Before this interview, I’ve had three encounters with Glen Powell. The first time was in 2016, when Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! was up for a Gotham Award and there was an extra seat at the cast’s table and Paramount asked if I wanted to take it. (The thinking, I believe, is if they are paying for that seat anyway, maybe they can get some easy press out of it; six years later, that gamble has finally paid off.) This sounds like a fun idea in theory, until I showed up and it kind of hit me, oh, these people all made a movie together and I have nothing to do with that movie and, my goodness, this is going to be awkward. Memories of being the new kid at school during the first lunch break, not knowing anyone and not knowing where to sit, came flooding back. It will probably not surprise you to learn that the cast of that movie is a pretty fun hang. And Powell was certainly an alpha dog at the table among the actors (Megan Ellison was also at the table and she, too, is very much an alpha dog) and I could tell quickly, once he was nice to me, everyone was nice to me. Even when he didn’t have to be nice to the idiot literally crashing their party, he realy was.
The second was in February 2020. Paramount was hosting a mid-day screening of Top Gun: Maverick footage with the cast. As you probably know, February 2020 was a strange time in New York City. I remember that were a lot of handshakes and a lot of running to the bathroom to immediately wash those hands. Everything said about the release of the movie kind of ended with some sort of postscript, “assuming everything turns out to be okay.” (It, uh, did not.) But Powell was noticeably excited. Now, having seen the final, yeah, I can see why. Imagine knowing your whole life is about to change in just a couple months.
Turns out, all our lives were about to change, and Top Gun: Maverick wouldn’t be in a movie theater for another 27 months.
The third was when we were both, randomly, trying to hail a cab after the New York City premiere of Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Powell was getting into his cab, but when he saw me, he said, “I’m going to message you, I have something to tell you.” True to his word, a few minutes later, I started getting messages from Powell about how excited he was for Top Gun: Maverick and that, once I saw it, I’m “going to lose my mind.” Yeah, sure, he was hyping up the movie a bit. Though, at the time, I was still very excited for his excitement. It’s nice to see actors not pretend that what they are doing isn’t cool.
And then I saw Top Gun: Maverick and Powell was right, I lost my mind.
“Talking to Tom about how the first movie changed his life, I feel like this is, at least, a next chapter for me in my career,” says Powell, who is probably correct about that feeling. “And, sometimes, holding onto that secret is tough to not share the excitement that you have with the rest of the world. But also, career-wise, it’s sometimes hard to wait for your career to start a little bit? Even until about two weeks ago, I still felt like I was putting on my tuxedo for a wedding that wasn’t going to happen. You know what I mean?”
In Top Gun: Maverick, Powell plays Jake Seresin, call sign Hangman. Hangman, along with other crack pilots, have been assembled at Top Gun to train for a very dangerous and complex mission, and their instructor is Pete Mitchell, call sign Maverick, of course played by Tom Cruise. Powell originally auditioned to play Bradley Bradshaw, the son of Goose, Maverick’s late best friend (played by Anthony Edwards in the first film, his son is huge source of tension for Maverick in the new one). That part would go to Miles Teller and Powell was instead offered the role of Hangman, who is the best pilot on the team, and isn’t shy about letting people know that fact. (There’s an easy comparison to make to Val Kilmer’s Iceman here. But Hangman isn’t Iceman, except probably for the attention the actor playing each role gets after the movie is released.)
“I was sort of waffling on whether I was going to do the movie or not,” says Powell about when the offer for Hangman came. “This character didn’t exist on the page. And it was a real leap of faith that Tom convinced me to do. This character was not even close to what it is on the screen at the end of the day. So I really had to take a leap of faith in the fact that we were going to start shooting with a character that had nothing to say and a character that had no great payoff anywhere in this movie.”
Powell’s biggest problem with the character was that Hangman was a braggart, but was consistently wrong. If you go back and watch the original Top Gun, Iceman bullies Maverick, but what’s interesting is, it’s not macho hazing, it’s Iceman not wanting for him or the other pilots to be killed. In the final film, Hangman isn’t a bully, but he’s not afraid to be, let’s say, blunt. But the character needed a lot of work from the script. “His original call sign was Slayer,“ says Powell. “And he was a guy who wasn’t right. He wasn’t a wingman, but he also wasn’t right in what he was doing. And I told Tom, I was like, hey, I can be a jerk. I’m happy to play a guy who lacks sensitivity in that way in terms of delivering the news. But he’s got to be right at the end of the day. And Hangman is a character that I think is so fun because yeah, Maverick and Rooster should not be flying together. That is information that needs to be out on the table because that’s information that could get everybody killed.”
Powell continues, “I think the danger of playing this type of role is you’re playing a derivative Iceman, right? And this character was not even an inspired Iceman with a point of view. It was a character in which he was just the voice of dissent and a negative opinion in the room with no purpose or grounding. And that was a thing in which I go, well, that guy is not a guy I root for. I don’t want to live in those boots for this amount of time.” Powell was then promised by Cruise, director Joseph Kosinski, and co-writer Christopher McQuarrie that the character would be fleshed out.
