"I tell Tom [Cruise] this all the time: 'I’m trying to be better than you!' And he says, 'I want you to be. That’s the point.'
It’s been a long and winding road for Top Gun: Maverick and Mission Impossible 7. Repeatedly buffeted by the pandemic, both films fell victim to the same Covid-related delays. The former was pushed back two years from its originally intended release date. And in addition to Tom Cruise, both films star Greg Tarzan Davis. In Top Gun, the NOLA native plays Coyote, one of the new generation of U.S. Navy fighter pilots Cruise’s titular character is charged with training. Davis’ role in the latter is yet unknown, but this much seems certain: his career is ready for another takeoff.
In the interest of getting to know Davis a whole lot better, we shadowed the actor at his Los Angeles home as he piloted the kitchen for a day of baking. This is Second Nature: Anthem’s new ongoing feature series that’s intended to help dispel feelings of distant unfamiliarity to our select interview subjects by burrowing deep into their lesser-known, second—not secondary—passions.
Top Gun: Maverick opens on May 27th. Mission Impossible 7 arrives in the summer of 2023.
[Editor’s Note: The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]
So what are we baking today, Tarzan?
We’re making an Ooey Gooey cake. It’s a New Orleans dessert that I grew up eating. My mom would make it, and I would usually get it after church. It’s very, very sweet. I love sweet foods.
What else do you bake?
So, there is a tradition: for every birthday, my mom makes me a pineapple upside-down cake. That’s my favorite cake ever. But I don’t make that—I’ve helped my mom bake it. I love making carrot cake, banana nut bread, chocolate cake… I make everything, because I’m good at baking!
Do you enjoy cooking as well?
No, cooking is boring! It’s a tedious task. What I like about baking is, it’s like arts and crafts. The way you make it is messy. It’s a beautiful mess that tastes amazing. Baking is fun to do to kill time. But if you ask me to cook for you, I’m gonna say no.
Coming from NOLA to LA, you must have pretty high standards when it comes to food.
Oh man, it’s a culture shock. There are a lot of different food options out here in LA and I’ve never been the kind of person to shy away from different foods, but when it comes down to the foods that I’m accustomed to eating, like home-cooked meals and going to restaurants, it’s not the same. The seasoning is not there, and we season our food a lot where I’m from. But I do enjoy the food in California. I love Chinese food, Mediterranean, and everything like that.
Whenever I travel from South Korea to Koreatown, I don’t ever crave the Korean food here.
Exactly! Listen—I don’t go to seafood places out here. I mean, the only time I’ve been to a seafood place anywhere else outside of New Orleans was in London because I like their fish and chips. LA’s Hot N Juicy? It’s not the same. It’s not the same as the food back home so I don’t do it.
I know you love burgers.
I love burgers.
Have you found good burgers in LA?
Oof… Have I found like an official burger spot I’ll go to every time out here? No, not yet. I’m still searching for that. A lot of people like In-N-Out, but I can’t do an In-N-Out burger. My mom gets mad at me when I tell her this, but this is the thing: with filming, I’ll go to different locations like Rome, Norway, London and everything, and I’m always ordering a burger. In Norway, we were at this fantastic hotel and they really catered to you. They were giving us fancy foods every night, but I was like, “Tonight, can I just have a burger?” They were like, “Sorry, but we don’t serve burgers.” But then they went to the store and bought all the ingredients. They didn’t even have real hamburgers so it was veal I had to eat, and I thought that was an amazing burger! You should go to that hotel and try it out. It’s the Storfjord Hotel so shout out to them.
How did your nickname, Tarzan, come about?
When I was younger, I was wild. I wouldn’t say I was a crazy child, but I was adventurous. I was climbing on stuff, and I had long hair. So it started out when my family called me that. And when I was going into social media, I was like, “Greg is so boring.” You probably didn’t even know that Greg is my name at first, huh? It was probably told to you and you forgot it, because it’s boring! [laughs] I needed something that was going to stick out. Now that I cut my hair, people are like, “Why are you Tarzan?” That’s when I show them a picture and they’re like, “Ohhh, okay. I get it.”
