Photo: Karwai Tang/WireImage
Along with his deep ties to Scientology, Tom Cruise is also known for his commitment to real stunts. So it should come as no surprise he wanted the actors in Top Gun: Maverick to actually deliver their lines from the cockpits of moving F/A-18 planes. “I wasn’t ready to make a sequel until we had a special story worthy of a sequel and until technology evolved so we could delve deeper into the experience of a fighter pilot,” Cruise said in a promotional video for the movie.
Without proper preparation, however, g-forces exerted on the body by acceleration can result in illness or a dangerous loss of consciousness. To combat that, he personally designed a rigorous monthlong program that introduced his co-stars to different jets and instructors as they learned to fly and slowly built up their g-force tolerance. According to Men’s Health, the aspiring aviators eventually had to sustain up to eight g’s, or around 1,600 pounds of pressure. The cast — including Monica Barbaro, Glen Powell, Greg Tarzan Davis, Jay Ellis, Danny Ramirez, Miles Teller, and Lewis Pullman — filled out daily forms for Cruise to review until they were ready for real Navy pilots to take them up in F/A-18s equipped with six IMAX-quality cameras. (The Pentagon reportedly does not allow nonmilitary personnel to operate F/A-18s.) From puking to getting personalized feedback, here’s what Cruise’s co-stars have described going through during the Top Gun training made by “Maverick” himself.
“Nothing bonds a cast together more than collective suffering,” Teller said in the Cannes production notes for Top Gun: Maverick. “I think, when you’re going through something and you know how tough it is yourself, and you look to the left of you and to the right of you and you see that person going through it, it kind of pushes you a little harder and further than you would normally go. It’s so unique for us that we will only be able to talk about this with each other for the rest of our lives.” Ahhh, trauma bonding.
Teller explained to Men’s Journal that all the elements of Cruise’s training, even breathing techniques, were utilized during the final sequences shot in the F/A-18s. “Every single day of the shoot we were really getting after it,” he said. “Up until the very last day people were fainting and puking.” In fact, Teller told London Live that he personally felt like vomiting every time he went in the air. “It’s funny,” he said, pausing to chuckle with the interviewer. After a moment, however, he added, “Wasn’t so funny for me.”
In the Cannes production notes, Barbaro credited Cruise’s training program with preparing her not only to act in the planes but also turn cameras on and off, check makeup, fix props, and communicate with pilots. She explained to The Wrap that Cruise’s “perfect” training program also included minute-by-minute rehearsals with a pilot in a fake plane so that actors could plan when to say their lines. “It was pretty intense,” she said. “We got to watch Tom do it a few times. I was the first person of us pilots to do it. I was the guinea pig.” And while the cast had to go through all the rigorous flight training before even stepping on set, per the New York Daily News, Barbaro made it clear that the work continued during the ten-month shoot. “If we ever had a day off from filming, we would be sent over to the airport to go fly … to keep sustaining Gs,” she said. “It would’ve been a huge disservice to get out of shape.”
Pullman didn’t mince words when it came to describing the experience of g-forces. “It felt like you had an elephant sit on top of you,” he told the Daily News. “You’re trying to keep all the blood to your brain so you don’t pass out, and you’re trying to remember your lines and you’re trying to look cool doing it.” Or as he later put it to The Ringer, “It’s sort of like your spine is sliding back into the chair and a rhinoceros just popped a squat on your lap.”
Pullman said that Cruise’s training regimen condensed two years of flight training into three months, covering everything Cruise wished he’d been taught on the original Top Gun. According to Pullman, one of the planes used during training actually allowed the cast to pull more g’s than needed for the final shoot. “So if we could master that without a G-suit, once we got up in the F-18s, it would be like we had been running with weights on,” he explained.
