Glen Powell is one of the best parts of 'Top Gun: Maverick.' First, Austin helped him soar
Two things got Glen Powell to where he is now: Texas and Tom Cruise.
Well, the Austin native built an acting career with a few more bricks that that. As his career speeds up thanks to a scene-stealing role in blockbuster hit "Top Gun: Maverick," though, Powell gives a great deal of credit to those two American icons in particular.
In the film, Powell plays Hangman, a cocky and self-centered — but very, very good — Navy fighter pilot under the tutelage of Cruise's titular air ace. There was a long runway to the screen. Shooting wrapped in 2019, and then its release was delayed by the pandemic.
"One of the things that I didn't even realize is how much I learned on this movie," Powell, looking back from a surreal distance, told the American-Statesman just two days before the film's box office debut.
In the lead-up to what's now a certified smash, much ado was made about the actors' grueling training process. They filmed scenes in real F/A-18s, and it required them to be their own cinematographers and directors at times. That was on top of working through the very real effects of Gs in the air. And before they could get to the sky, they had to complete strenuous underwater naval training (in case they needed to eject) and an aviation boot camp of Cruise's design.
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A movie of this scale — "Top Gun: Maverick" was made with a production budget of $170 million — requires every department to work in harmony, Powell said. This time, that happened to include an aerial team and the actual Navy.
"All these different people that come together to make something truly incredible and exceptional," he said.
"I don't think there's anything that will be challenging for me moving forward when I go on a different project," said Powell's co-star Greg Tarzan Davis, who plays the pilot Coyote. "We were essentially our own stunt men."
Just as Maverick molds younger pilots to carry on his legacy, consummate action star Cruise left a mark on his younger co-workers.
"I am going forward to take what Tom Cruise taught us and to infuse it into every movie I do for the rest of my life," Powell said.
How Texas influenced Glen Powell
Any ensemble is a team, but the stakes get higher with altitude. Powell said that growing up in Texas, where the state motto is "Friendship," prepared him well.
The 33-year-old actor said that Austin was a "magical" place to grow up. He went to Westwood High School in the northwest part of town and honed his talents in the local musical theater scene. Acting in films from a young age, he also was the definition of well-rounded. Powell said he made home movies, joined his high school's business club, played lacrosse and football and participated in the UT String Project as a violinist.
When Powell was a University of Texas student, he majored in economics. "You need a backup plan," he told the American-Statesman in 2008. "If the acting thing doesn't work, I may go into entertainment finance."
It did work. Even at the time of that interview, he had just appeared in "The Great Debaters," directed by Denzel Washington.
In Texas, "there's this sense of camaraderie and teamwork and friendship and helping each other that I feel (has) defined a lot of my career," Powell said. "People that have long careers, including guys like Tom Cruise, they do look at it as a team sport."
And in a progressive place like Austin, Powell learned the value of not letting labels define you. "I think that's really served me very, very well as an actor, because I was never judging myself. I just chased what my passion was, and that's a beautiful thing. I think Austin nurtures that."
One of Powell's friends and colleagues, director Richard Linklater, would likely agree. The pair worked together on "Everybody Wants Some!!" and "Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood." (Eagle-eyed IMDb scouts also will notice a young Powell's credit as Long-fingered Boy in 2003's "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over" directed by Robert Rodriguez, another filmmaker who helped put Austin on the cinematic map.)
"I talk to Rick most days. He's become such a close friend and collaborator," Powell said. "To look at what he's done not only as a filmmaker, but how much he cares about the film scene in Austin and Austin at large ... he just cares so much."
Powell said he's looked up to Linklater since he was a teenager, and their partnership is as cool as it gets.
"I want to work with that guy till the day I die," he said.
Behind the scenes of 'Top Gun: Maverick'
"I will say, the wonderful part about this movie is it is a movie that Tom Cruise did not want to make," Powell said, "until he knew he could make it right."
The original "Top Gun" came out in 1986, and while it's never been a critical darling, it's as beloved as a movie gets. In the sequel, the most familiar faces are Cruise and Val Kilmer, who played rival pilot Iceman in the original. A brand-new roster fills the cockpits.
Cruise "really built each character alongside of us, which I think is really cool," Powell said.
And like the original film, the hostile power antagonizing the heroes of "Top Gun: Maverick" remains unnamed. The 1980s film came out as part of the Cold War zeitgeist, though; the 2022 edition takes even greater care to strip away identifying features.
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The chief conflicts in "Top Gun: Maverick" lie between pilots and their planes.
"The existential nature is what I personally feel makes 'Top Gun' different than most action movies," Powell said. "You know, so often I hear from studio executives, 'Your hero is only as good as the antagonist. Your protagonist is only as good as your antagonist.' And I've always disagreed with that. I always find the existential nature of a hero to be way more compelling than whoever your villain is."
Powell appreciates that "Top Gun: Maverick" dispensed with geopolitics and cut right to the clouds.
"Can they fly something? Can they push beyond what they believe their own limits are? And can they accomplish something that they believe is impossible? I think that is something very human," he said.
It's not all about the struggle within. It's also about beautiful, greased up people playing games on the beach. "Top Gun" is remembered just as much for its sexy onscreen volleyball game as for its aerial feats. The sequel pays its respects to that indelible moment, with a pigskin instead.
"We worked so hard to get in shape for that particular scene," Davis said.
"Joe Kosinski, who directed the movie, said, 'Guys, if you do this right, you're going to be a GIF for the rest of your life,'" Powell remembered. Yes, the GIFs do already exist.
Powell added: "The most slippery day I've ever had my whole life."