Does Tom [Cruise] call you Tarzan?
I don’t see why he wouldn’t! That’s the question people ask: “Does Tom Cruise call you Tarzan?” Yeah, he calls me that! That’s my name! I hope people call me by my name! [laughs]
I scrolled through your Instagram and it was wild seeing pictures of you with your students from when you were an elementary school teacher. That wasn’t even that long ago.
Because this happened rather fast for you, some people must think, “Well, he got lucky.” But I know you worked hard for it. You’ve talked about sacrifices in the past. When I heard that you used to commute from NOLA to Chicago for auditions, that’s insane.
I was actually leading with ignorance because I didn’t know any better. Now, five or six years into my career, if somebody said, “Drive to Chicago for an audition for a co-star role that you may not get,” I would look at them and say hell no. Because I understand it now. I didn’t understand anything back then. Ignorance is bliss. The ignorance of not understanding what I do now allowed me to go after something, and it was something I wanted. I just went all out to get it. I wasn’t getting roles or auditions in New Orleans and that was an opportunity. There was no alternative so I was gonna make sure I was present for that opportunity. I don’t believe in risk ‘cause risk means you have a chance of losing. Every time I drove to Chicago, although it was very tough, I believed I was going to win, you know? Eventually, that turned into me winning. I booked Chicago P.D. Then I booked a pilot, which led to me saying, “I’m going to California to fight with the big fish.”
Was the career switch a hard one to make?
It was hard because I do love kids and I left them in the middle of the year to pursue this dream. I was asked to stay and teach once I finished college and stuff. But I was like, “Naw, I need to chase it now.” When something in your heart is telling you to go after it, you don’t want to dismiss it because you’ll live with regrets. I felt like, “Yo, I’m young! Why not go for it right now? I can make my mistakes.” Funnily enough, I said I was gonna give myself two years to do acting and then realized, “If I put a time limit on this acting thing, I wouldn’t be where I’m at.” I’ve been blessed to say yes to the right things, to be open, to be prepared for every opportunity that came about. Now, I’m here interviewing with you.
It must be mind-blowing for those students to witness. Actions speak louder than words, right? You’re not just telling them to go for it—you’re proving to them that this works.
Listen—I talk a lot, Imma tell you that. But I always say, “If you’re gonna talk, you better back it up.” I like to lead by example. I’m not afraid to tell my goals or say what I’m going to accomplish. It’s not just, “I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do that.” I’ll let you know because I feel like you’re going to hold me accountable. I say it out there and I intend for the person who’s listening to hold me accountable. If I’m going back on my own words or if I changed my goals, then it wasn’t one for me to have. I’m a man of my word. I’m actually going to be seeing the kids soon. I’m going to premiere Top Gun for them in New Orleans.
I’m sure that will be incredibly meaningful.
I knew I was setting an example. When I was leaving, I said, “I’m following my dreams.” I go back to get updates on them and to give them updates on me. Hopefully, them seeing me do what I said I was gonna do, they’re motivated to do the same with their lives, their dreams, their goals.
When did you first want to act?
My mom used to take me to the movies every weekend. That was our bonding experience. When I was five or six, I remember watching Denzel Washington on TV, saying, “I want to do that!” I would watch Will Smith, going, “I want to make people laugh!” I didn’t understand the concept of putting a camera on me because my little brain didn’t understand that there was a camera pointed at them. I was just like, “I’m gonna do this for my family, at school, and on stage. I’m gonna entertain people.” I ended up having this on and off desire for acting growing up until finally in my last year of college, I said, “I’m gonna go for it.”
Your grandmother also took you to local plays, didn’t she?
