‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Star Monica Barbaro on the Rigors of Filming in Planes: ‘Tom Created the Perfect Training Program’

Barbaro also tells TheWrap about the experience of shooting without a finished script and receiving cake from Cruise

Monica Barbaro Top Gun Maverick

“Top Gun: Maverick” is not your father’s “Top Gun.”

The new movie, released a whopping 36 years after the original film, takes Tom Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and puts him in an unexpected scenario – training Top Gun graduates for a clandestine mission. And, unlike the original film, some of those graduates are women!

The most prominent female recruit is Lieutenant Natasha “Phoenix” Trace, played wonderfully by Monica Barbaro. Phoenix is tough and flinty; she’s been around the rest of these bozos for a while, and knows Rooster (Miles Teller), a young recruit with ties to Maverick’s past, quite well. She’s also partners with Bob (Lewis Pullman), an unassuming weapons system officer.

TheWrap spoke to Barbaro about her relationship with the original film, what it was like in the actual planes and how nobody could resist eating the famous coconut cake Tom Cruise sends for Christmas, even though everybody knew that they were going to be re-filming the shirtless football scene. (The cake really is that good.)

What was your relationship with the original “Top Gun?”

I saw it in college and thought it was a great movie. It’s such a time capsule of the ‘80s. And like, you know, just so brilliant. Tony Scott just has such a great — I love the way he loves messiness and includes it in the edit. And it’s just a super fun movie. I knew it as a classic. I never envisioned ever being getting to be a part of it as a sequel in any capacity.

What was your reaction when you got cast what was your reaction when they said you’re going to be in the actual planes? I imagine those two very different emotional responses.

Well, interestingly, [director] Joe [Kosinski] told me before I got the part that we would be flying in F-18s. He was like, “Are you afraid of flying?” I was like, “No, I actually really like it.” And he goes, “Because you guys are going to be flying in F-18s.” And there was a little bit of disbelief in the back of my head. I was like, he doesn’t mean like me. “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” was coming out at that time. And I just seen it in theaters and, you know, that whole stunt with the helicopter in the canyons. And I was like, Okay, well, like Tom might be doing it but we’re doing it? But at the same time, I got goosebumps. I was like, That sounds like the coolest thing ever.

And he showed me the Phoenix helmet. And I was like, oh, man, this is really rude. Because now I really, really want the part, and it’s going to be really painful if I don’t get it. Then it was a process. I came back in to camera tests and things like that. And it was hard. Every day it was it was harder and harder to separate myself from how much I wanted this role.

Booking it was insane. I hadn’t even told my mom that I was up for it. But I was at her house because I was trying not to think about the industry for a minute. And got the call and ran down to her and was like, “Mom, I booked ‘Top Gun.’” She’s like, “What?” I’m like, “The ‘Top Gun’ sequel, I’m going to be in it, and I get to play a pilot.” And we were just so pumped and got teary eyed. This is just the insanity of the story – there was a pipe that burst in my mom’s house and our whole first floor was flooding. And we’re both so excited but also we need to call a plumber. It’s just one of those moments of absolute chaos just breaking loose from every corner, but in my case in the best way. We were overwhelmed.

How do you feel right now? You made this movie so long ago and it’s finally coming out.

Yeah, that day was almost four years ago now. It’s wild. Getting to talk about it in with interviews and things like that is fun, because it’s bringing all of these memories back. Glen Powell is going on James Cordon and he was asking me for some of the videos I took at the day where they’re all beefed up on the beach. I’m going through them I mean, I’ve gone through these photos constantly, just as a reminder, like, okay, I think I did that thing. And to go back and be like, I have literal proof of the fact that we made this movie.

We were just like texting and laughing about a bunch of videos last night and it feels like yesterday because it’s all coming back up. And you know, we were remembering things, we did a lot of interviews for the premiere and we stayed at the hotel where we stayed in San Diego, just reliving all these memories walking the streets that we walked while we were filming. And it strangely feels like no time has passed at all. And yet so much time has passed or there’s been a global pandemic. It’s nice just to get to like relive all that excitement with a whole new excitement. We never foresaw what this would become and the incredible places it’s now taking us and the response that critics have had – it’s amazing. It’s what we had dreamed about. But now we get to enjoy it.

