If you notice a bearded aviator in the bar scenes of Top Gun: Maverick, it’s probably Lieutenant Commander Matthew Schroder.
The MH-60R pilot was on US Navy exchange when he got a call from the film’s casting agent looking for foreign aviators as extras.
But a makeup artist was unimpressed by Lieutenant Commander Schroder’s beard – something not allowed in the US Navy or in keeping with the original movie’s aesthetic.
The beard was eventually allowed after the director gave his approval.
“After a couple of days the beard had been seen too much, so I was worried I would be taken out to avoid becoming a reoccurring distraction,” Lieutenant Commander Schroder said.
For 12 hours a day, over eight days, Lieutenant Commander Schroder and a group of US Navy pilots were filmed in a specially made set at US Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego.
The set was inspired by an on-base pilots’ hangout known as I-Bar, which was too small to film in.
Each day, extras had hair and makeup done, then were taken to the set where production crew spent a number of hours setting up while actors rehearsed their lines.
But before Tom Cruise arrived, his security detail would paste stickers over the cameras on everyone’s phone.
“We’d be in the background drinking fake beer, then moved around by production guys who’d say ‘Walk over here, create some action, have some fake conversations but don’t make a noise’,” Lieutenant Commander Schroder said.
“It was very repetitive; you did your thing for 10 takes, then they’d do the same scene again with the same dialogue, but with the cameras and lights moved to get the other side of a conversation.
“The dialogue between the actors during filming sounded very wooden because you’re used to watching a movie with music and background noise. We thought it was going to sound terrible.”
Lieutenant Commander Schroder said the choice to use military personnel – not professional extras – caused some issues, as the pilots weren’t concerned about landing future acting jobs.
“Everyone was trying to get their head in to the back of a shot because they wanted to be that guy who got their face in the movie,” Lieutenant Commander Schroder said.
“The producers would repeatedly tell us ‘Thank you so much for your service but could you please just keep the noise down’. You could tell we were testing their patience.”
Filming became an emotional “rollercoaster” for Lieutenant Commander Schroder, who’d grown up watching the original movie and was hopeful to appear in the sequel.
He would often see his head in shot on a monitor, only to realise the scene would be re-shot from the other side, diluting his chances of making the movie.
Lieutenant Commander Schroder lacked a US Social Security number and couldn’t be paid by the studio, so he leveraged the fact he was working for free to get placed near Tom Cruise in the final bar scene.
“[In the scene] Tom Cruise keeps bumping past me and the camera is following him into the bar and I’ve got the White Ensign on my shoulder,” Lieutenant Commander Schroder said.
“After the sixth take they said ‘Sorry, this is Top Gun, we’re going to need an American flag’.”
Although he was right next to Hollywood A-listers, Lieutenant Commander Schroder wasn’t allowed to strike up conversations.
He did, however, make friends with the Australian stunt double for Miles Teller who plays the character Rooster.
Lieutenant Commander Schroder said he enjoyed the movie after its eventual release, but couldn’t see himself.
“I knew it was going to be tenuous about whether I’d make it in,” he said.
“There were lots of scenes that were shot that didn’t make it. If there are people with flying suits in the background of the bar, I’m in there somewhere.”