'Top Gun: Maverick' star Jay Ellis on earning his character's call sign in real life and his biggest takeaway from working with Tom Cruise

·8 min read
Jay Ellis giving a thumbs up in a plane cockpit
Jay Ellis as Ruben "Payback" Fitch in "Top Gun: Maverick."Paramount
  • Jay Ellis spoke to Insider about starring in the blockbuster "Top Gun: Maverick."

  • He recalled the late night out with costars that resulted in them living up to their pilot call signs.

  • Ellis is currently the host of Smithsonian Channel's "How Did They Build That?"

How have you spent your summer? We're pretty certain Jay Ellis has got you beat.

For seven weeks, the actor toured the world to do press for the hit movie "Top Gun: Maverick." From the famed red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival to getting applause from thousands in Seoul, South Korea, Ellis has gone from being known as Lawrence from HBO's "Insecure" to hot-shot pilot Ruben "Payback" Fitch in the biggest movie of the year.

Ellis talked to Insider about the highlights of the press tour, getting married in Italy, hanging out with castmates Monica Barbaro, Lewis Pullman, and Miles Teller, and passing Tom Cruise a script he's developing with "Maverick" costar Glen Powell.

The cast and crew of Top Gun Maverick on the steps at the Cannes Film Festival
(L-R) Glen Powell, Jay Ellis, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Tom Cruise, Joseph Kosinski, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Jon Hamm at the Cannes Film Festival.Laurent Koffel/Gamma Rapho/Getty

From successfully not falling down the famous stairs at Cannes to getting a wedding gift from Tom Cruise, Ellis has had quite the summer

You basically spent your summer on a press tour for "Top Gun: Maverick," going from Cannes to South Korea. What stands out from this experience you were just on?

Man, there's so much there. I don't even know if I've fully processed it all, to be honest with you. Though it was over the course of six or seven weeks, it feels like it happened so fast. And every experience topped itself.

We started with a premiere in San Diego on an aircraft carrier where Tom landed in a helicopter! [Laughs.] Then we got on a plane early one morning and flew to Cannes and walked that red carpet. It felt like 55 million photographers were yelling at us. We walked up those stairs and each of us was like, "I hope I'm not the one who falls, don't let it be me."

You guys did it real slick. 

I appreciate it. We all came together and supported each other and said we weren't going to fall.

And Jay, on top of all that, you go and get married to Serbian actress Nina Seničar. Congrats!

That was kind of the cherry on the sundae. It was in Italy and was this three-year process trying to figure out due to COVID. We thought it would be maybe 100-150 people and 200 people showed up to party with us.

Did Tom Cruise give you guys a nice wedding gift?

Tom did give us a very nice gift.

Can you reveal what it was?

No, I don't want to. But he gave us a very nice gift. Neither one of us was expecting it at all. It was hand delivered the day before the wedding. We opened it the night of the wedding after we partied and all I will say is it was a his-and-hers thing. That's what I'll say.

Glen Powell in a cream jacket standing next to Jay Ellis in a red jacket
(L-R) Glen Powell and Jay Ellis at the 2022 MTV Movie & TV Awards.Jeff Kravitz/Getty

Ellis passed Tom Cruise a script he and Glen Powell are developing

I'm curious, when you have that amount of time with a group that includes major players like Jerry Bruckheimer, director Joseph Kosinski, and Tom Cruise, is there ever a moment when you can grab one of those guys and pitch them a project you want to do?

[Laughs.] What is really great about all those guys, and Christopher McQuarrie as well, they were so open to us coming to them with scripts and ideas.

I mean, after we shot "Top Gun" I directed an episode of "Insecure" and I remember when I first got the script, the first person I texted was Christopher McQuarrie and asked him, "How would you shoot a thing like this?" And he immediately texted me back, and this is while he was prepping "Mission: Impossible 7" in London.

And Tom has read a project Glen Powell and I are doing together. They all have been insanely supportive, it's been really cool.

That's great because to not at least try to plug yourself in with those guys would be crazy on your part.

You have got to shoot your shot.

