[This story contains spoilers for Top Gun: Maverick.]
In 1998, Becky Calder became the first woman pilot to graduate from TOPGUN, so in keeping with their commitment to verisimilitude, Top Gun: Maverick’s brain trust knew that their film needed to follow suit.
That’s where Monica Barbaro enters the picture as she plays Lt. Natasha “Phoenix” Trace, whose skills and reliability made her an easy choice for the film’s climactic mission. Barbaro admits that the character changed a lot throughout the entire process, and looking back, she’s relieved that she didn’t become a love interest to Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller) as originally rumored.
“When I first booked the role, there was a rumor going around that I was playing Miles’ love interest, which was funny because one of my favorite things about Phoenix is that she’s not a love interest. In this context, it was just a real honor to get to be a highly capable professional who’s taken seriously,” Barbaro tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Oddly enough, Barbaro’s audition process emphasized her performance of “Great Balls of Fire” since Phoenix, along with Jay Ellis’ Payback, Danny Ramirez’s Fanboy and Louis Pullman’s Bob, joined Rooster for his piano-bar performance of the song. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense why director Joseph Kosinski would prioritize the beloved song during casting, as the sequence foreshadows which characters would go on to fly alongside Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) during the dangerous final mission.
“There was a moment in time where she was supposed to drum in the scene. It’s obviously no longer in the film, and thank goodness, because I am not a drummer. But at one point, I was drumming on my knees, screaming ‘Great balls of fire,’” Barbaro shares.
In a spoiler conversation with THR, Barbaro also recounted the days on set when Cruise gave her cinematography and storytelling lessons.
To start at the very beginning, what did the casting process entail?
Joe [Kosinski], himself, saw 50 to 100 people [for Phoenix], which is a lot for a director, and he said that it was intense. With me, they were like, “Yeah, I guess she can audition.” So I sent in a self-tape, and they liked it enough to invite me in and meet with Joe. I got to come back in and wear a flight suit, and throughout all of it, I had to sing “Great Balls of Fire,” which was insane and hilarious but also very fun in the end. (Laughs.)
Wow, I was not expecting to hear that.
Yeah, there was a moment in time where she was supposed to drum in the scene. It’s obviously no longer in the film, and thank goodness, because I am not a drummer. But at one point, I was drumming on my knees, screaming “Great balls of fire.” So the character changed a lot. (Laughs.) Initially, she was written as someone who was maybe trying too hard to fit in with the guys, and then she became a character who’s really comfortable and confident in her own skin and knows exactly how to gain people’s trust.
So Joe Kosinski said that there are more than 813 hours of footage from Maverick’s production. If you had to guess, how many belong to you and your aircraft’s cameras?
Well, we did 40 hours of flight, and probably 15 hours of it is me in an F-18. And we were rolling through most of those hours, but we had some breaks. So I’m not good enough at math to even say, but someone has a lot of footage of me just ramping myself up to pull g’s. (Laughs.)
You’re one of only a few people who can say that Tom Cruise taught them cinematography so that you could properly capture footage inside your F-18. What was that lesson like?
It was incredible. We were pretty lucky. The cameras were static, and they were fastened to the jet in such a way that we didn’t have to move them, focus them or do anything. [DP] Claudio [Miranda] really set us up for success on that one, but Tom then came in and showed us. There’s actually a photo of us as I’m sitting in a jet. We were delayed because it was literally snowing when we were supposed to take off, and it was supposed to take place in San Diego. So the scene was not supposed to be in the snow, but while we were sitting there on the flight line, he showed me where my eyeline should be on a monitor and where our movements needed to be. So that was incredible.
And then on top of that, I remember one day when we were on the carrier and in his room as we talked about some changes he had made to the story. He would always pull us aside and be like, “This is why we’re changing this. This is where the story has to go.” So he would teach us the dynamics of storytelling. And then he was like, “We also need to film it this way because I was watching Casablanca last night…” And I thought, “Oh my god, this guy is studying film every night and then coming to set the next day to apply what he had just learned.” And you just know that the man has seen Casablanca fifty times, but he’s still going in and studying.
There were times on set where McQ [screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie] would whip out his iPad and say, “Notice the composition of this shot in Lawrence of Arabia,” so we’d all gather around and learn a lesson on making an epic. Yeah, it was incredible.
Well, it sounds like Tom and co. exceeded any and all expectations that you might have had.
Oh yeah! I really had no idea what to expect, but everything about this movie was just a huge gift. We’ve been talking all day in these interviews, and it’s sort of dawning on everybody that he’s changed our lives forever. He’s also changed the way we approach every project we take from here on out, for the better, because we just see film and what we’re doing in a completely different way.
I’ve heard some of his past co-stars say that his work ethic has inspired them to learn various new skills for the screen. Do you understand where they’re coming from?
