He’s one of the most bankable stars in the business and, as he hits 55 this year, that doesn’t look like changing any time soon.
“Working with Tom Cruise is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been given by this business.” Such high praise comes from director, producer and screenwriter Steven Spielberg, who worked with Cruise on Minority Report and War of the Worlds. But, “When you talk about a great actor, you’re not talking about Tom Cruise,” was the opinion of legendary film star and singer Lauren Bacall. That’s two hugely-respected figures of the movie industry – and two polarised opinions.
Whatever one’s view of the actor – Bacall added that Cruise is “a maniac – I can’t understand the way he conducts his life” – he has twice been ranked by Forbes as the world’s most powerful celebrity, he frequently appears at the top of ‘most beautiful people’ lists (and was voted ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ in 1990) and he topped the annual Quigley list of the highest money-making stars a record seven times between 1986 and 2005. Maniac or movie mastermind?
Cruise’s latest film – a reboot of The Mummy – took $32m on its opening weekend in the United States. That is a huge amount to a lot of people, but not necessarily in this industry, especially when you consider it took as much as $190m to make and over $100m to market and release. Although it has performed better in other territories – a gross figure of $142m has been reported – it’s certainly way less than was expected, and it leaves the future of the franchise a little uncertain.
Stills from The Mummy
Has Cruise’s rock-solid box office bankability diminished somewhat? Indeed, there have been suggestions that his controlling behaviour and insistence on having a key influence on movies he’s involved in have contributed to a negative effect on the outcome. This claim, however, was refuted in an official statement by Universal Pictures, saying that Cruise “approaches every project with a level of commitment and dedication that is unmatched by most working in our business today. He has been a true partner and a creative collaborator and his goal with any project he works on is to provide audiences with a truly cinematic movie-going experience”.
Such finger-pointing comes in the wake of rumours that the star hierarchy of tinseltown is in tatters. Seemingly gone are the days when studios would inject huge finances into films with big names, certain that they could guarantee high ticket sales, even with a flimsy plot in the mix. In the event of a flop, powerhouses such as Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts were offered the trump cards when key decisions were being made; in effect, it was almost a monopoly on things literally behind the scenes.
However, with the advent of the comic book genre enveloping the movie landscape, those giants of the big screen have seen the demand for their services and skills diminish, and with it, their influence. Cruise, though, has been one of the few to have mapped his course through such obstacles with the navigation skills of an experienced pilot, and his Mission: Impossible franchise continues to bring in the big bucks. Perhaps, then, it’s more to do with the changing landscape of entertainment – movie-making has always been a ‘Risky Business’ – but the figures speak for themselves: in 35 films, Cruise has pulled in $7,598,211,706 worldwide.
Further testament to Cruise’s appeal is simply that he’s never been out of work. Now, the Syracuse-born actor and producer has a number of (ad)ventures in the pipeline, with roles such as CIA recruit and drug-runner Barry Seal in American Made (due out in September this year), his reprisal as Ethan Hunt in the sixth instalment of Mission: Impossible (July 2018) and the long-awaited sequel to the 1980s classic, Top Gun. A recurring theme in these upcoming releases is very much apparent – action. Even in his mid-fifties, Cruise still does all his own stunts, and it wouldn’t be a Tom Cruise PR tour without some sort of anecdote on how dangerous those stunts are.
A still from Mission Impossible
“I had to convince the studio to let me do it and Annabelle [co-star Wallis] and I had to shoot the scene 64 times,” he told Graham Norton on his UK chat show recently, referring to a particularly ambitious scene from The Mummy, where the stars are flung around an airplane cabin in zero-gravity. “It took us two days and the crew was flying around and vomiting in between takes. You couldn’t train for this. Normally stunts take months of prepping, but we just did it. It was wild, and I can’t believe the studio actually let me do it!”
