The 20-Year Overnight Success of Glen Powell

Hollywood’s newest A-lister – according to the directors who knew him first and best

Photo by Heather Leah Kennedy for the Austin Film Society

Midway through Glen Powell’s induction ceremony into the Texas Film Hall of Fame, the thought comes to mind: Is this guy for real?

Because Glen Powell seems impossible.

He’s the upperclassman college baseball star who’s super-chill to his freshman teammates. OK, so that’s his character Finnegan in Everybody Wants Some!!

He’s the absurdly handsome guy who wants to be loved for what’s inside, not because of his rack of abs. No, wait, that’s him playing love-dented Ben in smash rom-com Anyone But You.

He’s the native Austinite who invited his kindergarten teacher, his fifth-grade teacher, his high school football coach, creative writing teacher, and guidance counselor to the Austin premiere of his latest film, romantic comedy-thriller Hit Man.

OK, that one’s true.

He’s the freshly minted certified Hollywood star who, as a sixth grader, happily volunteered to help his third-grade sister learn to tap dance. OK, that one’s true as well, at least according to his proud mother, who was just one of a cavalcade of co-stars, directors, and family members who told anecdotes about his commitment to hard work, his skill as an actor, his dedication to the project, and above all his kindness.

His latest partner in crime, Hit Man co-writer and director Richard Linklater, laughs at the idea of a too-good-to-be-true Powell – because it’s all true. “I tell him, 'Glen, we need a good, healthy scandal.’”

The director had been by Powell’s side for much of his most recent trip back to Austin, a jam-packed affair that sums up the moment Powell is having. He flew in, worked the red carpet for the Austin premiere of Hit Man, which he both starred in and co-wrote, then was inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame by Robert Rodriguez on the stage of the Paramount, and then the next day he was the guest of honor at the Toast to Texas Film fundraising event for the Austin Film Society out at Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios. Then he, Linklater, and co-star Adria Arjona headed down to the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar for a Q&A screening of Hit Man. In the middle of that, he was launching his new documentary, The Blue Angels, about the naval air display team.

“It’s been a pretty crazy run,” Powell says during the junket for The Blue Angels. That’s how he’s wrapping up his whirlwind five days in Austin, with Zoom call after Zoom call. After that, he was heading straight to the airport, back to South Africa to finish filming Huntington, the revenge thriller for A24 he left for the induction and screenings. How’s he still standing? He smiles. “We’ll have time to sleep on the way there.”

Even though he’s the star spearheading the documentary’s press push, he’s predictably humble about his role as executive producer. He explains that he’s learned from the best that a producer’s job “is assembling the best minds and then letting brilliance matter, and that’s what my function was.” But that undersells the importance of getting to know Kevin LaRosa and Evan Fitz Maritza of aerial photography company Cinejet on the set of Top Gun: Maverick, of being aware of the technological potential to film IMAX-quality images from an in-cockpit camera. “In addition, I spent a lot of time on naval bases, so I had the trust of a lot of people who would give us that access.”

Unsurprisingly, for an actor whose highest-profile roles to date have been as aviators – John Glenn in Hidden Figures, Tom Hudner in Devotion, and Jake “Hangman” Seresin in Top Gun: Maverick – it’s a passion project for Powell. Growing up, his family was big on field trips and experiences: “learning how to milk a cow or learning how to fix a car, change a tire.” His grandfather, William Powell, was a flight surgeon, and one day he took young Glen Jr. and his cousins to Dallas to see the Blue Angels fly, an experience he called “unforgettable. ... As soon as it started, my mind was blown. I couldn’t fathom how it was even possible. Not only that, every single one of my cousins, our mouths were open, and we couldn’t believe it. Then you saw every adult around there feeling the exact same way. There was just this sense of awe, not only at what the planes could do but what the humans in those cockpits were doing.” But when the planes landed, and the pilots started mingling with the crowd, signing autographs and taking pictures, “it put it all into perspective of the training, the dedication, the pursuit of perfection that it takes to achieve something like that, and I’ve always been intrigued by people like that. How people can not only push the boundaries but do it with character and a smile on their face.”

For him, The Blue Angels is a documentary about “ordinary Americans who dreamed extraordinary dreams and achieved them.” Spend more than five minutes talking to any director who has worked with Glen Powell, and it starts to sound like who he’s really describing is ... Glen Powell.

As Linklater puts it, “He’s the poster boy of a hard worker.” Like the Blue Angels pilots Powell adores, Linklater sees nothing but a lesson about determination in his 20-year rise to the top. “People love the 'Oh, you were discovered in Schwab’s drugstore’ Hollywood overnight success story because it makes it seem like they could do it. ... Glen’s a very naturally talented actor – I don’t think that’s a surprise to anyone – and he’s a good-looking guy, and he’s smart, and he had to work his ass off.”