Let me tell you a story about my grandma. She used to take me to plays all the time. I remember seeing this play at Anthony Bean Studio in New Orleans. The actors on stage were freakin’ amazing to me. I was like, “Wow! I want to do that stuff! I can’t wait! I can do it better than them! Give me a chance!” She was like, “You do? I’m gonna set up a meeting with Anthony Bean.” I was like, “Don’t do it! No, I’m not ready just yet.” So the play ends and I’m talking to the older actors and getting their autographs in my little playbook. Then I hear, “That’s my grandson right there. He ‘bout to perform for you.” And I’m not a shy person at all, but in that moment, I was put on the spot. Anthony Bean stared at me and said, “You got something for me? Do something.” I didn’t know what to do… He said to my grandmother, in front of me, “He’s not ready. He wouldn’t make it here.” I was devastated and I was so P’d off at my grandma for putting me on the spot like that. I didn’t think I would ever get the chance to be an actor after that. How the tides have changed! [laughs] I can’t wait to see Anthony Bean again and do something for him. I ain’t shy no more!
You’re also big on sports. Did you ever think about becoming a pro athlete?
Yeah, I wanted to play in the NFL. But those dreams were dashed really quickly when I realized I was too small and not fast enough. I mean, I worked my behind off to get on the field. I played starter a little bit. Coach Juluke is another person who contributed to this entertainment thing because I used to be the comedian on the team. He was like, “If football don’t work out for you, you can definitely be an entertainer.” That sticks with me. I loved sports. I’m a very competitive person and I think that translates to this acting thing, too. It’s just a competitive nature deep inside me. You gotta walk in a room—everywhere—as if you’re the greatest.
Having this intense competitive streak inside of you, are you very tough on yourself?
Yeah… I mean, I have to be tough on myself. Whether it’s my performance or interviews or pictures or whatever, I can’t really see it because I am tough on myself. I have a great team—a great family—that surrounds me, and I tell them, “Can y’all do it for me?” It’s something I’ve been working to, I guess, correct: being able to celebrate the victories when I always want more. I’m always like, “Somebody else is behind, trying to outwork me.” And my thing is, I don’t get tired. I don’t want nobody to think they can outwork me because that’s where I thrive. That’s why I am where I am today—hard work—and there’s so much that I need to accomplish. That competitive nature is gonna keep me going. I am the greatest. The world just hasn’t realized it yet.
When did that mantra become a guiding force in your life?
I had it for a long time. Actually, a rapper from New Orleans said it in a song and I loved that. His name is Kevin Gates. And I didn’t even like him as a rapper before that. I hated him as a rapper, actually. But in one of his songs, he was like, “Imma be your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper.” I was like, “That’s kinda clever.” I ended up watching his grinding and his hustle, and I was like, “Man, I like that. I love that. I respect him.” We have mentors all around, whether you’re speaking to ‘em in person or you’re watching videos and stuff like that. I used him as like a beacon to keep me going: “If he made me like him, I’m going to make the world love me.” So that’s where “I don’t get tired ‘cause I can’t get tired” comes from. When I say it, people think, “Oh, he doesn’t sleep?” Naw, I get my sleep—sometimes. But it’s more so about, when things are tough and things are hard, you have to be able to push through it. It’s about not quitting. It’s about seeing it through to the end, even if you don’t wanna do it. It’s about accomplishing your goals.
When did you move out to LA?
I moved here in June 2017.
And when did you book Top Gun?
I ended up booking Top Gun in September 2018, which was freakin’ cool.
Whenever you get a chance to display yourself, you need to display the best part of yourself. At all times. Don’t ever walk into a situation thinking that a moment is too small or something isn’t good enough, where you just half-ass it. Every time you step outside, you want to be at your very best because you never know what opportunities will arise from that. This was the case with Top Gun. I went in for a role for The Call of the Wild, which was for a four or five line part. My team got it for me. I could’ve easily said, “Man, what is goin’ on?” ‘cause in my mind, I want to be a serious regular lead! I wanna be a lead in a freakin’ movie! I am good enough to do it! I wasn’t… But in my mind, in the moment, I’m like, I am good enough to do that, to compete with the big of the big! I’m like, “Denzel’s not doing this. Will Smith’s not doing this. Tom Cruise is not doing this. None of these people are doing this!” But instead, I said, “I’m going in for [casting director] Denise Chamian and taking this seriously.” And I did. Buju [Tarzan’s mini labradoodle] actually helped me prepare ‘cause there was a dog in that scene. He helped me book the role. I went in there with this mindset: “I’m gonna book this role. I’m gonna leave that impression.” And they called me back and told me I got the role, and Denise said, “I also want you to come in for another role, which is top secret.” That was for Top Gun. I eventually went in for the director, Joe [Konsinski], and we had a nice conversation. They told me that Tom was watching me on tape and that was enough for me. I was like, “If I don’t book the role, at least Tom Cruise saw my face. When I work with him down the line, I’ll be like, ‘Remember when you saw my face? Yeah. I saw yours all my life and now you seein’ mine!’” [laughs] When I was finishing up on The Call of the Wild, I got a call from my agent and manager and they just played the theme song for Top Gun. That’s how they told me I booked it. So the moral to this story is, always give it your all.
