For Jay Ellis, 'Top Gun: Maverick' Was a Full Circle Moment

CUL PS JAY ELLIS
Actor Jay Ellis poses for a portrait at the 22nd Annual American Black Film Festival at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel, Florida. J.Countess/Contour/Getty

"It was like a film school, a flight school, a master class, all wrapped into this cockpit."

For Jay Ellis, being cast in Top Gun: Maverick (May 24) was a "full circle" moment. "I grew up in the service, so for me, it is a world that I recognize." In fact, Ellis' dad was a mechanic in the Air Force. But even a childhood spent around massive jets didn't lessen Ellis' excitement about getting to actually fly in the jets he had admired. "I feel like a kid in a candy store, and I'm literally eating all of the candy every single day." The experience of filming the sequel to the 1986 Tom Cruise classic "was like a film school, a flight school, a master class, all wrapped into this cockpit." Beyond acting, the actors operated cameras and equipment while in the cockpit with an experienced pilot. "There were times where I would get in there and fully forget that I had to act because I was just so enamored with every single thing around me. It was insane." For Ellis, he's most proud of how it was "insanely important to Tom" to accurately depict the diverse aviation community. "Representation matters and seeing yourself on screen matters. When you see it, you believe it."

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What was it like working around planes of that magnitude?

My dad was in the Air Force when I was a kid and there were a lot of days where I would get sent home from school. I would ultimately have to go hang out in a hangar with my dad, who was a mechanic, while he worked on all these jets. And I just remember looking at them. They're so big and lean and powerful. I remember thinking, oh, this was the coolest thing possible. I think I was even getting in trouble in school to be sent to go to my dad's hangar and have to watch him work. And then full circle, you find out about the audition, then you book the movie and you find out you're going to be flying. I remember we pulled on to North Island and right behind this hangar we were shooting at was like F-18s, all Super Hornets, all lined up. Every single one of us lost it. Like, "Oh my god, they're real!" We're touching them and rubbing our hands down the side of them. It was amazing. I feel like a kid in a candy store and I'm literally eating all of the candy every single day.

What was it like to not just see the jets but fly in them?

The whole process starts like two hours before you even get into flight. We would do these briefs before the flight where we would talk about what we need to act, what any given actor needed to capture for their flight, what direction the sun needed to be in, the maneuvers they needed to be doing, we would do a big safety meeting. Then we would get in this wooden thing that we call a buck which was like a small wooden cockpit and we would rehearse with our pilot for the scenes that we had to go up there and do. From there, you're thrown in a van sent across the tarmac, you go into PR shop, which is where these pilots keep all their gear, their helmets, they get dressed and then they walk out to the jets, they hop in, you crawl up the ladder and you're like, yes, we're about to go, let's do this baby, we're about to take off, I'm about to be a pilot, and you sit there for like 45 minutes. [laughs] And it's like all these safety communications checks just to make sure you can get up in the air. And the ground crews are amazing, which you kind of lose sight of because you're just thinking about the flying, but all the people it takes to make this beautiful machine get up in the air and do all the amazing things that it does and support this pilot. So then finally, you're pushed to the end of the runway, and then it is just like, I mean it's a rocket, just literally flying down the runway, pops up in the air, you pull a couple Gs and you just feel you're in this cockpit wrapped around you, your adrenaline is going, you're excited, you're scared and you also have all these cameras in front of you that you have to operate. You don't want to mess that up. But there were times where I would get in there and fully forget that I had to act because I was just so enamored with every single thing around me. It was insane.

What was it like acting while flying? Not many actors can say they've done that.

[Only] seven actors have done it, and we are of those seven actors. Most actors, you just stand in front of the camera, you hit your mark, you say a line, you're connected, somebody calls cut, you move on to the next thing, right? This is you're up there operating the cameras, you're clapping your hands for sound sync for the sound department, you're checking your level of sweat and your makeup and making sure you look good, then you got your mask and your visor to make sure they're in the right place and any other props that may be in there with you. Then you gotta say some lines. By the way, you have to tell your pilot to pull a maneuver on this specific line, I need you to dive and then take us into a barrel, roll or pull up and take us into a barrel roll or whatever it may be. You are telling someone who has spent their entire life training to fly this jet how to fly their jet, so you can capture what you need to capture for the movie. And they're so gracious with it, and they love it. They're like, "Yeah, I got you, no problem." And you're getting tossed around at the same time. There's nothing you can do to prepare for it, except go through the Tom Cruise school of flight. That's literally the only way because of the way he trained us. We started out literally just getting comfortable in the air and then all of a sudden it was the endurance of being able to pull Gs. And then we have to add in performance and we have to add in this technical stuff in terms of making a film with the cameras and all the other things around you. So it was like a film school, a flight school, a master class, all wrapped into this cockpit.

