[This story contains spoilers for Top Gun: Maverick.]
In Top Gun: Maverick, the legacy sequel to Tony Scott’s Top Gun (1986), Powell plays Lt. Jake “Hangman” Seresin, whose skills and swagger echo Maverick and Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer) in their respective youths. Powell, like his character, went on quite a ride in order to end up in a position where Hangman was able to rescue Maverick and Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller) from an incoming bandit.
In 2018, Powell and Teller battled it out for the role of Goose’s (Anthony Edwards) son, Rooster, and the Texas native was utterly devastated when it didn’t go his way. However, Cruise, director Joseph Kosinski and screenwriter Christopher “McQ” McQuarrie were so taken with Powell that they offered him an early version of Hangman, who was then known as “Slayer.” But Powell wasn’t interested in the part as presented on the page.
“The way it was originally written, I didn’t consider him to be a great pilot or a personality that I engaged with all that much. He didn’t have any redemption. He just sort of faded off into the sunset. He didn’t make the mission, he had a terrible reaction to it and you never heard from him again,” Powell tells The Hollywood Reporter.
But the Maverick brain trust once again refused to give up on Powell as they rewatched the original film and came back to him with an updated take on Hangman, including the crowd-pleasing moment where he serves as Maverick and Rooster’s “savior.”
“So they pitched me that [savior] moment, and it really did get my gears turning to go, ‘Okay, this is not just Draco Malfoy in the Navy. This is a guy who’s really going to have something to do and something to say.’ You’re rooting for that moment when you watch it. You don’t feel completion if that moment doesn’t exist, so to speak,” Powell says.
Having competed with Teller for the role of Rooster and then playing a character who’s also in direct competition with Teller’s character, Powell admits that their real-life competition made its way into the film.
“With Hangman and Rooster’s relationship and dynamic, our own competitiveness can’t help but seep in there. There’s definitely a meta quality to it. Miles and I had a great thing, but it’s weird because we’ve actually never talked about any of that. We just sort of moved on from that entire experience, which was probably for the better,” Powell shares.
In a recent spoiler conversation with THR, Powell elaborated on the way his character’s arc mirrored his own individual journey as a castmember of Maverick.
Is this my savior speaking?
(Laughs.) This is your savior speaking. (Powell does his Hangman voice.) How’s it going?
I’ve been floating on cloud nine ever since Maverick’s CinemaCon screening over a month ago, and last night’s rewatch was just as affecting.
I love that you’re saying that because I feel like it is the most rewatchable movie. On my first watch, I kept hoping that we wouldn’t botch it at the end, but knowing that we stuck the landing, I could then watch the second run of it with a little more ease and confidence. (Laughs.) But yeah, I feel like the second watch is even better than the first. Jerry Bruckheimer and Tom Cruise said that of all the movies they’ve done, they’ve never had this much goodwill around a movie. It’s played with everybody, and it’s very rare that a movie is this big and this emotional. So it has really struck a chord with everybody, which is amazing.
For the rest of your life, you get to say that you saved Maverick’s life.
(Laughs.) It didn’t really feel real until we were at CinemaCon and it played. And then it didn’t really hit me until the premiere in San Diego that the rest of the world was going to get to see this movie. I had kind of emotionally disengaged in that regard [after a half-dozen release dates]. But getting to save an iconic character — a character that got me into this business in the first place — is really surreal. So all of those things are really settling in now.
You’ve been telling the story of watching Top Gun at age 10 with your dad, so I keep thinking about what your 10-year-old self would make of all this.
Yeah, that is what has been incredibly surreal for me. Movies are how my family and I talk. They’re what we bond over. So when we were in London, I literally got emotional while watching my dad interact with Tom and talk about movies. My dad loves Tom Cruise. He’s his favorite actor, and he loves Top Gun. So to sit with Tom at the afterparty of Top Gun: Maverick and just shoot the shit, loving life, it was really special.