I was always curious about Joseph Kosinski. I cold emailed him once, wanting to be his director’s assistant. I was surprised he wrote back because he didn’t have any reason to.
Dude, what the hell! That’s dope, man. When I see him, Imma remind him of that, is that okay? Let me tell you—he’s a really good guy. I really love Joe. I guess I was kinda nervous at first. I mean, he’s my first big-time director. But he makes you feel comfortable. And he’s a freakin’ genius. You know. You like his work. You’ve seen his work. He’s really, really good. He’s a cool guy.
Your character is named Coyote. Is that the character you originally auditioned for?
I don’t think so. I went in for different roles. I can’t remember. Dang, this was so long ago!
How have you been dealing with all the delays? Not only with Top Gun, but also with MI7?
Everything happens for a reason, and sometimes you don’t know what that reason is in that moment, which can be very, very frustrating. We got pushed back five times [with Top Gun], from 2020 to ’21 to ’22. The first time it was delayed, I was bummed out ‘cause I was like, “Yes, this is my moment! Finally, the world is gonna see me in action! Let’s go!” I was heartbroken. I was devastated. But it was also during the time of the pandemic so it was easy to understand why. And then when we had hope that it would come out again, I was hearing word from my team like, “But here are the numbers of cases for Covid” and all of that. So, it hurt, but it wasn’t as bad. And by the third and fourth time? I was like, “Just let me know…” [laughs] Also, during that time period, I got a call from McQ, Christopher McQuarrie, about working on Mission Impossible 7. Now I have two movies coming out a year apart. It’s kinda cool to know that it’s not radio silence, that I have something in the future. I’m very blessed for that. I’m very appreciative and thankful for that.
When do you imagine you’ll start talking about MI7 more openly in the way of details?
If we can stick with this schedule of a June or July 2023 release date… I honestly don’t know. Right now, the focus is Top Gun. If I were to say anything [about MI7], like even my character’s name? I think Tom would probably bust through this window right now and take me out! If y’all wanna meet Tom, I can say something right now. I don’t think y’all gonna like that!
Top Gun is for sure happening now. I mean, it’s getting a world premiere at Cannes.
Top Gun better happen now! [laughs] You know how many messages I receive from people as if I run Paramount, like I could release the movie? People were heartbroken: “It was gonna release on my birthday and y’all pushed it!” All you can say is, “Sorry! It will be very much worth the wait!”
When you signed on for Top Gun—and MI7 and whatever that entailed for you—did they discuss what would be expected of you, like flying the F-18? Was that already on the table?
I think it was on the table for the other pilots. It wasn’t necessarily on the table for me. I went into the movie thinking I was gonna be flying in a jet and going through the whole process because I saw the behind-the-scenes of the first Top Gun. But when I started filming, that wasn’t the case. I wasn’t involved in any of the flying sequences. I won’t lie, I was disappointed. I wanted to learn how to fly a plane. I looked at it like, “Yo, you’re in Top Gun working with the greatest actor, with a big studio on a blockbuster film. Let me take advantage of it. Let me make the most of it.” I went in there with my head held high. I went in and did my job every single day with enthusiasm and as an open book, trying to learn from Tom and anybody ‘cause I worked with a lot of veteran actors on this film. I was one of the youngest. Me and maybe one or two other guys on the cast hadn’t done much work. That was like my first real movie. Then all of a sudden, Courtney Coker, our training liaison, was like, “Tarzan, you’re about to start flying.” Basically, my part increased. I was more involved. I got more lines. Now I’m going through more of the training with the other pilots, which was very freakin’ intense because I have to catch up to everything that they had done previously. So it wasn’t on the table for me until then. Knee-deep, I wasn’t gonna turn it down. Tom has this infectious energy like, “You can do it if I can do it.” You don’t quite believe it, though, because the stuff he’s doing is unbelievable. I was just very excited to have the chance to get up there with the other guys—and gal, Monica [Barbaro]—to fly and learn.
