Top Gun Actor Discusses Playing a Drone Pilot

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Remember Top Gun? Remember Tom Cruise’s all-American beach volleyballplaying, fighter pilot heroism? Well, the image of a tough guy pilot has evolved. Today’s world is one where you can kill with the push of a button from a comfortable chair in an air-conditioned room.

This brings us to Drones, a 2013 film that tells the story of two soldiers who are given the task of tracking a terrorist and deciding whether or not to kill him and his family with a deadly unmanned airborne robot. In a twist of pop culture fate, actor Whip Hubley, who played fighter jock ‘Hollywood’ in Top Gun plays ‘Colonel Wallace,’ in Drones.

Photo: Cinema52(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Chloe Director spoke with Hubley about what it was like to play two very different embodiments of male combatants.

Chloe Director: What are the main differences between fighter pilots in Top Gun and fighter pilots now? Do they still have the same influence?

Whip Hubley: Well I would say that fighter pilots are still the same. I did Top Gun back in about 1985 or 6 and we went down to Miramar, which has now become a Marine Air Station. It was really exciting. So when we went back and they greeted us down there for the 25th anniversary they were really gung-ho. So many of them came up to me and said, “dude I’m a pilot because of you guys!” It gave my son some perspective on what kind of influence Top Gun had.

CD: Are you a big fan of these kinds of action movies?

WH: I have to underline the fact that I am not jingoistic. I am not in favor of what America does in the world imperialistically. I think it’s a shame and I would call myself a pacifist. So, you know, it’s a little bit ironic that I’m doing these films but you know you do what you have to do as an actor to a certain degree.

CD: So what is the difference between playing a fighter pilot and a drone pilot or drone commander for you?

WH: I would say that from the standpoint of what’s different about the drone pilot is you know it’s just a whole different sensibility. It’s a different world they live in. The drone pilots are disconnected from the battlefield. They’re sitting in a trailer in Nevada somewhere basically playing a real life video game. It’s more of a 9-5 job. They end their day and are waiting in line in Starbucks or grabbing a beer. But they know who they are killing. The fighter pilots are disconnected because they drop their payload and don’t know how many people they have killed or who they have killed.

CD: Was it more exciting then to be an 80’s fighter pilot, involved in action?

WH: Well you know it’s very different. I mean when we did Top Gun that was a blast. As an actor it was huge because it was a movie with Tom Cruise. They trained us inan F-14. We did the actual maneuvers that the script called for and it was the first time they used these planes instead of models.

CD: So did you prepare completely differently for the Drones movie?

WH: Yes. It’s a different time in my life playing a different type of character…a commanding officer. My wife jokes that I’m now in my Tom Skerritt years, who played the commanding officer in Top Gun. It was a different kind of preparation. In Drones, my whole thing was to keep these guys on track when I would see them start to waiver.

CD: Do you think that these drone pilots have a different concept of what it means to be a hero?

WH: Well the drone pilots are definitely doing their job but it’s not the same kind of heroism. You don’t get the big hoo-hah medals pinned on you or a pat on the back. But the drone pilots have a personal connection; they hover over their targets and get to know them. They are completely aware if they killed a mother and a child and they have to deal with that kind of PTSD.

CD: What was the most riveting part about working on Drones?

WH: I think just the imagination game… creating a reality of what it would be like.

CD: You mentioned the word “game”. Do you think these kind of movies and violent video games have impacted and will continue to impact our culture?

WH: Yeah. Definitely. I think there’s a whole generation being brought up on video games and it’s desensitizing them to violence. There very well may be a strong connection there to actual violence.

CD: We’ve been doing many pieces on commercial drones at KCRW. People use them for aerial footage filming or for spraying pesticides on their crops but they also use them for things as silly as walking the dog. Did Drones address this at all?

WH: No, the movie does not address commercial drones. I think there are specific uses for them that are beneficial but I don’t think delivering an Amazon package the same day by drone is at all necessary and I have no idea how the FAA would monitor the airspace.

CD: What do you think the future of drone movies is going to be for actors? Are we moving toward tech guys in a control room or will we still have those classic Top Gun action movies?

WH: I think we’re definitely trending toward the remote control thing. You know it was kind of attractive in the beginning, I thought. You don’t put the pilots in danger. But then just imagine what it’s going to be like when all these different countries have drones and the ability to kill anybody without any kind of risk.

You can find out how to watch the movie Drones here.