‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Star Jennifer Connelly Discusses Joy of Reuniting With Director Joseph Kosinski and Tom Cruise Making Her Feel Like a Kid Again

Jennifer Connelly has been acting professionally for nearly 40 years, and even she has never experienced anything quite like Top Gun: Maverick.

In the legacy sequel to Tony Scott’s Top Gun (1986), Connelly reunites with her Only the Brave director, Joseph Kosinski, as she plays Penny Benjamin, a former flame of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise). Penny, who’s now a single mother and bar owner, was actually mentioned twice in the original film, indicating that her flings with Maverick ended rather dramatically.

Since the two characters reconnect in Maverick, Connelly and Cruise got to spend various days at sea and in the sky, the latter of which was rather eventful as Cruise piloted a P-51 Mustang.

“When the cockpit was open, [Tom Cruise] started the engine and flames burst out. I tried to act really cool, but after a little bit, I couldn’t resist asking if that was normal. And evidently, it was. With another pilot, I might have been more distracted by safety concerns, but I couldn’t have had more trust in Tom,” Connelly tells The Hollywood Reporter.

In the process, Cruise helped Connelly conquer her long-time fear of flying. “He’s just so darn cool, and suddenly, it was like being a kid again. ‘Oh my god, the cool kid is talking to me. Don’t mention that you’re afraid of flying.’ So it was kind of like that. His example is quite inspiring,” Connelly shares.

In a recent conversation with THR, Connelly also broke down their sailing sequence and why it needed to be reshot in San Francisco.

So you worked with Joe Kosinski on Only the Brave. Did he basically call you one day and float the idea of Top Gun: Maverick?

Yes, Joe Kosinski called me and said, “Hey, I have this idea.” And I was thrilled that he called me to work together again because I had such a great time working with him [on Only the Brave]. I think he’s a great director. And then he said, “It’s about Top Gun,” which I was really flattered by. So then he said, “Let me send you the script,” and I read it and was so impressed by it. I thought it was a really compelling story and that they had come up with such a good idea for a sequel. So that’s what happened, and I was all in.

Had you and Tom crossed paths over the years? 

No! I then went and had a meeting with Tom, and that was the first time I met him. It was meant to happen on this movie, I guess.

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Jennifer Connelly Plays Penny Benjamin and Tom Cruise Plays Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in Top Gun: Maverick From Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Your character, Penny Benjamin, was referenced a couple times in Top Gun. She had a fling of sorts with Maverick, and it didn’t end particularly well. How much did you flesh out as far as their history?

Yeah, I think that they had a few flings that didn’t pan out particularly well in the years between. We talked about their backstory and what that history might have been. I really enjoyed the way Penny was written, but during the rehearsal process, there definitely were conversations about adjustments and revisions to the scenes. But the spirit of her character, from the first draft I read, was there on the page.  

Well, I love how she shows him her world on the water, and then he shows her his world in the air. So, can you first tell me about the day the two of you went out on her boat?

We actually shot that sequence twice. I don’t know if I’m supposed to reveal that, but there you go. We shot it for the first time in San Diego, and the weather was so calm. It was very tranquil, actually. We had a lovely day. I think we saw dolphins, actually. The boat wasn’t moving that fast, but it was a beautiful day out on the water. And then a decision was made that it wasn’t exhilarating enough and that it would be fun to see Penny taking charge of a boat that was moving at a good clip and had a little more athletic sailing. So we went up to San Francisco where we’d have more reliable wind and shot that again. So that was definitely an exhilarating experience. 

And then, at a certain point, Penny goes flying with Maverick. What was that day like for you?

There were extensive safety protocols and briefings that happened first. The idea was to capture sunrise, so it was a very early day. We were ready to be up in the air by sunrise, and then I got in the plane with Tom, who was the pilot. When the cockpit was open, he started the engine and flames burst out. I tried to act really cool, but after a little bit, I couldn’t resist asking if that was normal. (Laughs.) And evidently, it was. I have to say it was so beautiful. With another pilot, I might have been more distracted by safety concerns, but I couldn’t have had more trust in Tom. He’s so skilled at everything he does, and I was able to just enjoy the experience, which was pretty extraordinary.

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Jennifer Connelly in Top Gun: Maverick From Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.
Courtesy of PARAMOUNT PICTURES

Some of his co-stars have said that he has this unique ability to inspire them to try things that they wouldn’t have previously considered, such as motorcycle riding and skydiving. Did you feel that at all?

Well, it’s not because he’s coercive. He’s just so darn cool, and suddenly, it was like being a kid again. “Oh my god, the cool kid is talking to me. Don’t mention that you’re afraid of flying.” (Laughs.) So it was kind of like that. His example is quite inspiring.

How did the motorcycle ride stack up against the days spent sailing and flying?

It was all fun! Every day was fun. Every day on this movie was an extraordinary experience. Even being here in San Diego and doing press, everything is on a different scale. Tom is in the business of making everything extraordinary, so everything was. That scene on the motorcycle wasn’t just riding on a motorcycle. We were on the coast with a view of the water, at sunset, with perfect light. Everything felt amplified.

Having a premiere on an aircraft carrier is definitely extraordinary.

Yeah, that’s a new one for sure. None of us have been on a press tour of any kind in a long time, so it’s nice to be out and about and traveling again. And the prospect of being able to bring this movie into movie theaters is also incredibly exciting.

Do you recall seeing Top Gun for the first time?

I don’t remember the exact moment, to be honest with you, but I remember the flying, Tom on his motorcycle with the aviators, and what a charismatic character he had created. And of course, I remember the songs that got stuck in my head and never left.

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Jennifer Connelly Plays Penny Benjamin in Top Gun: Maverick From Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Decades from now, when you reminisce about the making of Maverick, is there a day you’ll probably think of first?

I think it was the whole experience. There were so many beautiful days and locations. Filming on the beach in San Diego was great. It was really good fun being able to witness this iteration of the beach volleyball scene. Penny also has a pretty cool car, so I loved shooting that scene. It was all great, honestly. In addition, it just meant a lot to me that Joe came back to me and asked me to work with him again on this project. I just felt really appreciative of that, and I really enjoyed that experience.

Out of curiosity, are you now on Tom’s December cake list? [Writer’s Note: Every December, Cruise sends out a bevy of white chocolate coconut bundt cakes from Doan’s Bakery to close friends and collaborators.]

I did receive a cake! It was a very nice cake. Did you get a cake!?

Me!? I’m just a journalist.

(Laughs.) Well, he’s a very generous person. How many cakes does he send out? 

It’s been said that he sent out 300 of them to the latest Mission: Impossible crew, but you’re still part of a very distinguished list.

(Laughs.) Well, it was a lovely cake, and the family enjoyed it very much.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Top Gun: Maverick opens in theaters on May 27.

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