“I’m still working my way up the food chain,” Glen Powell tells ET of his breakthrough in Hollywood, which over the past two years includes celebrated roles in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! and Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens, as well as portraying John Glenn in the Academy Awards Best Picture nominee Hidden Figures. His latest is playing an Army sergeant in Sand Castle, a film inspired by true events that took place during the Iraq War, debuting on Netflix Friday, April 21. Co-starring Nicholas Hoult, Henry Cavill and Logan Marshall-Green, it’s the latest film to earn buzz for the actor, who has been dubbed one of Hollywood’s hottest rising stars.
While the Austin, Texas, native’s recent breakout success has elevated him to a new level of attention -- fashion spreads in Interview and Coveteur magazines, an invitation to the 2017 Academy Awards -- Powell has been working in Hollywood for over a decade, making his film debut in 2003’s Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over before picking up roles in The Wendell Baker Story and The Great Debaters alongside Denzel Washington. It wasn’t until the latter, when Washington and his late agent, Ed Limato, gave him the boost that he needed, did he decide to take acting seriously, leaving Texas behind for a go in Hollywood.
Despite his All-American good looks and Southern charm -- making him something of a second coming of Matthew McConaughey -- Powell didn’t meet with instant success. Instead, he found himself working his way up from one-episode roles on shows, like CSI: Miami and Without a Trace, to getting smacked around by Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises to a supporting role in the 2014 aging action hero flick The Expendables 3, offered to him by none other than Sylvester Stallone. And in the years since, things started to click as Powell landed one breakout role after another.
In 2015 came Chad Radwell on Murphy’s camp horror series on FOX. The sexually confident, preppy frat boy became instantly quotable thanks to Powell’s mix of charm and humor -- not to mention a dash of abs. “Chad is a character that I loved living with as long as I did,” he says of the role that survived a season and a half before being killed off. The actor gravitated to the role, like many of his recent projects, because it was a world he wanted to live in. “Ryan Murphy is one of the best at creating universes. Scream Queens is its own reality.”
The same goes for director Richard Linklater, who first worked with Powell on 2006’s Fast Food Nation, when the actor was 16. While the part was small, Powell got his first taste of working with Linklater -- a fellow Texan -- and quickly became an ardent fan. While still finding his place in Los Angeles, the actor first received a script for what would eventually become Everybody Wants Some!!, the spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused, and soon found himself playing elder college jock Finnegan, who steals every scene with his philosophical takes on college life and being a ladies man. “If I could make every movie with Richard Linklater, I would,” Powell says, revealing that the two are working on a project that he hopes will come together next year. Like Ethan Hawke, who has starred in numerous Linklater films, Powell wants to be another go-to actor for the director. “You never really know when you’ll be up next in Rick’s queue, but yeah, I’m definitely hoping to -- obviously not replace Ethan Hawke -- just be the next version.”
But Linklater may soon have to wait for Powell to be available. Following Everybody Wants Some!!, the actor found himself learning to say no to offers coming in. Working with the advice Washington gave him a decade earlier, the actor is conscious about which projects he chooses. According to Powell, Washington told him not to do bad films, “because it’s the first three movies that you do that determine the tone for everything.” Aware that people in Hollywood judge what you say yes and what you say no to, Powell is trying to strike a delicate balance that will continue to push his career forward while still being able to pay the bills. “It’s hard because there’s a little bit of PTSD from when you’re a struggling actor, working at a restaurant or living in a garage. There’s a little bit of an inherent knee-jerk reaction to say, ‘Yes, yes, yes, please just give me a job,’” Powell explains, adding that his film heroes like Washington and Leonardo DiCaprio, with whom he’s developing a script for a live-action feature adaptation of Captain Planet, stick around because of their consistent delivery.
With Everybody Wants Some!!, Hidden Figures and Sand Castle, one could argue that Powell kept to Washington’s advice. But the actor says he’s not quite there yet. “I’m still enough off the radar where I don’t feel like I’m really defined. I think it’s the first three movies that you are really the anchor, so to speak.” he says. “Your choices do matter. And what I’m trying to do right now is just be a part of movies that you’re proud of and not operate off of fear.” Those choices include Guernsey, which he’s currently filming in the U.K. alongside Lily James, Jessica Brown Findlay and Matthew Goode (“This movie is going to be really incredible”), and Set It Up, reuniting him with Everybody Wants Some!! co-star Zoey Deutch.
And while he’s still forging his own path in Hollywood (and trying to maintain some quality control over his work), Powell doesn’t want too many constraints on where it all goes. “You’ve just got to be calm and trust in the journey,” he says.
But his longevity in Hollywood may have more to do with his family, who has been there for every step in his acting career. As a kid, he would spend all day with his dad at the theaters watching his father’s favorites: action films and John Candy movies. Later, his mother would sneak him out of class to drive him to auditions. For The Wendell Baker Story, Powell says his mother got him out of algebra and took him down the street to a church parking lot where he filmed getting hit by a car only to return to class later without anyone knowing. “None of that would have been possible without [my mom],” he says. “She really cares about her kids and lives life fearlessly. I don’t think a lot of this really means anything unless you include the people you love, so they enjoy it too.”
It’s largely the reason Powell’s family, his mom especially, have uncredited roles in most of his films. She’s an adult spy in Spy Kids 3. She’s a professor in the background of a party on Jack & Bobby. She plays Marge the lunch lady in Everybody Wants Some!! and was in the audience for The Great Debaters. Both parents will appear in Guernsey as Powell’s onscreen parents. “As soon as they land, they go straight into fitting,” the actor says. “Mike Newell, who is directing this movie, absolutely gets a kick out of the fact that they want to be a part of it. Pretty much every director, I think they all get a kick out of having them be ‘Where’s Waldo’ characters as part of their movies. It’s a fun legacy.” And with Sand Castle, Powell gets to honor his grandfather, who was a sergeant in the Marines, by naming his character (Sgt. Chutzky) after him when the movie didn’t get the life rights to the real names in the story.
Perhaps bringing this chapter in his career full circle was the moment at the 2017 Screen Actors Guild Awards when Washington caught sight of the actor and his family. “Denzel came right up to them, remembered their names, gave them a hug and said, ‘I’m so proud of your son,’” Powell recalls.