“Do a cheer for us!”
Glen Powell is just being kind. As our game of bocce comes to an end at the Secret Rosé Garden, on the second-story rooftop of the Beverly Wilshire hotel—a normal place for a semi-professional meeting between an actor and a journalist—two 4-year-old girls from Louisiana wander over to our makeshift court. Their mom informs Powell that they are cheerleaders. And because Glen Powell is the kind of outgoing person who’s able to immediately key in on a person’s interests, he uses that information to appeal to the two-person peanut gallery: “Can we hear a cheer?” But he forgot—or maybe just didn’t realize—that 4-year-olds are brutal opportunists, wont to change their terms and desires at a moment’s notice. By engaging them at all, he was entering into a binding contract that left him subject to their demands—specifically, in this case, that Glen Powell also cheer.
“Alright, let’s cheer,” Powell says, accepting his fate while turning to me, which is the moment when I realize I’ve been roped into this cheer-for-a-cheer proposal. Powell pulls me into an impromptu huddle and goes into a pretty serious-sounding whisper. “Alright, we’re going to do …” he trails off, before getting a jolt of inspiration: “‘Dance, dance, I don’t have ants in my pants,’ and then just do this,” Powell instructs, miming a little jig. As comfortable with our cheer as we’ll ever be, we turn back to the 4-year-olds, who have begun flossing.
“You’re flossing?” Powell asks, maybe surprised that the viral dance in which you swing your arms around your torso at increasingly violent speeds has reached toddlers. “They don’t teach that at cheerleading school.”
Then the terms of the deal change once again: “Floss 100 times,” one of the 4-year-olds commands.
“That’s too much cardio,” says Powell, who has begun to look for a way out. We’ve just ended the bocce game because Powell—the breakout star of the breakout rom-com of the summer—was late for a business dinner, and now we’re stuck here interminably, held hostage by a girl who appears to have just lost her last baby teeth. “What we’ll do is, we will floss,” Powell says. “For 30 seconds. But you guys have to close your eyes. I promise you we’ll floss if you close your eyes.”
Powell has set a brilliant trap, knowing that this arrangement would bring one of two results: Either the girls would open their eyes, thus voiding the deal and freeing us of obligation, or the girls would keep their eyes closed for 30 seconds, giving us just enough time to escape.
“You liars! I saw you look!” Powell yelps about two seconds in, as we quickly gather our things and head for the elevators before more children can trick us into being their afternoon jesters. As the doors close on the Rosé Garden, Powell exhales and looks over at me: “Hollywood’s a tough place, isn’t it?”
Perhaps you remember Glen Powell as the guy who gets his head slammed into a keyboard by Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. Or maybe he stood out to you as “good-looking frat guy” in movies like Stuck in Love or shows like Scream Queens. The 29-year-old Powell has been working in Hollywood for more than a decade, playing affable ensemble guys while waiting for a bigger spotlight. “When I got to L.A., the acting wasn’t really going well,” Powell tells me, matter-of-factly. His career started to turn in 2016, when Powell delivered a scene-stealing one-two punch, first as an elder statesman college baseball player in Richard Linklater’s 2016 film, Everybody Wants Some!!, and then as John Glenn in the critical and commercial surprise hit Hidden Figures. But it was Netflix’s endlessly enjoyable rom-com Set It Up, which started streaming June 15, that cemented Powell’s status as the Next Big Leading Man. The modern rom-com reinvigorated the genre and became a sleeper hit; meanwhile, Powell became an Internet Boyfriend overnight, his symmetrical face and easygoing, wry charm inspiring legions of admirers and Tumblr posts.
Though why his breakthrough took so long is a bit of mystery, that it happened is not: Powell feels like a movie star, in an era when not many actors do. There is a pull to him, a certain mile-a-minute, self-assured-but-self-deprecating charm that’s undeniably appealing. On the screen he’s the center of your attention, seemingly without trying. In person, the magnetism is even more obvious; in a floral, short-sleeve button-down shirt and aviator sunglasses that seem as though they were invented for his face, he radiates charisma. The kind that makes running out on a couple of 4-year-olds seem funny rather than mean.
