Glen Powell nearly didn’t end up in the cast of the box-office-smashing Top Gun: Maverick. Originally the charismatic actor had screen tested to play “Rooster” Bradshaw, the son of Anthony Edward’s “Goose” from the original movie. When that role went to Miles Teller, Powell thought he might be left high and dry from the long-awaited Top Gun sequel. That’s when Tom Cruise came to him with a different mission: playing the “Iceman”-like Lt. Jake “Hangman” Seresin—if he chose to accept it.
“I have to give Tom credit because he gave me confidence that we’d be able to build something special together with Hangman,” says Powell. No surprise, Cruise was right. The resulting hotshot aviator is the perfect antagonist for “Rooster”—as well as Tom Cruise’s “Maverick.” Perhaps even more than the original, the movie is a true team effort—following young ace F-18 pilots as they train for a seemingly-impossible mission under Maverick’s tutelage. The sequences at the titular naval tactics program and on the aircraft carrier were all done for real, with actors like Powell living on-site among the enlisted personnel. “I’m glad that I signed on,” says Powell. “I could’ve missed the experience of a lifetime.”
We spoke with Powell about living on Navy bases, working out with the cast, filming that beach football scene, and learning from Tom Cruise.
Men’s Journal: Are you glad Tom Cruise and Paramount decided to wait for this movie to release on the big screen?
Glen Powell: There has never been a movie more primed for the big screen than this one, since we shot in IMAX with cameras that have never before been used in jets like this. There had to be a lot of cooperation from the U.S. Navy to get this done in a way that couldn’t have been executed otherwise. Seeing this on a 50-inch screen at home or on an iPhone would’ve been a huge bummer.
How’d you feel stepping into the sequel of one of the biggest action movies ever?
I’m a big fan of the original Top Gun. It’s one of the reasons I became an actor. That movie had action, romance, iconic lines, and everyone in it just looks cool. Once you’ve seen the movie, you’re pumped up to go fast. You want to pedal your bike until the gears fall off.
Once you got the role, when did flight training begin for real?
Not long afterwards. I have a few friends who are military pilots, so I went down to Miramar beforehand to kick it with that crew and live with them. I like to be around the real deal whenever I’m prepping for something. Over the course of the experience, all of the young pilots were living together in close quarters. When the actual flight training began, we started with the Cessna, went to the Extra EA-300, then the L-39, and finally the F-18. That’s how we worked our way up to understand the physics of the airplane and get acclimated to all the G-force. There was additional training, too—like a helo dunker where they spin you blindfolded underwater, then make you escape the cockpit by breaking glass and swimming out. The goal was to be as legit Top Gun pilots as possible in that short amount of prep time. I actually got my pilot’s license just a little while after we wrapped.
What was it like flying in the F-18s?
I was in the cockpit with the best aviators in the world who were doing maneuvers they’d never done before. The preparation was key to be ready in those moments because we were taking around 7 Gs. The affect that can have on your body is serious. We were taught a number of tricks and exercises that the pilots do during flights to keep from passing out. But it was all worth it. With the cameras in there, it was so authentic. You can see we’re really feeling it during those scenes.
Living among the Navy service members must have helped bring authenticity to the film, too.
There’s no question that staying on the Navy bases and on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Roosevelt, all in the real pilots quarters, was profoundly helpful. On the bases—we were at North Island, Miramar, Lemoore, Fallon, and Whiting. We’d wake up, work out, go fly an acrobatic plane, then work with the actual Top Gun team on the script. So for a good long time, my life was the Navy.
Were actual fighter pilots on the set a lot—given how close you were working with the U.S. Navy?
There was one guy we called “Jo Pro”—his name is Joseph Prospect—who was a liaison between our film and the Navy. Then there was Brian “Ferg” Ferguson, an accomplished pilot who was essentially the Navy’s rep on the set with us. CDR Christopher ‘POPS’ Papaioanu, who runs Top Gun, was there with us too. They were the three key people who I connected with every single day. If I had any questions about protocol, I could just reach out to them. There’s no debate that the first movie did amazing things for the U.S. Navy as far as perception, visibility, and recruitment. Of course we hope to have a similar affect with Top Gun: Maverick. The cooperation of the Navy was integral to the production of this movie. We’re using actual war machines in this film—and you can’t rent them. Without them we would’ve been in some huge studio surrounded by a bunch of green screens pretending fly. Luckily, the heads of the Navy saw value in it, so we got to be in actual F-18s for a year and a half.
Beyond the movie liaisons, what were your interactions like with other soldiers on base?
I was wearing my flight suit the entire time with my cover on my head. On base, the carrier soldiers would salute me. I’d try to stop them and explain I was just an actor and not really a solider with rank over them. Most of the time they were just really confused and it would take a long time to explain it. At a certain point I just had to assume the role and act the part on or off camera. I had to walk the walk and talk the talk.
Speaking of talking the talk, what was your communication with the leaders and actual instructors at Top Gun?
I was giving briefs to the leads at Top Gun before I was going up. That made sense because even though this was a movie, it was made with the Navy, and I was going up in a true war machine. These planes are super sophisticated and obviously expensive. That meant I had to give my flight brief to the commander at Top Gun, as well as the director and Tom Cruise. I had to tell them the airspeed we’d be going, orientation to the sun, proximity to other planes, and when we’re going to be pulling off certain maneuvers. In other words, the same sort of briefs you’d do on a mission. By the end of it, I really felt like I’d done a deployment with the U.S. Navy. The fastest, easiest, and quickest one ever, but a deployment nonetheless. The guys who really do it are the true heroes.
I’m guessing you wanted to get into pretty good shape for this because of the role’s physical demands—not to mention a certain football scene we’ll get into later. How’d you take all that on?
