Longhorn Glen Powell Is Finally Getting His Turn as a Leading Man


Written by jen on July 07 2022

ALCADE – Glen Powell is a rare Hollywood type: the kind of guy who shows up early and stays late, with an easy grin and no complaints. Or at least, that’s how he is with me when we meet in March.

Despite it being the beginning of South by Southwest (and the festival’s resultant traffic), the actor is more than 30 minutes early to our interview, politely waiting in the car until (I presume) he sees me lurking at the front of the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center, our arranged meeting spot. Powell steps out of the car in a well-coordinated getup, featuring an orange and brown patterned jacket, Longhorn hat, and a vintage “TEXAS” long-sleeved shirt scored at a shop on South Congress with his family just the day before.

“Oh man, I haven’t been in here in a while,” he says, walking in and looking around.

When I suggest we take a walk around campus to chat, he lights up. Between that and his UT-inspired outfit, one thing is immediately clear: This man loves this university, even if he was a student here for only a year before jetting off to Hollywood.

Powell, ’11, wouldn’t be offended if you failed to recognize him. Right now he’s able to stride down Austin’s streets largely unnoticed, as we soon find out strolling through the Forty Acres. But that will probably change—and soon. This summer, he’ll be one of the stars of the likely blockbuster Top Gun: Maverick, in a role tailored to him: the daring-but-cocky pilot Lt. Jake Seresin, callsign “Hangman.” It’s a moment 20 years in the making for Powell, who has spent the past two decades acting alongside some of Hollywood’s biggest names, with roles such as “Trader #1” from The Dark Knight Rises (where Tom Hardy as Bane almost concussed him after smashing his head into a keyboard), frat boy Chad in Scream Queens, smooth-talking Finnegan in Everybody Wants Some!!, astronaut John Glenn in Hidden Figures, and the overworked assistant Charlie in Netflix’s (excellent) 2018 rom-com Set It Up. This year, Powell is finally getting his due as a leading man. But for now, he’s taking a bit of a breather to come home for the premiere of Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood at SXSW, in which he plays the part of a NASA mission control operator who recruits a young boy to go to the moon secretly.

We leave the Alumni Center and take a left toward the Tower, and Powell immediately starts reminiscing about times spent sneaking into a then-under renovation Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and sipping mimosas on the 50-yard line in his own “Dazed & Confused moment,” acting in UT student films when he was younger, and visiting campus after the 2005 National Championship, “dancing on top of cars and going absolutely mental.”

Now, at 33, he’s a bit farther removed from his childhood campus visits or covert stadium mimosa rendezvous. He’s got the movie star looks, no question, and the confidence of a guy who knows it. But he’s unfailingly polite, laughs easily, and has none of the jaded exhaustion you might expect from a guy who once described how he scraped by in L.A. by stretching one rotisserie chicken across a week’s worth of meals. Mostly, he seems genuinely eager for moviegoers to see him in his biggest role ever—despite the fact that he’s been waiting nearly two years for it to premiere after several pandemic-related delays.

While he’s back in town for the Linklater premiere and SXSW, he’s also reflecting on his hometown of Austin—and what it has been like to watch his peers flock to it the past few years.

“This place always felt like it celebrated the underdog. It celebrated the outcast, it celebrated the weirder, the better,” he says. “It’s just a little weird, I think for me, to feel like I’ve known about this secret for my entire life, and now for every actor I meet out in L.A. being like, ‘Oh, well, we’re about to move to Austin.’”

When Powell did the reverse—left Austin for L.A.—at the age of 19, he’d already built up a moderately substantial resume. Austin mainstay Robert Rodriguez, BS ’08, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, gave him his first film role in Spy Kids 3: Game Over (the very descriptive role of Long-Fingered Boy); Powell played a bit part in Luke Wilson’s The Wendell Baker Story; and he’d worked on Linklater’s Fast Food Nation at 16.

But before all that, he was just a kid growing up in Austin who really wanted to make movies.

It all started when a talent agent came to Powell’s elementary school and promptly told his parents that their fifth-grade son needed an agent. They didn’t go quite that far, and instead enrolled him in acting classes with Austin Musical Theatre, where he quickly earned a spot in their production of The Music Man. For other kids, the show may have just been a fun after-school activity. But Powell remembers taking it as seriously as he takes his work now.

“I always had a blast with it, but I don’t think there’s anything I’ve ever done in terms of activity that I’ve half-assed,” he says.

For example: When Powell was 13, he landed the role of Kurt Von Trapp in the local production of The Sound of Music—a role he “really had to fight for,” he says earnestly.

On the last night of the musical, Powell was visibly emotional
on stage, tears streaming down his face before the final curtain came down. Powell’s dad, Glen Powell Sr., MEd ’89, Life Member, remembers the director coming to talk to him afterward, urging him not to get angry at his son. It’s something Powell Sr. wouldn’t have dreamt of doing anyway, but the “why” of it stuck with him.

That emotion, the director told him, is what makes Powell a great actor, the fact that he can tap into “the feeling.” “He was going to great lengths to tell me how great this was,” Powell Sr. says.

Powell remembers this moment vividly, too. It was his first feeling of really being part of a community as an actor.

“I just remember being like, wow, that was the most magical feeling,” Powell tells me over the phone from L.A. when we talk again in early May. “The fact that you can come together with other talented people and create something that I think is great. And I was so sad that it was over. I think maybe that’s the feeling I’ve been chasing over and over in this business, that idea of creating something magical with a bunch of strangers, and what a wonderful thing that is.”

