If you’ve seen “Top Gun: Maverick” (and judging by the oversized Memorial Day weekend box office haul, you have), then you undoubtedly fell in love with Bob.
Played by Lewis Pullman, from the future cult classic “Bad Times at the El Royale” and Prime Video’s terrific series “Outer Range,” Bob is a weapon systems officer and recent graduate of the elite Top Gun Naval pilot training program. He’s quiet and unassuming with boxy 1970s glasses; to “dork” if you will. But he proves himself when he teams up with fellow pilot Phoenix (Monica Barbaro) for a top-secret mission. And who is their teacher for this highly specialized run? None other than Pete “Maverick” Mitchell himself, played once again, with mega-watt charisma, by Tom Cruise.
The Wrap spoke to Pullman about what it was like flying in these plans (including an unsanctioned skydiving trip he took to prepare), getting mentored by Tom Cruise and whether or not he’s finished his flight hours and gotten his pilot’s license.
What was your relationship with “Top Gun” before signing on to this?
Well, I grew up watching Westerns, I was kind of raised on Westerns. And so watching that movie was kind of a revelation for me, getting that VHS from Blockbuster and popping it in. Because I was like, Am I really going to be able to connect with this? This is a world I don’t really know much about. And because, until “Top Gun,” I think Navy pilots weren’t really highly featured in pop culture. I really connected with it, because it felt like gun slingers in the sky. They’re incredibly steely and cool and badass. And I was like, “Wow, maybe I’ve been watching the wrong genre.” But then you try and dig deeper and there’s nothing else, you know? It’s “Top Gun” or bust.
Can you talk about the process of getting the role? I imagine every single person in town was trying to be one of these pilots.
Can you talk about what that was like?
yeah. I was shooting a series called “Catch-22,” and it was all of us boys, which is a group of young boys, and we were all basically helping each other make tapes for “Top Gun.” It was a crew of wildly talented dudes, and it was just one of those things where it doesn’t make sense, but I ended up getting the role. But I had my buddy, Graham Patrick Martin, help me with the tape and we all helped each other with our tapes. And we were like, “Well, this would be cool, but it’s never going to happen.”
And then, a couple weeks later, I got a call saying, “Are you afraid of flying?” And I was like, “No. No, I fly commercially four times a month, I have no problem with it. I mean, turbulence is a little nerve-wracking, but it’s okay.” And that was pretty much the test. I think that they had a lot of confidence, as they should have had, in Tom Cruise’s flight training regimen that he had set up for us. He basically built this training program that, it didn’t matter where your starting point was, he knew, and he was confident that nobody really is as well-equipped in terms of what was needed for an actor to be able to go up in the sky and pull these G’s as Tom Cruise was. They were confident that they were going to get us from the bottom of the barrel up to the place that we needed to go.
There are stories that Tom offered paid for the rest of your flight training if you wanted it. Did you take him up on that offer?
I haven’t yet. No, man. And that’s a point of shame for me. I think Glen has already gotten his pilot’s license, and I think Monica and Jay are working on it, but I got to be more proactive. I think Tom would be disappointed in me.
Glen has said that 80% of his scenes, he’s acting while holding a bag of his own puke just off-camera. What was your experience?
Dude, it was like nothing I have ever done before and probably like nothing I’ll ever do again. It is so different from anything a normal pedestrian is used to experiencing. First of all, I was quite petrified in the beginning, because we moved from a Cessna to an Extra 300 and the Extra 300 is an aerobatic plane. It’s got a really short wingspan, single prop plane. And you can pull more G’s in that than you can in the F18. G’s themselves, it feels like you’re a marionette and all your strings are being pulled down to the center of the earth, and you just go from weighing 160 to weighing 800 pounds within the span of seconds.
That alone was wild. But then, spinning around just like you’re a fly in the toilet bowl being flushed down is something to get used to. I went and skydived on my own. I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want to worry about production, but I skydived, because I figured if I can jump out of a plane willingly, then I can sit in one and keep a little bit of a cool about the whole thing. And it worked.
Can you talk about building that camaraderie with Monica?
Yeah, that was easy. I mean, Monica Barbaro is just, not only an incredible actor, but she was, I think, the best pilot besides Tom, and besides the Top Gun, but she was the best of the recruits, and by far. She was just so cool and collected and calm and never got sick. I really looked up to her in a lot of ways.