It didn’t take long for Powell’s Set It Up performance to bear fruit. A few weeks after the movie’s release, he found himself as one of the two final actors in the running to play Goose’s son in Tom Cruise’s much-hyped Top Gun sequel. It seemed like a perfect fit—after all, Powell’s picture is in Webster’s dictionary under the word “pilot”—and at the very least like confirmation that Powell had arrived. When the role instead went to Miles Teller, Powell somehow still came out on top, thanks to one tweet:
I’m taking down all the Tom Cruise posters in my bedroom. Maybe, I’ll leave one. Two for symmetry. Okay, the posters are staying. https://t.co/7gCpNLJCcz— Glen Powell (@glenpowell) July 3, 2018
It worked out for Powell: Impressed by his audition, Cruise and his production team kept him in mind for another role in the movie. Soon the tables were turned, and Powell found himself in the surreal position of being courted by one of the biggest actors in Hollywood, and one of his personal heroes. On August 1, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that not only would Powell be starring in Top Gun: Maverick after all, but that the production team was also “beefing up” the still-top-secret role.
“Tom and I definitely hit it off at the screen test,” Powell tells me over the phone, a few days after our bocce meeting. “And the more we talked about the story, the more I got to sit down and talk to him about what I wanted to see in a Top Gun movie. And we figured that out together, I guess. … All I’ve ever wanted to do is be in Top Gun. Tom Cruise is my favorite actor. So getting to talk to him about the Top Gun movie I’ve always dreamed of led to bigger conversations that ended up turning into what I’d consider a dream role.”
Powell talks about this—about reaching a point in his career in which Tom Freaking Cruise and Jerry Freaking Bruckheimer are altering the script of a blockbuster movie for him—with a level of composed humility and appreciation, yet you can’t help but get the feeling that he’s holding back a celebratory screech, or a profound gasp of “Finally.” Then again, his Texas upbringing and years of walking the streets of Hollywood unnoticed has maybe made him immune to self-hype.
Halfway through a tequila and soda with orange—“Being from Texas, I have a lot of buddies from Mexico who have trained me on how to drink tequila, and every single one of them says [to use] an orange slice,” says Powell—four non-English-speaking teenage girls creep up to our table that overlooks Rodeo Drive. One of them nervously holds up an iPhone, to which Powell replies, “You need a picture?” He grabs the phone and holding it with both hands he leans back, attempting to get them all in frame as they grow confused.
“I love Set It Up,” one girl manages to stammer. “Can we take a picture with you?”
“Oh, with me? Oh!” Powell says, as if the lightbulb that says “remember, you’re famous” just went off in his head. “Alright, let’s do this!”
“I have to ask,” Powell tells me as the girls walk away, all huddled over the phone that took their picture, “because sometimes people come up to me and they go, ‘Are you the guy from This Is Us?’ and I have to let them down.”
In eighth grade, Glen Powell unleashed 3,000 crickets in his school. How did he procure 3,000 crickets? “Just pet stores,” he says with a shrug, as though going pet store to pet store and buying out each one’s supply of insects is a normal act. Powell is a natural storyteller, engaged and dynamic and physical. It almost seems as if he has to conscientiously keep his limbs under control. (On a date in high school, he accidentally broke a girl’s nose while doing some impromptu parkour. “Blood ruins a date,” he tells me in reflection.) He retells the cricket-prank story giddily, as if it’s his own version of Ocean’s Eleven. “Danny Ocean gets locked up for the heist,” he says. “That’s what happened [to me]. I got caught releasing the smoke bombs and stink bombs.” Oh, right, important detail: The 3,000 crickets were only one aspect of the day’s pranks.