That brief trip back to his hometown could be seen as Powell closing a loop. That Hall of Fame induction took place on the same stage he trod as a preteen member of Austin Musical Theatre, signing his name on the wall of the dressing rooms downstairs. When he was lovingly roasted by his family and co-stars at Troublemaker, it was on the same soundstage and in front of the same green screen where he made his screen debut in 2003 as Long-Fingered Boy in Spy Kids 3: Game Over.

Within days, film industry trade journal IndieWire ran a story titled “Glen Powell Is Proof That Investing in Film Beyond L.A. and New York Pays Off” – an obvious statement for anyone who lives, works, and makes movies in any of the regional hubs. The reality is that without Austin, Powell might have ended up just another pretty, talented, charismatic twentysomething in Hollywood, confined to a career of playing Good-Looking Frat Guy and Trader #1. Austin was the incubator in which his talent was nurtured, and its strong film scene was pivotal to his early career.

Before Denzel Washington “noticed” Powell in the auditions for The Great Debaters and got his agent, Ed Limato, interested in him – interested enough that Powell eventually quit UT and headed to Los Angeles – Rodriguez had spotted him. In fact, as he proudly noted while inducting Powell, he saw him first. Powell was just 14, a local hire on the Spy Kids threequel, and as Rodriguez explained, “With local casting you’re choosing actors that don’t necessarily have as much experience as those who work more regularly in Hollywood.” The hope with those local hires is that they hold their own opposite the Hollywood pros, “but then in walks Glen to do his scenes, already exuding charisma and charm and stature and star power. His eye was clearly on the prize, very clear-headed and focused, and he just nailed the role.”

It was a quick appearance, but it changed Powell’s life forever. As he noted during his induction ceremony, “Watching Robert on that movie, he’s playing guitar, hanging out, the cast is playing basketball, and they’re making movies. They made it seem like such fun. ... It was the pinnacle of life.”

Another mainstay of the Austin film scene, Kat Candler, noticed him that same year. She was the first director to cast him in a major role, as typical troubled teen Eric in her 2006 South by Southwest Film Festival selection Jumping Off Bridges. However, she credited casting director Donise Hardy for telling her about this new kid on the scene. Candler said, “Every time she read him for something, she just saw the 'it’ factor.” Every time Candler heard about the then-15-year-old Powell, it was people telling her about “this really professional, super-talented kid – which proved correct. Such a kind heart and wonderful human, and such charisma.”

At the same time, Richard Linklater learned about that charisma when he cast Powell in Fast Food Nation as what he described as one of “a couple of high school kids standing around.” It’s not much of a part – eight words across four lines, and his character’s name is never mentioned (it’s Steve, if you care to check IMDb) – but even then Linklater saw something undefinable. “He’s the guy in all his movies where you go, 'Hey, who’s that guy?’”

Clockwise from top left: Linklater directs Powell and Arjona on the set of Hit Man, 2023; Powell in Top Gun: Maverick, 2022; Powell (at left) in Jumping Off Bridges, 2006; Powell on the set of Jumping Off Bridges

It seemed like every Austin-related filmmaker saw his potential, as Andrew and Luke Wilson gave him a memorable scene as a newspaper boy in The Wendell Baker Story, and Ethan Hawke cast him in his musical relationship drama The Hottest State. The actor/director put it simply: “If you spend your life acting, you can see that he’s got the toolkit.” But having the tools and being in a place to really use them, and to be taken seriously, well, that’s a different story.

Honestly, Linklater added, looking like Glen Powell can open some doors for you as an actor, but it closes others. “If you’re good-looking, there’s a tax. They do love to add that extra decade on you before they take you seriously.” But Powell hasn’t tried to be a generic leading man. “He’s the smart actor; he’s the Warren Beatty kind of guy.”

Yet the film industry that fostered artists like Beatty is gone. As Linklater explained, “Right as [Glen] is coming of age, Hollywood has abdicated the role of making stars or providing parts that would be star-making parts or even good parts. It’s the era of the superhero movie, the franchise.” Compare his career trajectory of another Linklater regular, Matthew McConaughey, whose immediate post-Dazed and Confused career was mostly bit parts and small but memorable supporting roles. “Then A Time to Kill comes along, and they just don’t have enough stars to cover all the movies they’re making, and he gets the big John Grisham movie. But those parts are long gone. There aren’t parts like that for Glen or anyone else to get.”

So rather than getting cast as a lead, most of Powell’s career has been supporting roles. Indeed, his first real leading role isn’t until 2023, with the surprise box office success of rom-com Anyone But You. His early larger parts were either in ensembles, like period adoption drama Red Wing, or small but memorable parts, like the stock exchange trader that briefly stands up to Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. But there’s a whole alternate reality in which casting directors made the other choice, and it was Powell piloting the Millennium Falcon rather than Alden Ehrenreich, wielding Captain America’s shield instead of Chris Evans, or going toe-to-toe with Tom Cruise as Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw instead of Miles Teller.

