Just hours before the Cannes premiere of Top Gun: Maverick on Wednesday, Glen Powell was showing his friends videos from the last time he was here. Exactly eight years earlier, he’d ridden down the Croisette in a tank, participating in one of the biggest stunts ever pulled during the festival. The pricey action film Expendables 3 was the largest project he’d starred in so far, and he thought, perhaps, it would be the movie that put him on the map.
“It didn’t really move the needle all that much in hindsight,” he says now, cocking his head to the side and shrugging in a quiet corner of the restaurant at the Hôtel Martinez.
There’s reason to believe this time will be different. Now 33, the actor is in Cannes for a brief stop on his whirlwind promotional tour for Paramount’s Top Gun: Maverick, the long-awaited follow-up to the 1986 hit, which sees the return of Tom Cruise as Maverick alongside a new class of naval aviators. The film, delayed two years during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, has become a shining beacon of hope for the movie business, marking the much-anticipated return of the summer blockbuster when it is released only in theaters on May 27.
It’s also likely to be a turning point for Powell, who delivered memorable work in Richard Linklater‘s 2016 Baseball Comedy, Everybody Wants Some!! played John Glenn in Hidden Figures, and starred alongside Zoey Deutch in Netflix’s breakout 2018 rom-com, set it up But Top Gun: Maverick—a film he almost wasn’t a part of at all—may eclipse everything that came before it.
And with the return of the summer blockbuster comes, of course, the return of the worldwide promotional tour. Cruise and company started in April in Las Vegas, where the film screened for the first time and Powell was honored with CinemaCon’s Male Star of Tomorrow award. To celebrate, he brought out around two dozen of his closest friends and family members, dressing them in flight jumpsuits that came with official top gun patches and their own personal call signs. They rented out a speakeasy and “tore it up,” he says. Then it was off to San Diego for the world premiere, which took place on an aircraft carrier, with Cruise arriving via a helicopter he piloted himself.
Powell, Cruise, and the rest of the cast—which includes Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, and Jon Ham—we were spending just about 24 hours in Cannes before jetting off to London for another glamorous premiere, with prince william and Kate Middleton attending. “I’m enjoying this moment completely, just because it’s constantly ‘pinch me’ moments,” says Powell, who arrived in Cannes the night before at 1:30 am and was doing interviews less than 12 hours later.
Powell had first auditioned for the Top Gun: Maverick role of Rooster, the son of Maverick’s dearly departed former wingman, Goose (played by Anthony Edwards in the original). That role ultimately went to Teller, and Powell was crushed. so when principal Joseph Kosinski and Cruise came to Powell to play Hangman, a talented but cocky pilot who serves as a bit of a rival to Teller’s character, Powell passed. That is, until Cruise sat down with him and asked him what kind of career he wanted to have. He responded that he wanted to have one like Cruise’s, who then talked him into taking the role and making it his own.
“He took big swings—the guy always pushed the boundaries,” Powell says about Cruise’s career path. “People forget, because they now look at him as the greatest stuntman of all time…but when you look at a movie like A Few Good Men, Born on the Fourth of July, Jerry Maguire, Eyes Wide Shut, Rain Man—these are movies that aren’t typical movie star roles, but because it’s Tom, he made them so iconic and so cool. I feel like his career is just so, in the best way, all over the place. ”
Powell says it was Cruise who encouraged everyone to remain patient with the release of Maverick, which was first scheduled to come out in 2019. In order to work out complex sequences and visual effects, the release was pushed to 2020—and then the coronavirus pandemic hit. Cruise held steady to his belief that the movie had to be released in theaters, and so they all waited.
“It’s definitely a lesson in patience,” says Powell, “but you realize that great careers don’t happen overnight. And the lesson that I’ve learned as long as I’ve been out doing this thing is that the worst thing you can do is try to rush a career in this town.”
Powell has had other opportunities to display that patience over the years. The Austin, Texas, native landed his first major film role in 2007’s The Great Debates, by Denzel Washington. But then, after moving to Los Angeles, he hit a dry spell, writing and selling a couple of screenplays to keep himself afloat. Both were comedies and neither ever got made, but screenwriting is a part of the craft that Powell has continued to pursue. “Sometimes those detours in the journey where it didn’t work out quickly for me, I think are going to make me a little bit more well rounded,” he says. He’s still sitting on a couple scripts he wrote a few years ago, and is sometimes brought on to help punch up scripts of other writers. But most exciting is the script he’s cowritten with his Everybody Wants Some!! director, Richard Linklater, which is currently being sold at the Cannes marketplace. Hitman, in which Powell will also star, is based on a true story about a hit man in Texas who actually worked for the police.
Powell’s behind-the-scenes movements carry into producing as well. Before he was cast as Hangman in Top Gun: Maverick, he focused his attention on developing another story: that of Jesse Brown, the first Black naval aviator. Powell got the rights to Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice, a biography by Adam Makos that chronicles Brown’s story and his friendship with fellow naval aviator Tom Hudner. Powell put the project together with Black Label Media, and the film is now in postproduction, with Powell as Hudner and fellow rising star Jonathan Majors Ace Brown.
“I’ve always admired people who didn’t have their hand out looking for someone to give them a career,” Powell tells me now. “It’s great to have filmmakers approach you with amazing material. I just don’t think I’ve ever been able to rely on that.”
He hopes to direct someday, though still sees that as being pretty far off in the future. For now, he’s enjoying every moment of this jet-setting promotional tour and is eager for audiences to finally—finally—see a movie he and the rest of the team have been sitting on for two years.
Later Wednesday night, Powell and the rest of the cast walked up the iconic red steps of the Grand Théâtre Lumière, Powell shoulder to shoulder with Cruise, as fighter jets soared overhead. Two thousand attendees stood for an ovation at the end, and a cascade of fireworks lit up the sea outside the theater. Powell remembers from that tank ride that stunts aren’t everything–“I mean, who knows what this movie will do for my career?”—but a lot of careful steps have taken him here. The next day they’d be in London to do it all again.