What did you think when you finally saw it finished?

Well, we saw it September 2020. We were, four seats apart, four rows apart to spread out at this theater on the Paramount lot. And we loved it. We had a lot of fun. We were like hooting and hollering at each other. We had a great time, but you know, you’re rooting for your friends. So you’re like, I think it’s good. Also, a couple of the actors and I was talking about how when I first watch something I think I’m really terrible in it. If I think I’m really bad in it, a couple years later, I’m like “Actually, I was pretty good.” And if I think I’m really good in it a couple years later, I’m like, “That was terrible.”

And so luckily, in this case, I think I felt like, “Wow, my friends are all really good. But I’m absolute terror. I’m like terrible in this movie.” And that, you know, I guess my response aged like a fine wine. And now I feel more confident about my performance in it. And just getting to see other people watch it, who up to this point have had nothing to do with the movie although now I think all the you know, everyone interviewing us is a part of it too. Seeing people not just like the movie, but to be walking out high fiving and crying and you having all of the full physical responses to this movie is like, Okay, we did something. We did something really, right.

You shot the bar scene least twice and Glen Powell has talked about how there was always the threat of re-filming the beach scene. What was it like dealing with the demands of scenes being rewritten and reshot?

I mean, the whole film was kind of full of that. Tom is at a point where when he works, especially with [Christopher McQuarrie] who’s doing our rewrites, you don’t really get a script.

You have some scenes that stay the same, but you’re not really working off of the script like you would in a lot of other projects. You just have to trust them. And luckily they have more than earned that trust in the other things they’ve done. And then Joe’s obviously a great director and making everything absolutely beautiful.

Okay, so we reshot the bar scene for multiple reasons. The most important reason being that we filmed it while we were doing training, and we hadn’t been in jets, yet. We filmed it down in San Diego. But we were training and prepping. And it was really early stages in the film. And after we had flown in these fighter jets and spent a lot more time around fighter pilots, we were apparently walking differently. They were like, “We need to get you back in there. You guys are different now.”

And it makes so much sense. That’s why people, not that I think this is like always a necessary process, but people who are method actors, there’s a reason you immerse yourself in something because you take on the qualities of that of that space and the character and the relationships and all of that. And so in some way that had transformed us. We had to reshoot it.

And then also, Joe and McQ wanted to adjust the way camera angles and positionings had taken place just to build a little bit more of that intensity before you are introduced to Bob. All of those moments between us where we’re, you know, chest puffed out and acting all cool. And we all know each other and have all this history. That part of the scene pretty much was the same, but they just changed some of the camera angles to add some of that, I don’t know, the word that’s coming to mind is beefiness. You know, just to just to add that stature to us, or to help because that camera angle is so much a part of the story. They saw it back cut together, and we’re like, “Okay, like, we can make these tweaks. And we have the time to do that.”

Paramount Pictures

And then hilariously, the beach scene was filmed in October and the amount that these guys put into their bodies, I mean, I worked my butt off, but I also got the sense very early on that like, this was not a moment for me. This was all about like, pecs and abs and oiled up men. The care and attention that they put into their bodies was unreal. And then we kept hearing, it was sort of a running joke, that they kept being like, “Oh, yeah, we have to do some reshoots. And we have to add some scenes to the to the football scene,” and everyone’s just in a panic all the time.

Tom Cruise sends this Christmas cake out to like people he’s worked with. And we all get the cake and like probably all of us ate it in one sitting alone over a break. We’re supposed to share it with our families. We didn’t. We were like,” Oh man, we’re about to like shoot that scene again.” And they didn’t shoot reshoots on that until, I think, April. It was just this long running thing where they all had to be super disciplined and put way too much care and attention into their physical appearance.

I’m glad that everybody ate the cake anyway.

You don’t not eat that cake. Every year. I’m like, I’m going share it and no…

You’ve gotten cakes since “Top Gun?”

Yeah. I have heard that they can expire. Because he is always working with so many new people, that I have heard that you don’t get the cake for life unless you either keep working with him. I don’t know if we’re going to find out. That would break my heart. That would be a really sad Christmas, the year I don’t get that cake. But also, it would be a bummer not to be in as much of contact as we are because he’s just such a great mentor. And we’re so lucky to have him as a resource and we can text him any time and he’s just so generous.

