How Top Gun: Maverick star Monica Barbaro developed a pilot's swagger (2024)

As Top Gun: Maverick enters its second weekend in theaters, after giving Tom Cruise the biggest box office opening of his career, some of the conversation around the film is shifting to the performances from the ensemble of gifted young actors who surround Cruise. One of those stars is Monica Barbaro, who plays “Phoenix,” one of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell’s trainees. Barbaro—who had demonstrated versatility in small-screen roles on the Lifetime dramatic series Unreal, NBC’s Chicago Justice, and ABC’s Splitting Up Together—stands out in the film because of her thoughtful, understated authority.

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As Phoenix, Barbaro represents a vital but often forgotten segment of service women who excel alongside their male counterparts. She spoke to The A.V. Club about her role, and the responsibility she and the filmmakers shouldered, to make this female character a true equal among peers. Barbaro also revealed the paces that Cruise and director Joe Kosinski put the cast through to give them the confidence—down to their walk to and from the planes—to play pilots, and talked about what she hopes to tackle next.


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Does Top Gun: Maverick have its sight set on the Oscars?

The A.V. Club: Your character, Phoenix, is the sole female pilot in the group. What kind of responsibility does that carry?


Monica Barbaro: Yeah, it was such an interesting challenge. I thought it was necessary, and I think we all thought it was necessary to represent women in some specific way where every woman in the world feels represented by this one character—and ultimately we realized that’s absolutely impossible. And then you start to look at it like, no, she’s a character. She’s another naval aviator amongst this group. And I was lucky to have some incredible pilots to learn from in that respect. And I asked them those questions and they said the same thing—“We’re just striving for the day when we’re not female aviators, but we’re just aviators.” And everybody in our production team, Tom [Cruise], Joe [Kosinski], Jerry [Bruckheimer], me, the Navy, everyone cared immensely about having her be shown as a strong, capable pilot who you would trust with your life.


That was made easy [through] the actual pilots that I met who were definitely the kinds of people that we sourced a lot of information to develop this character with. And also just the relationships she has with different people, like her very strong, loyal relationship with Rooster, where she expects the most out of him. And meeting Bob and not necessarily trusting him at first, and then they build a really good bond where they start to stick up for each other. And her feelings on Maverick are like, “Ha ha, who is this guy?” But then immediately being like, “Oh, no, he’s going to give us everything we need to get this done.” So those became the things that I focused on.

How Top Gun: Maverick star Monica Barbaro developed a pilot's swagger (1)


AVC: Typically in male-dominated environments we see tough female characters sometimes overcompensating. But there’s a confidence in your performance that’s really fun to watch. You seem to make her an equal as opposed to a competitor.

MB: You’re absolutely right. That was something in the first pass of the script, and in the audition I did, more of that overcompensation look—and it was very fun to play. It’s very outside of who I am, so it was fun. But it also just didn’t feel authentic to the character or to the women that I met and I was flying with. And so hats off to again the production team to be like, we want her to look like someone who just knows she’s really good and her competitive level is the same as the guys’. Like it’s not overt. It’s not aggressive in some way that she thinks she has to be, just to get by. She just knows she’s really, really good at this this thing. She just stands tall because of it.


AVC: You’ve talked about some of the relationships, between you and Rooster, for example. How explicit were those in the script?

MB: We always were told that the backstory of Rooster and Phoenix is that they were in flight school together. She’s known him for a really long time. I think they’re both the kind of people who don’t push in terms of they’re more humble about their abilities, and they formed a bond really early because I think it was pretty clear they could trust each other. And somewhere along the way, they met Hangman, who they discovered pretty quickly that they could not trust. And that means the world to a pilot. Having each other’s back means everything when you’re up there and you know that you guys can support each other.


AVC: All of the actors in the film do a great job conveying a sense of self-assuredness. How difficult was it to develop that sense of confidence, in and out of the co*ckpit?

