Tom Skerritt (Kirkland, PictureGroup)

Tony Scott’s Top Gun comes back to the big screen this week, in a newly minted digital IMAX 3D edition. It’s as good an excuse as any to talk to Tom Skerritt, who played Viper, the commanding officer whose genial but steely guidance helps shape Tom Cruise’s Maverick into a fighter pilot who can fly with the best of the best.

“I’ve been fortunate to be in several films which are potentially classics – meaning those kinds of films you can see 20 years later and they’re still relevant,” he says over a hissy phone line. “So I have somewhat of an unusual experience with that.”

Skerritt’s specifically referring to Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H and Ridley Scott’s Alien as well as Top Gun – though but he could just as easily be talking about David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone or Silence of the North, a 1981 survival drama from legendary Canadian director Allan King which paired Skerritt with Ellen Burstyn and doesn’t deserve to be lost to history.

But as a star of Alien and Top Gun, Skerritt’s in a unique position: He’s the only actor to have worked on the second films of Ridley and Tony Scott.

“These guys were really artists,” he says. “So there’s something more that comes out of looking at a 3D version of their work; you’ll see the mastery of their work more clearly. With Top Gun, it’ll be a nice homage to Tony, bringing this out in 3D. I think you’ll see a lot more of his talent.”

Alien and Top Gun also defined their own genres. Alien steered science fiction away from Star Wars adventure serials and into dark, Freudian horror, and Top Gun turned Hollywood commercial slickness into a style all its own. But Skerritt was already used to breaking new cinematic ground.

“I go back to M*A*S*H, which also is a film that set a whole new way of thinking about film,” he says. (Skerritt had apprenticed with director Altman after graduating from UCLA’s film school.) “I knew there was something special that was happening with each film, and it turned out to be true.”

Top Gun, I had very strong instincts about that,” he continues. “Hearing Tony was gonna direct it, that really solidified it for me; I really wanted to be a part of that film.”

Researching the role of Viper was pretty simple. “I spent a couple of hours with the Navy commander of the Top Gun school,” Skerritt says, “I had a nice rapport with the guy, and the rapport became [my] character.”

And once he was on set, Skerritt says, he knew something was clicking.

“There’s a feeling. And it’s a good feeling. I can’t define it any further than that,” Skerritt says. “I’ve been up in the F-18 with the Blue Angels a couple of times, and people ask ‘What’s it like?’ Well, it’s like being in an F-18. I can’t describe it. In a small way it’s like walking on the moon – you’re in a situation that you can’t define. There’s no point in intellectualizing any of this stuff, or trying to overdefine it – I just know, instinctively, that something’s working well. And that instinct is something I’ve learned to trust over the years, because I’ve had it rewarded very early on with Altman.”

Skerritt holds Altman – who died in 2006, and who cast the actor in M*A*S*H and Thieves Like Us – in the highest regard. “He’s basically the reason I’m in the business,” he says. “He gave me was an understanding of how you approach the business of it, how not to take it terribly seriously, but do your work – there’s nothing more – take that seriously, but don’t take the business around it too seriously. It’s a survival instinct.”

And has that instinct helped him figure out how to pick successful projects?

“Well, it’s hard to define anything specifically in terms of how these things come about,” he says. “You just get a sense of rapport with the filmmaker. I’d follow them around to see how they set up shots, and watch how they work, and even how they talk with the crew. There’s a whole chemistry that happens when you make a successful film … I think what’s behind it is a director who understands collaborative effort, and thus makes people feel included in the process.”

Though he’s frequently cast as upstanding types, Skerritt isn’t an actor who restricts himself to one type of character. His quiet turn as Brad Pitt and Craig Sheffer’s minister father in Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It is incredibly complex, and he makes a great straight man in the 1989 hunchback comedy Big Man on Campus – a film even fewer people have seen than Silence of the North.

“Well, that’s the thing that really makes it worthwhile, is the challenge,” he says. “Life’s meant to be a challenge, and the art does not really thrive without accepting that challenge. And you can fail at it; that’s okay too.”

Before we go, I ask him whether he’d want to direct people’s attention to any other films he’s made, just in case there’s one he feels has been unfairly overlooked.

“You know, I’ve been asked that question often, and I can only say that I feel very fortunate to have the career I’ve had over these years,” he says. “I’ve worked with some great filmmakers and some wonderful actors. The experience, in its totality, is what I take home. Citing one specific thing, that’s hard. The Turning Point, I thought was terrific, and Steel Magnolias … but to be able to have those experiences, those diverse experiences, and the films and the people and the places – my god!” he laughs. “Ain’t that enough?”

Top Gun 3D screens in IMAX theatres across Canada February 7th to 13th, and is released on Blu-ray February 19th from Paramount Home Entertainment.