I knew I was going to have to get in some sort of shape for this movie, and originally I was planning on just working out on my own. Then I discovered Ultimate Performance here in Los Angeles. I have a few friends who’ve gotten in really great shape there, like Lamorne Morris. I saw their transformations and was blown away. If there was ever a time to lean a little more into the training for a role, I figured this was it. I went in there and immediately connected with UP owner, Nick Mitchell.
Did you set some specific training goals there to prepare for the movie?
The one big note I had for Nick—and I think he had the same thoughts from the get-go—was that I didn’t want to get too huge. At the end of the day, I’m playing a pilot. I need to be able to fit in the cockpit of my plane and into a flight suit. These guys are lean and mean. There’s a lot of physical exertion to fly fighter jets to the level that we were, and to take those Gs. But to add to that, I was looking to get shredded. Everybody is different, but with my body if I throw around heavy weight, that’s where I end up. I actually didn’t really do any cardio. The extent of my cardio was running for maybe 5 to 10 minutes. For nutrition I was staying on a very high-protein diet. There were no cheat days when it came to preparing for the next Top Gun.
Can you take us inside those workouts with Nick? How did his program differ from what you’ve done in the past?
That’s exactly the mentality we went in with—to find something beyond what I’d accomplished before. So the sessions were very, very serious. Sure, we would catch up a little bit during the warmup and stretching, but once the routine started, it was all focus. Over the years, it’s clear that Nick has learned exactly how far to push people—to take it to that limit without endangering you. I’ve seen other trainers who don’t have that talent, so they’re afraid of taking it to the next gear. Or they do and cause more trouble than good. I was working with extremely heavy weights, the biggest I’ve ever gone before. We were maxing out everything. There were no easy pullups or chinups. I would have 70 pounds around my waist. I was pushed to pure exhaustion every time I was in there.
What got you through it?
Nick would often repeat a single helpful phrase: “Remember why you’re here.” That became my mantra every time I was working out—even if he wasn’t around. Now I have a sign in my home gym with that phrase on it.
Was it difficult to get workouts in when you were on the Naval airbases with the rest of the cast?
When you’re on these bases, especially as long as we were, you can’t help but become a bit of a gym rat. It’s just what everyone does—especially when you get grounded because of the weather. There’s nothing else to really do. But we made it fun. We had a game where we’d try to punish each other with the workouts. We were doing circuit workouts, and everybody would take turns picking the most brutal exercise ever. As you can imagine, the gyms are really impressive on these bases. Getting to train there was awesome. The high-tech gear was all in the indoor gym where people were working out constantly, but the outdoor gym was what we enjoyed the most. That’s where they had all the tires, heavy chains, sleds, and pullup bars. That’s where we really tortured each other—but it kept us entertained and in shape.
Was that shirtless beach football scene some added motivation to look the part—and do justice to the original Top Gun’s iconic volleyball montage?
I don’t think anyone in the cast of the first Top Gun imagined that volleyball montage becoming as iconic as it is. I mean, who could’ve known that it would be this copied, spoofed, and historic? Of course, this time around, the cast for Top Gun: Maverick knew it was going to be a big deal. The bar had been set really high with the original. So I have to admit that knowing that added an additional incentive when it came to prepping for this physically. There was no doubt in our minds that hundreds of millions of people were going to be watching this footage of us shirtless—and critiquing. There’s a lot of pressure that comes with that information, but as Tom likes to say, “Pressure is a privilege.” That’s true. It’s a privilege to be doing our version of such an iconic scene.
How would you describe the actual filming experience of that scene?
It was one of the first things we filmed. That was a great move, because you spend all this time getting into shape and it can be hard to maintain while you’re on set working these long shooting days. The tough thing was that we didn’t realize the filming demands of the montage, which was a lot of camera angles and long lenses. So after we’d filmed for an entire day on the beach with Tom, playing our hardest and looking our best, we thought we were done and went out that night to celebrate—drinking and eating wings and tater tots. The next morning, we found out they were only getting Tom’s angles and would be shooting the rest of us the following week. We were like, “What?!” Then we ran back to the gym. We shot that whole thing about three or four times in total. It became the running joke—time to do the beach football scene again.
Did you pick up any pointers from Tom Cruise about how he stays in such great shape? What was it like to work with him on this film?
There’s no question he puts immense effort into staying in peak condition—much like his dedication for the movies he leads. I remember having to guard Tom during the beach football scene and I was blown away. I like to think I’m pretty fast, but Tom is just so fast. The fact that he’s getting close to 60 years old and is sprinting on the beach is insane. I mean, it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. So when he talks about how he works out and how he eats, of course I’m going to listen. The truth is he has tremendous discipline in all aspects of his life. He’s disciplined in how he treats his body and what he puts into his body. Tom’s diet principles—which is a lot of lean fish and veggies—make a lot of sense to me. And I don’t think there was a day when he didn’t work out. You hear these stories about actors with workout trailers that never get used. His was used constantly. There were a lot of days where he’d invite us over to his trailer to hang out, chat, and eat. A lot of movie stars don’t really go out of their way to share wisdom. They tend to shy away from taking on that mentor role. Tom is the exact opposite. He really revels in being an instructor and a teacher. He’s also very aware that people want that time with him to gain insight into what makes him so great at what he does. He’s aware that he’s done something in this industry that’s completely unprecedented.
Best life lesson from Tom?
He’s an open book. He loves talking about movies, but that’s not all he likes to talk about. Plus, he doesn’t want to just be listened to. He likes hearing what everyone else is up to. I think that’s what keeps him at the top. He’s insanely curious and he’s not one to rest on his laurels. I paid close to attention to how he treats people, listens to people, and how he runs his career. “Tom Cruise Film School” has been very good for me.
Top Gun: Maverick is now playing in theaters.
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