And we all were a really good team, but Monica and I really connected right off the bat, because, in some ways, I think we unknowingly, for the first couple days of training, I was really quiet and I was like, “Why am I being so damn quiet?” I’m not a method actor, by any means. But I was also kind of curious as like, what does that feel like? Cause Bob is on the outskirts and keeps in the peripheries of everybody. He’s watching everybody engaging in everything. I was curious what that feels like. And Monica instantly broke that barrier down and was asking me all sorts of questions and we got real close, real fast. And she’s spectacular as Phoenix. It was pretty easy to connect with her off screen.
You all had to be your own cinematographers, directors, make-up people and everything while you were inside that cockpit. What was like for you?
It was pretty high pressure, but we couldn’t have been better prepared. Tom is the master at figuring out and unlocking something that he hasn’t been done before, and breaking it down and making it so that something that feels impossible is all of a sudden achievable, because he breaks it down into small digestible pieces. Then, all of a sudden, it feels very accessible and very like, “Okay, I actually think I can do this.” Where when you’re looking at it from the start from afar, you’re like, “I might get fired. This is crazy. I’m not a pilot. I can maybe do a dramatic scene, but I’ve watched plenty of Tom Cruise movies and there’s not a chance I can do what he does.”
It’s all true. You know, we had to man the cameras, we had to do our own make-up and props and basically work together with the Top Gun pilot to make sure that our continuity was going to work for the double-seater plans. You have to be at the same part of the same valley, or whatever run you’re doing at the time, so that you can cut interchangeably between me and Monica, and we’re in the same place and the sun is in the same place. It always has to be between like two and three o’clock, it can’t be at 12 o’clock, otherwise you get the shadow of the camera on your face and then that’s scrapped.
And airtime is incredibly valuable. And as well as Top Gun pilot time, you’re on their time. And the Navy’s still trying to protect our country, while also helping us make a movie. You have an hour-and-a-half at most in the cockpit to get all these scenes that you need to do. It was just a run and gun. And we would do these long briefings before and after each flight, where, because we couldn’t have a monitor going, so Joe Kosinski couldn’t be like watching the takes and being like, “That was good. Try it again, more like this.” You had to judge your own takes. And basically that was, in some ways, the most nerve-wracking because, as an actor you’re always like, “I can do it better. I think maybe just one more take.”
But when you’re on a clock like that, you just have to give it your all. And in some ways, I do think Tom Cruise is one of the most unsung method actors, because what he’s doing up there is so incredibly real, and that’s why the audience feels like they’re in the cockpit. There was a period where I think Tom was joking about releasing a different version of “Top Gun.” That was because there’s a lot of footage that was almost too disorienting, that it was going to maybe make audience members sick. And he was like, “I kind of want to release ‘Top Gun Maverick: Can You Handle It’ with puke bags in the front of the seat and a different edit,” and I kind of still I’m holding out hope for that .
Everybody who works with Cruise always talks having to get on his level of enthusiasm and commitment. And this feels like the kind of ultimate expression of that, from everything you’re saying, in terms of physically being able to kind of match him.
I mean, I never felt like there was a moment where I was maybe going to be able to match him, but it was a great point of reference to try and get there. He would sometimes do three flights a day and come down and then go work out in his trailer. And I didn’t understand that because I would finish a flight and then go get an In-N-Out burger and pass out for like five hours in the cab of my truck.
But then there’s this thing of, he has a really good eye for knowing what people are capable of beyond what they think they’re capable of. I think he saw in me and a lot of the other pilots, like maybe they have a little bit of fear, maybe they have a little bit of hesitation about this, but I know, and I can see, that they’re capable of Este. And when he looks at you and he’s confident in that, there’s some mojo there that really fills up the tank. And I wouldn’t have been able to do it without that.
It all happened a couple years ago, so I’ve been kind of trying to run through my mental videotapes and remember some moments. And there’s this great moment where they built this thing called a buck, which was basically like the cockpit of an F18, but it was all wooden so that we could rehearse what we were doing, so that when we got up there, there was no question as to what the safety protocols were, what the energy and enthusiasm and dynamics were going to look like in the scene itself.
And I remember this moment where I was in this little box, and Tom Cruise was outside the box, and he was walking me through the whole procedure. And then he was giving me pointers on the scene, because it’s a static frame, so you have to fill up the frame with a lot of motion in order to make it dynamic. And he was giving me pointers, he was taking the time, one of the busiest dudes in the whole world was taking the time to basically give me a masterclass. And it was also this moment of like, I’m in a wooden box and I’m getting help from Tom Cruise. It was almost like going back to the sandbox, in terms of like, you get to be a child again, and you get to re-access your imagination in a whole new way. And he really extremely made that the pathway to that place exciting and just felt like we were paving new territory.
“Top Gun: Maverick” is now playing exclusively in theaters.