The actor, who plays “Iceman-adjacent” Hangman, talks about Tom Cruise, getting smacked by Tom Hardy, and why he spent one Fourth of July in a fetal position wearing an American flag tank top.

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One of the many fascinating things about Tom Cruise is his tradition of gifting white-chocolate coconut bundt cakes from Doan's Bakery in Los Angeles to hundreds of friends and collaborators every Christmas. But after the star worked with actor Glen Powell on the much-delayed, much-anticipated sequel Top Gun: Maverick (out May 27), he gave his fellow cast member an even tastier holiday gift: flying lessons. "He did," says Powell, 33. "I would be updating him about my progress and he would check in with me." 

Wait, there's more: "After I got my pilot's license, there was a little card that just said, 'Welcome to the skies,'" recalls the actor. "And there was a certificate for a stunt driving school next to it. That's next."

Glen Powell in 'Top Gun: Maverick'
| Credit: Paramount Pictures

Powell's gung-ho attitude would doubtless please his danger-seeking Top Gun: Maverick character. In director Joseph Kosinski's film, the actor plays Lt. Jake "Hangman" Seresin, one of the pilots being trained in the elite titular naval program to undertake a difficult, some might say impossible, mission. The man in charge of the training is Tom Cruise's "Maverick," the character that propelled the actor to global stardom when he first played the hotshot pilot in Tony Scott's original 1986 blockbuster. The other students include Miles Teller's "Rooster" Bradshaw, the son of Anthony Edwards' Top Gun character "Goose." Rooster holds a couple of aircraft-carrier-sized grudges against Cruise's character and the relationship between the pair makes up the film's emotional core.

Yet Powell's cocksure Hangman consistently pops off the screen, whether he is berating Rooster for his conservative flying style or flashing the biggest grin this side of a Jack Nicholson retrospective. "He would probably consider himself the greatest weapon the navy's ever produced," says Powell of his character. "He's a cocky pilot who has a good time flying. In a very intense movie, he's having the best time of anybody."

Hangman inevitably, and deliberately, evokes the similarly sure-of-himself "Iceman" Kazanksy, Val Kilmer's character from the first film which set that actor on the road to stardom as well. Kilmer, who recently survived a bout with throat cancer, appears in the new film, but his Admiral Kazansky has left flyboy antics long behind. That meant Powell had the tricky task of channeling enough Iceman spirit to help give audiences a hit of nostalgia while also creating a standalone character. "Hangman could be considered Iceman-adjacent," says the actor. "You have to honor the first movie and yet not live in the first movie, otherwise it becomes derivative and then no one's going to love it."

It is cosmically appropriate that the Austin-raised Powell was cast in Paramount's Maverick, as Scott's first film was one of the movies that inspired him to be an actor after his father showed it to him as a ten-year-old. "Movies are a big part of my family," he says. "I liken him showing me Top Gun to a dad playing catch with his son for the first time. When he handed me that VHS and said, 'We're going to watch Top Gun,' you could tell it was a moment." As a teenager, Powell scored roles in a clutch of locally-shot films including Richard Linklater's 2006 movie Fast Food Nation. He decided to head for L.A. after receiving some encouraging words from Denzel Washington, who directed him in 2007's The Great Debaters. "Denzel was the guy that said, 'Hey, I think you should really give this a shot,'" he says.

The actor spent the first half of his twenties playing small roles in an array of projects, from the TV show Rizzoli and Isles to Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises in which he plays "Trader #1." 

"Bane walks into the stock exchange and just slams my head into a computer," he says of his role in Nolan's blockbuster. "The stunt that we had prepared is that Tom Hardy is supposed to tap me on the back before he slams my head on the computer keyboard. One take he forgets to tap me on the back and just slams my head on the computer. I was kind of dazed. I was like, Oh s–t, I don't know if I have a concussion or what. Chris [Nolan] was like, 'Can we do it again, just like that?' I was like, 'Yeah, yeah, we can do it again just like that.' He was like, 'I'm kidding! Go to the medic.'"

