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Greg Tarzan Davis is the only actor who can say that his first three films were Tom Cruise-led blockbusters, beginning with Top Gun: Maverick and now, Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One and Part Two. Davis bonded with Maverick co-writer and Mission: Impossible co-mastermind Christopher “McQ” McQuarrie on the set of Joseph Kosinski’s smash hit, and so McQ later conceived Dead Reckoning Part One with Davis in mind for a role.
Overall, Davis is grateful to his seasoned collaborators for passing on their knowledge to him, starting with his Dead Reckoning Part One scene partner, Shea Whigham. Whigham not only taught him the value of providing a variety of different takes, but he also helped him with his self-tapes during their downtime. The lessons didn’t stop there as Davis once again shadowed McQ on set, as well as in the editing room, alongside Cruise and editor Eddie Hamilton.
“I really appreciate that McQ and Tom allowed me to come to set and also sit in the editing room with them to see how (Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One) was made,” Davis tells The Hollywood Reporter during a conversation prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike. “They’ve really become great mentors for me in trying to teach me filmmaking, and Tom compared it to passing a baton to me and other filmmakers by saying, ‘Hey, we want you to continue to make these great films.’ So they’re not secretive about their magic.”
During the making of Maverick, Davis created a lifelong connection with his fellow co-stars and F-18 pilots, as they all risked their lives in order to achieve the most realistic and immersive flying scenes possible. However, despite all of them being members of Cruise and McQ’s club, Davis still kept his Mission: Impossible cards close to his vest.
“I am big on holding secrets. I hate spoilers. So when I booked Mission, they found out later from a press release photo of me on top of the train with Tom, Esai (Morales) and Shea. They were like, ‘You didn’t tell us that you were on Mission!’ And I was like, ‘My bad, my bad,’” Davis shares.
In Dead Reckoning Part One, Davis plays Degas, who’s a part of the CIA’s Clandestine Services, and he, along with Whigham’s Briggs, is tasked with chasing down Ethan Hunt and retrieving a highly valued key. While Briggs is firmly committed to catching Hunt, Degas is a bit more open-minded about the situation, something Davis expects to continue in Part Two.
“(Degas is) the voice for the audience by saying, ‘No, maybe (IMF) is doing something right. Maybe we’re the ones who have it wrong,’” Davis says. “And you can probably see Degas’ questioning leading him to potentially make different choices down the line. Degas’ questions of, ‘Is (Ethan) doing something right, and should I be doing something different?’ may be explored in the future.”
Below, during a conversation with THR, Davis also talks about the terrifying moment he had in the middle of filming Dead Reckoning Part One’s thrilling train sequence.
So did your leftover Dramamine from Top Gun: Maverick come in handy during the train sequence?
(Laughs.) I don’t think anything was gonna prepare me for the train sequence. I didn’t even realize that I was gonna be on top of a train. I had never been on a train before, let alone on top of one. So I’m still trying to process that, and the Dramamine does not help.
We covered your casting process in detail last year, so I want to cut to the very first day where you hung out on set to watch the motorcycle jump. I saw a video of you guys watching it go down and then almost everybody started laughing once it happened. Was that your way of processing or coping with your collective fear and anxiety?
Have you ever heard the expression “laugh at my pain”? I wasn’t even in pain, but I was dying laughing. Like you said, it’s a coping mechanism in order to calm yourself down from the craziness that this man just did. And let me tell you, when we first got up there on top of the mountain, we were walking on the bridge, and then Tom came flying over in a helicopter, hanging outside of it and waving down at us. And all of a sudden, he just dropped, and it looked like he just jumped out of the helicopter and committed suicide. That was him warming up! So when we got to see him do the ramp jump and hear that buzzing go past us, it was like, “Oh, this is really happening.” I also saw that video earlier today for the first time in three years, and it brought back some memories.
McQ tends to write these movies and develop these characters on the fly, in response to the action, so when did you start to learn concrete details about your character?
When I saw the film. (Laughs.) Honestly, when I saw the film, I was like, “Oh, that’s the direction my character is supposed to go in. Now it makes sense.” The way McQ shoots can be very nerve-racking for people who are just entering into his process and his world of how he creates. And that goes for every director who has a particular type of filmmaking style. So it can be very nerve-racking, but at the same time, it’s very comforting because he covers all his bases. You’ll do different takes and different ways that your character can play something, so you never know exactly how it’s going to end up in the editing room. It almost gives you room to change the story yourself. So if I’m giving a performance in a particular way and I’m doing it multiple different times in different variations, I’m kind of telling the story myself, which is very interesting.
Degas and Briggs (Shea Whigham) are a part of the CIA’s Clandestine Services, but do you consider them to be a Training Day-type situation where an idealistic rookie cop is paired with the cynical veteran cop? (Writer’s Note: At the New York premiere following this interview, Davis called Training Day one of his favorite films.)
