Glen Powell wears a white tank and brown jacket and poses against the wall.

Glen Powell

Glen Powell stars in and co-writes the genre-bending Hit Man alongside longtime collaborator Richard Linklater.

29 May 20247 min read

Glen Powell’s starring role in Hit Man would be any actor’s dream. In the wildly entertaining new film from five-time Oscar-nominated writer-director Richard Linklater, Powell plays Gary Johnson, a tech-savvy philosophy professor who spends quiet nights at home with his cats when he’s not setting up wiretaps for the New Orleans Police Department. Through a series of unexpected, comedic events, he’s asked to pose as a killer for hire to help catch those looking to bump off their enemies. Gary, against all prevailing logic, excels at the job, inventing a host of personas. However, it’s Ron, the disarming, world-weary assassin who exudes confidence and cool, that sticks.

Powell went to great lengths to prepare for the role, which was inspired by a head-spinning real-life tale chronicled by journalist Skip Hollandsworth in the 2001 Texas Monthly article, “Hit Man.” “We got all of Skip’s research [including] Gary Johnson’s sting operations,” says Powell, who produced and wrote the Hit Man script with Linklater. “He was the Laurence Olivier of fake hit men. He took this job very seriously and was unrecognizable on some of these tapes. Literally, there were weird accents and things like that.”

It all makes for an arresting showcase for the charismatic actor, who had critics raving about his performance during Hit Man’s buzzy run on the 2023 film festival circuit. Early reviews were quick to note the off-the-charts chemistry between Powell’s chameleonic Gary and screen partner Adria Arjona’s (Andor, Irma Vep) Madison, a potential client whose steamy affair with Ron sets off a chain reaction that places them both in grave danger.

For Powell, it’s the latest in a series of recent career high points that include co-starring alongside Tom Cruise in 2022’s Top Gun: Maverick and pairing up with Sydney Sweeney in 2023’s hit romantic comedy Anyone But You. Yet the actor and filmmaker has been working in the business for years, with turns in prestige drama Hidden Figures and on the television series Scream Queens. “I’m grateful that I’ve had the privilege of a long journey because I’ve gotten to watch a lot of people have those highs and lows, [observe] people that do it and do it well, and those that don’t,” Powell says. “I’ve had an education.”

An edited version of the conversation follows.

Richard Linklater and Glen Powell stand in a classroom.

Richard Linklater and Glen Powell

Photograph by Matt Lankes

Krista Smith: Hit Man played at the Toronto International Film Festival and the ground was levitating around this movie and around you in particular. This is such a great story. Talk me through the process of reuniting with Richard Linklater and writing the film with him.

Glen Powell: I’ve known Rick since I was 14 years old. Our first movie was Fast Food Nation. Years later, I remember auditioning for Everybody Wants Some!!, Rick’s story of playing baseball in 1980 at Sam Houston State. It was very much supposed to be the spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused, which is a seminal movie for me, one of the ones that made me want to do this. So when I got to make Everybody Wants Some!! with him, we really started catching a creative vibe, you know. After that movie, Rick and I talked about baking something up together, just in broad strokes.

Then [producer] Michael Costigan, who works over at [production company] Aggregate [Films] hit me up and said, “Hey, have you read this Texas Monthly article, ‘Hit Man,’ by Skip Hollandsworth?” I read it, and it was a really fun character study but nothing that lent itself to being a movie. So I called Rick because Rick, in my opinion, is the greatest when it comes to character studies. I pitched [him] this concept and he’s like, “There’s not really a story there.” And I was like, “I know, but I think there’s something.” We kept talking around it. We found this one line in the article about this woman who was meeting Gary Johnson [asking him] to kill her husband, and Gary didn’t let her incriminate herself — he struck up a friendship with her. That was the basis of, What if we took that kernel and mined it for all it was worth? That [was really] the beginning of our creative process: What if then he’s basically playing a fake hit man? She doesn’t know his identity. You have this great story built on a lie.

This is the first time you have a feature writing credit, and it’s shared with Richard Linklater. What’s the key to that creative partnership?

GP: Rick and I are really two hemispheres of the same brain. We come at it from two different angles, but the thing that makes the process effortless is that we both agree on what is good. Sometimes when you’re writing with somebody, you don’t agree on the end goal, and then it gets frustrating. Rick’s approach is so circuitous — you end up finding gold by going on the walk, you know what I mean? You don’t search for gold. For the two of us, our love language is watching movies, and so we got to kind of infuse that [here].

What I think is so effective about this film is the way you mash up all these genres — noir, screwball comedy, mistaken identity, thriller, some action, obviously. But you can’t have this movie without a femme fatale, a romantic sparring partner, and that is Adria Arjona. How was the process of bringing her into the fold?

GP: Obviously she’s been in massive movies, and I’d seen her in things but didn’t know her name. Rick sat down with her first on Zoom. When he called me afterward, it felt like a guy who’d been on a great first date and didn’t want to get too excited. He was like, “I think you’re going to like her, but you have to meet her and do your own thing.” 

So I sat down with her. I really wanted to drink, but I [was] on dry [January]. She’s like, “I’m on dry January, too.” We were like, “Okay, let’s just have water.” We were talking for 30 minutes, and she’s like, “Do you want to just do one mezcal?” Five hours later, we were a few in, and it felt like we had been friends forever. Adria, when you talk to her, there’s just an honesty and a vulnerability there that’s really crucial.

Glen Powell wears a white tank top and brown jacket and holds a dog.

Glen Powell

The idea at the core of this film is becoming who you want to be by almost creating this persona and then being really happy with the new person, which is interesting.

GP: That’s the undercurrent of this entire movie, this idea that we kind of know who we are: the things that we like about ourselves, and some that we don’t. And sometimes it’s literally that simple. Sometimes it is literally putting on different clothes, waking up at six a.m. and doing the workout, and saying, “I’m just gonna act like I am this person.” Sometimes, you do become that person. When I was struggling out here as an actor, I remember the head of casting at a big studio told my manager at the time, “You should try to get him a guest spot or two and send him back to Texas with his head held high.” Hollywood is known for punching down, but it’s never easy to hear those things. I remember that in that moment, something switched in my head. I said, “Oh my God, he doesn’t know yet. He just doesn’t know that this is all gonna work out.” 

Speaking of those early days, you grew up in Texas when there was some juice around the film scene in and around Austin, but not in your backyard necessarily. But suddenly you’re 14 and you’re auditioning. Did you have to convince your family?

GP: I’ve got to give my parents credit for letting me try whatever I wanted to try as a kid. If I liked an instrument, I could attempt to play it. I never became an expert at anything, but decent at a lot of different things, which is sort of the essence of being an actor. You’re never a pro, you can just pull it off enough to hopefully fool the audience. My mom was very generous with her time and support and the fact that she drove me to all these auditions. I asked to take an acting class at this place called Austin Musical Theater. They happened to be auditioning for The Music Man. It was [one of] these big stage musicals. I mean, these are million-dollar-plus productions. You had Broadway directors coming to Austin with all this money to play with, putting on big stage plays at the Palmer Event Center in the Paramount Theatre. And we had Broadway talent playing some of the principals, then all the kids got to act with the highest caliber people because of that. I loved it. I loved the hours. I loved the discovery. I loved the camaraderie that you’d find with a cast. Sometimes I’d go straight from school and rehearse till past midnight and then I’d have to be at school early the next day. I loved that feeling of soaking up every minute of every day, and you’re just exhausted. That’s the sort of thing that gets me excited about making movies. I love that collaboration and working on that timeline.