MB: Well, it started by receiving this incredible gift as an actor from Tom, which was this all-encompassing flight training program. He sort of gave us backstory in that we spent all this time learning how to fly a basic aircraft, takeoffs, landings, all of that, the lingo. We moved on to an aircraft that was doing aerobatics and we sustained G’s and learned not to pass out and all that during maneuvers. So we would practice maneuvers that would be in the script, like I learned what a split ‘S’ was, which is something he pulls in the first movie—and, like, did one. And then we got to dogfight in L-39s. So by the time we got to the jet, we had a lot of information and we knew what these things sort of felt like. And that was worth its weight in gold. I mean, we had to re-film the scene where we’re walking into the bar, because apparently we started walking differently everywhere we went after we had done all of this. It just gets into your body in a way that changes you and gives you a real sense of swagger, a pep in your step. So that was sort of fed to us very organically through learning as much as possible what these guys do for a living. And it was designed after the naval aviation training courses. I mean, they do it a little bit differently, obviously, but it wasn’t that dissimilar. We told [our real-life counterparts] what we did, and they were like, “Oh yeah, that’s how you learn to do what we do, eventually.” So we were able to bring that with us in our performance, which helps.

AVC: Did you ever expect that you would be taking on a role like this?

MB: I never expected that I would ever have the opportunity to play a fighter pilot. If you’d asked me, I would have been, like, “Yeah, let’s do it!” But I never expected to be handed this opportunity. And when I saw the first movie, I remember being like, “Oh, I’d love to be in a movie like that—but I never thought it could be as a pilot.” And it’s nothing like anything I’ve ever played. I had a conversation with Joe at the beginning right after I was cast, where he was like, “I’ve watched all your material and this isn’t like anything you’ve ever done.” But we went through it in the audition process and I think as an actor, each character you play can be a certain side of yourself, and in terms of humans and how we operate, we’re capable of doing all kinds of things, good and bad. It’s just about what we choose. So not to say an actor who plays an evil character is that person, of course, but maybe they had the opportunity to be that person and chose not to. So I think in this sense, it was something that was within me, or some portion of it was. And I got to just absorb the world around me and bring her out to the best of my ability.


AVC: I’m a huge fan of your work on Unreal. What kind of roles are you looking for in the future?

MB: I have been really lucky to be able to design my career after finding roles that are really different from the last thing I played. So I right now I’m in production for a spy series on Netflix, which as an actor is just a goldmine because you not only get to play one character, but you get to play a character playing seven different characters, as she goes undercover and as she lives her cover life. So that’s a lot of fun, and also it involves a lot of stunts. The back-and-forth between maybe doing something that’s more, I don’t know, classically masculine, and then doing something that’s more stereotypically feminine, I just get to do that dance a lot, which is really, really fun for me. I would love to do a classic period piece after this. But I’m always just looking to to do something different.

How Top Gun: Maverick star Monica Barbaro developed a pilot's swagger (2024)


How Top Gun: Maverick star Monica Barbaro developed a pilot's swagger? ›

Barbaro said she and her co-stars began their training by learning to pilot a Cessna 172 Skyhawk. Once she got comfortable with the Cessna, she moved on to flying in an Extra 300, a two-seat aerobatic monoplane, with stunt pilot Chuck Coleman at the helm.

Does Monica Barbaro have a pilot's license? ›

Monica didn't just fly the odd jet for the role; she became a certified pilot following 40 hours of intense training and nearly 10 months of filming.

Did real pilots fly in Top Gun: Maverick? ›

The Top Gun: Maverick CGI use was minimal, and since most of Top Gun 2 was real the other cast members also flew in their jets just like Cruise. However, none of the Top Gun: Maverick cast flew the jets by themselves. All the cast member's jets were piloted by trained Navy pilots for their aerial sequences.

How did they film the fighter pilot scenes in Top Gun: Maverick? ›

Rather than shooting with a green screen and in flight simulators, Kosinski, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and producer/actor Tom Cruise (ace aviator Pete “Maverick” Mitchell) wanted to capture all the action from inside the co*ckpit of an F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet, with the actors strapped on board IRL for the wild ...

