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No movie has flown higher than “Top Gun: Maverick” this year, with the summer blockbuster still running in theaters as the top-grossing film of 2022 and the most financially successful vehicle of Tom Cruise’s career. Now the movie is flying home, with an Aug. 23 digital release, just ahead of football season.

It’s fitting, according to one of Cruise’s co-stars, because of an underrated reason for “Top Gun: Maverick’s” success: sports.

Greg “Tarzan” Davis, who plays Lt. Javy “Coyote” Machado, one of the F-18 pilots at the TOPGUN program under Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) in the film, is a former running back from Edna Karr High School, which produced NFL talent like Patrick Surtain Sr. and Robert Royal. He’s good friends with wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, his former LSU classmates.

He recently joined CBS Sports for an exclusive interview. Here’s Davis on everything from his own NFL dreams, his pivot to Hollywood, Tom Cruise becoming his mentor and where “Top Gun: Maverick” is set to launch his career:

Note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. Should we be calling you Tarzan, or Greg?

Davis: Yes, yes, yes, (Tarzan). My mama calls me Greg. Is it true that the name comes from the long hair you once had?

Davis: It came from me being — other people would say ‘bad,’ I say ‘wild,’ I like to redefine terms — and that’s where it came from, as well as me having long hair. And it stuck with me, especially as I was going into this industry, where I’m like, ‘I need to stand out, and Greg is pretty boring.’ So Tarzan it is! Did the long hair come off specifically for “Top Gun: Maverick”?

Davis: No, it came off before. I had been growing my locks for 14, 15 years. … (Eventually, I) had trouble sleeping because of it. The moment I cut my hair, three months later, I end up booking “Top Gun,” and I was like, that’s the best decision I could’ve made. One of the most impressive things about “Maverick,” besides the emotional depth, is how real everything feels — the flights, the missions. Is it fair to equate your training for the movie to that of a professional athlete?

Davis: Oh yeah. A lot of us who were a part of the cast were former athletes who played in high school. … We were able to pull on that competitive nature, that competitive spirit and the training aspects … And Tom (Cruise) is also an athlete and a competitor himself. So he was able to create this program for us to be able to withstand the Gs and get into the cockpit. And we all started with baby steps. So it was like — you know, my favorite sport is football — so it was almost like, it started out with the offseason, then we all came for OTAs, and then we had the preseason, and then the actual regular season, and now we’re celebrating the Super Bowl, the championship, right now.

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Davis: Tom Cruise is the quarterback. He’s the coach. He’s the GM. He’s the owner. He’s all of it. But what makes him so cool, he wears every hat on this film, from actor to producer to all-around filmmaker, but he was in the trenches with us every step of the way. So you never felt like a disconnect of like, ‘Oh, he’s there and we’re here.’ He was like, ‘Nah, I’m here with y’all.’ So when it came down to doing the flight sequences, and actually going to the room to debrief what we had done, he would sit there and break down his mistakes. He would fly so much more than us, in order to show, like, ‘Hey, I’m trying to make sure this is correct, this is how it’s done, so I can come back and say, if this is where I effed up, y’all try not to do this.’ Or, ‘This worked well, y’all go ahead and see if you can do it as well.’ He set the bar. Your dad was a boxer, and you were a running back before attending LSU. How far did those athletic endeavors go, and did you ever have dreams or plans of going pro?

Davis: Yeah, what kid doesn’t wanna make it in the professional arena, you know? … Yeah, I dreamt about that all the time. Unfortunately God gave me talents in acting. And he didn’t give me the talent in football to make it to the league. But I’m happy. Because acting has always been my passion, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do since I was a child, but it also seemed like a far-fetched dream. But I’m able to apply everything that I learned in sports to this craft, and I think that’s why I’ve been so successful so far, with the discipline. Did you ever cross paths with Odell Beckham Jr. while at LSU?

Davis: Oh yeah, Odell’s my boy. Odell, Jarvis (Landry). So because New Orleans is so small, we played against ’em, we went to camps together in high school, and then we all went to LSU together. And then we all finally moved to L.A. (Odell) had a house out here, so during that time period, we was kicking it. Cool guy. So is Jarvis. Now I’m glad Jarvis is playing for the Saints — Who Dat, baby! Who Dat! Let’s go bring it home, hopefully we can get Odell to come down, come back home, and we can win ourselves a championship. And now you’re on their level, right, starring in a box-office smash?