Shea and I watched some films together. We discussed the type of dynamics that we wanted, but not initially though. Before we even started filming, we tried to figure out who we were because we obviously didn’t know. So we came to set with an idea of what we wanted, but McQ came up with a different take on it and we were like, “Okay, let’s go with that.” And then, when we started performing, it went in a different direction. McQ said, “This is way better. This is the direction we’re gonna go in.” So then we started watching films like Training Day, Starsky & Hutch and Midnight Run. We started watching those types of things, and that was the realm that we wanted to be in with our characters.
There’s a great deal of comedy in the film, especially when Shea’s character has to check random people for masks by pulling on their cheeks or sticking his fingers in their mouth. Was it tough to keep a straight face while watching Shea do those bits of business?
Yes, because you never know what Shea is gonna do. He’s a loose cannon. He doesn’t tell you, “This is what I’m going to do.” He’ll just touch my chest and say, “Hey, stay with me. Stay with me.” And I’m like, “Okay, let’s see where this is gonna go.” So when they called action, he did all the … (Davis pulls his cheek and sticks his fingers in his mouth.) So I tried my best to stay in character, and every take is so different from the last take. He’s very good at giving these drastically different takes when you’re expecting him to do the exact same thing. There was one take that didn’t make it — and it couldn’t make it because it just wasn’t right for the film — but it was so funny. He took it to the next level. Shea’s a character and a great actor.
You told me previously how Shea improved your self-tapes during filming, and he told me that he was quite proud that one led to Grey’s Anatomy. Are his lessons still making a difference?
They are. Shea is very kind as well. He loves the craft so much, and he told me, “I love when someone else loves it just as much as me.” So that’s why he was so willing to help me out, and he gave me his 30 years of experience. So I don’t have to spend as much time as him learning what he’s learned over that time period. He’s a great scene partner to work off of, and like I mentioned, he does different takes all the time. So I was like, “Let me start doing that as well.” I just love being around him and watching him work.
Degas speaks a bit of Italian and maybe even some French. Did you learn anything beyond those phrases you had to speak?
Duolingo helped me. I was in these places for months at a time, so I got a chance to pick up on some of the languages, which was really fun. If I didn’t, then I would’ve been a butthole for living in these beautiful countries and not trying to learn their cultures.
I’ve always mocked fictional governments whenever they question the likes of Ethan Hunt or Jack Bauer, considering they’ve both saved the world countless times. What more do they have to do?
So I love when Degas basically voices a similar point. He argued with Briggs that maybe Ethan has had a good reason to go rogue each and every time. So what did you make of Degas’ optimism there?
That’s actually a great question, and it’s him basically taking a stance and a point of view on right and wrong. What’s the moral question? He’s the voice for the audience by saying, “No, maybe (IMF) is doing something right. Maybe we’re the ones who have it wrong.” And you can probably see Degas’ questioning leading him to potentially make different choices down the line. Degas’ questions of, “Is (Ethan) doing something right, and should I be doing something different?” may be explored in the future.
Besides being the voice of the audience, Degas and Briggs function almost like a shoulder angel and devil, only they’re debating Ethan’s choices from the outside.
That’s a great way to put it. Shea and I looked at Briggs as being the old-school way of thinking. He’s someone who’s been in this scene for so long, and he’s done it his way and is stuck in his ways. And Degas is more of the newer way of thinking. He does things by the book, but he’s also more of a free thinker by saying, “Well, maybe this isn’t right.” So you put it a great way with the devil and the angel on the shoulder. Briggs is all the way left and Degas is all the way right, although I wouldn’t say that Degas is all the way right. Briggs is definitely on one side and I don’t think there’s any convincing him otherwise. Whereas Degas can potentially be convinced to go in either direction, depending on what he feels is the right move to make.
So I did something of a travelogue with Shea, and I thought it’d be cool to get your own highlights from each location and sequence, starting with Abu Dhabi International Airport.
Filming in Abu Dhabi, I remember the huge, beautiful airport that we had to ourselves. It’s a massive airport, and we were running up and down that mothersucker. The Osprey was also a special experience. To go from F-18s in Maverick to the Osprey, that was pretty cool.
I thought for sure that you and Shea would have had ample time to get your cardio up in order to do the impossible and chase Tom Cruise for an entire movie, but that wasn’t the case. Shea said that your pursuit was decided last minute in Venice.
Yeah, you know how these things are done. They’re trying to figure out what exactly we’ll be doing, so I wasn’t properly prepared to know that this was what I was gonna be doing. If I did know, I would’ve hired an Olympic running coach to prepare me for it, but it was all in good fun. I can now say that I was a part of Tom’s iconic (slogan of) “running in movies since 1981.”
And what was your takeaway from the escapades in Rome?
Oh man, being in the alley and having a shootout, I thought that was the coolest thing ever. As a young boy, I would play cops and robbers in my mom’s living room and act like I was having shootouts, and now I was finally doing it on the biggest possible scale. So it was my childhood playground coming to life, and that was the most exciting part for me in Rome.
