Exclusive: Tom Cruise Talks Making 'Top Gun: Maverick' in a New PEOPLE Special Edition

"I wanted it to be a love letter to aviation," Cruise tells PEOPLE of his plan to shoot the sequel's extreme flying in real life. Says Top Gun: Maverick's Navy advisor: "Everyone thought he was crazy"

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It's been 36 years since the need-for-speed blockbuster Top Gun not only made Tom Cruise a global action star, but also inspired him to become a licensed pilot off-screen. His passion for flight grew over the past three decades and by the time he started talking seriously about putting Capt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell's signature sunglasses back on, he had decided the sequel should "be a love letter to aviation," Cruise tells PEOPLE in a new all-Top Gun special edition. He intended Top Gun: Maverick, which opens May 24, to far exceed what the first movie had, back when the actors shot their closeups in cutaway cockpits on a soundstage in Burbank. In other words: He wanted to film inside the F-18 fighter jets, while doing the flying for real.

"Everybody thought he was crazy," says Capt. Brian "Ferg" Ferguson, Maverick's Navy aerial adviser, who joined the production believing that "it probably would have looked almost as good if you would have done it using [special effects] technology." One reason the idea seemed if not crazy then certainly challenging, was that Cruise's new co-stars would have to deliver in-flight performances without blacking out from intense gravitational force or vomiting mid-scene. Fortunately, acting under conditions normally experienced only by fighter pilots is something Top Gun's star was uniquely qualified to teach. (Cruise will tell you with some pride that he hasn't hurled in a plane since his first ride in an F-14 jet at the start of making Top Gun.)

Monica Barbaro and Tom Cruise on the set of Top Gun: Maverick
Monica Barbaro and Tom Cruise prepping for a scene in "Top Gun: Maverick". Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films

This new film finds Maverick three decades after his graduation from the TOPGUN Naval aviation program, when he is called back as an instructor for the elite fliers. Among his young charges is Lt. Bradley "Rooster" Bradshaw, the son of his late best friend, Goose (Anthony Edwards in the first movie). Miles Teller, who plays Rooster, was among the actors cast as new class of pilots. He and the others began to get an idea of what they were in for when producers asked early on: "Do you get sick on roller coasters?" Cruise, too, did his best to warn them. "I was very clear in the beginning: 'This is what it's going to be like. It's not for everyone,'" he says. "I want people to enjoy the experience. 'If you don't want be involved, totally, I understand.'""

"Tom set up the exact course that he wished he had on the first one," says Lewis Pullman (who plays the flier with the least flashy nickname: "Bob"). Says Cruise, "I had to teach them how to first fly in a single engine Cessna. Then I put them in an airplane where they could do some aerobatics. Then a jet where they could pull serious Gs and feel what it's like with an ejector seat. The first day they're in the F-18, they're filming."

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At least one actor, Danny Ramirez ("Fanboy") had exaggerated his comfort level during casting. "You had sign a paper basically saying you weren't [afraid to fly], and I was like, 'Well, I'm definitely terrified of being in the air, but I can't pass up on this.'" Another, Greg Tarzan Davis ("Coyote") arrived without knowing how to swim well. He says taught himself using YouTube tutorials in order to get through the safety protocols, which included preparing to eject over the ocean if necessary. "It was a boot-camp mentality," says the film's director, Joseph Kosinski, of the months-long training process. "Nothing brings people together like group suffering."


"My first flight was probably the most terrifying, in a little Cessna," says Jay Ellis ("Payback"), who went up with co-star Glen Powell ("Hangman"). "Our flight instructor was like, 'Okay, you take over.' I was like, 'You want me to fly the plane? We're, like, 20,000 ft. up.' I look over, and Glen is like, 'Don't look at me! Fly the plane, man.' That was the most anxiety I had the entire time. From there, you realize, 'Oh, I got this, this was great.'"

Not everyone took to the high-velocity experience. Three weeks in, Pullman says, "I remember thinking, 'I'm going to be fired. This is grueling. I can't imagine getting through a 50-second scene without puking.' " But he kept at it, aiming for the two-month mark that Cruise had predicted would make the difference. "One of the most thrilling experiences was six weeks in, realizing 'I can do this!'" says Pullman. "Something I thought was out of the realm of possibility, all of a sudden became not only possible but was incredibly empowering."

To be clear: Nobody is putting civilians at the controls of a $67.4 million military jet. (Not even Cruise, who operates his own vintage prop plane in the film.) But the actors still needed to appear as if they were in command. "Pulling Gs is not comfortable, it requires a certain clenching of the body so that you don't pass out," says Monica Barbaro ("Phoenix"). "To do that while focusing on character is not easy." And there was a lot to remember. "The pilot is in the front seat; we're in the back," explains Teller. "If the pilot pulls this stick left and then I pull the stick left even a half a second after that, that's not going to look right. The plane's moving before I'm moving. So you really need to get in sync."

Danny Ramirez, Glen Powell, Monica Barbaro, director Joseph Kosinski, and Lewis Pullman on the set of "Top Gun: Maverick.". PARAMOUNT PICTURES, SKYDANCE AND JERRY BRUCKHEIMER FILMS

Cruise's solution? "I built a wooden mock-up of the F-18, where the pilot was sitting in one place and the actor in the other. I had them work together." Meanwhile he was helping the the real pilots understand that, although they are never on-camera, they, too, were giving a performance. "I take them through the story so that they can get the jet to behave a particular way," he explains. "I had to teach them about cinematography . . . here's the moment that we're going for, here's the lines."

When it was time to shoot, "we went to the great lengths to find the wildest, most visual terrain as you could possibly imagine, the most dynamic aircraft moves we can put on-camera," says Maverick's aerial coordinator Kevin LaRosa. "The dogfight scenes, the low-level, air-to-ground attack scenes—we're really out there with two or three aircraft and a camera jet or helicopter capturing these."

"There will be speculation that, 'Well, there's no way an actor was in that airplane at 50 ft., inverted, going over the ridge at 580 mph at seven Gs.' But there was!" says Capt. Ferguson. While he thought initially they might be wiser to go with special effects, he confirms: "Every time you see an actor in an airplane, there is an actor in an airplane." (The director adds: "The only time we use visual effects are maneuvers that we felt had a safety consideration," says Kosinski.)

But Cruise still had more to share with his co-stars, when the training was over and the cameras turned off. "There were times after we were wrapped for the day, we would spend an hour circled around him, listening to the stories that he's been through," says Greg Tarzan Davis. It was more than tips on acting or on navigating the industry. Adds Pullman: "Every one of the pilots has a story of him talking about what he thinks is great about them, what they can do with that quality. He teaches you, basically, how Tom Cruise became Tom Cruise."

Additional reporting by Eileen Finan and Erik Forrest Jackson

PEOPLE's new TOP GUN special edition from which this article was excerpted, is available now wherever magazines are sold.

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