Monica Barbaro, Lewis Pullman, and Jay Ellis standing around Miles Teller at a piano
(L-R) Monica Barbaro, Lewis Pullman, Miles Teller, and Jay Ellis had fun off screen, too.Paramount

Ellis said a late night with the cast led to them living up to their pilot call signs in the movie

So what is the backstory of your call sign in the movie, Payback?

I went into Joe's office after I read the script and I was like, "Payback, huh!" and he was like, "Do you like it?" And I was like, "I think I do." And he basically told everyone, "If you want to come up with new call signs, let me know." When we all heard that, we all felt this is my way to make my mark on the movie.

But honestly, we found out that we were the call signs given to us.

We all took a trip to Nevada, where Top Gun is based, to do a culture trip, meet pilots, and experience the place. It's me, Monica, Lewis, Glen, and Miles.

We go out with all the officers. Lewis doesn't speak to us the entire night. He was a total B.O.B. We were like, "Is he being method?" He told us later he was just really nervous.

Monica was going to prove she could hang with everyone that night and then literally rose from the ashes like a phoenix the next day.

And there was a moment in the night when I got Lewis' phone, I told him my phone had died, and he gave it to me. Now, in the Navy, if you set your phone on a bar you have to buy drinks for the entire bar.

Oh, so what happened to Maverick in the movie is a real thing?

That's a real thing. I put Lewis' phone on the bar, and the bartender rings the bell. There are like 100 people in there that got a free beer. So ultimately I had to pay him back the tab he paid for.

And Glen, as the Hangman, in the middle of the night, just disappeared. He just went back to his hotel room. Didn't tell anyone. That was our first night together and we all earned our call signs that night.

Miles Teller shirtless with sunglasses on smiling on a beach
Miles Teller in "Top Gun: Maverick."Paramount

Ellis isn't mad you can't see him shirtless in the beach football scene

I noticed something the second time I watched the movie: you don't get a glam shot in the beach football scene. Everyone basically gets a single shot showing off their bodies except you. Does that piss you off?

No! I remember the first time I saw that and I was like, "Huh. Wait! What?" But then I had this moment where I realized I've spent the last 6-7 years butt naked on TV. I'm happy for people to recognize me in my clothes. It's a new thing for me.

But I will also say, I realized I look better than all of them shirtless. What can I say? [Laughs.]

They realized that in the edit and decided it was just too much to show you shirtless.

I don't want to embarrass the biggest movie star in the world! It wouldn't be fair to Tom. And Miles and Glen. Any of them. [Laughs.]

But honestly, it didn't bug me because it was the first time I was like, I'm not a piece of meat after all.

Tom Cruise with his arm around Jay Ellis and pointing at him
(L-R) Tom Cruise and Jay Ellis at the "Top Gun: Maverick" premiere in South Korea.Chung Sung-Jun/Getty

Observing Tom Cruise's work ethic has rubbed off on how Ellis has approached projects since 'Top Gun'

You are currently the host of Smithsonian Channel's "How Did They Build That?" I noticed you have an instagram account dedicated to pictures you take of beautiful sights you come across in your travels. I'm guessing you didn't have to think long to agree to do this show.

They reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in hosting and I'm not sure if they knew how much I love architecture and how much traveling I do, but for me, I was 100% into it.

My dad was in the Air Force so we traveled a ton while I was growing up and, as an adult, I've had the opportunity to travel.

So what stood out working with Tom Cruise that will stay with you going forward in your career?

So much of my experience on "How Did They Built That?" was influenced by what I saw with Tom and that's dedicating yourself 100% to the thing you're doing and being a student of that thing. And he did that every day on set.

We would be in the middle of shooting "Top Gun" and he would talk about how he saw a scene last night in a movie he watched and described it in insane detail. You realize he's in the middle of making "Top Gun" but he's taking time every night to be a student and watch films. That is something that I've carried with me.

I shot another season of "Insecure" after that, I shot "Mrs. America," and "How Did They Built That?," every single thing that I've done I've poured 100% of myself into it while I'm doing it, and not spread myself too thin or lost focus. Hopefully, it shows in the work.

"Top Gun: Maverick" is currently playing in theaters. Season 2 of "How Did They Build That?" airs on the Smithsonian Channel.

Read the original article on Insider