The first time Monica Barbaro watched Top Gun, she was in San Diego with a couple of “very bro-y dudes,” she recalls. “What do you mean you haven’t seen Top Gun?” they asked her when she wasn’t understanding their references to Miramar, the Marine Corps Air Station in which the film is set. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’”
Naturally, the group eased her confusion by watching the cult 1986 aviation flick, starring Tom Cruise in one of his most famous roles. And college-aged Barbaro, a trained dancer who was deciding whether to make the transition into acting at the time, was impressed. “I remember watching it and being like, ‘Oh man, it’d be cool to do something like that.’” But she wasn’t sure it was possible. “I just never really even put myself in it, because I never thought that there would be that space for me as a pilot.”
And yet, years later, she’s doing exactly that, as she stars in the film’s long-awaited sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, which finally opened this past weekend after two years of pandemic-related delays. She plays Natasha “Phoenix” Trace, a driven young pilot in the newest class of Top Gun recruits, all training for a dangerous mission under the guidance of daredevil Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise). Like Barbaro, Phoenix also finds herself among the bros in this male-dominated course, which, unsurprisingly, isn’t too different from real life. (Women make up about 21 percent of the Air Force and about 20 percent of the Navy, which houses Top Gun.) But she’s treated as an equal, not just a potential love interest, as she plays pool and beach volleyball with the crew, trades snide remarks, and competes for success like the rest of guys. She’s only one of a couple female pilots in Maverick, but that’s more than the original, which essentially had none. Barbaro, and members of the aviation community, hope this film can at least inspire more women to become pilots.
For Maverick’s 10-month shoot, which wrapped three years ago this month, art imitated life behind the scenes, as Cruise led his younger co-stars through a rigorous training program. The syllabus included flying in various planes and even underwater training (in case they had to eject from their aircrafts into water). But unlike Maverick and his students, this group got along swimmingly. “I think we were all pretty gung-ho and ready to do it,” Barbaro says. She and her fellow actors—including Miles Teller, Jay Ellis, Glen Powell, Danny Ramirez, and Lewis Pullman—grew closer because of it. “We formed some really intense bonds, because no one in our world was going through what we were going through.”
And all those flight scenes? They were real. “There were no simulators. We were in planes doing them.” Perhaps a few close-ups of someone flicking controls on the dashboard weren’t airborne, Barbaro clarifies, “But all of the flying that you see is in the air.” Of course, those speedy takeoffs, sharp turns, dips, and spins took some getting used to—for the actors and their stomachs. “I was very lucky to have not thrown up,” she laughs.
Barbaro, whose acting credits include The Good Cop, UnREAL, and Chicago P.D., will later star in an upcoming Netflix series with Arnold Schwarzenegger, though she never thought she’d become an action star. Turns out, she’s not even an adrenaline junkie, even if she plays one well on screen. If anything, she saw herself doing period pieces, after growing up watching British dramas and BBC Jane Austen specials. “I like being an actor because I get to change it up,” she says, leaving the door open for a potential period drama in the future. “That is what I love about this—that I get to totally steer in different directions.”
Her love for acting and film was fostered by her favorite titles growing up, like Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, Galaxy Quest, Charade, and Amélie. Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban also opened her eyes to (literal) movie magic. “I would love to escape life day in and day out and get to pretend to be in entirely different worlds for a living,’” she remembers thinking. With a growing resume like hers, who says she can’t?
Here, Barbaro talks Maverick, the women who took her under their wing, and having mentors like Cruise and Schwarzenegger.
What was your initial reaction to landing a part in Maverick?
I was super stoked because of the fact that I got to play a pilot. I told my mom immediately, and that my part in this classic action movie was not going to be that of a love interest; although, I will say, I think Jennifer Connelly is incredible in this, and I think she is strong, stands alone, is great at sailing, runs her own business. She’s the coolest. So I think every woman in this was in good hands, but it was cool to just be able to be a character whose purpose in each scene had to do with the other characters and had to do with the trajectory of the plot, not necessarily, just be a component to fall in love with or not. Her presence is just as valid as everyone else’s. Again, as is Jennifer Connelly’s.
The movie shows both sides.
Yeah, having one woman represent that for a character in the film, and then one woman representing being a co-worker and a fellow pilot and someone to be trusted and responsible.
Though the original movie is iconic, it’s very much a boys’ club, and that changes a little bit in the sequel.
Yeah. And I mean, the Kelly McGillis character [Charlie, Maverick’s instructor and love interest in Top Gun] was also smart and knew what she was talking about and went toe to toe with Maverick. But I think it just was a really different time. And I think they did a great job of maintaining genre and still updating it so that there was more diversity across the board, which was incredible.