Davis: So you grow up with these people, and you know you’re gonna make it. Like, there was no doubt in my mind that I was gonna make it to the level where I always wanted to be, where I have the fans, I’m taking pictures, signing autographs, doing interviews; I knew I was gonna make it there, it just took time. To see your peers make it there, I (would) sit there and I’m like, ‘I can’t wait, I can’t wait, I can’t wait.’ Because I watch them every Sunday. I’m watching their games. And to finally have them watch my movie, it’s like, yes! We did it. I still have a lot of work to go, but it is pretty cool.

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Davis: I grew up watching film in the cinema. My mom used to take me all the time. And to have this battle, like here’s streaming, which is amazing, I love it, but what I grew up on was going to the theater, and I don’t wanna lose that. So to be a part of something of this magnitude, where we’re ‘saving cinema,’ it’s incredible, to say I have that small piece of impact on peoples’ lives. I couldn’t conceptualize what it feels like because I’m still going through it, but hopefully 10, 15 years down the line, I can sit back and be like, ‘Wow! We did it.’ For normal people, what’s the most comparable thing to flying an F-18, which you did in the movie?

Davis: The closest thing that I can compare it to is a Formula 1 race, because they’re pulling Gs constantly, but then not everybody’s able to drive a Formula 1 car. So it’s really hard to sit there and say it’s like a roller coaster ride, because it’s not. No, you can’t put it in words the feeling when your face is (twisted) and it feels like you’re fighting for your life, because your vision slowly goes away and there’s like a tiny pin drop of light that you’re trying to fight to get back and get consciousness. I can’t describe it. You gotta be there to experience it.

After “Top Gun,” you’re already linked to “Mission: Impossible” with Tom Cruise, but with your athletic background, would you ever want to headline a sports movie? Who would you play? Odell?

Davis: (Laughs) Odell’s still writing his story right now … I mean, he’s a year older than me, so I don’t know if I’d be able to play him. Would I wanna play an athlete? Yeah. Just (to) make it full circle, me being an athlete, always wanting to be an actor, and getting to play both. That’s what’s so great about acting, you can play these different roles that you never thought you would be able to play. Like a fighter pilot, I never dreamt of being in an F-18. That wasn’t on my bucket list. It is now. It’s scratched off! What was it like working with Tom Cruise, and what’s something people don’t know about him?

Davis: What Tom has created is the superstar image, but he’s also a human. He’s also a person you can go to about anything. He’s the type of person who cares, who wants to have fun, who’s very competitive just like anybody would be. I mean, we’ve played games, I’ve had dinners at his house. And also, we had a conversation where I felt a certain type of way about something, and we sat there and talked it out, like he’s my real homie. It just shows how human he is. And i love the fact that he has, I guess, taken me in. I’m very fortunate to have him be my mentor. I’ve been acting for six years, and four of these years have been with him, and he’s set the bar high. Hopefully I can have a — not hopefully, I will have a 40-, 50, 60-plus-year career better than him. Better! Listen, I tell him that all the time, I’ll be like, ‘Tom, I’m gonna be better than you.’ He says, ‘Tarzan, I want you to.’

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What kind of games is Tom playing with you? Are we talking Twister? Monopoly?

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Davis: We played like little ‘Heads Up!’ games, we do a little dancing, karaoke, stuff like that, just like you would play! Normal stuff like that. And we’d have these dinners where they’d last like four or five hours, and we’re all just sitting around talking, just shooting the stuff. When you appear in the next “Mission: Impossible,” will you be punching with Tom Cruise, or punching him?

Davis: Oooh, that’s a good question. So when I see the movie, I’ll be able to let you know (laughs). I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. I gotta see the film. Is your goal to follow Tom’s trajectory as an action star?

Davis: I’ve always dreamed of being an action star growing up, but as I begin to mature in my career as an actor and an artist, I don’t wanna put a, ‘Hey, this is what I do.’ Because I can do everything. I’m talented. I practiced. I trained for this. Do I wanna follow his footsteps? No. … I mean, he’s created this lane for himself that nobody else is gonna be able to do. But I would like to come in and make my impact just like he did. Once it’s all said and done, once I retire from this industry, hopefully people are looking at me like Tom Cruise. You clearly have the confidence. So what keeps you grounded as you continue your career?

Davis: I don’t wanna say I come from nothing, but I come from a place where I had to work for everything. And at the end of the day, we’re all humans. People just have talents in certain areas. And I have a strong core group of friends and family who, if I ever caught myself going off the rails, they would humble me real quick. I have this saying, ‘I don’t get tired because I can’t get tired.’ I have too much to accomplish, I have these goals, and I know I wanna accomplish them, and that’s what I’m gonna do, at the end of the day.

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