I’ve been trying to do this thing since I was 10 years old, and my parents have cheered for me along the way, even when things didn’t seem like they were going to work out. Hollywood is a grind, and you just try to keep your head above water. So to be able to share that moment with my family and have that moment in the movie, it just all felt so beautiful and full-circle. It’s also given me a wonderful perspective. So it’s been surreal from start to finish.
After initially declining the role, was the “savior” line and moment what ultimately changed your mind about playing Hangman?
Yeah. First off, the way it was originally written, I didn’t consider him to be a great pilot or a personality that I engaged with all that much. He didn’t have any redemption. He just sort of faded off into the sunset. He didn’t make the mission, he had a terrible reaction to it and you never heard from him again. Because of all those things, I was like, “Well, none of that is exciting or interesting. I’m down to play a guy who’s cocky and has swagger and unapologetically thinks he’s the best, but you have to see that he’s human at a certain point.” You can be an unapologetic pilot, but at the end of the day, we’re all on the same side. We’re all fighting the same bad guys. That’s what makes a competition film really resonate.
So I remember getting a call from Joe saying, “Hey, we all watched the original Top Gun last night, and Tom and McQ have some thoughts. They’re going to call you.” And then Tom and McQ called and said, “Hey, after watching the original, we realized that we don’t have a character who reminds us of the first movie in terms of the tonal, spiritual nature of what it is to be an unapologetic, cocky fighter pilot. He should fly like Maverick and have the swagger of Iceman. You need that character to remind [Maverick] of who he used to be. The first movie is obviously a coming-of-age movie. This is a man facing his age movie. And we believe that at the end of the movie, beating the bad guys is not enough. You need to bring it back home in a certain way and have it all come full circle in terms of the team.”
So they pitched me that [savior] moment, and it really did get my gears turning to go, “Okay, this is not just Draco Malfoy in the Navy. This is a guy who’s really going to have something to do and something to say.” It’s interesting because I do feel like it changes the perspective. You’re rooting for that moment when you watch it. You don’t feel completion if that moment doesn’t exist, so to speak.
It’s no secret that you and Miles competed for the role of Rooster. Did that real-life competition end up helping the on-screen rivalry and competition between your characters?
What’s really interesting is that Miles and I are both incredibly competitive. We are friends. We’re great friends. We had a great time working together. But with Hangman and Rooster’s relationship and dynamic, our own competitiveness can’t help but seep in there. [Rooster] was a role that I missed out on, and since this is a competition movie, that thing inevitably seeps into a performance, whether we were aware of it or not. There are moments that you see in this movie in which we’re sort of talking about that and not talking about it. So it’s just interesting.
It adds a meta quality to the movie, so I couldn’t help but overanalyze your scenes together.
There’s definitely a meta quality to it. Again, Miles and I had a great thing, but it’s weird because we’ve actually never talked about any of that. We just sort of moved on from that entire experience, which was probably for the better. We’re both incredibly proud of this movie. We’re both so happy with what we gave, and we were in the trenches together throughout this entire experience. But when you kind of just brush it under the rug, I think it leaves a little fuel in the tank in a good way. It’s an interesting therapist couch to be on because making movies is inherently emotional, and as actors, you have to have a belief in yourself that is bulletproof. If you believe the amount of haters that are out there, it can get pretty messy for you, and it’ll usually send you home.
The thing about Hollywood, in general, is that you’re going to have to compete against a lot of your friends, so you can’t take it personally. But this is a movie I’ve dreamed of making since I was 10 years old, so not getting [Rooster] put me in the fetal position and wounded me in a way that I wasn’t really expecting. I really do have a lack of ego when it comes to filmmaking, but I do think my ego was a little bruised on this one. So that’s what the conversation with Joe, Jerry [Bruckheimer], McQ and Tom was all about. If the [Hangman] role didn’t become great, that could’ve been a really painful process for me.
