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‘Top Gun: Maverick’ star Jennifer Connelly reveals how Tom Cruise helped her get over fear of flying

‘If it weren’t for Tom being the pilot, I think that would have been very frightening,’ Oscar winner says of going airborne with action star

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Jennifer Connelly wasn’t about to admit her fear of flying to Tom Cruise as the action star asked her to take to the skies with him inside a vintage P-51.

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“I pretended to be cool, but I was so scared,” Connelly, 51, says laughing in a video chat.

For Top Gun: Maverick, a follow-up 36 years in the making, Connelly plays Penny Benjamin, a love interest for Cruise’s Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell. She’s a character that’s referenced in the 1986 original and someone Connelly says was supposed to stay earthbound in the sequel.

“No, I was not supposed to be in the air!” the Oscar winner exclaims.

But Connelly, who isn’t someone who likes to fly, found the experience of letting Cruise pilot her around the California skies strangely calming. “It was therapeutic to do what for me felt like extreme flying and just enjoy it,” she admits.

Directed by Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy), Maverick (which hits theatres this Friday) finds Mitchell training a detachment of Navy pilots for a specialized mission to destroy a uranium plant in a heavily guarded secret bunker. The assignment brings him into contact with “Rooster” (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s late friend “Goose” (originally played by Anthony Edwards).

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Along with guiding his new trainees, Cruise flew real fighter jets for the film, with six IMAX cameras capturing the action inside the cockpit.

“You just can’t create this kind of experience unless you shoot it live,” Cruise says in a behind-the-scenes video. “You can’t act that, the distortion in the face. They’re pulling seven-and-a-half, eight Gs — that’s 1,600 pounds of force.”

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But in between his high-flying training sessions, Mitchell also walks back into the life of Penny, his former paramour, a middle-aged single mother who now owns a watering hole popular with Air Force pilots. Their reunion is tinged with regret and a kind of bittersweet sentimentality that comes with the passage of time. The quiet moments the two characters with a bruised history share are atypical of a big-action blockbuster and a far cry from the frenzied romance Cruise enjoyed with the original film’s Kelly McGillis.

“I loved her as a character,” Connelly says of Penny. “I appreciated how she was written.”

Jennifer Connelly and Tom Cruise in a scene from Top Gun: Maverick.
Jennifer Connelly and Tom Cruise in a scene from Top Gun: Maverick. Photo by Paramount Pictures

The film also stars Jon Hamm, Glen Powell, Danny Ramirez, Jay Ellis, Monica Barbaro, Ed Harris and Val Kilmer, reprising his role as “Iceman.”

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The same 1986 summer that Top Gun released, a 15-year-old Connelly appeared in the fantasy Labyrinth opposite David Bowie, a breakout part that she fondly remembers as being like “a wonderland.” But her memory of Cruise’s Top Gun was that it was something larger than life.

“It was a huge phenomenon,” the mother of three recalls. “That soundtrack was everywhere, and to this day when I hear any of those songs, they get stuck in my head. Those flying sequences, I had never seen anything like that before. I was just so impressed by it. And, of course, Tom’s character is so iconic.”

On a recent Sunday morning from London, Connelly spoke more about taking to the skies with Cruise and being a part of a more adult romance.

I read that you are scared of flying. How did Tom help you get over that fear?

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“It’s a very special experience being in a plane like that. It’s a P-51 vintage plane and you have a different kind of exposure. It’s narrow and the top of the cockpit is brushing the top my head. It’s a glass bubble that you’re in and you really feel like you’re in the air in a different kind of way. If it weren’t for Tom being the pilot, I think that would have been very frightening for someone like me, who isn’t a huge fan of flying.”

Tom Cruise and Jennifer Connelly attend the Royal Film Performance and UK Premiere of Top Gun: Maverick at Leicester Square on May 19, 2022 in London, England.
Tom Cruise and Jennifer Connelly attend the Royal Film Performance and UK Premiere of Top Gun: Maverick at Leicester Square on May 19, 2022 in London, England. Photo by Eamonn M. McCormack/ /Getty Images for Paramount Pictures

So you didn’t know you were going to be up in the air?

“There was a scene in that plane on the tarmac and we were shooting that scene and Tom was talking to me about acrobatic flying and asking me if I had done any and he started pushing this line of questioning and I asked him, ‘Is there going to be any acrobatic flying in my future?’ And he said, ‘It’ll be really graceful.’ The other day he said to me, ‘I heard you were afraid of flying, how come you didn’t tell me?’ And I said, ‘Of course I’m not going to tell you — you’re Tom Cruise. I’m trying to be a little bit cool.’ ”

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I don’t want to use the words “grown up,” but the romance between Pete and Penny has some real lived-in moments. What was it like to lean into that aspect?

“I liked it. I thought it was an interesting choice in the way that it was separating itself from the romance in the original Top Gun movie. These are people who have known each other for decades and who know each other really well and have this long history. I thought it was an interesting choice and it affords a different kind of intimacy. That was surprising and I really liked it.”

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Jennifer Connelly in a scene from Top Gun: Maverick.
Jennifer Connelly in a scene from Top Gun: Maverick. Photo by Paramount Pictures

You also get out on the water in one scene and you have to pilot a boat in what looked like some pretty choppy waters.

“We filmed that scene in San Francisco, which is famously very windy, but we were going fast through the water and there was the spray and waves and we were at — what seemed to me — an impossible angle.”

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Did you have to learn how to sail?

“Yes, I took lessons in New York Harbour, which is an interesting place to learn to sail. I was also taking lessons in Vancouver when I was there shooting Snowpiercer.”

I love the Lady Gaga song that closes the movie. What did you think of the choice to have her sing Hold My Hand?

“It was amazing. I think that people associated the original Top Gun with the soundtrack, so it felt really important to have something that would also become really iconic. She’s such a legend.”

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The pilots in Top Gun all have nicknames, but Penny doesn’t. Have you ever had a nickname in real life?

“I had one once when I was in college. I went out for the cross-country running team because I really wanted to play a sport. I thought, ‘I run and I’m pretty stubborn, so maybe I can will myself to be on the team.’ So I tried out and they let me on — but they never let me compete. I suspected they let me on as a mascot (laughs). But I was on the roster and everyone had nicknames, and my nickname was Death Grip. I think it’s because I was the slowest, but I was so determined to stay in there.”

When you were making Maverick, did you ever take a moment to pause and look at Tom — and Val Kilmer — and think how cool it is that you are all still here making movies and entertaining people after so many years?

“Honestly, I think that all the time when I’m making movies. Sometimes people will say, ‘Isn’t it a struggle?’ But honestly, I’m grateful I’m still here (laughs). It’s a great job and I love what I do.”

Top Gun: Maverick opens in theatres Friday, May 27.

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