A couple of hours before I’m due to speak to Jennifer Connelly, I’m asked to push the time back by half an hour. It’s the annual puppet parade at her daughter Agnes’ school, which had to be re-arranged due to poor weather. Her puppet? A train. “It was a group of kids and they had made a train,” explains Connelly, every bit the proud mum, when we hook up over Zoom. She’s in Brooklyn Heights, in the lush-looking townhouse that she shares with her British husband, actor Paul Bettany, and their children.
Behind her, the doorway opens out onto a living space, where I can see the back of a peach-coloured sofa, a round mirror on the wall and an Anglepoise lamp. Tasteful, graceful, low-key – words that could also apply to Connelly, a Hollywood star who has effortlessly managed a near 40-year career, starring with everyone from David Bowie to Russell Crowe, Jared Leto to Joaquin Phoenix. Along the way, there was an Oscar win for A Beautiful Mind, where she first met Bettany.
Now she’s about to top it all with Top Gun: Maverick, the exhilarating, fist-pumping sequel to the 1986 Tom Cruise classic about daredevil pilots in the US Navy. “Everything about this movie has been kind of extraordinary,” she says, “including the premiere.” It was held in San Diego, on the aircraft carrier USS Midway. A windswept-looking Cruise arrived by helicopter, while Connelly – a longtime Louis Vuitton ambassador – sparkled in a gold floor-length LV dress, flanked by Bettany and her eldest son, Kai Dugan. “It was a beautiful day,” she purrs.
The film’s been a long time coming. Due in 2019, it was held over for a year while the team got the (absolutely stunning) aviation sequences right. Then the pandemic struck. After all that, now is the right time to feel the need for speed (again), says Connelly. “I feel like this is a particularly celebratory experience, watching this movie. It’s a very immersive movie. It’s a big spectacle. It’s really satisfying and surprisingly moving. Tom’s storyline is really tender, so it’s almost better that it’s coming out now.”
She was 15 when the original was released – the very same year she co-starred with Bowie in the fantasy film Labyrinth. “I remember being blown away by the [Top Gun] flying sequences. I remember feeling like somehow – and I don’t think I thought this way about movies at the time – that Tom Cruise created such an iconic character out of the gate.” The white naval uniform. The bare-chested volleyball scene. The high-fives. And Kenny Loggins’ singing “Danger Zone”. If you distilled 1980s Hollywood into one movie, it would be Top Gun.
The sequel casts her as Penny Benjamin, referenced in the original as a former flame to Cruise’s cocky pilot Maverick. Now a single mother, Penny runs The Hard Deck, a bar near the naval base where Maverick returns to tutor a new generation of pilots on an insane mission. “She’s definitely someone who seeks out adventure and has a real zest for life,” says Connelly, who took sailing lessons and even got airborne in a P-51 Mustang with Cruise. “She has an adventurous spirit; there’s a reason why they keep cycling in and out of each other’s lives.”
Watching the film, as Penny rides with Maverick on his Kawasaki motorcycle, is like stepping into a time-machine. Cruise, who turns 60 in July, looks bronzed and buff. Connelly, 51, also seems ageless. “How do I feel about getting older? I feel it’s pretty inevitable,” she says, chuckling at my clumsy question. Today wearing a short-sleeved charcoal blouse and a chunky gold necklace, she tilts her head downwards as she talks, her long dark hair tumbling over her face. Her green eyes – described by one interviewer as her career’s “most prominent weapon” – look capable of illuminating the night sky.
That natural beauty led to her first public engagements. Born in the Catskill Mountains, New York state, Connelly started modelling when she was 10, thanks to her mother, Ilene, an antiques dealer. “That was not my idea. I was very shy. And it was not something that I ever would have thought of doing. She kind of got me into that.” She started in commercials – search YouTube and you’ll see her singing angelically in a Technics ad for the Japanese market – before her agent sent her out on movie auditions.
Her very first role, aged 12, was in Once Upon a Time in America, the epic, ethereal gangster movie starring Robert De Niro. “It was a magical experience,” she says, recalling the vast, detailed sets and the “mysterious” but “protective” presence of Sergio Leone, the director famed for spaghetti westerns. Other roles swiftly followed, but she wasn’t certain acting was for her. “There were different times, in my late teens and as a young adult, where I was like, ‘Is this really what I want to do? What is my relationship to this job?’ Because I had started so young, I felt like there was a large part of me that was doing it for someone else.”
