In the legacy sequel to Tony Scott’s Top Gun (1986), Hamm plays Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson, who, per the trailers, is unwillingly tasked with overseeing Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) as he trains a group of TOPGUN graduates for their most dangerous mission to date. Hamm had met Cruise casually over the years, but from the moment he first arrived, he understood why Cruise is so beloved among his collaborators.
“Once I finally walked on set, I heard applause as someone said, ‘There he is!’ And I said to myself, ‘Who is that? I can’t see.’ And it was Tom Cruise with a big million-dollar smile. Then he gave me a big hug and said, ‘Welcome to the show.’ And I was like, ‘Thank you.’ It was a pretty good feeling,” Hamm tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Throughout filming, Cruise would open his door to Hamm and show him early footage of Maverick, exciting them both in the process. However, Hamm also recalls the moment when he had to gently let Cruise know that they don’t have much experiential overlap.
“At one point, [Cruise] said, ‘Jon, what do you do for fun? What are your hobbies? Do you skydive? Do you ride motorcycles? Do you fly helicopters?’ And I was like, ‘No. I play tennis. I hike. I walk up the hill with my dog. Those are my hobbies.’ They’re radically less dangerous and adrenaline-filled, but I find them just as entertaining,” Hamm says with a laugh.
In a recent conversation with THR, Hamm also discussed the wide range of roles he’s accepted since Mad Men’s series finale in 2015, including his upcoming take on Fletch.
Between going toe to toe with Maverick and making Iceman references, what does your 15-year-old self think of all this?
My 15-year-old self is blown away, as is my 51-year-old self. I’m on both sides of that equation. It was a tremendous experience made more interesting by the fact that it had to be put on hold and paused for two years. The unintended consequence of that is that it built expectation and anticipation. Paramount knew that they had something really good. Tom certainly knew that he had something really good. At various points during shooting, he would grab me and go, “You gotta come see this,” and he would take me to his trailer to show me ten minutes of raw footage. And I was like, “Oh my god, I’ve never seen anything like this.”
It’s got the perfect amount of nostalgia while still being accessible for a new audience.
It’s so redolent of the first film and hits all those nostalgic elements, but it really does stand on its own. The interesting thing about coming back to a truly beloved property after so much time is that there’s two generations of kids who have never seen the original movie. If they have, they saw it on cable or something, but they didn’t have the experience of going to see it in a theater. So for this generation, this is a brand new thing, and [Top Gun: Maverick] is going to be what the original was to its generation.
Your character, Cyclone, is clearly the foil to Maverick, and his resistance is a key ingredient to what makes this movie so satisfying. But he’s not a Jaws mayor-type or a Die Hard deputy chief-type because he’s absolutely right about Maverick being reckless. Did you view him similarly?
That’s a great observation, and I think you’re correct. He’s the adult in the room. He’s not the petulant angry chief, and he’s not the cigar-chomping guy [James Tolkan’s Stinger] in [Top Gun], whose ego is writing checks his body can’t cash. Cyclone is way more in the Tom Skerritt vein, who I really looked to for inspiration. First of all, I love Tom as an actor, but I loved him in the film, too. He’s got that tough love sensibility, but he also has that great line at the end, “I’ll fly with you.” It’s a begrudging mutual respect, and my character has a lot of that, too.
There comes a lot of responsibility with being the boss. My guy, the vice admiral, is in charge of not just lives, but billions of dollars of taxpayer-funded material. So that’s a lesson that he’s trying to impart to Maverick as well. He’s saying, “What are you doing? This is not where you should be. You’re too talented, and you can impart all of this wisdom to someone else and pass it on down the line. Why are you stuck? What’s happening here?” So a really emotional part of the story is watching Maverick grow up a little. He does owe a debt of responsibility to not only his former friend [Goose] and the family that he left behind, but also the next generation. So it hits on a lot of levels.
Your character said this to Maverick as a pejorative, but did Cruise’s reputation precede him in the best possible way?
Yes, absolutely. And I don’t think that line [“Your reputation precedes you … It wasn’t a compliment.”] was exclusively a pejorative. There are a lot of ways to read that. But when you walk onto the set of a Tom Cruise movie, you know exactly where Tom Cruise is at all times. It’s usually because he’s right there in your face, smiling and welcoming you to the set. His enthusiasm is so incredibly obvious, but it’s also incredibly infectious. It energizes the whole set. So, yes, Tom is as advertised, as they say.
Since you were a football star back in the day, did you throw some stiff-arms in between takes of the beach football scene?
(Laughs.) No, I didn’t want to get all sandy and gross. We were covered in fake sweat and spray tan, so I would’ve come back looking like a piece of sandpaper.
Cyclone was a Top Gun graduate a couple years after Maverick. How much backstory were you given beyond the movie? How much did you invent for yourself?