At one point, Phoenix (Monica Barbaro) says that his call sign is Hangman because he hangs people out to dry, and she was right to a certain extent. Hangman is definitely the most talented pilot in the class, but he doesn’t yet realize that teamwork is vital to a mission’s success. So moving beyond this movie, do you think being initially passed over for the mission is going to be the best thing to ever happen to Hangman’s naval career?
Absolutely. That’s a true arc, and Hangman’s journey actually makes me think of Tom’s career journey. Tom was always a very, very talented actor, but now, Tom is the leader of the entire set in a way that I’ve never seen an actor be. He truly roots for everybody, and he really is a great teammate. When I would have a scene, he would come on the day and watch the monitors. He would give me notes, and we would discuss the character. He’d also be like, “Hey, I watched this Lee Marvin movie last night, and I really like his body language in this. I think it could be very Hangman.” So that level of attentiveness to not just your own character, but to everybody else’s character is something that makes a fully developed actor. So it doesn’t matter how talented you are as a fighter pilot or as an actor. If you can’t fly with the team, you’re not going to succeed. You’re not all going to get there.
And that was the lesson I had to learn as an individual on Top Gun. I was looking at a role and going, “I don’t think this role is good enough. I don’t think that I can be satisfied breathing life into it. I don’t think I can stick the landing of what’s on the page.” But one of the big turning points in that decision-making process was Tom saying, “You’re going to be part of a great movie here. I won’t quit until we make this movie perfect. We just have to figure out how to make your role a great role within a great movie.” So that was a big turning point for me because few movies have the potential to be great.
Another turning point was working with a movie star who truly roots for everybody to be great and for every performance to really pop. To just be in the vicinity of a guy who has this wealth of knowledge, that’s almost as important as anything. Working with great filmmakers is important, but to work with people who have been through the fire and have stayed on top for this long, they have knowledge that I hope I can gather. There are a lot of ways to screw up this journey and very few ways to get it right, but Tom has figured out how to get it right. So that “flying with the team” mentality is something that I’ll take going forward, because that’s what makes this movie special. It’s the culmination of Tom’s 40-year career and working with the best. He knows how to fly with everybody.
Did you feel guilty calling Tom Cruise “pops’ and “old-timer” before throwing him out of a bar?
(Laughs.) No, that was one of the greatest joys of my life! There’s a line up in the jet where I say, “For all of you listening at home, this is how you bury a fossil.” I improvised that in the jet, so I was a little worried that Tom was going to hear that line and kill me, but he loved it and kept it in the movie. (Laughs.) And then when we threw him out of the bar, that was maybe day three of shooting. It was very, very early on in the process, and everybody was worried because nobody wanted to hurt Tom. So the stunt guy came up to me and said, “Hey, I know you’re going to be the guy who throws Tom off of the stairs. Can we rehearse it?” So I rehearsed with him, not with Tom, who was inside. So I threw the stunt guy and then he said, “You know what? I don’t even know if you should throw him. Maybe just let him do the work. Maybe just guide him there.” And then I showed him how I would do that and he said, “You know what? Don’t even touch him. Just let him throw himself off.” And I was like, “Alright cool, I’ll just do that.”
So once Tom came out there for a take, I basically just mimed throwing him out, and Tom looked at me and said, “Uh, what are you doing, man?” And I was like, “Uh, they told me not to touch you. They didn’t want me to hurt you.” And then he said, “I fall off of buildings for a living. Throw me off the stairs, man.” (Laughs.) It was so funny. In moments like that, you realize that you’re not just working with a great movie star, but you’re also working with a great stuntman. A stunt like that seems very, very simple, but he just makes everything look easy. And he also showed me how to prevent myself from getting hurt on stunts like that. My family and friends were there for that moment, so I probably had 15 or 20 of my friends in the bar as extras. So it was really cool to have them there as I did that.
An “anonymous” fan of yours named Monica Barbaro [who plays Phoenix] submitted a question to me: Why did it take so long for you to admit that you were throwing up each and every time in the air?
