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‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Star Glen Powell on Embracing His Inner Hangman and What He Learned From Tom Cruise

”He does not half-ass it and therefore you cannot half-ass it,“ the actor tells TheWrap

“Top Gun: Maverick” features a whole host of new recruits; pilots who have recently graduated from the Top Gun program and are tasked with carrying out a top-secret mission. And just as Tom Cruise’s Maverick got grief from the cold and cocky Iceman in the original film, Goose’s son Rooster (Miles Teller) butts heads with Hangman (Glen Powell), whose name comes from his willingness, as another character states, “to hang you out to dry.”

But instead of a clear-cut villain, Hangman is more. Like the rest of the characters, he’s an evolved version of what came before, one with more shading and complexity. He is one of the only pilots in the modern era with a confirmed kill under his belt, and his relentless quest for excellence mirror’s Maverick’s own singlemindedness. He’s also just a really cool dude.

TheWrap chatted with Powell as he and the rest of the cast were finishing up their initial promotional run (he was in Washington, D.C. at the time). Powell talks about how “Top Gun: Maverick” is his Marvel movie, what it was like losing out on the part of Goose (and then struggling with the part of Hangman) and what Tom Cruise taught him about filmmaking that he’ll carry with him from now on.

Why were you so determined to be in “Top Gun?”

I feel like the original… You’re a movie fan. And there are some of those seminal moves that you can’t shake, that every time you sit down and write a movie or act in a movie, you want it to be that magical. You want it to feel that transformative. It’s a rare thing. And when you can do that with a movie, I think it’s literally why you do this job. I remember watching the original “Top Gun,” and it’s all I could think about I was like, I just I just want to fly, I just want to be Maverick. It changed the way I walked, the way I talked, I listen to the soundtrack. It was like, I went out and bought the soundtrack on CD and listened to it in the car. I had a Toyota van, but I would still wear my aviators and crank up the soundtrack. And that the thing is, when you watch something, and you watch the behind the scenes, or how they pulled this off. It’s one of those that made me lean into why that movie hit me the way it did.

I imagine you’ve been offered every Marvel movie. But was “Top Gun” that to you? Was it the one franchise that you wanted to really be a part of?

It’s so interesting, because I really do think that talking to younger folks, Marvel is their “Top Gun,” right? I didn’t grow up with superheroes. Superpowers were never my thing, I always gravitated towards the ordinary man doing extraordinary things. People that were very, very good, real people who were extraordinary at a skill – and that created an interesting character.

And that’s what “Top Gun” is. I think that’s why I responded to it. I think Marvel’s done an amazing job with everything they’ve built. I think it’s fantastic. But I do feel like I engage with the ordinary guy a little bit more. Not that anybody in “Top Gun” is ordinary, all these people are flying. These airplanes are extraordinary. I actually find the most interesting part about these folks is that they are athletes in an airplane, but they’re also engineers. Their ability to solve math problems while blood is being drained from their head is unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like it. I just find, you know, humans on their own are so impressive and I think those are just the stories that I’ve gravitated towards.

How was Hangman originally written and how did he change? What was it like getting script pages from Christopher McQuarrie?

You know, there was a moment in which, obviously, I was auditioning for this role [of Rooster, Goose’s son], I put everything I had into the audition process, and went and lived with aviators and really tried to understand that world. By the time I auditioned for Tom, I felt like I was the guy. And when I didn’t get the role, it really was a gut punch of epic proportions. I really never get emotionally attached during an audition process. I understand that it’s not really about you or up to you. But this is, again, is a movie I’ve wanted to make my entire life, one of the movies that got me into this business.

When I got that call from Joe [Kosinski], I remember, it was on July 3, and on July 4, I literally spent it in the fetal position. I was so sad. And ironically, July 3 is Tom’s birthday as well. I was just so sad. So when got the call and they said, “Hey, there’s this other role.” And I’d read the role and wasn’t really sold on it. It was just such an interesting thing, because I’d already emotionally separated myself from it.

When Tom was kind of pitching these things, and I knew what the role was on the page, and the only way for me to judge if a role is good or bad is what it is on the page. And Tom explained to me his process, which is, it’s not about the page, it’s about your attributes as an actor and how we can create the most compelling character within this world. And that was what I think was really, really interesting is Tom and Joe and Chris McQuarrie said, “Here are the attributes that we think are compelling about your character. The first movie is a coming-of-age story, this one’s going to be a man facing his age story. And we feel like you represent the spirit of Maverick, like the initial feeling of what it is to be an unapologetic aviator, a guy who believes he’s the greatest weapon the Navy’s ever produced.”

And what came of that was a really, really interesting friendship and relationship with Chris McQuarrie, where we would grab breakfast in the morning, before shooting. And we’d literally talk out things like this because the character didn’t exist, we just get to riff on what would make this character the most fun and continue to do that every day with Chris and then bringing those ideas to Tom and Joe on set. I learned so much. I mean, the film school I had on this movie was incredible. But I’m just so grateful that all those men are men of their word. Because I could have very easily jumped into a movie and nothing could have changed.