What was it like working with Tom Cruise?

I'll never forget when we started, Tom said, "My hope is that you guys learn to love aviation the same way I love aviation." And I think every single one of us can say how much we love and appreciate aviation, and the folks who fly us around the world every single day, and the folks who fly in our military and our Armed Forces every single day. When we started the movie, we overheard that Tom was flying his plane from across the country. This dude flew his own plane by himself across the country in like a day. We were going to then use that same plane in the movie at some point. We were like, wait, what? He just never stops learning. It's inspiring. You really see how much he loves going to work every single day and making great stuff but also giving people the space to be great.

Did the original Top Gun have an impact on you?

Yeah, for sure, because my dad was in the Air Force. I remember the first time I saw the movie, I was like 8 or 9 years old and we saw it in a theater on base in Austin, Texas. And the theater was packed and you have all these families in there. So many people who support the aviation community and pilots were in there watching that film and you could feel like everybody fist pump at the same time, you hear the gasp when the guys eject, you see the tears when you find out Goose passes. There was this community experience that was happening in the theater. I just remember thinking I want to do that, like whatever that is, I'm trying to do that. That is where I want to be. That is what I want to be doing. And I hoped to do it in a Top Gun movie. And all these years later to actually experience it feels crazy. It is wild. Tony Scott [director of the 1986 Top Gun] created such a beautiful movie about a world we knew nothing about. And here we are, all these years later, paying homage to that movie while also bringing it into where we are now.

How do you think Top Gun: Maverick is different from the original?

One of my favorite things about this film, two of my favorite things, actually, one is the opening. Because it is an homage. It is obviously a song that a lot of people know and immediately connect to this film. So there's the nostalgia of that, and that connection to what Tony created in that original and Joe [Kosinski, director of Top Gun: Maverick] did such a beautiful job honoring that and paying homage to that. But then, Tom always says, it took him this long to make this movie, because technology wasn't where he wanted it to be to be able to make it. Actors getting in jets wouldn't have been done at the time. So it took a while to get there. And here we are. Now is the right time to make this movie. The diversity. A beautiful thing we are showing, again, I grew up in the service, so for me, it is a world that I recognize. You see so many different people from so many different backgrounds. And then also like having Phoenix as a character in this film played by Monica [Barbaro], who is as equally amazing and a kickass character representing women and holding it down for the ladies is also amazing. We're literally creating what it is like to film a movie in a jet pulling Gs going hundreds of miles an hour, in real time, because it's never been done before and it may never be done again. That is something audiences, new and old, are going to see and I think immediately be blown away by how well it was captured.

You're right about the diversity, representation matters. What do you think young people who are possibly considering going into service will take away from this film?

Representation matters and seeing yourself on screen matters. When you see it, you believe it, and it was something that was insanely important to Tom and something that was insanely important to Jerry. They stay true to that all the way through and made sure that there was a seat at the table for everyone. To know that there's a generation of younger folks who will watch this movie and be inspired to take up flight, join the Navy, become pilots, commercial, armed forces, whatever it may be, it's mind-blowing. It is all you could hope for. It's the gift that film gives us, and my heart is warm, I don't even know how to explain it. It's just an amazing theme and it's an amazing responsibility that I think none of us take lightly. We all respect it and protect it and understand it.

Naval aviation officers use call signs. Were you ever given one or did you come up with one for yourself?

I don't know if we could ever beat any of the call signs they actually use because they typically come out of some embarrassing incident that these folks have had in their life and then goes to this review board where everybody just starts throwing out names and the one that you react the most negatively to is the one that you were going to be called for the rest of your life. A lot of these folks call each other their call sign whether they're in uniform or out of uniform, retired, still active, no matter what. So I don't think we could ever beat any of the names that they came up with for themselves. But we definitely tossed around names for us. I called Lewis [Pullman] "Ralph" for a little bit because he had an issue keeping his breakfast down every time he flew. We called Monica "Marlboro" just as a nickname for Monica. And she was just like a pack of cigarettes. She was just cool. You know what I mean? Somebody called me "Cheeks" for a while, which I did not appreciate. They tried to make fun of me because they said my butt ate up the entire flight suit when I stood up. I didn't really appreciate that. [laughs]

Listen to H. Alan Scott's full conversation with Jay Ellis on Newsweek's Parting Shot podcast this Friday. Available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Twitter: @HAlanScott