Powell eventually graduated to meatier film roles in The Expendables 3, Hidden Figures, and the Netflix rom-com Set It Up. He also reunited with Linklater on 2016's Everybody Wants Some!! "That was probably the most fun I've had making a movie," he says of the college comedy. "Rick brought us out to his ranch for two weeks and we read the script in the morning, we played baseball, we'd read the script again, we'd watch a movie, we'd bowl, we'd read the script again, just hang out, drink, and get to know each other."

The actor initially auditioned for the role of Rooster in Top Gun: Maverick and was devastated when he didn't get the part. "I got the call that I did not get Top Gun on July 3," he says. "I'm one of the most patriotic guys you'll ever meet, July 4 is one of my favorite holidays, I spent it pretty much in a fetal position and in an American flag tank top." When he was offered the role of Hangman instead, Powell turned the part down, believing the character as written in the script to be a professional step backwards. "Once Tom found out, he was like, 'Bring him in here,'" says director Kosinski. "So Glen came in and I sat down in a room with him and Tom. Tom said to him, 'What kind of career do you want Glen?' And Glen said, 'I want your career, Tom.' Tom said, How do you think I got here?' And Glen said, 'By picking great roles.' And Tom said, 'No, it's by picking great movies and then I made the roles good.' For Glen that was a real eye-opening moment. He took the role that, on the page, wasn't as big as it is in the film and just turned it into something really really special."

Glen Powell in 'Top Gun: Maverick'
| Credit: Paramount Pictures

Kosinski planned on shooting the footage of the pilots flying while the cast were actually airborne. As a result, Powell and the other actors playing the trainees began prepping for the film long before the shoot, undertaking a regimen of flights and instruction so they could believably portray their characters onscreen. "We were all in the trenches together," he says. "The fact that you wake up in the morning and know that at least a couple of you are going to puke, that's a very galvanizing process." Cruise took a personal interest in the progress of his costars. "After every flight, you had to go through the maneuvers that you pulled, how you were feeling physically, what you ate that morning," says Powell. "I would sarcastically fill out these reports and write funny things. I didn't realize Tom is reading every single one of these reports, because he's genuinely concerned about our safety up there."

One of the most stressful days of the shoot took place on the ground when Cruise and his young, mostly shirtless costars shot a scene in which they played football on the beach, an obvious nod to the first film's famous volleyball sequence. "There was more pressure leading up to that scene than any in the whole movie," says Powell. "It was every cast member, until about midnight the day before, in that gym, trying to do crunches and pull-ups."

Top Gun: Maverick was set for release in June 2020 but Paramount delayed the movie's release after the start of the pandemic. Powell spent the off-time playing another pilot in the Korean War-set Devotion (out Oct. 28) and writing a comedy-thriller script with Linklater, which they hope to shoot this fall.

Even so, the actor admits the last couple of years have been a frustrating period, especially given early rumors — since disproven — that Top Gun: Maverick might release the movie via its streaming service Paramount+. "That was the really trying time for all the young guns," he says. "When you're an actor at a certain level, which none of us are at, life kind of goes on. But when you're betting on this movie to give you hopefully a little bit more ammunition in Hollywood, it's really tough. I've got to give Tom and Paramount credit, they stuck to their guns, and they said, 'Hey, we're not going to release this thing until we get to show it to the world the way they were meant to see it.'"

Powell is speaking to EW via Zoom from Las Vegas where he is promoting Top Gun: Maverick at CinemaCon, and is fresh seeing the film with an audience for the first time. "It felt right," he says. "It felt really great."

He's now leaving our interview to go spend time with his family, in Vegas with him. "We're all going out in flight suits tonight," he says. Seriously? "I'm serious," he says. "My dad — his call sign is Hangdad. I've got Hangmom and Hangdad here with me in flight suits."

Before he goes, EW has one last question for him: So did Cruise give Powell flying lessons and a cake?

"Oh yeah," he says. "Have you tried the cake? The cake is unreal. My family looks forward to the cake every year."

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