Well, I was a fan of Monica until she asked that question. (Laughs.) What’s funny is that it all has to do with the disappointment of Tom. Throwing up in a jet is sort of expected, but it’s such a weird, mental thing. When we were doing the Extra 300 and we were flying the L-39, I hadn’t puked the entire time, but then there was one day in which the tide turned. I had too big of a breakfast, and from then on out, I couldn’t keep it down.
During training, we’d give these reports to Tom, and then he’d be like, “Glen, you’re crushing it. You’re doing all the stuff.” But once I started puking out of nowhere, I was like, “I don’t want to disappoint Dad.” He put this entire flight program together, and he literally said, “I want to give you the training that I wish I had on the first one to prevent you from puking or passing out.” So because I was puking all of a sudden, I literally was like, “Oh my god, I’m going to let down Tom Cruise after he’s gone to the ends of the Earth to make sure that we feel like we’re able to do this.” So I started hiding puke bags, but then at a certain point, I was just like, “Screw it. Everybody knows it’s happening. I’ve just got to frickin’ put the puke on the table and be that guy in the squadron.” (Laughs.)
How many push-ups did you end up doing on the tarmac? Was it actually 200?
That was a funny scene, but the biggest amount of push-ups was done on the beach before the beach scene. I have a video of people doing push-ups, and it was just the funniest day. People were the most ripped and shredded they’ve been in their entire lives. But on the tarmac, we were all in great shape while we were shooting that, and you do have to look like you’ve done 200 push-ups. So to get to that point where you’re actually quivering and having trouble doing push-ups, I bet you we did over 200, actually.
So how blind were you during the darts and pool moments?
I don’t think I’ve told anybody this story, but I hit a bullseye two times in a row during Tom’s coverage. And I was literally an inch off from a third. They were the three-best darts I’ve ever thrown in my life, and Tom literally lit up. He got so excited. At the end of the take, he came over and high-fived me. He was like, “Oh my god, I was losing my shit. That was crazy.”
I also trained with a pool player for a few weeks so that I could hit these shots, but the thing that bummed me out the most was the coverage on that. I actually worked on this no-look trick shot where I hit two balls in at the same time. So I executed it over and over and over on the day, and I was so excited to show that off. But then I saw that they were using the close-up, so you can’t see any of that, which totally bummed me out. But at least I now have a good little pool trick.
Tom gave you the aforementioned advice of choosing great movies first, and then turning whatever role you get into a great role. Has that been on your mind as you’ve made various commitments post-Maverick?
The only other movie that I’ve shot since Maverick is Devotion, and that was very much on my mind. Devotion is something I’ve been developing for almost five years now. It turned out really good, and I’m so proud of it. But even as I’m putting new things together, I really am taking that saying and applying it to the casting of co-stars or finding a director or finding all of these people. It’s truly a team sport. It really is finding the greatest story within a world, and that is something that I feel like I have taken forward. During this movie, I literally kept a running journal of Tom’s wisdom that he would just throw away over the course of it, and that advice was from one of our first interactions. It was during the two-hour conversation where he talked to me about why I should do this movie. But now, I have hundreds of Cruise-isms on my computer that are just priceless.
I’ve heard Tom’s former co-stars say that when they see the lengths he goes for his art, it inspires them to up their game and acquire more skills for future projects. Since he gifted you flying lessons, did you also experience that feeling?
One-hundred percent. I talked to Tom about random skills and hobbies that I have from growing up in Texas, and one of my favorite movies is Singin’ in the Rain. So we talked about tap dancing because I can tap dance, which not a lot of people know about me. And Tom, before Tropic Thunder, took jazz lessons. He just wanted to learn how to dance in a way that was unique, so he took hip hop and jazz lessons for fun. He was like, “I wanted a new skill. I wanted to do something kind of different.” So that is why Les Grossman dances in that movie. He found a new skill and thought, “Oh, I can put this skill in this movie. It fits this character and adds a whole new dimension.”