“By the time the cricket thing was executed, I’m in this room with the principal. Real mean son of bitch. All of the sudden, the hallways, you started seeing people run past. People are just running past like, ‘Oh my God!’ They’re like, ‘Crickets, crickets!’ There’s a dude going nuts. You can see crickets flying around. [The principal] looks at me and he’s like, ‘Did you have anything to do with this?’ I was like, ‘I’ve been here the whole time, man.’”
The son of a corporate consultant and a former aide to Ronald Reagan, Powell says he was constantly breaking rules while growing up in Austin, Texas. To an extent, at least—he did pull the plug on the senior prank, four years after the cricket incident. “People were watching, to be honest with you,” he says. “I’m not willing to go to jail for pranks.”
As he does with most things, Powell connects his streak as a teenage, insect-freeing anarchist to his current run of success as an actor. “That’s kind of where half this stuff comes from,” he says. “If you’re an actor and you’re following rules, you’re never going to make it.”
A lacrosse, football, and baseball player in high school, Powell mixed in the occasional acting job, though never in a major capacity—his first role was as the “Long-fingered Boy” in 2003’s Spy Kids 3: Game Over. (I checked: His fingers, now at least, appear to be normal sized.) After landing a small role in the Denzel Washington–directed The Great Debaters in his senior year of high school, the idea of being a professional actor became more legitimate. Washington’s then-agent, Ed Limato, took notice of Powell on the Debaters set. Limato told him that he reminded him of young Richard Gere, and that he had to move to Los Angeles. Powell enrolled at the University of Texas instead. After a year in college, however, he was breaking the rules again, on his way to Hollywood.
Everything hit a standstill for Powell when he arrived in Los Angeles at the age of 19. The promises of being the next Richard Gere quickly gave way to the reality of rationing a rotisserie chicken into a week’s meals. “I was literally trying to break up a pre-cooked chicken, going like, this is my Friday, Saturday, Sunday …” Powell says. A couple of breaks kept food in his stomach—and allowed him to remain in L.A. while he both matured and grew to understand how the industry works, its pitfalls and shortcuts. First, a wealthy family living in Bel Air hired Powell to stay in their home and coach their son in football, lacrosse, and basketball. “[I had] the most charmed existence,” Powell admits. “I was kind of like a manny. I lived in this amazing house. The family was amazing. They had a private chef. And all I had to do was coach the sports that I grew up playing.”
As a coach, Powell says he was “pretty hardcore.” “I was always the player that, if I lost, I cried,” he adds.
His second break was getting into screenwriting. Powell met Jono Matt in the mid-aughts at a Golden Globes party they had both snuck into. Bonding over a shared love of Armageddon, the two decided to try to collaborate with each other and soon became writing partners. “I was striking out on my own,” says Powell. “I had no money and I was like, ‘Oh shoot, I’ve got to figure this out.’” Powell had been writing his own screenplays as a hobby since the age of 15, but meeting Matt—who at the time was an assistant to a producer on Glee—made him realize it could be more than that. Powell sold his first script, based on a true story about a Texas fraternity that got a pledge kidnapped in Mexico, when he was 21. “It wasn’t a lot of money—I could eat, pay rent, and all that—but people saw that I could put ideas down on paper, you know?” Most importantly, it gave him a way to stay afloat for years while he toiled away as an actor, and gained perspective.
“What’s cool is I’ve had this sort of slow ascension. I feel like the curse of Hollywood is getting a role that changes your life too early and you’re not prepared,” Powell says. “You haven’t built any foundation, so you have to kind of unravel a rope ladder while the rocket’s taking off, hoping that you know the way back to earth.”
Powell frequently talks like this, like an old sailor who’s seen some shit. When you ask him about the doors that Set It Up has opened, he tells cautionary tales: “You have to understand, the ‘Flavor of the Week’ mentality is very much in my head, because I’ve seen so many of my friends rise and fall.” When you ask him what it’s like getting more attention in public, he talks about L.A. as a hype machine: “None of this is real. It’s all magic. The chatter—there’s so many sycophants and ass kissers out here, and you should never get caught up in the hype. The hype’s fake. As soon as you buy into it, your demise is right around the corner.” And when you ask him what his life goals are, he unleashes one of the more harrowing metaphors I’ve heard a person use: “I try to keep my family close because otherwise you get caught up in this stuff. [And] whenever it’s no longer around, you’re a puddle on the floor and who knows if anyone will ever scrape you up like a pancake.”