So the footage we see of you guys flying in jets from the trailer, that’s all real?
Everything you see in the trailer is really us in the cockpit, pulling Gs. So we have front seaters maneuvering and we’re in the backseat, you know, dying. It’s really hard. Tom prepared us for the flight sequences, to get in those jets. When you’re flying, you have to look into the horizon to settle your stomach. We were getting very sick. It was terribly fun. If I could do it again, I would.
You had to get used to the Gs?
We had to get used to the Gs. We were working with a great guy named Chuck Coleman. He was our flight guy in The Extra 300, which was tough. If we didn’t do The Extra 300, I don’t think we would’ve been able to do the F-18 ‘cause that really messes your body up. After you’re done pulling the Gs and stuff, you come home and you just wanna sleep because you feel like you just got into a fight with Mike Tyson. Your body is sore and your blood is displaced. You’re just shivering all over. It takes the whole day for your blood to actually come back to the extremities.
Did they also put you guys underwater?
Yes, that was a military requirement to get inside the F-18, just in case the jet goes down over water or something. We need to know how to get out from underwater. We had to train for all of that. We worked with Michael Phelps’ swim coach. He taught us how to swim. Tom doesn’t play! Dude, let me tell you about Tom Cruise: he’s one of the greatest human beings you’ll ever meet. He has taught me so much. If you meet him, he shows an interest in you. And he’s the biggest freakin’ movie star in the world. The biggest thing!
So he’s approachable.
Yeah. Now, keep in mind, he’s working all the time.
He sounds like a great role model, too.
He’s a great role model. I’m blessed to have somebody like that. Your first impression is everything obviously, right? So somebody else could’ve molded my idea and my paradigm and my perspective on what this industry looks like. I was fortunate enough to have him to mold my perspective. I’m looking at it, basically, through his lens: “What would Tom do? How would Tom handle this situation?” I’ve turned down roles because of him. I mean, I’m not trying to do everything he does. There’s also, “Tom would do that, but that’s Tom. I’m gonna do it Tarzan’s way.” The coolest thing is the stories he tells about the people he’s worked with back in the past.
Paul Newman! That’s one of my favorite actors. He was like, “Paul Newman was one of the sweetest people you could ever meet.” He said Paul Newman was cool.
They probably raced cars together, too.
He told me about that, too. They had some good times on [The Color Of Money]. I tell Tom this all the time: “I’m trying to be better than you!” And he says, “I want you to be. That’s the point.”
Can he outrun you?
Dude, Tom is a beast. I was like, “Damn, we should race each other!” I wasn’t expecting him to move like that.
Well, he’s famous for his running.
Yeah, he’s badass. He’s fast. You don’t expect it, and not just for his age. He takes care of his body. He got me more conscious of what I’m eating and how to take care of my body better and stuff like that. I’m doing a lot more to take care of myself. If he’s the example and he’s telling you, “This is what I did to get here,” why would I say, “Oh no, he don’t know what he’s talking about”?
I always guessed that Tom would want people around that are as game as he is.
