The movie “Top Gun: Maverick” is roaring to record heights. Jay Ellis’ profile is soaring into the stratosphere right along with it.
Ellis, an actor who spent a significant and meaningful chunk of his youth in Tulsa, plays lt. Reuben “Payback” Fitch in the film. He attended seventh grade at Carver Middle School and eighth grade at Byrd Middle School before spending his freshman-sophomore years at Booker T. Washington High School and his junior-senior years at Metro Christian Academy.
Ellis said during a Wednesday interview he just wants to make stuff people like (“Top Gun: Maverick” has surpassed $200 million at the box office), and he said he always thinks about home when doing it.
“I always say so much of the roles I take and so much of the projects I do, and even why I act, so much of it is influenced by my time in Tulsa and my experiences in Tulsa, my friendships and playing basketball there, Ellis said.
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“The first theater class (at Carver Middle School) I ever took was in Tulsa. So much of Tulsa is in everything I do and also how I make choices as an actor and just as a person. I am forever grateful for my time there.”
Ellis came to Tulsa in junior high because his father took a job with American Airlines. He said his mother worked at BOK for many years and was COO of the mortgage group before his parents joined him in LA He said he comes back to Tulsa two or three times a year.
Ellis is working on a book that will be out next May. He said the book is “just a bunch of stories from my childhood all the way through high school, so I’m super excited to share that. There is plenty of Tulsa in that book.”
In the meantime, here are excerpts from a phone Q&A:
You attended 12 schools in 13 years because of your family’s military background. That had to have been difficult, but there was something gained by the relocations and going to all those different places?
“Yeah. You know, it’s tough because I’m an only child. So when I was moving around, I was always having to restart friendships and relationships and schools and sports. I’d have to restart all that stuff by myself. So that was the tough part of it, but my parents were really good about just being consistent. They always had me in some activity. They pushed school first and then sports.
“But you know, as I got older, I think the thing that I took away from it is, every school that I went to, I got to be a different version of me — like I got to test out a new character trait to see if it would work at that school. I got to be the cool guy one school year. The next year, I got to be the athlete. The next year, I got to be the bookworm. And I just kind of tested stuff out and explored character before I even knew I was exploring character. Full circle years later, I walk into a room and I feel comfortable in any room because I feel like I’ve just had so many introductory conversations with folks that it doesn’t bother me.”
In a way, you were kind of acting before you were acting?
“I definitely think so. I 100% think I was definitely acting before I was acting. Again, I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. I was just either watching something on TV and being like, ‘Oh, I want to do that tomorrow when I go to school.’ Or you see the dynamics in a class and who’s cool and who’s not cool and who’s the athlete and who’s the bookworm. (You see) the smart kid table and who are the actors. And so the thing that I think I picked up most from moving around to all those schools is just really being observant of people and studying people and sitting back and realizing, ‘Oh, I could do that’ or ‘I like that’ or ‘ I want to be like that’ and then going and trying it and acting it to some degree.”
Because you spent your middle school and high school years in Tulsa, do you consider Tulsa to be more of a home than other places you lived as a kid?
“Yeah. You know, I always say Tulsa to me feels like — it’s where most of my memories lie. It’s all my firsts — my first kiss, my first time driving, my first dunk in a basketball game. Like all of my firsts are in Tulsa. Still to this day, five or six of my closest friends growing up all still live in Tulsa. My grandmother is there. I have cousins there. So Tulsa is definitely home to me.”
Why did you go from Booker T. Washington to Metro Christian when you had already made some friends at Booker T. Washington?
“It was insanely competitive sports-wise over there. I think that was No. 1, which I actually really enjoyed because I love competition. I’m a competitor at heart. So that was a lot of fun, but there’s only so many spots and I really wanted to go play college basketball. I felt like I had enough as a player that if I really got the chance to go play somewhere and start and really be able to have an effect on the game that maybe I would get a shot to go play college basketball. And so that’s ultimately what I did. That was my big reason for moving was literally just to give myself a shot at going to play in college.”
(Booker T. Washington’s basketball teams were loaded with major college talent at the time. Ellis played on a state tournament qualifier his first season at Metro Christian and was an honorable mention all-metro selection as a senior in 2000. Former Oklahoma State and NBA guard Brooks Thompson coached Metro Christian during Ellis’ senior season and called him a “great player” after a regular-season victory over Holland Hall.
I know why your name is Payback in “Top Gun: Maverick.” You still want to pay back Pocola for knocking you out of the state tournament when you were a junior.
