THE NEW YORK TIMES: Glen Powell is absolutely willing to play the Hollywood game

Brooks Barnes
The New York Times
6 Min Read
Once ‘lucky to be cast as a dead body in a crime show’, Glen Powell is having a bona fide Hollywood moment.
Once ‘lucky to be cast as a dead body in a crime show’, Glen Powell is having a bona fide Hollywood moment. Credit: RYAN PFLUGER/NYT

Glen Powell has been having a bona fide Hollywood moment.

He stood nude on a cliff top with Sydney Sweeney in Anyone but You at Christmas. He is currently starring on Netflix in Hit Man, a comedy-drama-thriller-romance. And in July, Powell will be outrunning big-budget tornadoes in Twisters.

But a superstar in the making? I figured he was a dumb jock who coasted into a movie career on his all-American good looks.

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I met Powell, 35, for breakfast in April. Over the next 2 1/2 hours, a captivating person emerged: He dismantled my cynical assumptions one by one — starting with the notion that he had coasted into a movie career.

In fact, he struggled for years to gain a foothold in Hollywood. His first agency dropped him. “Lucky to be cast as a dead body in a crime show,” Powell was told after the split.

It also became clear why studios finally started to see Powell as a ticket-selling successor to Tom Cruise and other aging (or problematic) action stars: Powell has a sharp mind for business, and, at least for now, box-office dollars motivate him more than awards.

He has also acquired a bit more ruggedness with age, making him a more credible leading man.

“To be a lasting success in Hollywood, you have to make people money,” he said.

“You have to go: ‘Who is the audience for this? Are you giving people a reason to buy tickets?’ And if you don’t have a very clear answer, move on, no matter how much you may love the script or want to work with the director.”

Glen Powell struggled for years to gain a foothold in Hollywood.
Glen Powell struggled for years to gain a foothold in Hollywood. Credit: Ryan Pfluger/NYT

Powell continued. “Small, intimate movies are also on my bingo board of things I want to do,” he said.

“But rewatchable is an important word. This is where I think actors who want to be serious get it wrong. Flogging yourself and showing how tortured and serious you can be — people often don’t rewatch, which takes all the power out of it.”

You have to understand: Actors almost never talk this way. They usually insist their career plans involve “just letting things happen,” perhaps sensing that having box-office ambitions could set themselves up for failure. Powell is the opposite.

“If you want this career, part of your job — a big part — is doing everything you can to help sell your movies,” he said. “Doing publicity matters. You’ve got to give people a reason to care.”

In cahoots with Sweeney, his Anyone but You co-star, Powell aggressively worked the publicity circuit to support that film, resulting in a promotional campaign that bordered on performance art.

Anyone but You had a terrible opening ($6 million over three days) but went on to collect an astounding $220 million.

“I know it’s a lot,” he told me, speaking of his workload, “but I’m kind of going full tilt right now for a reason. There is a moment in Hollywood when you have political capital, and you have to spend it before you lose it.”

Powell has signed up for a dizzying number of projects (while passing on others — reluctantly, he said — including new chapters in the Jurassic Park and Jason Bourne franchises).

His movie docket includes Huntington, an A24 dramatic thriller, and Monsanto, a legal drama produced by Adam McKay (The Big Short).

Powell is also set to star in a remake of The Running Man, a minor Arnold Schwarzenegger hit from 1987, and perhaps in a retooled Heaven Can Wait, Warren Beatty’s 1978 body-swapping comedy.

His television jobs include a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid series for Amazon — with him in the Robert Redford role — and Chad Powers, a comedic Hulu series about a college football player.

Powell, of course, is also ready to get re-greased at a moment’s notice for Top Gun 3, after playing the cocky pilot Hangman in Top Gun: Maverick to wide acclaim. (A sequel to the sequel is in development at Paramount Pictures.)

And there are more films percolating: J.J. Abrams hasn’t directed a movie since 2019, but he has a secret project in the works and Powell is in talks to play the lead.

“I think Glen has just begun to scratch the surface of what he is capable of onscreen,” Abrams recently told The Hollywood Reporter, adding, “He’s not just an actor, but a legitimate writer and producer as well.”

Powell is ready to get re-greased at a moment’s notice for Top Gun 3.
Powell is ready to get re-greased at a moment’s notice for Top Gun 3. Credit: Ryan Pfluger/NYT

Powell helped produce Hit Man. The “dumb jock” (mea culpa!) also co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater.

They loosely based the script on a 2001 Texas Monthly article about a mild-mannered man who worked undercover for the Houston police as a pretend assassin. Over a decade, more than 60 people unsuspectingly hired him; he wore a wire to gather evidence to use against them in court.

The result is part screwball comedy and part Body Heat, with some Borat flavoring. Reviews have been through the roof, prompting early awards chatter.

“Glen is one of the most curious people I have ever met, which is part of what makes him a terrific collaborator,” his Hit Man costar Adria Arjona said.

“The script he wrote with Rick was so smart and so unlike anything I had read. He can produce. He acts incredibly. He has like eight or 12 abs. Glen has it all.”

Powell’s rise in Hollywood started in 2015 with Scream Queens, a comedy-horror television series. The show lasted only two seasons, but his performance as an oversexed college student turned heads.

“I remember saying to him at the end, ‘You are going to be a big, big movie star,’” Jamie Lee Curtis recalled.

Perhaps because Powell is from Texas (and has a slight twang to prove it), he is often likened to Matthew McConaughey. “Red meat for red states,” as one studio marketing executive described Powell to me.

Machismo is a Hollywood cliché for a reason: It works. Powell dials up that part of his personality as needed. “My job is not to debunk the fantasy, but rather to become the fantasy,” as his character says in Hit Man.

I was surprised to learn that Powell was a child actor. In 2003, when he was 14, he got his first movie role as “long-fingered boy” in Spy Kids 3: Game Over.

In 2006, his mother drove him to Shreveport, Louisiana, to audition for Denzel Washington, who was directing and starring in The Great Debaters.

Powell got the part — and a powerful agent: Ed Limato, who represented Washington. A year later, Limato called Powell in his dorm room at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Ed said, ‘If you’re going to spin the wheel on an acting career, now is the time to do it,’” Powell said.

So he dropped out of college and moved to Los Angeles in 2008. But Limato died two years later, leaving Powell without an advocate.

Glen Powell was a child actor, getting his start at 14.
Glen Powell was a child actor, getting his start at 14. Credit: Ryan Pfluger/NYT

It was a rough time for the young Texan, who supported himself through coaching community sports and small acting jobs (a Dockers commercial, an episode of The Lying Game, a cable series).

Powell regained his footing, first with Scream Queens and then with small but notable roles in Hidden Figures and Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!

Not long after Powell moved to Los Angeles, Limato introduced him to Lynda Obst — a fellow Texan and a movie producer. She hired Powell as an intern; it was how he learned how Hollywood runs.

“He was adorable — charm off the charts,” Obst recalled. “But that is not what impressed me, and it’s not why he is succeeding.”

She said: “Actors can turn on charm but they can’t turn on intelligence. Glen is smart and learned about developing scripts and the structure of movies. It made him independent and wily.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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