Yeah, I’ve always been the person who would love to do as much as I am allowed to do on a set. I’m not more of a daredevil than I used to be, but the thing that shifted in me was how I do things. I’m working on a boxing scene for something else right now, and we have already tackled the training in just a very different way than I would have four years ago. We’re doing things in stages, and I expect to know the choreography well before the date. I want to be over-prepared if anything, and Tom teaches you to be really mindful of safety and specifics so that no stone is left unturned. And that applies to boxing in ways such as where your foot is pointed or how exactly you move your elbow.
So all of those things lend themselves to pulling something off in a way that makes people believe that you’re capable of doing the thing. I think he’s changed that aspect of performing for all of us. In terms of training, it’s much easier to communicate with people now because we’ve all seen where it needs to go. We also have a higher expectation of ourselves and everyone around us. That expectation becomes really contagious, and then everyone around you starts working with that level of specificity.
It’s been talked about a lot, but can you share your perspective on the flight training?
Yeah, when first we started in Cessnas, which I called “the Volkswagen of the sky” because that’s what it looks like to me. And I got to fly with Lewis Pullman, who plays Bob, my backseater. They put us in a plane together early, which was really fun. So we learned the basics of aviation and also how to fly, how to take off, how to land, and how to talk on comms to the tower. It was a lot of information, but it was the basics of aviation.
And then they threw us up in the Extra 300L, where we did a lot of aerobatics, and basically, Chuck Coleman, our instructor, would just toss us around and pull sustained g’s. (Laughs.) We slowly worked our way up to gain more g-tolerance without a g-suit.
And then we got to fly in jets. The L-39. We got to dogfight a little bit. And then, in order to get into the F-18, we had to pass the underwater training course, which has to do with water survival in the event of an ejection from the aircraft because we were doing a lot of flights over water. They also teach you some parachuting if you’re over land as well. So it was underwater survival training, but it was really interesting.
And then, once we passed that wild day in our lives, we got to go in the F-18s. Occasionally, we’d film on the ground and then we’d film up in the F-18s, and then we’d film back on the ground. But every time we would go back up in the F-18s, we would first do a check-ride in the Extra 300 to just make sure that our bodies were ready to pull g’s and do all that.
How much backstory were you given? How much did you create for yourself?
As I told you, the character really changed a lot from the woman I auditioned for at the beginning to the pilot she eventually became, and a lot of it was informed by the women I got to meet. The two pilots who flew me in the movie were incredible resources, as well as multiple other women. Any time I came across a female aviator, I was immediately drawn to them, and I would try to get to know them and ask them what I could about their work. So that really developed a lot of the character.
One of the most beautiful things is that a lot of their experiences are pretty universal to women in other male-dominated spaces. You work twice as hard to get half as much, and there’s a level of perfectionism that you have to carry with you in order to make sure you never fall short. So that brings a certain kind of intensity. But these women are also super funny. They’re some of the coolest women I’ve ever met. So the character really just developed over time as I got to know them, and they helped change the character.
Hangman (Glen Powell) gives her a hard time at a certain point, but aside from that, Phoenix was treated just like everybody else. Did you assume that she’d gained their respect long before this movie?
Yes, definitely. It’s interesting because there was discussion of removing a tonal moment like that, but I was an advocate for keeping it in the movie. I’ve seen the military aviation community be rather progressive with that sort of thing; they really defer to women pilots as much as their male counterparts, especially the actual TOPGUN training school. But there’s no way that sort of [sexism] doesn’t still exist in little moments here and there. It’s par for the course for women in historically male-dominated spaces. So I was glad we kept that in.
And without making a real thing of it, we showed that it’s another level to her experience. There’s always the expectation or possibility that something like that could happen in those spaces. So that’s something that she takes with her, while also not making that the theme of the story or going too far with it. So just having it be a piece of her experience felt very real to me.
So what’s the deal with her and Rooster (Teller)? There seemed to be some history between them during the opening bar scene, and it felt a little more personal.
(Laughs.) I mean, we always thought of them as just being really solid friends. In the military, pilots are not supposed to ever date each other, and if they do, they can’t be on the same tours or in the same squadron. There are a lot of pilot couples out there, but they never work together. They get separated to keep them really focused.
So we always just viewed them as friends, but when I first booked the role, there was a rumor going around that I was playing Miles’ love interest, which was funny because one of my favorite things about Phoenix is that she’s not a love interest. And to not be a love interest is pretty rare, so it’s a great role. I just shot a romcom, so I love being a love interest. (Laughs.) I love love. But in this context, it was just a real honor to get to be a highly capable professional who’s taken seriously. Rooster believes in her, too, because she’s a really good aviator and an extremely loyal friend. So they do care about each other, especially since the two of them went to flight school together and have known each other for a long time.
The banter between everyone at the bar felt natural. Did the flight training help build that rapport between everyone?
What’s funny is that we actually shot the bar scene very early on at first. We shot it a couple of times if I’m being honest. When we shot it the first time during our early days in San Diego, it was high pressure because we were introducing these brand new characters in a short amount of time. But then we did a bunch of training, got to know each other a lot better, and started developing real history. And then we were told, “We have to reshoot that scene because now that you’ve done all of this aviation training, you guys walk differently and you act differently with each other.” Even one of our consultants from the military was like, “You guys look like lieutenants now,” and we were like, “Oh, okay!”
