Monica Barbaro was visiting college friends in their hometown of San Diego when, while driving through Miramar, they started reciting popular quotes from Top Gun. (Note: The coastal California city, also known as Fightertown, was the setting for the 1986 film.) In that moment, Barbaro felt a bit on the outs. “What is that?” she said to the group, replaying the moment for us over a Zoom call back in April. Perplexed by the fact that she had never seen the beloved Tom Cruise–led action flick, her friends staged an impromptu screening. At the time, Barbaro was at a crossroads. The NYU grad was well on her way to a professional career in dance, but deep down, she knew she wanted to be an actor. “I remember processing all of that and being like, ‘Damn, I would love to do a movie like this,’” she said.
Fast-forward to today, Barbaro is making the press rounds for Top Gun: Maverick, the much-anticipated sequel in which she stars as Phoenix, the sole female fighter pilot among a new class of recruits. The actress can’t help but laugh at the irony of the situation. The full-circle moment is the stuff of great Hollywood stories.
While dancing was long at the forefront for Barbaro, she discovered her love of acting around 12 in the seventh grade. Shakespeare was mandatory at her school, and it was a subject she threw herself into completely. Then, there was the Nutcracker performance that changed everything. She was cast as the younger brother, Fritz, much to her dismay, but the role opened her up to the joys of playing someone very different from herself. “I just remember feeling so alive and so excited and just so ready to be somebody else for a minute,” she told us. “It was just a moment where I realized that acting was maybe more interesting to me than dancing.” Too nervous to admit it to anyone around her, she hatched a plan. She would go to NYU for its dance program, but once there, she would start submitting for acting projects.
Barbaro has since made her mark on television shows like UnReal and The Good Cop. On hiatus from a recent project, her agents approached her about the opportunity to audition for Top Gun: Maverick. It had the code name Island Plaza, and the script, according to the actress, was “insane.” For the record, nothing in the audition script made it to the final story. At the time, the movie felt too big for the California native. She assumed she’d lose out to a household name, so she went in with zero expectations. It wasn’t until she learned that she would be flying in actual F/A-18 jets that she became hungry for the part. Barbaro considers herself an adventurous person, one with a rare affinity for plane turbulence, a fact she recalls blurting out during her audition. Despite the awkward moment, she impressed the room.
The character Phoenix not only holds her own in the boys club that is Top Gun’s fighter pilot crew, but she is also the heart of the film. “The Navy and Paramount and Tom Cruise and Joe [Kosinski], Jerry Bruckheimer—everyone at one point or another talked to me about how important this character was to them and how important this character is to female aviators in general,” Barbaro said about the role. The pressure to represent the female aviator population in one character felt immense, but Barbaro was up to the task, meeting with many women in the Navy to better understand their experience and help shape the confident and strong-willed character we see on-screen. “The original script had her be more like the way men will write tough women,” she said. “A little too tough, almost like they are compensating for the fact that they are a woman. And I think it grew into a space where she is just great at what she does, and she’s not questioned, and anyone who does question her, that’s a good way in the story to show that they have a problem, not her.”
Finding the right balance for the character was half the challenge for Barbaro, as the role also required intense preparation. The cast had to partake in many hours of flight simulations along with various survival training courses before they could even step foot in a F/A-18. “We trained so hard in order to be overprepared so that, by the time we were filming, we could do the thousands of other things we had to keep track of,” she said. “It’s things you don’t think of. You fly and come back and look at the footage, and your mask is crooked, and you have to reshoot the whole thing. Not only is that wildly expensive, [but it’s also] exhausting, and it takes time and takes up the military’s time. All of these things have to be super specific, and by that point, you have to not be thinking about how difficult it is to fly in those things.”
Of course, with a cast that includes the likes of Jon Hamm, Miles Teller, Glen Powell, and Jay Ellis, there was plenty of fun to be had on set too. Between takes, Barbaro and her castmates would often snap videos of each other from across planes reveling in the surreal experience of flying in actual fighter jets. Being surrounded by such massive talent was not lost on the actress either. Soaking up all that she could, she spent a lot of time observing their performances and picking their brains. “Tom was always so willing to tell us incredible stories about his experiences, and he took on a mentorship role with us,” she said. “That was amazing.”
Following multiple post-production and COVID-induced delays, Top Gun: Maverick is finally getting its time in the spotlight this month. The film had its global premiere aboard the USS Midway Museum in San Diego on May 4 (where Barbaro dazzled in an impossibly glamorous Armani Privé gown from the house’s spring 2010 couture collection), followed by its international premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, and it is now landing in theaters on May 27. For Barbaro, excitement has been building over the last few weeks, and she’s ready to celebrate all the hard work that went into this project and finally share the finished product with the fans who have waited 30+ years for this movie.
Top Gun: Maverick just so happens to be the beginning of a big year for the rising star. Up next, she has the Netflix original action-horror anime series Army of the Dead: Lost Vegas, a prequel to the Zack Snyder feature film Army of the Dead. And later this year, she has the Paramount+ original film At Midnight, a romantic comedy that will be part of the streamer’s Latin American banner.
As for the dance career she put on the back burner so many years back, Barbaro admits it is finding its way back into her life. Not only is there a dance scene in At Midnight, but she is also currently developing a movie that will have dance at the forefront of the plot. “I’m bringing it all back because I realized I’m not getting any younger, so if there’s a time to break out my dancing, it should be before it’s too late,” she laughed. Whatever the future holds for Barbaro, it’s clear her career is taking flight.
Top Gun: Maverick is in theaters now.