Top Gun: Maverick's Lewis Pullman, Monica Barbaro, And Jay Ellis Have A Need For Speed [Interview]

"Top Gun: Maverick" is hitting theaters later this month, and I got a chance to chat with the cast and crew in San Diego, California. I sat down with Lewis Pullman, who plays Lieutenant Bob Floyd (call sign "Bob"), Monica Barbaro, who plays Lieutenant Natasha "Phoenix" Trace, and Jay Ellis, who plays Lieutenant Reuben "Payback" Fitch.

In the film, these three are among the top pilots in the country, and after graduating from the Top Gun school –something Tom Cruise's Maverick did decades before — they're called back into action for a special mission. This group has the same camaraderie, the same bravado (with the skills to back it up, the same friendly rivalries, and even the same ways of relaxing at a bar over pool and piano singing that the original cast had.

In a separate interview, actor Greg Tarzan Davis, who plays Coyote, mentioned to me that Lewis Pullman almost killed him during training, but Pullman humorously explained it didn't quite go down that way. Check out what they had to say about the "incident," the insane training they had to do, what it means to Barbaro to play a female fighter pilot when women couldn't fly in combat when the first film came out, and what they learned from Tom Cruise while making this anticipated sequel.

Ellis told me that not only were they up in the planes shooting their own footage, but they were creating a bond with the pilots flying them, getting used to different maneuvers, and capturing the right moments. "Being in the jet was pretty wild," he said. It certainly sounds that way. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Underwater head-kicking

I'd love to hear about the training because I hear, Lewis, that you might have almost killed someone.

[group laughter]

Barbaro: Who said that?

Might have been Greg.

Pullman: I know exactly what he is referring to. He's referring to the "swim fizz" moment where we were put in a dunker, and you're all in line and you're blindfolded and you get dunked underwater, and you flip upside down — you have to train for this, in case you have to do a crash landing or eject over seas. And Tarzan was right next to me. So, my role was, blindfolded, I'm upside down, I have to knock out this window, and then swim out. 

You hear the buzzer go off. Immediately upon the buzzer going off, Tarzan swims to the side, I'm about to go knock the window open, he kicks me in the face.

Ellis: Oh, he kicked me, too!

Pullman: Yeah! Yeah, right in the jaw.

Ellis: He kicked me in the head — like in the back of the head!

Pullman: He claims that I was taking too long, but he kicked me almost a split second after the buzzer went off. So, I'd just like to clear the air ... Yeah, no ...

Barbaro: He almost killed you. [laughs]

Pullman: He almost actually killed me, yeah. [laughs]

Ellis: He's a real kicker! [laughs]

The flight training looks terrifying, and you guys are also shooting your own footage up there. What was that like?

Ellis: It was amazing. I mean, I think parts of it were a bit intimidating at first, but then you realize you have Claudio [Miranda], who's like one of the most amazing DPs walking the Earth. You have Tom, who's obviously walking us through the performance stuff. And then Joe [Kosinski] is walking us through performance stuff, as well as making sure we get certain moments. 

There's so many hands and so many people around you to make you great. So by the time you get into the jet and you flip the camera for the first time ... the first flight, everybody's like, "Wait. Am I doing this right? Okay. Clap. Roll. Okay." Everybody's nervous on the first one, but after your first flight and you kind of get the mechanics of it, after that, you kind of cruise a little bit. Because like, certain things just become second nature because we've rehearsed it so much, or the training was so specific that we were so well prepared for it.

Barbaro: It's funny, because this film was so intense on the ground. It's a follow-up to an incredible film that people love and cherish and feel a lot of ownership over, both in the world and the aviation community, especially. So there's so much pressure on this going well on the ground. And then all of that, just triples in size, or quadruples, in the plane. It was wildly intense, but we kind of just had to take it one step at a time.

Pullman: Just one flight at a time. That's all you could do.

Barbaro: One note at a time, one line at a time.

Women in the air

Speaking of the original film, it made me want to be a fighter pilot, but women couldn't do that back then. [Note: Women were first allowed to fly combat missions beginning in 1993, years after the first film.] How does it feel to kind of rep little girls?

Barbaro: It's really exciting. I mean, it was a huge honor. I met incredible aviators who actually flew me in the movie and [Lewis] as well. And they're so cool. We know every woman is a completely different entity, so it was hard to figure out with this one character all of their qualities that we knew and loved and wanted to include in this one person. But, I think everyone who made this movie, it was very important to them to have her be strong and capable and smart and talented, and I think they achieved that. And that's a great feeling as an actor, to know that everyone is rooting for your character in that way.

What did you learn from Tom?

Pullman: Lean into fear. That's where the gold lies: Just beyond the horizon of fear. I think he really, really — he kind of sniffs out fear and whatever may seem terrifying or impossible, and then he goes, "Okay, now this is where I start to get to work, because I'm going to make the unexpected happen." He saw that all in us. And I think he saw something that even I didn't see in myself. He was like, "You can do this, and you're capable of this." And when you have Tom Cruise looking you in the eyes and telling you that, you're like, "Okay. Yeah. I f****** can!" [laughs]

Barbaro: Yeah, if you make a lot of — I mean, I make a lot of self-effacing jokes, and he catches that right away and he's like –

Pullman: "No."

Ellis: Yeah.

Barbaro: And you're like, "Honestly, you're right."

Pullman: It's cool. It's cool. 

Ellis: For me, it was the thing of just, never stop learning, and never stop — Monica talks about this all the time — but he was still watching a film every single night as we were filming. So he's still studying film while making a film at the exact same time. If someone like Tom Cruise, at this stage in his career, is still doing that, then we should still be doing that as well. I think we all took that away as like, "Oh, this is like super inspirational." You can continue to grow and learn and become better as an actor and a filmmaker and a co-star in so many ways.

See it on the biggest screen you can

I have to say, this sequel hit all the right notes for me, where it could have gone so wrong. See it on the biggest screen you can (if it's safe for you to do so). Here is the film's official synopsis:

After more than thirty years of service as one of the Navy's top aviators, Pete "Maverick" Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is where he belongs, pushing the envelope as a courageous test pilot and dodging the advancement in rank that would ground him. When he finds himself training a detachment of TOPGUN graduates for a specialized mission the likes of which no living pilot has ever seen, Maverick encounters Lt. Bradley Bradshaw (Miles Teller), call sign: "Rooster," the son of Maverick's late friend and Radar Intercept Officer Lt. Nick Bradshaw, aka "Goose."

Facing an uncertain future and confronting the ghosts of his past, Maverick is drawn into a confrontation with his own deepest fears, culminating in a mission that demands the ultimate sacrifice from those who will be chosen to fly it.

"Top Gun: Maverick" will hit theaters on May 27, 2022.