So we went back and reshot parts of it, and then we did one more day of pickups because it’s such an important scene. Like I said, it had to go really well and be very specific because you have a short amount of time to introduce all of these brand new characters who you’re supposed to care about. So all of our characters developed as we did the film.
I hope that means you got to reshoot the moment where you hit Glen’s character with the pool cue.
I hit Miles with the pool stick, but to be honest, I should’ve also hit Glen with the pool stick. (Laughs.)
Ah, forgive me. I need to see it again, and by the time this interview comes out in a month, I will have done exactly that.
(Laughs.) But yes, we did that many times. Stunts are really fun to do, but I also hate when I have to hit someone or poke someone. You can hit me as hard as you need to, but I don’t want to inflict harm on anyone else. (Laughs.) But Miles was such a champ. I had to jab him with that pool cue so many times. He was like, “You can hit me Monica.” So I was like, “OK!” (Laughs.) It was fun.
I’ve got to say that it was Danny Ramirez’s idea. He plays Fanboy. We were like, “How do we do this?” We were trying to figure it out, and then in rehearsal, Danny was like, “She could go to take a shot and that’s when she hits him in the stomach with the pool cue.” And we were like, “Yup, that’s it.” So I have to give Danny credit for that.
I spoke to an actor who played a window washer in a big movie, and despite her willingness to get a license, insurance wouldn’t allow her to actually do the window-washing stunt to a real building. So how in the world did you guys get permission to do all this?
Tom Cruise is very special in that he is somehow able to convince these studios to not only let him do these wild and crazy things, but let six other pilots do them as well. There’s no world in which any of us could have ever gotten permission without him. You hear about other productions where someone’s playing a fighter pilot and at best, they get one flight. But then they get tossed around, and they throw up because there’s no training involved. It’s no fault of their own, but then they have to go and play a pilot somehow, even though they really don’t know what it’s like.
So Tom was able to convince the studios that this was the only way to shoot this project, but that’s all above my paygrade. It’s interesting because people come up to me on other projects and say, “We can’t have you do that.” And I’ll say, “You know what I’ve done, right?” (Laughs.)
“I’m gonna get Tom on the phone.”
(Laughs.) Yeah, I’ve got to get Tom on the phone to convince them to let me do this. But I do understand where they’re coming from. Some actors don’t necessarily want to take that risk, and that’s totally understandable. But when you’re signing on for a Tom Cruise movie, you have to expect to do it yourself and to learn the thing really well and to over-prepare, if anything. You actually learn three times as much about safety because he’s really safety-minded. I mean, intense safety protocols are how he’s survived everything he’s done. So he took a big swing by involving us in this way, and we were lucky because he could’ve left us on the ground with gimbals and green screens. But instead of that, he said, “I’m taking them with me.”
Did you come up with any theories for how she got the call sign of Phoenix?
We were given these call signs at the beginning, but we were offered the opportunity to change them. So the only one that changed from the original [casting] breakdowns was Glen’s; his call sign was originally Slayer. And we were like, “No no no.” So he started riffing with the TOPGUN instructors, and they figured out the name Hangman. But the rest of us kept ours, and within that first week, we earned our own names in weird ways.
There was a moment where Jay Ellis, who plays Payback, duped Lewis [Pullman] into putting his cell phone on the bar, and from the film, you know that’s a major faux pas where you have to buy everyone in the bar a round of drinks. And since it was the first day we had all met, we were like, “Jay, that’s so mean. You have to pay him back.” And then we laughed and said, “But it’s perfect because your name is Payback!”
So, in my case, I had a pretty intense night of frivolity, we’ll say, and I rose from the ashes the next day. (Laughs.) So I earned my call sign as well. Danny [who plays Fanboy] was geeking out about Claudio, our DP, and Tom and everything around him. He was just so enthusiastic and so loving, so he truly was an absolute fanboy. So the call signs existed before us, but we grew into them in a beautiful way.
Do you mind if I start pitching ideas for a spinoff called Top Gun: Phoenix Rising?
(Laughs.) I don’t mind that at all.
I’ve got Greg Tarzan Davis and Glen Powell in the coming days. Would you like to submit any “anonymous “ fan questions?
Oh god, there are so many things I could say, but I want to set Glen up for disaster. Ask Glen why it took so long for him to admit that he was throwing up every time in the air. (Laughs.) And ask Tarzan whether he actually passed out in the plane and if he’s ever heard of Dramamine. You can say that these are from me, so just tell them that you made me ask tough questions, Glen especially. I feel bad about the Glen one, but the Tarzan one is hilarious.
Well, any final thoughts?
It’s just dawning on me that I get to have this experience in my memory bank for decades to come, and it’s kind of overwhelming. It’s already changed my life forever, and I’m sure it will continue to change it in so many ways once it comes out.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Top Gun: Maverick is now playing in movie theaters.