Greg Tarzan Davis Is Ready for Takeoff

The Top Gun: Maverick star shares how he went from teaching first-grade students to flying in F/A-18 fighter jets, and becoming fearless—with help from Tom Cruise himself.

by Alexa Tietjen

A portrait of Greg Tarzan sitting on a curb, wearing a white striped shirt, with his hand on his che...
Photograph by Malik Daniels; image treatment by Ashley Peña

“I truly believe there is nothing I cannot prepare myself for,” says Greg Tarzan Davis, the actor who plays Lieutenant Javy “Coyote” Machado in Top Gun: Maverick. “If you say, ‘You have to skydive or bungee jump or drive a motorcycle off of a cliff,’ I’ll be like, ‘Let’s start training.’”

Davis’s role in Maverick—the newly released, larger-than-life sequel to the 1986 classic, which came out seven years before Davis was born—is the culmination of years’ worth of auditioning, studying, and teaching. Before his days of flying in F/A-18s on the set of Maverick, Davis was an elementary school teacher in his hometown of New Orleans, La. (He recently hosted a screening of Maverick for his former students.)

“I love kids—that’s why I wanted to be a teacher,” he says via Zoom from London, where he’s simultaneously promoting Maverick in press interviews and filming Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One, set to release in 2023. “I used to always preach about following your dreams. One of my students said, ‘What do you want to be when you’re grown?’ I was like, ‘An actor.’ When I realized I wasn't following my own advice, I said, ‘It’s time for me to try it. If I fail, I can always come back and teach.’”

Davis researched how to jumpstart an acting career via YouTube. He came across a video that recommended making a résumé, taking fresh headshots, and enrolling in an acting class. “I didn’t have an agent, so I used to submit myself using casting websites. I even got scammed a few times,” Davis says. “Finally, a casting director from Chicago called me to come in for a role on ‘Empire.’ I was living in New Orleans and didn’t realize I had to be in Chicago to audition.”

The casting director’s call came on a Wednesday evening; Davis’s audition was scheduled for 10 a.m. the next day. “Tickets for flights were $1,500, and I was broke,” he recalls. “I drove from New Orleans to Chicago, and that became a recurring thing. I ended up booking ‘Chicago P.D.’, then I booked a pilot.” He flew to Los Angeles in 2017, and began landing more and more roles.

Then came the Maverick opportunity—which required Davis to undergo rigorous training, following a program that Cruise, who famously does all of his own stunts, co-created.

“My experience was a little different from the rest of my cast mates because my role as Coyote wasn’t as defined as other characters’ roles,” Davis says. “When I joined, Coyote was more of a background character, and as we filmed, they started writing more of him into the script.”

After weeks of observing his cast mates’ training, Davis was approached by Maverick’s producers to begin training of his own. He, too, would need to fly in the F/A-18 fighter jets, as Coyote took on a more prominent role in the film. “I went from not flying at all to flying every day—and doing swim training on top of that,” Davis says.

The F/A-18 flight training, and the strict diet that came with it, also doubled as preparation for Maverick’s beach montage—an homage to the original Top Gun, which included a few minutes’ worth of gratuitous footage of shirtless men playing volleyball on the beach. “I know how everybody fell in love with every pilot in the first volleyball scene,” Davis says. “I was willing to do whatever it took to look right for that scene.”

The beach montage is one of a handful of nods Maverick gives to its prequel, but aside from these, Maverick is meatier, pluckier, and more of an adrenaline rush than the original Top Gun. The mission is higher-stakes, the flight scenes are more vivid (at times, even truly terrifying) and the drama—which hinges on the rapport between Maverick and Rooster, aka Goose’s son—is more substantial. The cast, too, is more diverse, featuring more actors of color and women this time around.

Davis recalls sitting in countless briefings involving the military and film crew before and after filming the flight scenes. According to him, the nervousness and self-doubt many of the characters exude in the scenes leading up to the film’s pièce de resistance, the fight scene, didn’t involve much acting at all. “A conversation we had was, ‘This is really happening.’ It’s not even acting at that point. You’re really about to fly a jet,” he says.

Davis has learned much from Cruise over the past few years, even now, as he films Mission Impossible. One of Davis’s biggest takeaways concerns the actor-audience relationship.

“Our number-one job as actors should be to entertain the audience. Whether it’s telling a love story, a breakup story, an action story, we need to keep the audience in mind,” Davis says. “I remember [Cruise] doing something while we were filming [Top Gun: Maverick]. He was dancing, and then he stopped. He went and did something completely different. I asked him, ‘Why did you do that?’ He was like, ‘This doesn’t serve the story the way it should, and this is going to tell a better story.’ I thought that was really cool.”

Davis credits Cruise with cultivating fearlessness in him—and giving him plenty of recommendations for “fun stuff,” such as “skydiving, drifting cars, racing cars, combat skills.”

“After filming [Top Gun: Maverick], I am prepared to do anything. There’s nothing that can scare me anymore,” Davis says. “[Cruise] has let me and everybody who works with him behind the curtain of how he gets these things done. The stuff he does is freaking crazy, but I know how detailed he is. I know how to prepare for it. I know how to get it done—and safely.”