It wasn’t long after The Sound of Music before he made the leap to film, picking up small roles here and there and slowly gaining the eyes of Hollywood legends. In 2008, he enrolled at UT. In many ways, the Forty Acres was an obvious fit for Powell, who had spent his childhood on campus: at the UT String Project where he learned to play violin; for football or volleyball or basketball games; or just for walks, not unlike the one we’re on now, with his parents, two alumni in a whole family of Longhorns. But a small role in Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters right before his freshman year at UT changed his trajectory, earning him legendary agent Ed Limato’s attention (Powell apparently reminded him of a young Richard Gere).

Limato talked to Powell, talked to his parents, reiterated again and again that Powell had it, that he would introduce Powell to all the right people, and Powell finally made the decision to cut his education short and move to L.A.—the toughest decision he’s ever made, he says.

“[The idea of leaving UT was] the thing that I think actually made me go, ‘Glen, do you actually want this? Because you’re about to leave the greatest university on the planet, the greatest city on the planet, you’re surrounded by people that are fun and smart, and the football team is good,’” Powell says as we continue our walk past the Union down to the Drag. “It really felt like I had to break up with the best girl I ever met.”

Then Ed Limato suddenly died in 2010, and Powell was left to figure it out on his own.

It was slow-going, something Powell reiterates often when he talks about those first years in Los Angeles. But then he landed the role of the mustached college baseball player, Finnegan, in Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!—a role he was confident he could do, and do well. Filmed all around Central Texas, it was like coming home and getting to relive college all over again.

“That movie experience, I don’t think will ever be topped. I’ve gotten to make a lot of things at this point and that group of guys, that time in our lives, it was just magical,” he says after we leave the Drag, where he talks about his dorm days in the since-torn-down University Towers, shows me his phone background of his girlfriend in full UT gear, and reveals his Kerbey Lane order (short stack with eggs and bacon). “Getting to show [the guys] the Austin I grew up with and the Austin I loved and getting to come back and kind of take over the town together was just the greatest.”

Everybody Wants Some!! also reunited Powell with Linklater, who remembered him from Fast Food Nation. But instead of working with a 16-year-old kid who was just getting started, Linklater got to see him in a whole new way—those years of small parts to keep going in L.A. had matured Powell as an actor, and Linklater quickly noticed.

“I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I love the adult Glen’ … Like, when did Glen get so wickedly smart and quick and funny?” Linklater says. “I was just really glad to reconnect with the adult Glen, and then we’ve been buds ever since. It’s just like, oh God, what else can I work on with this guy?”

Despite everything he learned from his journey out west (or maybe because of it), Powell wants to ensure Austin kids growing up today never have to do what he did to “make it”: leave. He’s been periodically meeting with Moody College of Communication Dean Jay Bernhardt about what he can do to help UT students interested in film find their way onto sets and into writers’ rooms. That usually means visiting a class to give advice or bringing screenings of his film Devotion, a war drama in which he plays aviator Lt. Thomas J. Hudner Jr., to campus this fall.

“It’s in his blood. He’s really very connected to the history of this campus going back generations, and it really does mean a lot to him,” Bernhardt says. “He’s incredibly kind and real and genuine and … even as his career’s been growing, he’s the same Glen that I met [years ago] over tequila at the Roosevelt Room.”

The only real difference is that now, Powell is getting to make the movies he wants.

“I’ve been doing this job for 20 years,” he says. “It’s only now that I’m able to do the movies I want to do, and work with the people I want to work with.” As we start making our way back to the Alumni Center, Powell reflects on all the “pinch me” moments he’s had lately—working with Tom Cruise, one of his heroes, or being able to write and collaborate with Linklater. “It’s these moments that cause you to be really nostalgic and sentimental about all the failures that have sort of led you to this moment that have been these wonderful teaching lessons along the way,” he says.

It really is clear how immensely grateful Powell is to be here: in his position now, where choices are easier to come by; back in Austin, where his family is and the city he wants to call home full-time again; and on the UT campus right now, strolling along with no particular route in mind, marveling at the boldness of campus squirrels and stopping to take photos of the bluebonnets blooming near the Tower.

We finish our route around campus and settle into a table and chairs next to Waller Creek at the Alumni Center, listening to the grackles. With our walk down memory lane finished, I ask Powell about the future. It’s on his mind, too, as the release of Top Gun: Maverick looms ever closer. But he’s not so worried about what comes next.

He recalls a conversation he had with Tom Cruise about what life was like for him after the original Top Gun. “He said nothing had changed in him. It’s just that the world gets really loud,” Powell says. “People want your attention a little bit more. When they want your attention, they’re a little more loud about it. The stakes seem higher with everything. And I’m now starting to understand. And he said the most important thing is to be able to quiet the noise and really remember who you are.”

Powell is remembering those words as he sits in what’s likely his calm before the storm. Life isn’t loud right now, he assures me. It’s exciting, sure, and a little busier, but it’s not crazy.

A few weeks after our walk, Top Gun: Maverick premieres at Cannes Film Festival. Reviews are very positive. A journalist tells Powell it may be his favorite movie ever. An Entertainment Weekly headline screams that Powell’s career is about to go “supersonic.” On May 11, it becomes official that Powell is going to star in Hitman, the script he co-wrote with Linklater, and that filming will start in October (location TBD).

But back in Austin in March, on the day after I meet Powell, he’s on the Paramount Theatre stage at the premiere of Apollo 10 ½ with Linklater and others. In between questions from the audience, he pauses and points out into the crowd, spotting his mom and dad.

“I played Kurt Von Trapp on this stage as a kid, and where my family is sitting now is where they used to sit every performance,” he says into the mic.

And from the same seats, stage left, where they once saw that same kid at 13 cry at the emotion of finishing a performance he poured everything into, his parents wave to a cheering crowd.

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