For Jay Ellis and Greg Tarzan Davis, appearing in the high-profile action sequel Top Gun: Maverick was about more than just flying cool jets and hanging out with Tom Cruise. They were also aware of the previous generations of unrecognized Black service members they will represent on screen. And in speaking to NBC News, the actors explained that responsibility.
After his successful stint on Insecure, Ellis is literally getting into the family business with his role as Lieutenant Reuben “Payback” Fitch. His grandfathers, step-grandfather and father all served in the Air Force. In fact, the first time he saw Top Gun was actually on an Air Force base in Austin, Texas.
“I grew up around aviation, and I think about the sacrifice that so many men and women take—they give, rather—just for us to be safe,” he said. “I think we all wrap our arms around this community and we protect it so much. And we understand the responsibility to be amazing on-screen for these folks.”
In the film, Cruise’s Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell returns to Top Gun to train the best pilots in the U.S. Navy for a top-secret, dangerous mission. Those elite candidates include Ellis’ Payback, whom the actor describes as “very confident,” and Davis’ Lieutenant Javy “Coyote” Machado, whose “leadership presence makes him one of the best pilots,” according to the Grey’s Anatomy actor.
“I think seeing yourself on-screen always is something that people lean into,” Ellis said. “We knew that people flew in jets and protected this country in that way. But we didn’t know the ways in which they get chosen and how they trained to do it.”
Released in 1986, Top Gun wasn’t exactly overflowing with diversity. Clarence Gilyard played the lone Black pilot Sundown, and he wasn’t essential to the story. He was just sort of there as “the Black guy.”
“When I saw the first Top Gun, obviously there was one Black character, Sundown, but I don’t think he was represented as fully as he could have been,” Davis said. “So I think that it’s really cool that we have the representation, not just of Black characters, but of many different men and women.”
Top Gun: Maverick is now in theaters.