He was also impressed by the tailored feedback that came with the program. Initially, Pullman said, the cast thought that no one was reading the evaluation forms they were asked to fill out every day. “But whenever we saw Tom, he would come up to us and say, ‘Hey man, I saw that on your last flight you had a little trouble pulling zero Gs. Here’s what I do,’” Pullman recalled. “It was like, ‘Holy smokes, Tom Cruise is taking the time out of his jam-packed day to give me personal tips.’”
In an interview with Men’s Health, Ramirez called the intensive training program “the Tom Cruise School of Being a Badass.” He added that logging more than 40 hours of flight time “pulling mad Gs” taught him “the art of puking and rallying.” Before he shot Top Gun: Maverick, Ramirez apparently had never known how to recover after vomiting. “So in a confined space, and to be able to push through it, I was very proud of it,” he told The Ringer. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to be cut out of this movie.’” He also shared his admiration for his co-stars who were going through the same training, noting that Barbaro “for sure never puked,” despite pulling the most g’s on the EA-300. “But Lewis [Pullman] has the most grit of anyone I’ve ever met,” Ramirez recalled. “He was going to puke and instead said, ‘Not today,’ and swallowed it all back down.”
“Flying commercial is boring now,” Ellis said when TMZ stopped him, appropriately, outside of LAX. He told the A.V. Club that Cruise’s commitment to reading everyone’s daily questionnaires was humbling. The cast submitted responses on a computer that were then sent to Cruise. “The next day you would get an email from Tom,” Ellis recalled. “And he would say, ‘Hey, I read your questions last night. Going to add a few more days to your flight training. Does next week work for you?’” But Ellis’s training takeaways weren’t limited to aviation. According to Ellis’s interview with Men’s Health, Cruise taught him to keep viewers engaged by being conscious of camera movements, which he later brought to his roles on Mrs. America and season four of Insecure. The skill seems like it’d be useful on any set, but especially so on Top Gun: Maverick, given that director Joseph Kosinski estimated that every 60 to 70 minutes of acting in the sky translated to a mere minute of usable footage.
Davis told The Ringer that he lied during his audition for Top Gun: Maverick and said that he was not afraid of heights. As you might expect, that meant he had some fears to face when it came to flight training. But according to the cast, the training was set up to explain the mechanics and physics of what would happen on the plane before they took flight. “Tom makes sure you feel comfortable with it, then he lets the instructors do what they need to do,” Davis said.
Still, he faced his own physical challenges while in the air taking g’s. In addition to g-forces distorting his face so much that it looked like the life in his body “drained out,” he struggled with motion sickness. Due to the camera setup, he could not look at the horizon to settle his stomach. “You have to look inside the cockpit — that makes you even sicker,” he said. Like his fellow onscreen pilots, Davis also praised Cruise for actively responding to the training questionnaires in hopes of improving the learning experience. “He’s like the greatest Yelp reviewer ever,” Davis said.
At CinemaCon, Powell explained that Cruise put together the training program so that his co-stars wouldn’t be puking or passing out in government assets. “Half the shots in this movie, I’m literally holding a bag of my puke,” he admitted, noting that pulling g’s was incredibly painful. “Every time we went up there you have to mentally brace for a fight,” he said. “You get on the ground and you’re exhausted. That’s what’s impressive about Tom. He’s flying more than anyone in the movie — he would fly three times a day.” Powell told The Ringer that breathing in the face masks for pilots required pushing out and sucking in air nearly to the point of hyperventilation. Cast members also had to learn to do a flexing maneuver to keep blood from rushing away from the brain and to the legs. But whenever the said maneuver was executed incorrectly? “You can see the tunnel start to close in and you’re like, ‘Oh no,’” Powell said. “You just try to keep pushing blood back in your head so you don’t black out.”
Still, with Cruise in the lead, the training program was inspiring to his younger co-stars. According to Powell, the seasoned actor gave “all the young guns” on the film an iPad with Ground School, which would allow them to study to become pilots in real life. “I started flying on my own, and Tom was with me every step of the way,” Powell said. “After I got my private pilot’s license, there was a note waiting for me on the ground from Tom that said, ‘Welcome to the Skies.’”