[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Top Gun: Maverick.]
There was a fleeting moment when Lewis Pullman considered he might be in over his head.
The Top Gun: Maverick actor could never have imagined just how intense and daunting the training was going to be for the highly anticipated sequel to the 1986 Paramount classic. But it was Tom Cruise, the film’s leader both on and offscreen, who got Pullman where he needed to be for a masterful performance.
In Top Gun: Maverick, Pullman plays the shy, reserved (but extremely capable) Lt. Robert “Bob” Floyd, weapon systems officer (WSO) for mission pilot trainee Lt. Natasha “Phoenix” Trace (Monica Barbaro).
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Pullman explained he took great pride in playing the “quiet burning ember” Bob, as his modesty and humbleness were reflected in several of the actual United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program (TOPGUN) pilots whom the actor met while working on the film.
During that same THR chat, Pullman also discussed how much he values his bond with his flight partner Barbaro and how impressed he was with Cruise’s devotion, not only to the picture as a whole, but to each and every pilot actor. In addition, Pullman also shares the kismet advice he received from his iconic Hollywood dad, Independence Day star Bill Pullman.
Did you wonder what the heck you got yourself into during the rigorous training?
(Laughs.) Yeah, man. I mean, it really kind of snuck up on me, the reality of what we were actually doing. Tom Cruise’s only true competition is himself. So, every time he goes into a movie, it’s not like he’s looking around to see if anyone else is trying to do the same thing — because nobody is. (Laughs.) It’s just about if he can top the last thing that he’s done — and he always does!
Tom was so darn generous with his time and with his energy. And you know, he set up the entire training regiment for us himself. He designed it in a way that really crept up on us. In the beginning, it was like this is a summit that I don’t know if I could reach. It’s just crazy. But he gave us a very gradual on-ramp, so by the time we were actually pulling 8.5 g’s — it was there before we knew it. He understood the assignment and what we were going to need in order to be confident and give good performances up in these [F/A-18 Super Hornets] while actually pulling g’s and doing these serious aerobatic maneuvers.
I have no doubt Bob will be an audience favorite. In a way, he reminded me of Miles Miller from Bad Times at the El Royale. Do you enjoy those characters the most, the quiet guys who can take care of business when the time comes?
(Laughs.) It’s all on the writing, but it’s a pleasure to be the vessel. I really enjoyed playing Bob. I wanted to make sure that there was a pilot — because I was a pretty shy kid growing up — who represented maybe not the cockiest or most overly confident. He’s more of a quiet burning ember who knows he can burst into flames at any moment. His only real need is to perform at a high level in the sky. That was an honor because so many of the TOPGUN pilots who I met, they’re geniuses, and they’re badass — but they’re also incredibly modest. So, I just wanted to make sure that was captured in some sense.
Did you and Monica spend extra time together in training? How did you build that bond and trust the characters would need to convey onscreen?
We were doing all this flying and flight training, and Monaco was one of the biggest badasses of any of us! She seemed to have no issues with what was going on, whereas I had hurdles with fear or motion sickness. So it was very easy to have that onscreen dynamic because we lifted each other up a lot. She gave me a lot of advice and encouragement, and vice versa. Because we knew what their relationship was like early on, we spent a lot of time hanging out. She’s exceptional in this film, and she’s an exceptional person.
How would you describe the g-force you experienced to someone who has no idea what that kind of pressure is like on the human body?
(Laughs.) I’m trying to think of like how would I describe this to myself three years ago before we started training because it’s so outside of anything that is normal. It’s like you’re a marionette and all your strings are being dragged down to the center of the earth. It’s like a very heavy animal is sitting on top of you. It is wild, man. And the fact we got a chance to make that feel like it was normal, so we not be overtaken by the biological shift, was a great opportunity.
We would do these flight briefings, where we would fill out these forms about how many g’s we pulled and what difficulties we were having. We then emailed them and thought they were just going out into the ether, but then you’d see Tom Cruise the next day. And he’d come up to you and be like, “I read your brief, and I just wanted to know if there’s anything I can do.” And if you said you wanted to try new things and push further, then the next day, you’re doing it. For the busiest man I’ve ever personally met, he was remarkable at taking the time in such a generous and caring way to make sure that we were confident and had every resource at our disposal.
Everybody seems to have an amazing Tom Cruise story from this film. Would you mind sharing one with me beyond what you just said?
In the F/A-18s, we didn’t have monitors that could go back to base camp, they couldn’t watch the takes we were doing. So they built this little wooden mock cockpit called “The Buck.” And we would go in before each flight to do rehearsals and run through safety procedures. And there was this amazing moment, actually, it happened a bunch of times, when I was sitting in The Buck, and Tom Cruise was sitting on a stool giving me advice and direction on how to make the scene as dynamic as it needed to be. I was like, “This is as good as it gets, right here.”
Due to the pandemic, the movie was pushed several times. Can you share the emotions you’re feeling right now, knowing the moment for Top Gun: Maverick has finally arrived?
It’s quite overwhelming. I don’t really know how to identify some of the feelings I’m having. But it is really comforting to know that people who were questioning why it was taking so long to come out, why don’t you just put it on streaming — there’s no need to answer that question now. All they have to do is sit in the theater, and it will all be made clear. This has all the elements that theatrical experience needs to have, and audience members want to have. So, I am super jazzed that we didn’t put it on streaming — and I think everyone else will be, too.
Finally, since I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing him a few times, I must ask: Has dad seen the film yet, and did he offer any advice from his fighter pilot days against aliens in Independence Day?
(Laughs.) He hasn’t seen it yet, but I cannot wait for him to see it. He’s working on a play right now, doing rehearsals. I always run everything by him before I start a job, and he always delivers me gold. He used green screen in Independence Day, but he gave good movement advice, to really convey the physicality of what’s going on. Mainly, he offered to make sure this character felt real and grounded and to absorb everything from the real Top Gun pilots, so I could do justice to what they do.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Top Gun: Maverick is in theaters now.