I can’t say I have a favorite location because every location has a special place in my heart, but Venice felt like we were all at summer camp. We would all go out late at night and film, and sometimes, we would just walk the streets of Venice or run through the alleyways. It was like we were playing freeze tag. Venice had this mystical feeling like we were in another dimension. It was that magical.
And lastly, the standoff atop a moving train in Norway …
Honestly, Tom would be like, “It’s not going fast enough.” And I remember sitting on top of the train, saying, “What do you mean it’s not going fast enough!?” We were up there with these thin wires attached to our hips from both sides of the train. I think the top speed was 50 miles per hour, I could be wrong, but we were hauling in this valley between mountains. You’re expected to stay in character and act like this is normal, but I can’t say it was the easiest thing to do. There was one take where something happened and I lost my shoe. It fell off the train and off a bridge into a river, and that really scared me. I was like, “Wow, that could have been me.” We never found that shoe, so R.I.P. Nike Air Max.
A PA did everything they could.
Yes, and unfortunately, they couldn’t find it.
Hopefully, there was room in the budget to buy you another pair of shoes.
(Laughs.) Did we? I think it all went towards building the train. So I was barefoot for the rest of the shoot. (Laughs.)
So, Shea said that you still have a ways to go on Part Two. Are you itching to get back? (Writer’s Note: This interview was conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike.)
I’m ready to get back to it. After watching Part One, I immediately texted Tom and McQ to ask, “When do we get back to work?” What McQ and Tom did so well with Part One was complete the story where you’re not left with this giant cliffhanger that feels unfulfilled. You feel like, “Oh wow, I got everything I needed, and if this was the end of just one movie, I would be satisfied.” But at the same time, McQ ends it with just enough of a cliffhanger for you to want more. And despite me being very closely attached to Part One and being in it, I was of two minds while watching it as an audience member. I was like, “I want to see more, so let’s get back to work so that I can see more.”
So I am ready to get back to work and show the world what McQ has cooked up in his head. I have bits and pieces of the story, and I’m excited to put that on screen. Everybody who’s seen it has asked me all these questions, and I want to say, “Stop asking me questions. Just watch Part Two and you’ll get all your answers.” So, once we’re done filming Part Two, everybody will be satisfied. We’re on the verge of topping Part One based on what we’ve filmed so far.
I don’t know how you’re going to top Part One, but I believe that you will.
I was the same way. I didn’t know how, but we’re now on the verge of topping it.
On Top Gun: Maverick, you got to hang out and listen to Tom’s stories. You also shadowed McQ a bit. Did protocols make those extracurriculars rather impossible on Part One?
No, I actually got a chance to really get in there with McQ and Tom, and when I wasn’t filming, I was on set with them. There was never a day that I wasn’t on set. So, while I was watching the film for the first time, I was having these flashback moments of, “Oh wait, I know how this was done even though I wasn’t in the scene.” And it was because I was there. So I really appreciate that McQ and Tom allowed me to come to set and also sit in the editing room with them to see how this was made. They’ve really become great mentors for me in trying to teach me filmmaking, and Tom compared it to passing a baton to me and other filmmakers by saying, “Hey, we want you to continue to make these great films.” So they’re not secretive about their magic. They want to share so that we can continue to have films like this on the big screen, and I thank them for that. I spent a lot of hours just following McQ. He wouldn’t get annoyed, but I would always ask, “Am I annoying you now? Am I annoying you now?” I’d be up against his back everywhere he went and he’d turn around and go, “Tarzan, you’re here.” And I was like, “Yes, I am.” (Laughs.)
Is the Maverick group text still pretty active?
It’s never quiet. It’s probably not as active, but it’s never quiet. We’re all doing our own things, which is great, but it’s hard for us to see each other in person. Jay (Ellis) is in one country. I’m here in New York with Danny (Ramirez) for the premiere, but he was filming somewhere recently. Lewis (Pullman) and Monica (Barbaro) have also been filming, but we still find time to say, “Hey, what’s up? Hey, congratulations. I saw this. Hey, are you in town?” Glen hit us up to say, “Hey, I just got back to L.A. Who’s in town? Can we link up?” Unfortunately, only Lewis was in town at the time, so I believe he went to see him. So we’re still a family, and that won’t change. That was a special, special group.
Did you send them photos from the Mission set?
No, I didn’t! I am big on holding secrets. I hate spoilers. I hate when people give me spoilers. I hate spoiling things for other people. So when I booked Mission, they found out later from a press release photo of me on top of the train with Tom, Esai (Morales) and Shea. They were like, “You didn’t tell us that you were on Mission!” And I was like, “My bad, my bad.” So I’ve kept all of that secret, but I think Monica and Lewis are gonna see Mission today in L.A. and Danny is gonna watch the film with me at the New York premiere.
Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.