“Oh, man. I will never forget that game. I remember the hotel room. I remember the night before. I remember driving over to the gym. I remember every single thing about that game. I would love to get them paid back for that.”
Do you feel like it was your destiny to be in “Top Gun: Maverick” since your father and grandfather have Air Force history?
“I’ve got to tell you, man, if it’s not (destiny), it’s the biggest coincidence in history. It definitely feels that way. I was a huge fan of the original. I saw the original as a kid living on Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas, and the theater was packed and I just remember staring at that screen and I was like, ‘oh, I want to do that.’ And I didn’t know if it was acting. I didn’t know if it was flying. I didn’t know what it was, to be honest with you. But to have two or three generations of my family now in the Air Force and in aviation and then come full circle to be in this movie, man, what a blessing. What an absolute blessing. It’s what you dream of as a kid and it actually happens. It’s just one for the books, man. It’s amazing.”
It feels like you being in this movie is life-changing and career-changing.
“It’s definitely life-changing and career-changing. I’ve been really fortunate. I’ve had a really good run. I’ve done two series now that have been super successful. My most recent series, ‘Insecure’ on HBO, was just honored by the TV Academy and was always in awards contention and got a ton of critical acclaim. And you go and make this little movie that is a sequel to a movie that is beloved and you want to do right by it. You want to make sure that you’re representing the men and women who sacrificed their life and their time away from their family every single day to protect our country. You want to make sure you are representing them right and then you also want to make sure that you are being respectful and protective of what (director) Tony Scott created with that original film and then you get a chance to do it, which is an absolutely amazing experience, obviously, going to work every single day with Tom (Cruise) and (producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Christopher McQuarrie) and Joe Kosinski, our director.
“And then it sits for a couple years because of the pandemic and you’re just waiting for that thing to come out for the world to see it because we knew how good it was. We were in it. We were so excited. The first time we saw it, we were like, ‘oh my god, this is so special.’ And then for it to come out and have this kind of response, which is way more than what we could have imagined or hoped for, it’s crazy, man. The amount of calls and phone calls and emails and text messages I’ve gotten from people in this industry, from people I grew up with from traveling all over the place, from people from Tulsa, it’s insane. It’s definitely a career-changer and a life-changer.”
There is some risk involved when making a sequel because you don’t want to ruin a legacy, but “Top Gun: Maverick” has gone the other way. It’s the biggest opening weekend success of Cruise’s career and the biggest Memorial Day release ever. Can you put your finger on why people love the movie?
“There’s so much. There’s the nostalgia factor, right? People loved that original and they’ve been waiting for (a sequel) for a long time, so I think that’s a big piece of it. You know, you really want to see where Maverick ended up and where he’s at today, and we pick up with where he’s at today. I think Tom did such an amazing job and McQ, who wrote it, and Joe, who directed it, did such an amazing job of making sure that this film felt familiar, but it was also new and of our time. I think that’s kind of the secret sauce is making sure that we are respectful and even honoring the original film in a few places.
“Joe did a really amazing job of that with some shot selection. The opening of the film, for example is a prime example of that, but then also making sure that you’re introducing a new class. We’re in a new world. It’s obviously not 1985 anymore, and we are in a very different world. And I think these guys did such an amazing job of keeping us on this line of being respectful and honoring the original, but also making sure we’re creating our own lane because there’s a new audience out there who’s going to come to this who will be attracted to that. It’s this alchemy that created gold. It’s absolutely amazing. It’s a pressure that created a diamond.”
You were ready for this moment?
“Yeah, man. I feel like I’ve been here waiting, you know? I’ve been ready for it. … I have always said I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be because there’s something for me to learn from the moment that I’m in and grow. But I know where I want to be going and I know to get where I want to go I also have to be present and be in this moment, but never forget what the end goal is. I feel like I’ve been here. I’ve been doing it. I’ve been working, I’ve been keeping my head down. I’ve been focused on the thing. This is where I want to be with the biggest movie in the world, making movies with Tom Cruise, making action movies, making movies that thousands of people (see). I think it was on 25,000 screens last weekend. That’s a lot of people. I love entertaining people. I love storytelling. I love when people are on the edge of their seat or have their hands covering their face or they are gasping or laughing or crying. I love doing that and being part of projects that do that, so I feel like I’ve been ready for this and I’m where I’m supposed to be right now and I’m just going to keep moving and keep going forward .”