It’s hard, because there’s also a lot of pressure with it. I’m sure there are still people out there who think women shouldn’t be flying these planes, and then you meet incredible women who are flying these planes, and you want to do them the honor of representing them in a way that showcases them to the best of your ability, because they are so incredible and they deserve the best representation possible. Some of them grew up having seen this movie, wanting to be fighter pilots sometimes because of it, despite the fact that there was no representation of them in this film. I have heard from people that are hoping [Top Gun: Maverick] helps more women realize that they can be pilots, even if they are commercial pilots or have their own license, or whatever that may mean, because I think we only make up nine percent of the aviation community, even though we’re half the population. I would hope it’s inspiring, but we’ll see.
Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures
Did you talk to any real-life women pilots or women in the community to prepare for the role?
I flew with them in the booth. I think there were maybe one or two flights where I flew with a guy. Pretty much all of the footage of me in the film up in the air, is being flown and piloted by [women]… And same with Lewis [Pullman, who plays Robert “Bob” Floyd] actually, because he plays my backseater. So, anything that was over the shoulder was of someone who looked like Phoenix from the back.
Lewis and I flew with two women in particular who I’m just a huge fan of. They came to the premiere with me last week, and it was just so exciting to have them there. That was the nice thing about seeing it three times—having them there, I was like, “Oh yeah, when we were flying in the snow, that was with Bacon and then that low-level flight was with Dragon”—those are their call signs. It was just fun. They were definite role models for me, and for the character for sure. And I got to talk to a lot of female aviators on the ground too.
What did you learn from them?
I think the main lesson that came out of me inquiring what it was like to be in a male-dominated field was that, I think they strive to get to a place where their gender is not what the commentary is about, because even I saw, just in the tiniest ways, as soon as I booked this, it was like, “Monica Barbaro will play a female pilot.” Like, well, no shit, I am a female. I’m not playing a female just as much as Glen Powell is not playing a male. You say he’s playing a pilot, so won’t you say the same for me?
And that was the energy, I think, behind what they were saying. They work really hard. Sometimes, they have to work twice as hard to prove themselves in these spaces. And then, ultimately, when it comes to being asked questions, it becomes more about the fact that they are female than about the fact that they are pilots. And yet, I think it was really important to them to have this character [Phoenix] be represented in a very specific way, that she’d be strong and competent at the very least, and just one of the guys that she flies with.
“I’m not playing a female just as much as Glen Powell is not playing a male. You say he’s playing a pilot, so won’t you say the same for me?”
The training program looked so intense. Can you fly a plane at this point? What were all the skills you were able to develop?
I mean, I was more scared for the water portion than I was for the flying. I did a lot of my own [stunts], holding my breath underwater and doing laps and strengthening as a swimmer, just so I would be comfortable. I think that taught me about my ability to get past fear in a really interesting way. I think I overcame things—that was really great.
In terms of the flying, I was just having a blast. I am halfway through ground school in becoming a pilot. I have taken this very slowly. I need to get back into it, but a project will come up and I dive into that. But I mean, I love it. We did learn how to start up a plane, take off, land, do all that. I mean, I wouldn’t trust myself in most emergency situations right now. I like to say in an apocalypse, if a plane had fuel in it, I would essentially know what to do to get out of a bad situation. But no, I definitely need some training to get back in and fly on my own. We did 40 hours of flights and we flew in several aircrafts. We’re all aviation nerds now. If I get to check out a cockpit, I take videos and send them to the other guys, because it’s just fun.
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Tom Cruise starred and also lead you through training. What was it like seeing him in action?
I mean, that was incredible. That was the most interesting thing I think about all of this, is that we got to watch him operate at the level that he always does. His expectations of everyone around him are through the roof, as they should be, because everyone is able to show up and do incredible things with that belief and trust in them. The way he designed this program for us, I think was based on having experiences where he has ramped up his stunts to an incredible degree and didn’t necessarily have the opportunity to do things the way he did for this on the first one.
And I think he saw that as a bit of a loss, and something that he really wanted to be able to achieve on the sequel was to do all of the stunts for real. And he very well could have put himself in a plane and then had us all on green screens on the ground. But he didn’t, he took us along and fought really hard to give us the opportunity to get to do things the way he does them, and that was awesome.
Looking ahead to your other projects, you have a Netflix series with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is also a huge blockbuster action star. Is there anything you can tell us about that?
It’s all very much under wraps because we’re filming right now. But it is super fun, and I’m really glad I’ve had this stunt experience in Top Gun to bring with me here, just to validate the expectation that you rehearse something a lot in order to get it right, to do on the day. That’s definitely the mentality of dance. … Last week, I was talking to Tom about [a] scene and asking him some questions and he was like, “Oh yeah, here’s what I know about things like that.” We can always reach out to him, which is incredible. And now I’m excited to use Arnold as a resource, because he’s obviously done so many things and he’s already done this action-comedy space, which is really specific and more of what we’re going forward with in the show. It’s supposed to be fun. I’m just excited to see it.
The two of them work so differently in their own ways and are great in their own right. It’s just really fun to get to see people you’ve been watching for so many years—to not only meet them, but to get to work with them and see what makes them tick and see how they operate.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Erica Gonzales is the Senior Culture Editor at ELLE.com, where she oversees coverage on TV, movies, music, books, and more.
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