Despite the optics of shirtless volleyball games and locker room sparring, you can’t make a “Top Gun” movie without a strong and emotionally centered woman. For “Top Gun: Maverick,” a sequel 36 years in the making, the successor to the original film’s Kelly McGillis is Jennifer Connelly. She plays Penny Benjamin, a character referenced in the first film, and love interest to Tom Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. Playing a single mom who owns an Air Force watering hole, Connelly brings new dimensions to an ’80s classic.
It’s hard to believe you haven’t worked with Tom Cruise before.
I had never even met Tom Cruise before. He’s so exceptional. Spending time with him, you understand how someone has been such a movie star for so many years. It was clear to me what the franchise means to him, so I felt beholden to him, [producer] Jerry Bruckheimer and the audiences who love the film so much.
Your character isn’t active military. Does that mean you were spared the grittier action scenes?
I have a sailing scene, and it was a very distracting environment. We were on a boat shooting up in San Francisco; it was incredibly windy, with big waves. The boat was at an impossible angle, moving so fast, and we had to play the scene at the same time. I was so paranoid that I was going to forget something with all those distractions. I found myself standing on the coffee table in my living room, practicing with my kids spraying water at me and blowing on me while I ran my lines. I have video of it.
You have a love scene in this, which is not something we see often from Cruise at this stage in his career.
We focused on the intimacy of how they fit into each other’s lives. I think those characters have a really tender relationship, the way she understands him. They share a moment in bed chatting, and it tells as much about their relationship as the scene that is the preamble to that. Clearly, they have some unresolved business between them, and she navigates that with humor and playfulness. I feel like she’s someone who is positive and is moving toward happiness.
Did you go Method for this? Were you on set making drinks?
We had a working beer tap on set, and I spent a lot of time pouring. I practiced a lot because I thought that would be a terrible giveaway if I couldn’t do it properly.
If you had a “Top Gun” pilot nickname, what would it be?
I do have a nickname, but from way back when I was in college. I run, but casually. I thought, “I’d love to be on a team, but I don’t play sports.” I am really stubborn and determined, so I thought maybe I could will myself to run really fast. In retrospect, I was more of a mascot. I never competed, and I was the slowest on the team. My nickname on the roster was Death Grip.
Similar to “Top Gun,” a lot of the work you’ve done has cultural staying power, like “Labyrinth.”
Yes, wow. I was 14 when I made that movie. I attribute that staying power so much to Jim Henson — those exquisite, huge practical sets. It was a wonderland. And, of course, David Bowie. So all of those elements: amazing sets, puppets and Bowie.
Things you didn’t know about Jennifer Connelly
Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Head of class: Attended Yale and Stanford universities, studying English literature and drama, respectively.
Man on the street: The movie most people approach Connelly about is not her David Bowie romp “Labyrinth” or the awards player “Little Children” from Todd Field. “‘Requiem for a Dream’ is a big one,” she says. “That movie had a profound impact on people.”