Navigating that vulnerable period between adolescence and adulthood wasn’t easy. “Performing from such a young age, it kind of has an impact on the way one grows up and develops. There’s a lot of personal exposure … you’re putting yourself in a film, you are the product. And if that’s something that isn’t initiated by oneself as a kid, I’m sure you can imagine it can be a little uncomfortable.” She toyed with “doing a job in the sciences” while “studying Earth systems” in college, but after switching from Yale to Stanford, where she took up drama, the path towards acting firmed up.
While 1991’s The Rocketeer didn’t turn her into a star as expected, her priorities soon changed, as she gave birth to her first child, Kai, in 1997, during her relationship with photographer David Dugan. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that she finally found her career groove: as a heroin addict in Requiem for a Dream, as abstract artist Ruth Kligman in Pollock and as the partner to Russell Crowe’s schizophrenic mathematician in A Beautiful Mind. “I wanted so much to be part of that movie [A Beautiful Mind],” she reflects. “Everything about it was great. I loved working with Ron [Howard, the director]. It was great working with Russell. And I met Paul.”
At the time, she and Bettany were in other relationships, and kept a respectful distance. Six months later they were together, though didn’t reunite on screen until 2009’s Charles Darwin drama Creation. He’d also direct her in the 2014 homeless drama Shelter, but there was nothing “calculated” about their collaborations. “I think that those opportunities just kind of presented themselves, to be honest with you,” she argues. “But I’d love to work with him again. I think he’s a great actor, and we have a good time working together. He did a great job as a director as well.”
Connelly isn’t at her most effusive talking about Bettany, perhaps because he’s been in the news recently as part of the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard legal battle (as a recipient of Depp’s texts against his ex-wife). She opens up a lot more when talking about her children. While Agnes has just turned 11, her “middle one”, Stellan – her oldest child with Bettany – is enjoying his first year in college. She still remembers when Kai left home to go to Yale to study mechanical engineering. “The worst of it was the first weekend when we first left him at college and drove away,” she says. “And we left him on campus and then drove up to our house in Vermont. And it’s like a three-and-a half-hour drive. And I sobbed the entire way. And then I sobbed the entire night. I went to sleep crying, and woke up in the morning crying and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is not normal!’ I was bereft! We went back and visited on the first weekend, and I saw him there. And he looked so happy. He had made friends already. It just felt so right.”
After college, Kai moved to California, where he now works, which meant during the pandemic they were far apart. “He drove across country actually to come see us, in the days before we felt safe flying. With a tent and everything,” recalls Connelly, brimming with pride. “It’s an incredible experience, watching him kind of create his own community and his own life … he’s got a great group of friends and they live a great life … He really knows how to nurture himself, which brings me so much happiness, seeing him in his world and the world that he’s creating.”
It won’t be so long before the nest is empty. Will Connelly look for more work then? She’s never been an actor to film back-to-back projects. “Yeah,” she says slowly, as she gathers her thoughts. “I can imagine a time when Agnes is up and away. And there are just more hours in the day.” She’s next due in New Zealand to shoot an independent movie, before heading back to film the fourth season of Snowpiercer, the dystopian TV thriller with actor Daveed Diggs that she’s been a part of since it began in 2020.
After four decades’ experience, I wonder how she feels towards her profession. Is it better for actresses in the industry? “I think that the work environment has definitely changed for the better,” she replies. “That’s great; that’s fantastic. There’s a lot more awareness, sensitivity and focus on roles for women, which is wonderful. There’s probably still more work to do but we’re definitely moving in the right direction.”
So is it safer for women on sets now? “That’s what I was referring to,” she continues. “I think it’s hugely different [from] when I was a youth. [But] it’s hard for me to say, because I’m now 51. So I’m treated differently on a movie set by virtue of my age at this point. But for example, shooting intimate scenes … the director would say [in the past], ‘OK, here’s the thing, and close set and roll cameras, and you guys just go for it.’ They weren’t even treated as scenes. Now there are intimacy coordinators who mediate and make sure everyone is comfortable.”
Connelly gets a “chaste” love scene with Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick – all very PG-13, as they say in the US. “I was sitting next to my son in the screening [when it came on]. And he goes, ‘Oh, boy’ and I go, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to be fine!’” With a major role in what may be the most beloved Hollywood sequel this year, how could it not be fine? No wonder Connelly seems content. “I’m really grateful for my health and for my life and my job and my relationships and feel really happy. As happy as I’ve ever been,” she smiles. “So it’s all good.”
Top Gun: Maverick is in cinemas now. Pick up a copy of the July issue of marie claire Australia to read the full story.
Jennifer Connelly wears Louis Vuitton F/W 22 throughout.