Despite being born two years after the original Top Gun came out in 1986, Glen Powell has powerful memories of watching the film with his father as a child. “It was like playing catch with my dad for the first time,” says Powell over Zoom from a Savannah, Georgia, film set. “I felt him looking over at me while I was watching it, watching my reaction to it.” For the Texas-bred actor, aviation was an early obsession; he grew up with Blue Angels posters on his wall and developed a love of planes from an early age. When he first heard about the sequel, he lobbied hard to be involved.
“Tom Cruise is one of the reasons I wanted to get into acting,” he says. “So many pilots became pilots because of Top Gun, and so many actors became actors because of Tom Cruise in this film.” So he did what any hungry actor would and chased his dream until it became a reality.
In Top Gun: Maverick, out this November, Powell plays Hangman, a character who, he says, is “the best pilot in the Navy” and has as much confidence as Maverick, the role Cruise is revisiting. Extreme training was required, and when Powell arrived on set (the movie was filmed in and around naval bases in Nevada and California), he was already ready to go. “We had to learn how to fly F-18 airplanes,” says Powell. “I was doing so much prep on this film, so when Day 1 came, Hangman was ready to go.” But stepping into such an iconic franchise wasn’t always easy. “I think whenever you’re trying to tread on hallowed ground, you feel like there’s no way to beat it,” Powell says. “But I’ll say this: I think this is the greatest movie ever made: it’s adventure, heart, comedy, it’s just epic. Plus we have 35 years and the benefit of Tom Cruise’s career behind us.”
The 32-year-old Powell is as charming and gregarious in person as he is on the screen. He’s shown range in roles such as astronaut John Glenn in Hidden Figures, a preppy frat boy in the horror comedy series Scream Queens and an assistant who sets up his demanding boss in the romantic comedy Set It Up, but now his action star status is cemented.
In addition to the impression he’s made on audiences, he’s also charmed his co-stars. “Besides his obvious talent, I loved the fact that he brought his family along with him,” says Octavia Spencer, Powell’s co-star in Hidden Figures. “I’ll never forget when we were working one day, during the cut, he introduced his family. He said, ‘The Powells are a traveling band. They come to all of my sets.’ They all laughed and lit up the room with their signature megawatt smiles.”
“There is a moment when you’re on set standing next to Tom Cruise next to a F-18 jet wearing aviators where you think, ‘this is as good as it gets.’ It was such an out-of-body experience.”
Growing up in Austin, Powell’s father regularly took him to the movies, and Powell started acting as a teenager. One of his early roles was in the 2007 film The Great Debaters, directed by Denzel Washington. Powell recounts some early encouragement from his director: “Denzel pulled me aside and said, ‘I think you should really give this a shot. I think you got it.’” He took the advice to heart and moved to Hollywood after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin (following in the footsteps of another proud Texan and fellow Longhorn, Matthew McConaughey—a comparison Powell doesn’t mind at all). “Watching Glen curate his resume has been impressive,” says his co-star Jon Hamm. “He’s a hard worker, smart and a super handsome guy with a great head of hair. He’s a classic leading man, but what I’m most impressed by is that he generates his own material. He doesn’t come off as privileged or entitled and he’s willing to put the sweat equity into his projects.”
Outside of acting, Powell is currently developing projects and producing. He’s collaborating with another Texan, director Richard Linklater, on two Texas-based films: the animated Apollo 10 ½ alongside Jack Black and a true-crime drama based on a Texas Monthly article that Powell and Linklater are writing together. “I love putting real figures on the map,” says Powell. “Kevin Costner told me that ‘movies are your epitaph,’ and people will still watch your movies after you’ve passed. I take that responsibility seriously. There’s an aspect of making sure that we’re putting out something in the world, and there’s a lot of power in that storytelling.”
The last 18 months have given him a break from movie sets, but he hasn’t been sitting around doing nothing. “I got my pilot’s license right before COVID-19 hit,” he says. “And I was saved by the bell, because I was able to fly all over when other people were stuck at home. Palm Springs, Napa, Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe—I thought, ‘Man, this is the life.’ It definitely taught me how to thrill seek and get the most out of every day.” But he hasn’t had to go it alone. Things have gotten serious with his girlfriend, Miami-bred model Gigi Paris, during lockdown—a time when new relationships can go either way. “My little sister, Leslie, was living with me and my girlfriend in Los Angeles when shelter-in-place rules started and we were all quarantined together. Then Leslie moved out, and she’s so fun and hilarious that I was worried that my girlfriend wouldn’t like me anymore without her in the mix. But she did, and I feel I’m the beneficiary of a very positive COVID relationship.” Again, he cites his mentor and Top Gun: Maverick co-star Cruise, with whom he texts regularly, as the inspiration for a career and life well lived. “I love that adventurous spirit and fierce dedication that Tom has. He never wallows and manages to do it all.” And, clearly, so does Powell.