Monica Barbaro was sitting in her childhood bedroom, in San Francisco, when she found out she had been cast in Top Gun: Maverick, the long-awaited sequel to the 1986 movie. Landing a role in the film felt so out of reach that she hadn’t even told her mother she was up for the part of Lieutenant Natasha “Phoenix” Trace.
The audition process for the film was private, too. Like the original film, which focused on daredevil pilots training at the Navy’s elite fighter weapons school (known as Top Gun), the big-budget, all-action sequel was to star Tom Cruise.“The film had a code name when it first came into my e-mail: ‘Island Plaza,’” says Barbaro.
For weeks, the part of Phoenix—the sole female fighter pilot among the high-testosterone male recruits somersaulting in Tomcat fighter jets—had been all Barbaro could think about. During one round of auditions, she caught a glimpse of Phoenix’s helmet. “I was like, ‘Oh, no, no, no, you can’t do this to me because now I really, really want this role.’” To ease her anxiety, Barbaro asked her agents to start all phone conversations with the disclaimer that they weren’t calling about Top Gun.
The day she heard about the role, “I was at my mom’s house just trying not to think about the film. I noticed I had all these missed calls, and then there was a text that was like, ‘Please, please call us back. It’s not about Top Gun.’” When Barbaro called her agents back, “the first thing they said was ‘You booked Top Gun.’”
“I don’t even remember how we got off the phone,” Barbaro sats. “I was screaming upstairs, and my mom was like ‘Is everything O.K.?’ And then a pipe broke!”
The film had a code name when it first came into Monica Barbaro’s e-mail: Island Plaza.
Barbaro, 32, wasn’t even born when audiences met naval pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) and his rival turned ally, Lieutenant Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), 36 years ago. She first watched Top Gun in 2009, while studying at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, after she told a “shocked” group of friends that she had never seen it before.
The film stuck with her. A few years later, when Barbaro was starting out as an actress, she often found herself running through Top Gun scenes in her head. “I remember thinking it would be so cool to be a part of something like that. It’s like a time capsule for a decade, for a generation,” she says. “I just never thought my place in that puzzle would be to be a pilot!”
Fast-forward to 2018. Production for the sequel didn’t use greenscreens or C.G.I. To prepare for 10 grueling months of shooting, which was filled with countless stunts in real F-18 fighter jets, the actors went through a flight-training program. As a former dancer, Barbaro is no rookie when it comes to testing the thresholds of pain. But the athleticism required for Top Gun was something else entirely.
“Up in the air, smooshed inside a cockpit, your face distorts… The blood rushes to your toes because it’s also being pulled by gravity,” says Barbaro. “And you have to breathe in a certain way to essentially keep the blood in your brain so that you don’t pass out.”
Instead of a handbook, the rookie pilots had Tom Cruise to teach them. “We filled out these reports after every flight,” explains Barbaro of the meticulous record-keeping system used to monitor their progress. “He would read them every night and come to us the next day and congratulate us on a new breakthrough or give us resources we’d asked for.”
Phoenix isn’t the only new character in the sequel. Barbaro’s co-stars include Miles Teller, who plays a young pilot, Jennifer Connelly, cast as Cruise’s love interest, and Jon Hamm as a square-jawed authoritative admiral.
“You just show up and you’re around this group and immediately you understand that you have to rise to the occasion,” she says. “Tom is just someone who sees the potential in you and brings that out of you, even if you don’t think you’re capable of something.”
Cruise was just 24 years old when the first film premiered and solidified his status as a movie star. With the release of Top Gun: Maverick, Barbaro is stepping into the spotlight.
Top Gun: Maverick is in theaters now
Bridget Arsenault is the London Editor for AIR MAIL