So I’ve actually gone out of my way since then to find those things and make myself more three-dimensional as a person. When you watch a movie and somebody’s playing a baseball player but they can’t throw a baseball, you’re like, “Well, they’re not good at the skill of the movie, and therefore I don’t buy into the movie at large.” So I always find that the best thing you can do as an actor is to be working on your upcoming movie’s skill. If you have a movie coming down the pipeline, you should be focusing and honing that skill as much as humanly possible so it looks effortless, like it’s just part of who you are. And that’s what Tom does in every single movie.
When I was talking to him about my pool lessons, I was like, “Yeah, I’ve been doing this pool thing.” And he was like, “Oh, let me see what you’re working on.” And then he was like, “Damn, that’s really good.” So then we talked about The Color of Money, and I was like, “How much pool were you playing in that movie?” And he was like, “14 hours a day.” I was like, “You were playing 14 hours of pool a day?” And he’s like, “Yeah, that’s what you’ve got to do, man. That’s what you’ve got to do.”
So that’s his level of dedication and absolute focus because he knows how important those things are to making sure that the audience believes who you are on that screen. That’s where his mentality is. Most people don’t realize the amount of work that goes into the smallest moments on screen. Even if it’s 20 seconds of a skill onscreen, he’s worked 20 months on that skill. It’s an unbelievable work ethic. I thought I was a hard worker until I met Tom Cruise.
Besides flying lessons, you’re also on Cruise’s famous cake list. Do you savor it over many months, or do you take it all down in a weekend?
Have you tried the cake?
(Laughs.) We’ll exchange numbers. Whenever the cake arrives, I invite my friends over to my house, and I’ll have the Cruise cake out. So I’ll just throw a party for people to sample the Cruise cake. We just make a thing of it because everybody wants to try the Cruise cake. They all want to be a part of that experience because it is legendary. And it’s not like I’m going to take a whole cake down by myself. That’s a lot, but people have done it. It’s such a good cake that you can do it. But since we started this movie, I’ve turned it into a little bit of a holiday tradition.
I credit you and Zoey Deutch for helping bring back the romantic comedy. Are you guys going to reset it up [Set It Up 2], or would you prefer to just make something else together?
We’re trying to figure it out. Zoey is one of my favorite people on the planet. She’s immensely talented, and we had the greatest time making [Set It Up]. But the versions of what we were trying to make after Set It Up, those doors, those windows kind of came and went. So Zoey and I are still actively looking to do something else together, and I think another rom-com would be incredible. But I don’t think we have our target right now in terms of what that project is or what we want it to be.
We’re approaching the 10th anniversary of The Dark Knight Rises, and I remember you making an impression on me at the time. Perhaps it was the nod to Harvey Dent or Bane’s response to your line about there being no money at the Stock Exchange. Do you still have a headache from that day?
Yeah, I got my head bashed on that day by Bane. [Writer’s Note: Powell has said elsewhere that Hardy forgot to give him a warning tap about what was to come.] For a struggling actor at that time, to at least be in the vicinity of Tom Hardy and to get my ass kicked by Tom Hardy, it was a pinch-me moment in its own right. So I’m really grateful to [director] Chris Nolan for that opportunity. Again, Hollywood is a tough place so those small things keep you in the game. Those small gasps of air keep you treading water for a bit. So even though it seems like a small, trivial role, it was honestly a big deal for me at the time, and I’m still very grateful that I got to work on a project that had so much excitement and anticipation.
How are you feeling about a potential Top Gun threequel or spinoff?
(Laughs.) Well, I actually sat down with Joe, Jerry and Tom, and there’s no doubt that everybody would want to put the flight suit back on and return to this. I think it’s a question of, “Can we beat it? Is there a story to tell? Are there ways to push the limits in the same way that we did in this one and give meaning to returning to that world?” So I know that everybody’s minds are on it, and we definitely have the best minds in the world trying to figure it out.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Top Gun: Maverick is now playing in movie theaters.