From the outside, it looked like Hollywood was taking a pass. Linklater recalled, “I would hear in the industry, 'Oh, Glen’s up for this part or that,’ and I’d be, 'Well, he’ll get that’; then they’d cast some stiff. ... I’d be like, 'Are you guys crazy?’”

Yet Powell was never not busy. He was always working, always in demand, even if it was smaller parts. Linklater, a former college baseball player, used a fitting analogy. “You’re not asking him to be in the starting lineup, but you’re like, 'That guy’s good. We need him around.’”

Luckily, Powell still had his hometown to rely on, and he kept coming back for projects like postapocalyptic road trip Best Friends Forever (directed by another Austinite who refused to be pigeonholed as “just” an actor, Brea Grant) and a one-off appearance in ABC Family’s The Lying Game. So, of course, it was Austin that changed the game for him again, when he was cast as the charming Finnegan in Linklater’s 2016 “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused, Everybody Wants Some!!

Hit Man producer Mike Blizzard explained, “Rick has talked about how he saw a dramatic difference between when he had seen him on Fast Food Nation and when he came into audition for Everybody Wants Some!! He was like, 'Oh, yeah, this is Glen Powell the young man.’”

That’s also when Blizzard really started to see what everyone else was seeing in Powell. “I said, 'That guy’s gonna be a star.’ He had a certain swagger, humor, just presence.” He was reminded of McConaughey’s iconic performance as Wooderson in Dazed and Confused. “Lot of great actors in that movie, but he really stood out to me.”

Moreover, that movie was when Linklater started to see Powell as more than a regular talented actor, when they worked together on reshaping a scene. The director recalled, “I pulled him aside, we met at a little restaurant in the morning, we talked through this thing, and I was writing and we were working on it together. I just identified him then as a good creative partner.”

Now firmly back on Linklater’s radar, Powell worked with him again on his 2022 animated love letter to Houston during the Space Race, Apollo 10 1⁄2: A Space Age Childhood. Linklater had mentioned the project to him on the set of Everybody Wants Some!! and, having seen him as John Glenn in Hidden Figures, brought him in for a small part as another straight-laced NASA type. Powell said, “I popped down there and got to play with him on a green screen stage. ... It was the easiest day ever.”

And that “day” part is significant. According to Blizzard, those scenes were scheduled for two days of shooting, but because Powell and his co-stars in those scenes, Zachary Levi and Milo Coy, were so good and had such immediate chemistry, it took half the time planned. That turned out to be an accidental life-saver for the film, because it barely wrapped filming before the pandemic shut down all production.

Even then, Powell was looking at his experiences with Linklater as more than a fond memory. As he told me during an interview ahead of its premiere at South by Southwest 2022, “Rick’s such a special director and one that I would like to collaborate with again and again and again.”

But just because he’d been in three films, that didn’t mean Powell was headed in a creative partnership. Because, while Linklater is known to be a collaborative filmmaker, he generally writes his own scripts. Most of his co-writing credits come from adapting the works of journalists like Skip Hollandsworth, having already adapted his 1998 Texas Monthly story “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” as Bernie in 2011. He’d read Hollandsworth’s 2001 article “Hit Man” about Gary Johnson, a community college lecturer who pretended to be a killer-for-hire for law enforcement in Houston. When Powell mentioned the story to him, they started kicking it around, trying to crack “the basic idea of how it would work as a movie. We’re having fun, and it was somewhere along the way I was like, 'You know what? Let’s just work on this together. Save me a step, because we’re going to rewrite it anyway. Let’s just keep doing what we’re doing and do it in script form.’ So it was very natural.”

It soon became clear that this was going to be a film by and starring Powell – if they could work out what kind of film it was. Linklater explained that the key to the script was in realizing that Gary Johnson was the only real character, and all the alter egos he created just had to be convincing to the wannabe murderers. Watching the original surveillance tapes from the real Gary Johnson’s investigations, Linklater said he and Powell quickly understood that the suspects seeking his services “want to be in some crazy-ass world” where contract killers are just around the corner. When it came to transferring that to the screen, “you could really go off the deep end, because there’s no accountability. It’s artifice. It’s fake. It’s just what they might think was real, and it was a great open canvas that Glen really ran with.”

Images courtesy of Netflix

The different alter egos came from Powell, and he’d keep working on the looks, the accents, the mannerisms, right up until shooting. “He wasn’t just a slave to the costume,” Blizzard said. “He was inhabiting each of these characters.” They even saved the wildest of Gary’s alter egos for the last two days of production. “He got out of the shuttle and I went, 'Wait, is that Glen?’ I’m sitting there thinking, 'This is never going to work. It’s just too ridiculous.’ But then he starts talking, and he’s created this accent, and it just blew me away. I went, 'Oh my god, this is going to be one of the best ones.’”