We were on a red carpet the other day and I was talking about a boxing scene that I have to do for this thing. He was asking me about it and we were talking about it and then we were just having a whole conversation about how to shoot the boxing sequence. And you know, we’re dressed up to the nines talking about getting in a dirt pit and doing stunts again.

Back to that bar sequence, there’s a flirty relationship between you and Rooster. Was it ever made clear that there was a romantic history between the two of them?

You know, it’s funny. There’s actually not supposed to be. The intention behind it was always that we were friends, I think. I mean, the thing I find funny is that, if you watch the first movie, and if you’ve watched this one, Hangman and Rooster, their noses are almost touching in that scene. I feel like everyone’s flirting. That’s just my perspective.

In the Navy, you don’t get to fly together if you’re in a relationship. And I think it was always important that the two of them are two people that share that backstory. You don’t really explain this in the film but what we were told is that we were we became friends in flight school. And we learned to trust each other, we really respect the way that each other flies, you learn a lot about a person in the way that they fly and with Hangman, someone we learned will not have your back. Rooster is someone who will. Phoenix is someone who will and so I think they formed a bond over that. But in my opinion, everyone’s flirting.

I do get this question a lot. One of my agents even saw it was like, “Wait, I’m confused.” They’re like, “Did Phoenix and Hangman used to date?” I was like, “Wait, what? No.”

I mean, you can take you can take away from it whatever you want. It’s a film. Of course, there should be sexual tension. I mean, just watch the locker room scene again, with Val and Tom and tell me there isn’t sexual tension in that I absolutely love that ambiguity.

They’ve been playing this featurette in theaters with Tom talking about how he had to train you guys to be your own cinematographers and every makeup people and everything in the in the plane. What was the hardest aspect of that for you?

I think the really interesting thing about this movie is that it was really intense on the ground. I mean, you’re a “Star Wars” fan, like having to meet something that’s so glorious in its original form and make something that not only hopefully matches that greatness but does something to push beyond and make it even better. The pressure is intense. I’m sure you see like the fan conversations around “Star Wars” – it’s intense and a lot of people walked up to us and were like, “Oh, wow, we’re making a sequel,” almost a little bit frustrated or upset already, like, “Oh, you’re making a sequel, that’s my favorite movie of all time, don’t f–k it up.” It was always really intense on the ground.

On top of that, there was flying sequences that were physically and mentally intense. Tom created the perfect training program to get us to a where we were prepared. And then beyond that, we had to run our own cameras and fix our props. And we’d have these extensive briefs and debriefs where in the debriefs, we would watch our footage and go over things that you never think about like the visor on the helmet is covering your name, so you have to reshoot all of this stuff. We had a list of things that we had to go through on every single take. And that was intense. And then oh, by the way, in the end, you’ve got to act.

There was always a lot to think about. And we always worked with acute specificity. We even have rehearsals, with our pilot, in a fake plane to go over exactly like every minute of the flight, planning out a scene like, well, you’re saying these lines on a straight stretch, so you have to say all of them, maybe three times and then you’re going to turn around and reset and you say them again and reset. And when you stop when you’re you feel you’re done with that. You’re self-directing. It was pretty intense. We got to watch Tom do it a few times. I was the first person of us pilots to do it. I was the guinea pig. I learned a lot.

We learned that we really had to up the intensity on our on our faces, and also emotionally like as we were filming the thing, because as Lewis Pullman put it the other day, you will only have so much real estate to work with that’s being seen on camera.

And the planes even doing its own acting, the pilot in front, they fly really evenly. They had to like move the wings a little bit in order to make it look more dynamic. And everyone had a list of things to do. Pilots are used to that kind of task saturation. That’s that’s what they do. This was easy for them. But, but for us, it was new and it was intense. And luckily we had they have something called a knee board that you strapped to your thigh, so you have notes. I want to go back over those knee boards and just see all the notes that I had to take and all the things that we had to keep track of because I don’t know that there’s anything like it. You just have to be more focused than then you’ve ever been in your whole life.

“Top Gun: Maverick” opens exclusively in theaters on May 27.