Who actually flew the planes in Top Gun: Maverick? ›

Frank “Walleye” Weisser, USN (Ret), transformed himself from a teenage aspiring SEAL at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., into a world-class stunt pilot who flew Tom Cruise's fighter jet in the 2022 blockbuster Top Gun: Maverick.

How real is the flying in Top Gun: Maverick? ›

The stunts in Top Gun: Maverick are definitely real, with the film minimizing the use of CGI for a more authentic experience. The cast members, including Tom Cruise and Miles Teller, were not mere passengers but actively involved in the filming process, although they did not pilot the jets themselves.

Who is the most feared pilot? ›

Erich Alfred Hartmann (19 April 1922 – 20 September 1993) was a German fighter pilot during World War II and the most successful fighter ace in the history of aerial warfare. He flew 1,404 combat missions and participated in aerial combat on 825 separate occasions.

Are there female top gun pilots in real life? ›

In honor of Veterans and Remembrance Day (November 11), Parsons' employee resource group for military veterans, spouses, family members, and allies hosted a conversation with CMDR Rebecca Calder, who was the first woman pilot to graduate from the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) in 2004.

How do I become a Pilatus pilot? ›

To become a Pilatus pilot, you need training, certification, and skills for flying a single engine plane. Employers' minimum qualifications include specific flights hours requirements and industry-specific certificates, licensure, and training.

Can Tom Cruise fly an F-18? ›

Cruise originally wanted to fly a real Boeing F-18 fighter jet in the film, but the US Navy denied his request due to insurance concerns and the high cost of the plane. Cruise's dedication to doing his own stunts enhances the storytelling and creates a level of authenticity that can't be achieved in any other way.

Can Tom Cruise fly a fighter jet in real life? ›

Unfortunately, no. Even though Tom Cruise performed many of the action scenes himself in Top Gun 2, he is not qualified to pilot a military aircraft, according to the U.S. Navy.

Is Mach 10 possible? ›

Mach is a unit commonly used in aviation to describe an object's speed relative to sound. Mach 10 is a feat that has been previously accomplished by a manless aircraft called X-43A, developed by NASA as an experimental aircraft to test hypersonic speeds.

Are Iceman and Hangman related? ›

While it is possible Iceman makes this request because of Goose's son instead, it seems far more likely that Iceman made this decision due to Hangman being his own flesh and blood. Hangman being Iceman's son perfectly explains nearly every element of Top Gun: Maverick's plot and surrounding secrecy.

Did they fly a real F-14 in Maverick? ›

All the F/A-18 Super Hornets used in the film are authentic, and with them, the flying scenes are also legitimate. However, the SU-57 Felons and F-14 Tomcats are CGI.

Did the cast of Maverick actually fly? ›

To quickly answer this question: Yes, Cruise and his co-stars really did fly planes for Top Gun: Maverick. But what is interesting is how much work and thought went into the incredible flying sequences. Begin your day with a curated outlook of top news around the world and why it matters.

Are there any female top gun pilots? ›

In honor of Veterans and Remembrance Day (November 11), Parsons' employee resource group for military veterans, spouses, family members, and allies hosted a conversation with CMDR Rebecca Calder, who was the first woman pilot to graduate from the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) in 2004.

Who is the first female to fly a plane? ›

On 8 March 1910, Frenchwoman Elise Deroche (1882-1919), alias Baroness Raymonde de Laroche, became the world's first woman pilot to earn an airplane pilot licence; she received the 36th aeroplane pilot's licence issued by the Aeroclub de France, the world's first organization to issue pilot licences.

What celebrities fly their own plane? ›

Some well-known celebrities who frequently use private jets include Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, Jay-Z, and Beyonce. Private jets offer several advantages over commercial flights, including more privacy, greater flexibility, and often better customer service.

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