Then, as the cloud of actors past hangs above us, he says, “You wanna play some bocce ball, by the way?”
I suspect Glen Powell has been keeping track of the time in his head ever since we arrived at the Secret Rosé Garden, counting down the minutes until enough had passed so that it wouldn’t seem obvious how badly he wants to play. Immediately, you can see that he has all the markings of an obsessive athlete, the kind of person who gathers friends for a game of whiffle ball every chance he gets; the kind of person who might cry if he loses. He talks to his balls when they’re in midair, admonishes himself in the third person, and after we split a round, he gleefully creates rules for a sudden-death tiebreaker on the fly. He’s in his element.
In bocce, the goal of the game is to land one of your balls closest to a smaller, different-colored ball called the pallino, which you or your opponent first tosses at the start of a round. Midway through our match, Powell realizes: “This is a metaphor for Hollywood. Like, where do you throw the ball? And how close can you get to it? What career do you want? There are bocce balls being thrown and you don’t even know they’re being thrown.”
To extend the metaphor, Powell’s shots are starting to come together. On August 10, his second starring turn for Netflix, as the American boyfriend of Lily James in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, hits the streaming site. From there, the projects in development grow only bigger in prestige. There’s Top Gun: Maverick, of course, but also Devotion, a story about two Korean War Navy pilots, which Powell is starring in and developing the script for. Then there’s the Captain Planet movie he and Matt are developing with Leonardo DiCaprio. Then there’s the film shooting in 2019 produced by Imagine, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s company, in which he and Channing Tatum play brothers. Powell’s phone, meanwhile, is ringing constantly with more offers.
“As the acting stuff has kind of gained more traction, so has the writing stuff, separately,” Powell says. “The cool part is that now that the writing stuff is going really well and the acting stuff is going really well, they’re converging in a way where I’m getting to write stuff that I get to star in, which I never thought could happen.”
It’s not easy to determine why, when, or whether someone will blow up, but it does feel profoundly apparent that now is Powell’s time. The recurring role on Scream Queens was a false start; the scene-stealing in Everybody Wants Some!! was a nice bump, but not enough. What it took was a previously untapped hunger for the return of romantic comedies, and a risk-taking streaming company with a big wallet and a bigger programming quota. Set It Up was the showcase Powell needed—a breezy, funny movie capable of capturing his unique combination of swagger and charisma and his, uh, beautiful face—and has proved to be the key that opens all doors. “It’s a fun time,” Powell admits. “It’s a great luxury, but I’m busier than I’ve ever been.”
Having escaped the 4-year-old cheerleaders (and barely fighting back tears after I won the bocce match, 5-3), Powell offers to drive me back to my hotel—or, on second thought, at least to the restaurant he has to go to for a meeting (which is about halfway between the Rosé Garden and my hotel, so the gesture is still something; and besides, it’s the thought that counts.) His Jaguar two-seater is svelte and impressive—the engine automatically turns off at stoplights—but lived in. A lone fork sits on the floor of the passenger seat, while a venti Starbucks cup clogs up the console.
On the way to Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills, Powell takes a phone call, and he and a producer friend talk strategy for his next move as a newfound leading man. While the friend delivers a monologue about his value and the kinds of roles he should be going after, he looks over and mouths “I’m so sorry.” He bashfully does it again three more times over the course of 15 minutes.
After dropping off the car at the valet stand and saying our goodbyes, Powell ducks into Matsuhisa while I call an Uber. Waiting, I peer down La Cienega Boulevard. That’s when I see Powell pop out of the restaurant and pull out his phone again. He smiles, waves, and then his face straightens as he goes back to business.