one woman in the room.

While that’s not the story [we’re telling in the film], it’s not about a woman being a fighter pilot and being the only woman or anything. I appreciated that we did keep that honesty and we didn’t delete that just for the sake of it and making everyone feel cozy. I think that would be there. Someone would point out in some way or another that she’s a woman. And you get to see that and it’s subtle and it’s a subtext thing, but it’s very real.

It’s been almost four years since you were first cast in this film. Can you even remember what it felt like when they called you to offer you the part?

It’s been a long time, but it also sort of feels like it was yesterday. I was ecstatic. I was at my mom’s house. I hadn’t told her that I was up for this part. My parents don’t really get involved [with my auditions]. My dad will be like, “So how’d that audition go?” And I’m like, “Dad … ” It makes it seem like you’re failing all the time. Trust me, just don’t ask! My mom will get brokenhearted and be in pain about things. I just leave them out of it. But I ran downstairs and I was like, “Mom, I booked a role in ‘Top Gun’ and I’m playing a pilot. I’m not a love interest. I’m a pilot.” And we just were both in tears.

That’s no knock on love interests, but it’s a place that women have had to fill for all of time and they almost can’t exist without being somehow a sexual entity. So it was just so cool to be like, this character is not that. She’s smart, cool, capable, like one of the dudes.

Joe had shown me a picture of Phoenix’s helmet when I was auditioning. And I remember just being like, “That’s really cool, but that’s also really unfair, because I really want to wear that helmet and you just showed it to me and now I have to have it.”

It was funny, because a pipe had burst in my mom’s house, and the whole bottom floor was flooding and I’m telling her this. She’s like, “OK, yay. But we have to call the plumber.” It’s one of those things where all hell can be breaking loose around you, but you’re just so happy.

Second Row; (L-R) Miles Teller, Bashir Salahuddin, Charles Parnell, Jon Ham, Jake Picking, Lewis Pullman, Greg Tarzan Davis, Raymond Lee, Manny Jacinto.First Row; (L-R) Glen Powell, Monica Barbaro, Jay Ellis, Lyliana Wray, Joseph Kosinski, Jennifer Connelly, Tom Cruise, Jerry Bruckheimer , Christopher McQuarrie, David Ellison, Jean Louisa Kelly, Kara Wang,Danny Ramirez .. at the premiere of 'Top Gun: Maverick' held at USS Midway on May 4th, 2022 in San Diego, California.

The “Top Gun: Maverick” cast and crew at the film’s San Diego premiere

Christopher Polk for Variety

You all went through months of training, care of Tom Cruise. What was that experience like for you?

It was so much fun. I love being infused with that much purpose on a project to get to really dive into a character. One of my favorite things about getting to act is that you dive into these different lives and you get to take on the training, the skills, or attempt to take on the skills of the real people who do this, whether that’s learning music or flying in fighter jets.

It was hard. It was very intense. There was a lot of pressure. It’s like the way people talk about “Star Wars” movies, that pressure to show up and do something that matches the first one. Obviously, you can’t make the same movie, but you want to preserve all that fun and all that excitement and then also bring in this quality that Tom brings with him on everything he does with a massive stunt. There’s just pressure coming in from all directions.

But it was those moments where we were in training and we got to fly that I really just felt like, “This is where I’m supposed to be. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. I understand this.” It almost became the more simple of the challenges as we went, because it was just clear. It was like, OK, I need to not pass out. I need to not throw up, and I need to like get to a point where I’m comfortable enough doing this to where I can act in a scene while I’m doing it. Tom just designed a perfect program for us to prepare and get ready to do that.

What was your favorite day of filming?

There were so many good moments. I think the funniest day was the first beach day [when the squadron is playing football]. I come from ballet, and so I know a lot about intensity around one’s own physical appearance. I feel quite familiar with that. And I watched these guys be more intense than anyone I had ever seen about their bodies, about the way they were eating, about how they were prepping.

The testosterone that day was like through the roof. It was pretty clear, it’s not really my scene. This is for male bodies. I trained a lot, too, and I was ready to go, but I caught on pretty quickly that this moment is going to be about them and their abs and their pecs and being as sweaty as possible. That was just funny.

I turned on the song “It’s Raining Men” because it was stuck in my head all the time, working on this film, understandably. And I was like, “Hey, dance!” I pulled out my camera and they were running into the frame and flexing. They were so jazzed. They were so ready to go. And it was just the funniest thing. I’m going to post it at some point. I’ll ask for forgiveness on that.

The reviews for the film have been overwhelmingly positive so far. After all these years of waiting, how does that feel for you?

It’s still kind of hitting me. As we were filming this, like I said, there’s so much pressure to make a good sequel, and there were moments where I was like, “This might be bad. This could be really bad.” I think every movie has those moments and it’s not filmmaking if you don’t. If you never feel that way, you’re for sure making something bad. You have to question yourself constantly.

It’s a huge relief. I mean, everybody worked so, so hard on this. We gave 10 months of our lives and also risked our lives for it. I mean, this is Tom’s baby. I think it was particularly intense for him. I’ve only worked with him on this movie, but knowing people who worked with him on other things, they were also like, “Yeah, the weight that is on his shoulders right now is immense,” so it’s great just to see him enjoying the fact that people love this and everyone enjoying it.

You can’t design a film for critical acclaim. It doesn’t work like that. You just have to make a really great movie. On top of all the insane stunts that we do in this movie, to get to be making a film that people are really putting a lot of care into and developing character and giving it their all at all times for 10 months straight, it’s wonderful.

We were doing ADR during COVID, under our comforters, yelling as if we’re in a jet. The [whole team], they just gave it everything, and so to hear that people are responding to it and not just responding to it, but loving it, it’s almost unfathomable.

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

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