Top Gun firmly grasped the pop culture zeitgeist in 1986— so much so that over 30 years later, its sequel release is one of the summer’s biggest blockbusters. This time around, Tom Cruise returns as Peter “Maverick” Mitchell and trains a group of Top Gun graduates for an unprecedented specialized mission. Among the group is Phoenix, the only female fighter pilot of the new recruits.
Ahead of Top Gun: Maverick’s theatrical premiere, LA Confidential spoke with Monica Barbaro about playing the film’s first female fighter pilot.
Do you remember the first time you watched Top Gun?
I watched it in college. I was with a group of very bro-y dudes who were like, “I can't believe you haven't seen it.” And so I watched it and thought it was great and laughed along and loved the intense ‘80s quality of it. That was around the time that I was deciding to become an actor. And I remember thinking, “Wow, it'd be so cool to be in a movie like this someday.” But I definitely didn't think my place in it would be anything to do with being a pilot.
What did you enjoy most about playing Phoenix?
I think she's tough. I think she keeps her emotions close to the chest. I think she's had to work incredibly hard to get to where she is. And I think it can be twice as hard for women to ensure that people in a male-dominated workplace take them seriously. And I think you see that in this character— that there's years behind her of having dealt with that. But not in a chip-on-her-shoulder kind of way. I think she just takes the job very seriously and knows exactly what to do to be respected. I really respect her.
She was modeled after some incredible aviators that I got to meet and who I actually got to fly with, so that was cool. I liked them so much; I just hoped that this character would come through in a way it would allow people to see at least some version of the women I got to meet.
Can you tell us more about training to fly planes?
Tom designed the training course for us. It was in pre-production and prep, but also throughout filming the movie, so I think some people were like, “Oh, it was a three month training course,” but we were doing it the entire time. The movie took 10 months. So as far as I’m concerned, we were training for 10 months. He designed a training course as similar as he could, for film purposes, to the actual Navy fighter pilot training, but squished down, a lot more condensed.
How does it physically feel to fly a plane?
It's an interesting question because there's a very distinct engine behind it. I think takeoff feels really intense, kind of roller coaster-like, but the plane, an F18 specifically, is very sturdy. In the first movie, they're moving the camera a lot to create dynamic shots, but in this, they're mounted to the plane. So every time you move at all, it's moving the plane and we had to do things to make the shot store more dynamic, including the pilots had to fly the plane a little bit at make the wings wobble a bit in order for the background to look more dynamic because the plane itself is actually so sturdy.
I remember the very first flight, I drove home exhausted and was like, “Oh no, this is gonna be so, so hard.” And then I learned some things and thanks to the training, like training any muscle, you get used to it and you strengthen that muscle, and it became less exhausting. But I remember the first time we did like tons of loops and pulled g's and all of that, it just really wiped my body out. But then after that, it felt good. I remember after my first F18 flight, it just felt so cool. Like the gear itself—you just look cool in it, you can't help it. I just remember getting out with the big clunky boots and 40 pounds of gear and having just blown in a jet and everyone's smiling at me like, “How was it?” It just felt awesome.
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What was the best piece of advice you got from Tom Cruise that coalesced his knowledge of flying planes and acting expertise?
He was talking about how no one's ever done anything like this and I made a joke about peaking early in terms of our stunt careers. And he was like, “No, I believe you have the capability of doing this and more.” And that was always his mentality around it. He believed not only that we could do this— which I think infused a lot of confidence in all of us— but also that we could take this with us and bring it to everything we do. And I think in the years since we wrapped, we've all done that to the best of our ability. Even right now, I'm on a production where I'm using things that I learned from that set.
I think in terms of technical component about stunts or at least acting in something like this where you're put in situations that are really physically complicated while having to act, is that you prepare to the point of being over prepared so that by the time you are filming the thing, you’re so comfortable that you can go in and act the intensity. That was something that happened with flying in the jet. Once we got really comfortable flying, we had to make sure to remember that per the story, this is a really action packed, intense scene.Even if a real fighter pilot is really comfortable, knows how to do this and might maintain a little bit more composure, for the story, for acting in a piece of film and taking an audience on a ride with you, you have to increase that intensity in your expression and emotionally to to deliver the right tone at the right time.
What’s it like to be part of a film series that is such a legendary part of action adventure cinema?
It's all still hitting me as we go. At first, to be making a sequel that is of a film that is this beloved, there's a lot of pressure and that was felt on the ground and certainly up in the air. But now, getting to see that people are really enjoying it, it's hitting us that this is real and this is a movie that action lovers are going to love and people who maybe even don't necessarily love action films are going to appreciate it.
Even now, I am working on a series that is pretty action heavy and just to see the producers (It's also with Skydance, so they had already seen Top Gun), but to see the producers trust me in that space immediately because they know that I've done this before was something that was really cool and exciting. There's a lot more than I need to learn about iconic action films, to be honest. So I'm just soaking it all in now, but it's fun.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photography by: Courtesy Monica Barbaro