Not much, but I have a pretty active imagination. I met with a lot of the guys who would’ve been in Cyclone’s orbit and would’ve been running things in that very high-level, executive, administrative capacity. So that was enough for me to understand that all of these guys came out of the same circumstances. Some of them made more of it than others, some of them washed out, some of them got stuck and some of them died. There are a lot of ways that those careers can take turns, but I did meet quite a few guys at Cyclone’s level and they were all a lot older than me. (Laughs.) They were like, “If you’re a three-star admiral, there’s no way you’re this young.” And I was like, “Well, I’m older than I look, but I’ll take it.” (Laughs.)
I don’t think there’s anybody better than you at scenes involving contemplation near windows, and you have another — no spoilers — great one in this movie as Cyclone weighs options. Was that a scene you circled on your calendar and really dug into ahead of time?
(Laughs.) Not particularly. I’m not really a “circle it on the calendar” kind of guy. Every day on this film was an exciting day, but I was very happy when Tom told me, “This is what it’s going to be. You’re going to be near the windows, it’s going to be raining and it’s going to look amazing.” And I was like, “Well, I do, do good window work, so you can count on me for that.” So it was great. Again, it was a wonderful experience to be in a scene with Tom, who’s one of, if not the biggest, movie stars of our generation. So when we finished the scene, it was great to see how pumped he was to have this moment captured on film forever.
Some of Cruise’s former co-stars have expressed that when they see him going to such extreme lengths for his art, it makes them want to up their game in a variety of ways and acquire new skills for the screen. Did you feel that at all?
We had met socially here and there at various parties and functions and whatnot over the course of the last couple of decades, but at one point, we had a conversation on set. He said, “Jon, what do you do for fun? What are your hobbies? Do you skydive? Do you ride motorcycles? Do you fly helicopters?” And I was like, “No.” (Laughs.) I was like, “I play tennis. I hike. I walk up the hill with my dog. Those are my hobbies.” They’re radically less dangerous and adrenaline-filled, but I find them just as entertaining.
Between the aircraft carrier premiere and the Top Gun: Maverick private plane, have you ever been on a press tour quite like this?
This is its own animal, that’s for sure. I keep saying this, but it very much feels like Hollywood is back. This is what it is. This is what it is to go and see a big-time Hollywood blockbuster movie. This is your invitation to come on in, have a seat, eat some popcorn and be entertained for two hours.
Decades from now, when you reminisce about the making of this movie, is there a day you’ll likely recall first?
The first day. Easy. I walked onto the set, which was in an aircraft hangar. There were two F-18 Super Hornets parked, and there was a two-and-a-half story American flag. Everybody was there in costume and in full gear. I kind of got lost when I first walked to set, but once I finally walked on set, I heard applause as someone said, “There he is!” And I said to myself, “Who is that? I can’t see.” And it was Tom Cruise with a big million-dollar smile. Then he gave me a big hug and said, “Welcome to the show.” And I was like, “Thank you.” It was a pretty good feeling. (Laughs.)
It wouldn’t be a press tour for a Tom Cruise movie without some obligatory cake questions. Are you now on the Cruise cake list?
(Laughs.) Yes, I am. It’s a very anticipated cake, that’s for sure. I don’t know when that particular piece of information got out, but I had been on it even before I worked on this film. I don’t know how, but I remember getting it at one point and thinking, “This might be the best cake I’ve ever had in my life.” And it still delivers, even over the pandemic.
Do you savor it over many months, or do you devour it quickly?
It does keep, I’ll say that. It keeps for a while, and like a lot of cakes, it’s good a little stale, too. So we savor it. We do not descend upon it.
I always try to find patterns in actors’ choices, but your recent work doesn’t seem to indicate any rhyme or reason. You’ll pop up on Curb Your Enthusiasm or Barry as yourself, but then you’ll do voiceover work for various animated shows. You even appeared in an EELS’ music video not too long ago. Is this variety a response to playing Don Draper for eight years?
I’ve said it before, but if you wanted to do the same thing over and over again, I don’t know why you’d be an actor. The fun part of being an actor is getting to do different things. So, yes is the short answer to your question. It’s just fun. It’s fun to work with Larry David. It’s fun to host Saturday Night Live. It’s fun to do animated stuff. It’s fun to do my friends’ podcasts. I’m very, very lucky in that I get to play in a lot of different sandboxes, so to speak, and I have some measure of credibility on both sides of the dramatic, comedic aisle. So I love doing it all. I love when they ask me to read the opening day piece for the St. Louis Cardinals, or they want me to read a hype-up speech for the St. Louis Blues. So I’m very lucky that I get to do all of that, and I appreciate it.
Lastly, what can you say about your new take on Fletch?
Well, we finished principal photography last summer in Rome. It’s a very good film. We’re not sure where it’s going to be distributed, so I can’t really speak on that. We’ve got a couple things happening, but I hope people get to see it in the coming year and I look forward to them enjoying it. It’s very different from the Chevy Chase version. So if you’re going in expecting me to be wearing a lot of funny wigs and doing a lot of voices, it’s probably not the movie for you. But we’re very excited about staying true to the books that Gregory Mcdonald wrote, and we have the option, hopefully, to make quite a few more. So the exciting thing for me is to get in on the ground floor and hopefully do a few more of these and produce them and make them in the way I find very funny.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Top Gun: Maverick opens in theaters on May 27.