Randomly, I know multiple people who just know Powell in their normal lives, and I have yet to meet anyone who has a bad word, even privately, to say about him. It makes me think Glen Powell is the kind of person who just kind of knows everyone. One of those people is actor Phil Burke (from Hell on Wheels and who, a few years ago, was also one of my favorite New York City bartenders). The pair met in 2014 on the set of a movie called Windwalkers. A few years ago, without prompting, on a sunny New York City Saturday of day drinking, Burke wanted to tell his (I like to assume) favorite customer (me) about his buddy who just got cast in Top Gun: Maverick.
What was odd about the interaction was there was not one hint of envy at Powell’s success (and I’ve been around enough actors to know that’s kind of rare). I reached out to Burke this week to talk about Powell and he wrote me back a very long email with a lot of stories that don’t really fit in the confines of this particular piece (one involves an alligator; “He may be in Top Gun, and he may have broken some sound barriers up in the Big Blue, but if you want to see a man squirm you talk about alligator-infested waters in Florida”). I’ll have a little more from Burke in a bit.
But, to Burke’s point, Powell has a tendency to deflect questions about himself or his character by praising his colleagues. I asked Powell about walking the tightrope on a character who is smug, but at the same time remains likable to the audience. Instead of answering that, he started praising co-star Monica Barbaro, who plays a pilot named Phoenix, “Phoenix’s character, I’ve got to give Monica Barbaro so much credit. That is an incredibly difficult character to embody because you’re representing all female aviators and you have to be part of the squadron. You don’t want to be in your own pack or your own lane. You want to be part of the group. And yet you have to stand out. And standing out is part of being a female in the Navy, but you have to look proficient because you want to inspire more female aviators. And I think that’s important. So it’s a really delicate dance.”
To not spoil this, I will keep it vague, but Powell’s Hangman has a pretty big moment in the film’s third act. The audience at my screening erupted in applause. When I asked Powell if he knew this moment would be a crowdpleaser when he read it in the script, I was shocked to find out this scene did not exist. “That wasn’t in the original draft,” says Powell. “He just disappears from the script at a certain point. And so, Tom and I discussed that.” There’s literally a point in Top Gun: Maverick we all just knew Hangman was coming back. Which, once you see the film, it’s kind of hard to imagine the movie without that scene.
This has to be a tough moment for an actor in a big movie like this. Weighing the balance between this character suggestion will benefit the movie and this character suggestion will benefit me. The thing is, sometimes both can be true. Powell explains, “The interesting thing, when you’re making a movie, you have to really separate your ego from the story. Right? And it’s so crucial. And I feel like it’s where so many movie stars misstep. Tom just doesn’t have that in him. He really understands how to put himself out of the process and go, What’s best for the story? And in that moment, I really did, I could authentically sell it because I really felt like it was best for the story, not just for me as a character or an actor. I was like, no, I think the audience needs to sense a completion.”
Powell continues, “But on the page at the time, Hangman just disappeared. I felt the exact same way you did. I was like, man, I feel like the audience is going to be left off without the sense of completion.”
So, I had heard a rumor about the, let’s say, spiritual sequel to the original Top Gun volleyball scene – this time a beach football game. (This scene alone will probably cement Powell quite a few new fans.) The rumor I heard was Tom Cruise wouldn’t tell anyone exactly when this scene would be shot so no one could fully prepare for one particular day, physique-wise. So, instead, everyone just had to always be on their toes that this might be the day they have to film shirtless. “We shot it the first time, we literally, we brought beer to the beach,” says Powell. “We immediately went out to this Tater Tot Bar in San Diego. We binged on as many carbs as possible. The first time we shot it, he didn’t push it. The date was set. We executed on that date, and we did the whole thing. Then we celebrated, and then we were told we were going to shoot it again in a couple weeks.”
Powell continues, ”So then everybody, after the craziest night at tequila and tater tots and beer, we had to go back into the trenches and everybody’s back in the hotel gym doing crunches until they cried. And then we re-shot it again. And I believe there was even a third time, if I’m not mistaken, where we had to do it again. And it was just like this thing where there was this rumor constantly. And I’m not sure if it was so that we didn’t gain a ton of weight over the course of this movie and be drastically looking different. But there was always this rumor around set that we were going to re-shoot the beach montage. So when you have that level of fear, a montage, like kind of weighing on your shoulders at any given time, you make the right decisions in the kitchen.”
Finally, back to Phil Burke from earlier, my former bartender and friend of Glen Powell — after he finishes up with all the amusing stories (I do love that the stories he provided would be better served for a roast rather than a glowing piece like this one; another one involves Powell’s love of the movie Armageddon), he sums everything up about Powell with a closing thought, “The guy is second to none. Love that man and excited to see him continue moving and shaking.”
‘Top Gun: Maverick’ will open in theaters on May 24th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.