That response wasn’t restricted to the set. Hit Man has been widely reviewed as one of Linklater’s best and a revelatory performance from Powell. Hawke called it “my favorite thing I’ve seen him do,” while Candler summed it all up simply: “Man, he’s a movie star.”

Blizzard observed, “It seems very long ago that I can remember someone having a moment like this, where they’ve been toiling away and doing great work, and then, bam! All of a sudden they’re in the public consciousness.” But it’s also changing the industry’s perception of Powell, as he’s stayed engaged from script to filming, even being an active participant in promotional meetings. “He’s learning all this information, he is absorbing it, and he’s putting it to use. ... At each turn, he’s continued to broaden his vision of what his career could be.”

But then Powell’s had a long history of busting expectation, as Candler discovered a decade after Jumping Off Bridges when she first saw him as arrogant frat boy and closeted necrophiliac Chad Radwell in Fox’s Scream Queens. “Prior to that, I’d just seen his dramatic work,” she said. “I had no idea of the comedic talent that he had. ... I remember texting him, and I was like, 'Holy shit, you are so funny.’”

Again, this didn’t appear out of nowhere, but is a testament to Powell’s hard work. Blizzard recalled watching him on a talk show a few years ago, “and I thought, 'Y’know, Glen’s kinda flat in these kinds of situations.’” Skip forward a few years to an appearance in April on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. “He killed it. He did that Matthew McConaughey impersonation, and it was so damn good. It’s no wonder that clip went viral.”

And maybe that growth, that idea that he’s been committed to doing the work, has been a part of Powell since day one. During the induction ceremony, when he thanked all those teachers, he singled out his kindergarten teacher, who he still calls Mrs. Langford. He recalled, “Mrs. Langford, in a parent-teacher conference, told my parents I was a very shy kid and didn’t necessarily engage with people. But she saw that when I got up in front of people, when I was acting, when I was putting on a character, I really came to life. She was the one who told my parents I should really give this thing a shot.”

Powell was inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame on May 16 at Troublemaker Studios (Courtesy of Frank PR)

That one parent-teacher conference now means that he’s the man of the hour, yet for all the comments that this is the year, the decade, the era of Glen Powell, the reality is that he’s still on the cusp. Anyone But You was a surprise success, and as for Top Gun: Maverick, who wasn’t going to be overshadowed by Tom Cruise? Netflix showed great faith in Hit Man by giving it an extended (by Netflix standards) theatrical run, but it’s the eagerly anticipated Twisters (the sequel to the 1996 blockbuster starring another Lone Star legend, Bill Paxton) that could be the real star-making turn for him. Meanwhile, his filming schedule makes his recent move back to Austin seem almost theoretical: wrapping Huntington, followed by a new version of The Running Man with Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright; plus he’s developing a reboot of Heaven Can Wait, Harry Segall’s 1938 play previously adapted for the big screen for Robert Montgomery as Here Comes Mr. Jordan in 1941, Warren Beatty in 1978, and as Down to Earth for Chris Rock in 2001. He’s also talked about returning to his stage musical roots by heading to Broadway with Scream Queens creator Ryan Murphy, and Leonardo DiCaprio brought him aboard to co-write and potentially star in a reboot of classic ’90s eco-cartoon Captain Planet and the Planeteers. So, when Powell says he’s seizing this moment in his career, he’s not kidding.

And what does it mean to be that in demand? Well, as one filmmaker once told me, you can tell a lot about someone’s professional and personal reputation in the business by how eager people are to work with them. That’s where Hawke, another actor who used his moment to pivot from being a Hollywood heartthrob to being recognized as a broader talent, has a word of warning: “The only danger for him is, does he get too successful to manage his own development?”

However, he’s now entered that rarified company of being a Linklater guy like Black and Hawke and McConaughey, with the expectation of people who know them both that they’ll work together again. For Powell, as he told the Hall of Fame crowd, he gets to call Linklater “one of my best friends on the planet. I get to call a hero a collaborator.”

Moreover, Blizzard sees Powell as taking steps to retain some control and become proactive about creating his own roles, even founding his own production company, Barnstorm Productions. “That way,” Blizzard said, “you own the process.” Ultimately, it all comes down to Powell just doing what he’s been doing since he walked into Troublemaker in 2003 and decided that acting was going to be his everything. “Every project he does, he’s learning something. He’s absorbing something from everyone he’s working with, and he’s just getting better and better.”

Hit Man is streaming on Netflix.

The Blue Angels is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Twisters will be released in theatres on July 19.

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Glen Powell, Richard Linklater, Mike Blizzard, Hit Man

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