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Tom Cruise and Jennifer Connelly in Top Gun Maverick

Photo: Paramount Pictures

Tom Cruise wanted to do barrel rolls. That’s one of the more singular moments Jennifer Connelly can remember about her time on Top Gun: Maverick, the long-awaited sequel to the 1986 classic. The opportunity to go flying with her legendary co-star had come about because Maverick features one of those classic movie moments. You know the type: a pair of old flames consider rekindling their romance as their single-engine aircraft drifts above the clouds and a lonely stretch of the Mojave Desert. Perhaps you’ve even seen something similar, with movie stars in front of green screens making eyes as they vanish into the wide blue yonder.

But in Top Gun: Maverick, they’re doing it for real as Cruise’s glorified biplane rises above the weather, and Connelly as his wingman in the backseat looks out in astonishment at the horizon.

“He did pilot the plane,” Connelly says with a hint of fondness on the surreal moment, “and it’s a very small plane, so it’s just the two of us in there and it was an amazing experience. He’s so good at so many things, and of course he was also an excellent pilot, so I was able to just sort of relax and enjoy that extraordinary experience while knowing that he was flying.”

According to the Oscar-winning actress, the pair took off as the sun rose, soaring across the skies for nearly three hours. Initially, Cruise even pushed to do those barrel rolls with Connelly in the backseat, but unfortunately Top Gun: Maverick director Joseph Kosinski’s cameras—even from the noses and exteriors of U.S. Navy jets—couldn’t capture the face of Cruise’s passenger when they tested out the sequence with a stuntwoman. Nonetheless, Cruise was still able to show off some of his flashier aerial moves with his co-star onscreen.

“We did do some aerobatic maneuvers,” Connelly explains, referring to the type of flight paths with unusual altitudes and extreme changes, which are used for everything from actual dogfight maneuvers to stunt flying at air shows. “We did passes underneath the jet that was filming us, formation flying, that kind of thing.”

She adds, “We were flying over the tops of canyons, and it was pretty beautiful. We took off at dawn, and it’s beautiful being out in the desert with that view, especially at sunrise.”

The sequence occurs late in the decades-long romance that’s been on-again and off-again between Cruise’s Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and Connelly’s Penny Benjamin. Indeed, while Connelly’s character was not seen in the original 1986 picture where Maverick had an affair with his TOPGUN instructor Charlie Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), Penny was mentioned. She’s even the old romance that friend Carole Bradshaw (Meg Ryan) brings up to tease Maverick in front of Charlie in that first film.

Says Connelly, “I think it’s really fun she’s a character that’s mentioned in the original movie, so you understand they have a lot of history when he walks into her bar.”

Connelly herself can remember some of that history too, having been a teenager in New York City when she saw Top Gun during the summer of ’86.

“I think Tom created such a standout character and was so charismatic, was so iconic,” says Connelly. “He created a character that everyone’s been waiting to see again, so that made a huge impact on me as well, and also the flying sequences, I had never seen anything like that before.”

When it came time to do her own flying alongside Cruise, it could certainly feel surreal. Yet part of the appeal of joining the actor on Top Gun: Maverick was also making a mainstream entertainment that felt refreshingly grounded—a blockbuster that dug into adult characters with adult concerns, including seeing a guy you last talked to maybe 15 years ago stroll back into your bar like he owns the place.

“I speak from Penny’s point-of-view,” Connelly says, “but I think she clearly has a lot of affection for Maverick. Yet she also has a very deep understanding of him. I think she’s someone who wants to live a good and happy life, and as much as she adores him, she’s not going to let him derail her, because they clearly had some common issues in the past, and it’s never stuck before.”

The characters’ reunion also occurs in one of those postcard perfect spots: a watering hole on a San Diego beach for Navy servicemen and women. But while the SoCal beach is real, the bar is not—much to the chagrin of nearby locals, military and otherwise.

“We filmed on the base, actually,” Connelly says. “The bar was actually built for the film, and while spending time here filming, a number of locals told me that they were campaigning to have it stay after the filming, to not let them tear it down because it was such a great, beautiful spot.” She adds with a chuckle, “I don’t think they won that campaign.”

Still, with those always reliable San Diego sunsets catching Maverick and Penny’s rendezvouses at what looks like an eternal happy hour, Connelly and Cruise were able to indulge in some old-fashioned playfulness and flirting. And an especially playful touch occurs in Connelly’s first scene when David Bowie is heard crooning on the jukebox in the back.

When we mention this apparent easter egg to Connelly’s own ‘80s classic, Labyrinth (1986), in which she starred opposite the Starman himself, she admits she was as surprised by the song choice as we were.

Says Connelly, “You know someone else had pointed that out to me and I hadn’t even noticed it! I have no insight into that, but I love that. I loved working with David Bowie and he is one of my favorite artists of all-time.”

But much like Cruise and his high-flying alter-ego, that kind of talent never goes out of style.

Top Gun: Maverick opens in theaters on Friday, May 27.