They’re a hive mind. And the fact that they figure it out as they go along. It’s amazing.

You have to be so confident in your storytelling ability to do this on the fly, while there’s a crew of 300 people looking at you, like, what are you going to shoot? You have to really know what you’re doing. And these guys are are just … it’s been a masterclass, I really feel so much more confident about every movie I’ve ever made. Because just looking at how they each approach the job and the way that the best idea always wins. There’s no ego among any of those guys. It’s all about the movie every step of the way. And it was just so impressive to watch. You realize why those guys are at the top of their game. They truly love movies, but even more they love the people they make movies with.

Was it a relief when you finally saw the movie and realized, Oh, this is a masterpiece? Because it would have been a real bummer if it had sucked.

We’ve all been on the other side where you pour your heart and soul into something and you see it you’re like, “Okay, well, I guess that was the experience. I’ll lock in the experience.” And it’s actually interesting, Richard Linklater gave me this advice. He said, “It’s important to define the difference between making the movie and how the world receives the movie. It’s important to lock in the experience of how you felt while making it. And that is completely separate from when critics get to it, box office gets to it all those things. Because making movies is such a privilege. It’s such a wonderful time and you don’t want the effect to taint the way you feel about the experience.”

The good news is on this movie is both of those things were incredible. You know, the experience of making the movie was absolutely magical and the way people are receiving it, and how much it’s moving people and how impressed people are with us putting our bodies on the line to entertain them. It feels like people are appreciative and they are thrilled as we were while doing, you know?

Speaking of your body, I talked to Monica, and how Cruise’s famous Christmas cake arrived while you were waiting to re-shoot the beach scene. Was it hard to maintain self-control? She said everybody still ate the cake.

Obviously, no self-control. Especially the Cruise cake is a is the thing you do not want to avoid. I hope I continue to get the Cruise cake for the rest of my life. I’ve turned it into a Christmas tradition since we started this thing where I’ll literally invite my friends over to my house. And they’re like, “This is the best thing ever.” So now I make a thing of it. I’ll have a little like dinner/drinks party and everybody can do a little tequila and eat the Cruise cake together.

Monica said it’s going to be a very sad Christmas when she stops getting the cake.

I don’t know how many people fall off the list. But you know, I’ll just try to stay in Tom’s good graces as long as humanly possible, even if it’s just for the cake.

Was this your first exposure to flying? Because everyone gives you a lot of credit for finishing your flight lessons and having your license now.

I have folks in my family that have gotten their pilot’s license before. You know, flying has been a thing I’ve been around, I’ve been around pilots growing up, I’ve always had a fascination with flying. But I think it’s always one of those things that it’s on everybody’s bucket list to do, but nobody actually does it. And this was such a great shove in a direction of something I’ve always wanted to do in my life.

Because we got so many flight hours on this, because I was exposed to the greatest pilots in the world, I could go, “Hey, where should I train? What should I fly in?” You know, what’s the trajectory here, if I’m going to eventually try to own my own plane and fly around, Texas and California and the Southwest fly myself this set? And the thing that Tom does the best is he surrounds himself with the best of the best across the board, every department head. I really do have access to finish that pilot’s license and feel very confident about flying myself around the country.

Cruise always seems to make everyone level-up to get on his wavelength. Did you feel that pressure?

For sure. And again, it’s another thing that I’ve realized is full immersion, full throttle all the time, it’s the only way to make a movie. And if people don’t want to be a part of that process, that’s where it’s like very clear, if you sign up for a Tom Cruise movie, as an actor or department head, you better be in, he does not half-ass it and therefore you cannot half-ass it. And that’s what I think makes him truly incredible. And why he’s had the career he’s had is there’s an inspirational aspect attached to working with him. You watch his work ethic … usually everybody looks at the top, you know, they look at the guy and they go, “Okay, how hard is he working?”

The star dictates a lot and it’s an ecosystem on its own. And  everybody’s looking at that’s where the set orients and when he is putting every ounce of himself into every moment on set, no one else can slack off. I think it’s just a beautiful thing that I’ll take on to every movie experience I do. Because  it’s a wonderful thing when everybody comes prepared.

It also keeps everybody safe. You know, when everybody’s prepared, nobody can slack off. You know, in a great way. The stunt team cannot slack off. I felt very safe. We were performing very dangerous stunts in this movie. And Tom made sure we had these briefings beforehand. Tom ran the briefs with the heads of Top Gun. And he would go, “Glen, go over your airspeed again, go over your altitude, what’s the composition? How close is that other plane on your wing? Where exactly is that plane on your wing? Who is giving the command when you crank left? And you know, you’re when you crank, right? Boom, pull this way? What’s the timing of this other plane to match it?” He was like, “Is everybody on the same page? Are you on the same page? Are you on the same page?” He’s trying to keep you safe. He’s not like, “Let’s figure it out.” He is all about preparation and safety. And he’s trying to keep us all alive. And it’s just it’s a wonderful thing, because everybody knows they’re there to work. And it’s just a better way to go to work.

“Top Gun: Maverick” is now playing exclusively in theaters.

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