Glen Powell first learned the story of naval fighter pilots Tom Hudner and Jesse Brown upon reading Adam Makos’ 2017 book “Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice.” It set the “Hidden Figures” and “Top Gun: Maverick” actor on a path to make “Devotion,” hitting theaters Nov. 23. Powell not only stars as Hudner but is a producer on the film, having spent years bringing the project to fruition. Set during the Korean War, the film also stars Jonathan Majors as Brown, who was the first Black aviator in the U.S. Navy and a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Were you surprised when you heard the story of “Devotion”? I was not familiar with Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner prior to this film.
I was the same. I first read the book about four years ago. Reading it, I remember thinking that it was incredible that I’d never heard this story before. It felt like when I read “Hidden Figures” for the first time and was like: “Is this actually true? This is incredible, why haven’t I heard it before?”
This film has a great director, J.D. Dillard. How did you find him?
We were interviewing different directors and it just wasn’t falling into place. We couldn’t find the right person. And then J.D. Dillard walks in the room and it was like the heavens opened. His dad was the second African American Blue Angel. He’s got this fascination with aviation. And he’s a really emotional filmmaker who understood all the intricate feeling of what this movie is and how this movie could breathe in a way that’s authentic and not fall into easy tropes.
That’s one of the things I love about this film – it was constantly surprising me by avoiding or subverting what I expected.
That was the hard part, there are so many tropes to navigate. So many things we’ve seen before. And as we developed this thing we kept really trying to go, “What’s the honest story here?” You could just totally see the movie being paint by numbers. And I feel like everybody involved with this movie just wanted authenticity.
You see that care in characters like Daisy, Jesse’s wife, played by Christina Jackson. In some movies that would be a two-dimensional role, but she is so well-drawn and a compelling figure in her own right.
Right, and the way she approached that character was so wonderful. It’s such a unique relationship that truly grounded them, and she really does become the heartbeat of the movie. It’s such a crucial character. We looked at so many people for that role, many more established people. But it was just obvious that she has such a special quality and she has such humanity.
Of course we have to talk about Jonathan Majors, who plays Jesse Brown.
Obviously, Jonathan Majors is going to be on the Mount Rushmore of great actors of our generation. I had just seen “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” and I was like, “This is the guy. We have to get him.” He read and liked the script, and I flew to New York to meet him. I remember getting a nervous call from the producers saying, “Hey, Jonathan wants to meet you at a Russian bathhouse. Is that okay?” I was like, “Sure. I will sell him on this movie in a Russian bath.” It’s funny to meet someone where you’re basically naked and pitching them. But we were there for hours and we came out great friends.
Why do you think you connected so strongly with this story?
I try to look at what the emotional collective is, like where we are as a people. I remember thinking about how people seem to be passive in terms of the way they’re friends. You’re not putting skin in the game. You support them to a degree but it only goes so far. So it was kind of on my head and heart, this idea of how to be a great friend. And how far we’re willing to go for each other. And when I read this, I thought it felt unbelievably timeless, especially as we are going kind of through this weird moment as a country where we’re trying to define who we are in the greater picture of things. And that’s where we were post World War II, the United States had this incredible moment where he beat the ultimate bad guy, but we’re trying to define how we’re going to be an ally and a wingman to the rest of the world. And that’s what the Korean War was about. And that’s what this friendship was about. This was seven years ago and it was so topical even then.
Then J.D. and I had some conversations early 2020, about race and all the things that were happening, and how to be a good friend. How to support someone. And I felt very uncomfortable in the fact that I wanted to be a friend, and I wanted to be an ally and I didn’t know what was being perceived as being real, or what was being perceived as obligatory. It’s this confusing feeling of I want to be a good friend to people and not knowing how to do it. And that frustration was where a lot of this kind of was marinated and rolled and shaped, you know, that was sort of emotional clay on the table that we eventually put into this movie.
You were involved in the casting of this movie. Was this your first time being on the other side of casting?
I’d read with people before. I read with a bunch of people for “Set It Up,” so I’d been on the other side of that. Originally, I was doing it with Emilia Clarke but she went on to do “Solo” and we had to find a new Harper. But this was the first time I was a credited producer. That I brought something from start to finish. And there was a different level of pressure every day on this one in the fact that when you’ve met the man you’re playing, you’ve gotten his rights and made promises to his family … I’d never been so immersed in an experience in my whole life. And I don’t know if I ever will. I mean, this is four years of truly feeling like I was with that man spiritually. And I’m in constant communication with his family, even now.
Since you brought up “Set It Up,” I’m always shouting about how I don’t understand why people haven’t thrown all this money at you and Zoey Deutch to do six more movies together, or at least a sequel.
Well, you know, keep shouting. I had the best time making that movie and I love Zoey and Katie Silverman and Claire Scanlon so much, nothing would stop me from getting back in the trenches with them.
You ended up in “Top Gun: Maverick” in the role of Hangman, though you originally auditioned for the role of Rooster. When the casting announcement was made that Miles Teller was playing Rooster, you posted a joking tweet that went viral about taking down all the Tom Cruise posters in your bedroom. Did you know at that point you would still be in the movie in another role?
No. That moment was when I had a sense of humor about it before I got really sad about it. I literally remember getting the call because my friend was over at my house. It was a few days after the audition and I felt really good about it and Joe Kosinski called and said, “Hey you know we’re going with Miles.” I was like, “Okay, you guys will make a great movie. I appreciate the opportunity.” My friend had taken a picture of me thinking I was going to get the role. So I was sitting on the balcony by myself in an American flag tank top in aviators…it was so sad on so many levels.
So within an hour the press had gotten a hold of Miles’ casting and it was everywhere. So I made a joke, I said, “I’ll just say something silly and funny.” Then the sadness hit the next day, so I’m really glad I got that tweet out before that. Then the experience of Tom Cruise calling me and pitching me this whole other thing and the back and forth with him and Jerry Bruckheimer and Joe Kosinksi and Chris McQuarrie happened and I’m so glad it did.
I wondered if maybe they saw it and made them laugh and actually helped you land the role.
You never know! In hindsight it’s weird when you think back on what little things you were unaware of if that changed the course of your life. I didn’t even think about it at the time but you never know. I’m really glad I tweeted it, whether it got me the job or not!
Things you didn’t know about Glen Powell
Hometown: Austin, TX
Dream gig: Hosting “Saturday Night Live” — a show he grew up with and “was sort of the love language of my family.”
Up next: Reteaming with his “Everybody Wants Some!!” director Richard Linklater on “Hitman”