Top Gun: Maverick's Bashir Salahuddin And Charles Parnell Tell Us What They Learned From Tom Cruise [Interview]

"Top Gun: Maverick" is set to hit theaters this Friday, and the film is already getting some amazing buzz. I'm certainly buzzing, because if the first film made me want to be a fighter pilot, this sequel made me want to do it twice as much. I recently had the chance to speak with the cast and crew for the film, including Charles Parnell, who plays Rear Admiral Warlock, and Bashir Salahuddin, who plays Warrant Officer Coleman. They told me their thoughts on flying, the nostalgia of the original movie, and that we should prepare ourselves for a nod to the very famous volleyball scene from the first film that launched a whole lot of people into puberty.

One fun fact Salahuddin told me was that the call signs the pilots have, like Maverick or Rooster, come from "pretty embarrassing moments they've had." He said, "I think it's one of those ways that they're just kind of having fun, keeping it loose, right? Because what they do is terrifying, if you ever think about it." (He said his call sign would be "Three Chains," but he wouldn't tell me why.)

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Highway to the Danger Zone

I'd love to know what kind of backstory you guys had for yourselves, because this film really trusts the audience to fill that in.

Parnell: Well, I'll tell you it's not written in the script. That was one of the fun parts about working with Tom, is that my character is an Admiral now, which is where Maverick would be had he gone on the normal path. So we devised the idea that I was in that original Top Gun class, but every time you see a photo, I'm just off the border ... then the last time, the photographer was packing up when I was running up and Maverick said, "Don't worry. We'll have good times in the future, I'm sure." [laughs]

Salahuddin: For me, my character's a warrant officer. A warrant officer is in the armed forces, but they're sort of out of the usual chain of command, having been in it. It's usually somebody who's a jack of all trades, who knows something really well. And I actually got the great fortune of meeting several warrant officers and several folks who did my actual job in terms of doing flight testing for experimental aircraft and things like that. So Tom and Paramount and all the filmmakers were really good about making sure we got our education. I ended up spending a lot of time — while the pilots were in the air training, I was on the ground going to different facilities and really trying to learn this stuff, to make sure that when we got on screen, that we knew what we were talking about.

Did you get to do any of the training or flying?

Parnell: No, we didn't. And I am partially relieved and partially jealous.

Salahuddin: I didn't get to do it, but as Charles said, those are our co-stars. We're so excited for them. And I think it sort of comes together to make a really great movie.

Bringing back the baby oil

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the impact of the original film.

Parnell: Well, I've always heard that it increased enlistment in the Navy and also raised a whole generation of pilots. Actually, some of our consultants on the film told us that they became pilots after watching "Top Gun." So actually the impact of it, you continue to discover the impact of it as time goes on, especially now that we're reprising some of the characters.

It's been a long time since this film was finished with shooting. What's your reaction to it finally coming out and people loving it?

Salahuddin: I'm so happy. Look, we were all going through so much, so many challenges with the pandemic. And so we kind of all had to go through it together. Nobody was excused from that. And for me, especially when I see the audience response, I kind of feel like our movie is like a little present that was kind of waiting for us after this hardship. I'm really excited for people to go to the movies and hopefully feel that lightness again, and that joy, and they can just have fun and smile. Definitely what we've done is really give them something that I think they're going to cheer about.

Are there any favorite moments that sort of nod to the original that you guys loved?

Parnell: Well, Tom on the bike, riding down the runway is a winner. Also for me, bar singing at the piano. I'll leave it at that.

Salahuddin: It's so good!

Parnell: I won't go into too much detail, but having good fun around the piano and singing and banging on that thing. Yeah, I love that scene. 

Salahuddin: If you like the beach scene in the original, we got a beach scene for you and we're bringing back the baby oil. It's going to be fun! [laughs]

I like the beach scene. Not going to lie.

Parnell: You know, audiences tend to be unified around that. They're like, "Yeah, this works." [laughs]

Life lessons from Tom Cruise

Was there a particularly impactful moment on set for you?

Parnell: Well, my first day was pretty impactful because I had all these thoughts in my head and all this nervousness built up. And then I was the focus of the first day, and I had to do the introducing Maverick scene, right off. I come to work, I do it a few times. And Tom's not supposed to be there. And then I find out that he is behind the curtain, and he's going to come out fully dressed, and then walk in after I introduce him, just like you're going to see in the film. But nobody knew except me.

And he walks in, and all the cadets are — they're usually ready to slouch once they call cut. And they hear footsteps, and they're looking. Everybody straightens up all of a sudden. So I got to witness this on my first day. And then he goes to the podium and does his speech as Maverick. And I hadn't met him yet, because I missed the table read. So I'm looking at that. They yell, "Cut." And he drops it: "Hey, Charles. It's so good to have you here." He went from Maverick to Tom Cruise, and then there he was with me. And I was like, "Whoa. Whoa."

Everyone in the cast that I've spoken to has talked about something they learned from Tom Cruise. Is there something you learned from him that you'd like to share?

Parnell: One thing that I love about working with him is everything he does, he keeps the audience in mind. Every move, every stunt, every line. How is it going to affect the audience? How is it going to move the story forward? And his focus on that — because sometimes as an actor, you get caught up in, "What is my character doing? What is this?" I mean, he does all of that, too, but in the end, it's like, "How is it going to affect the audience? Is this going to have the effect that I'm looking for? Are they going to have an amazing time?" That was amazing, to just see his commitment to that every day.

Salahuddin: I just learned how much of a student of film he is, and how important it is to the filmmaking process. He's really educated himself on every aspect of filming, and I mean everything from cameras to the costumes, he knows them. So that's part and parcel of how important it is to him. I think it goes a small way to explaining his longevity. Everything matters when folks spend their money to come see a movie. He knows that's sacred and he wants to make sure they get bang for their buck.

See it on a big screen if you can

The film isn't officially getting a wide release until later this week, but there are some early access previews tonight if you can snag a ticket. Bring tissues, and prepare to have "Danger Zone" stuck in your head. Here is the movie'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.