He’s very, very detailed. He loves to know what you’re willing to do. He would never force you to do anything you don’t want to do—don’t get that wrong. And I’m not saying that if you don’t want to do it, you won’t get the job. It’s like, “Let’s go! Are you down for this? Are you committed to making this movie? Are you gonna give all that you can to make this movie?” He enjoys that. It’s just like any other great person—competitor, artist, basketball player, football player, singer, rapper—who wants to be the very best, and he shows it. It’s one thing to read about it. Before I got the Top Gun job, I was reading this book called Elite Minds, which focused on Michael Jordan, and Tim Grover [Jordan’s former personal trainer] mentions Tom Cruise in the book. I had this surreal feeling: “I’m reading this book about what it takes to be ‘elite’ and I go to work and I’m seeing it in real life, in real time.” I’m seeing Tom Cruise display everything this man says. I’m seeing what Michael Jordan displays, what every other great human being on this planet displays. That was like, “Wow.” That’s how you set examples for people—not just talking about it. Anybody can pick up a book like, “This sounds nice.” But then they let it go. This is a masterclass.
Yeah, you’re witness to a real-world example of it.
Real world. Tangible. Then I’m able to also practice what he’s doing. I’ve been in this industry for six years now and four of those years have been spent with Tom Cruise. That’s pretty freakin’ cool, man. He’s been a great mentor and a great friend throughout all of this, man.
Speaking of the real world, weren’t you at one time considered for The Real World?
[laughs] Listen, listen, listen… Oh man, it got hot! I was a social media entertainer. I don’t like to use the word “influencer” because I wasn’t influencing nobody. So I was like, “Let’s get more followers!” I thought The Real World and doing reality TV would be my way into becoming a big-time actor. Social media people were getting roles and stuff. I went through the whole trials and was in the final round to get the job. I ended up not getting it. I also went out for another reality TV show, too. I was in the process of doing that because I stayed in contact with the producer. He would hit me up with all kinds of different stuff. He liked whatever it is I was doing. He was like, “I got this great show for you. You should definitely be a part of it. We want you.” Then I was talking to my manager, Lisa DiSante-Frank. She was very, very supportive obviously. I mean, she’s my manager! We had just started working together, too. But without saying, “No!” she was like, “I don’t know…” And I’m telling her, “No, no, no, no, no. This is how I’m gonna spin it off. I know that reality TV tries to create the image for you, but I’m Tarzan! I’m gonna make them create this image!” Luckily, she talked me out of it. I was like, “That’s okay. I don’t wanna do it.” Wow, dude… If I would’ve went down that route, I wouldn’t be doing Top Gun or Mission Impossible. I wouldn’t be doin’ none of this stuff! You just brought it back. I forgot all about that past life I had.
I can see why they wanted you—you’re larger than life. But that would’ve changed your trajectory. You’re in a sweet spot right now. It all plays into how things unfolded. You said earlier that everything happens for a reason. There are all these forks in the road.
Exactly. It’s about what you want out of life. I always ask people this: where do you see yourself in ten years, and what are your ten-year goals? If something doesn’t align with your ten-year goals, then you shouldn’t be doing it. You only do things that’s gonna propel you forward. I learned that throughout my career. The decisions I made, both good and bad—and I don’t even say “bad,” so both good and lessons—have helped me get to where I am. It’s important to be selective, and to be educated on these types of things. My ignorance was telling me, “Social media is the new thing so of course I’m gonna get a TV role or a movie role. That’ll be easy!” But that’s not always the case. Just be very, very, very, very selective and understand where you wanna end up.
What are your ten-year goals now?
[Tarzan steps out and reappears with an Oscar replica in his hand.] This right here. It says, “Future award to Greg Tarzan Davis. Speaking it to existence. 2017.” I got this as soon as I moved out to California. I kiss this every morning when I wake up and I say my acceptance speech in the mirror. So this is the goal. I’m gonna have six Oscars, a billion dollars, and a production company. I want to be a director. I’m gonna have my nonprofit, Perfect Your Craft, travel kids all around the world because I didn’t start really becoming who I was until I started traveling. New Orleans is very small and we are very small-minded in the city. It’s rich in culture and that’s all we like—why would we want anything else? Our culture and our food are so strong! Then I started traveling. I moved to California. I went to Chicago. I went across the world and god damn! My mind expanded even more when I had thought I conquered everything. I went to Europe and realized I don’t know nothing. Every day, I realize I don’t know nothing. So my goals are… It’s a long list. You should’ve started off with this question! I would’ve filled this whole interview! [laughs]
You’re on your way.
We’re definitely on the way. I agree with you on that!