At Cruise’s ‘all or nothing’ level of commitment, perhaps it’s easy to mistake that for an elevated self-image. Yet, he takes it as it comes – there are simply challenges to be met. 2003’s The Last Samurai saw Cruise go through eight months of training, including horse riding and martial arts, which he said were “significantly different from anything I’ve ever experienced. There were over 70 points of contact where you could potentially lose your eye, your ear or your nose”. And while filming a fight sequence with co-star Hiroyuki Sanada, a mechanical horse which was used for some of the scenes malfunctioned. They were meant to come to a halt as the two actors swung their blades, but both actors recall averting a seemingly inevitable tragedy.
“He [Sanada] was approaching me and then suddenly his horse hit me and his sword was an inch from my neck,” Cruise recalled. Sanada remembers: “I just managed to stop… it was so hard. I was drenched in sweat! My God! But Tom never blinked! It was the biggest moment, the most dangerous moment. After that I never hit him; he never hit me.”
Cruise’s reinvention as an action movie star is perhaps surprising, given that he came to prominence in the 1980s in some of the decade’s most successful dramas: The Color of Money with Paul Newman in 1986, then two years later Cocktail, opposite Bryan Brown, alongside Dustin Hoffman (who won Best Actor, one of four Oscars for the film) in Rain Man and then, in Oliver Stone’s biographical Vietnam war film Born on the Fourth of July, he played the protagonist, Ron Kovic, in 1989.
Ten years later, Cruise found himself nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Frank T. J. Mackey in the Paul Thomas Anderson film Magnolia. Since 2011, all bar one of his films (Rock of Ages, in which he plays musician Stacee Jaxx) have been action blockbusters. However, he doesn’t feel typecast, and the movies he chooses to make are not part of some grand plan to fill his trophy cabinet – his three Golden Globes already prove he has what it takes in that regard. “I make all kinds of movies,” he said. “For me, you have to understand all the things that have happened. I really love movies and telling a story. It’s not to say that Academy Awards aren’t terrific and fun, but it was never an objective. I never grew up watching the Academy Awards, although I love movies… I always wanted to make different kinds of movies, from Born on the Fourth of July to Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut to Jerry Maguire to courtroom dramas to Vanilla Sky.”
To return to his affiliation with Steven Spielberg, their collaboration came with the sci-fi picture Minority Report, in 2002. Based on a story by Philip K. Dick, the action-detective thriller is set in the year 2054, in the US capital of Washington D.C. where Cruise plays the head of a ‘Precrime’ unit, John Anderton, and finds himself accused of the future murder of a man he is yet to meet. For Cruise, teaming up with Spielberg may have taken a long time, but speaking during the promotion of the film, it was something which he felt was very much worth the wait.
“Everyone wants to work with him. We came close on Rain Man, but he owed a picture, a Raiders movie, and the strike was imminent and he had to get it done first. It just takes a while. It was over four years ago when I first read Minority Report – the script first, then the short story – and sent it to him. So it takes time, and I wish I had four movies under my belt with him at this stage, as it’s a great experience.
“It’s hard to talk about because it’s as different as the movies these guys make. It’s always difficult comparing directors, but there’s no doubt Steven’s a master storyteller. He’d be Homer thousands of years ago. He has total command of his craft and is so efficient. He’s also great with actors and he’s able to stage these huge sequences, like the one with all the jet packs, and still come up with great ideas on the day.”
“He can turn an entire crew and an entire sequence on its head without losing days shooting. We went at a good pace, yet I never felt rushed as an actor. And he never lost sight of the story, not once. It’s amazing when you look at the sequences we shot. It’s all there on the screen; he’s that efficient. So you’ve got to have the capacity to keep that story, know what you want, and yet still work from a visceral point of view. He’s very specific about some of the staging and what he wanted. And he staged it beautifully.”
Cruise’s own path to super-star status seems almost predestined, but it could all have been very different. His family moved about a lot; he attended 15 schools in 14 years. He has said that his father beat him. As a teenager, he attended Glen Ridge High School in New Jersey and was a promising wrestler – something which obviously still fuels his modern-day stunts. His old wrestling team captain, Tom Jarrett, is only complimentary.
“He deserves all his success… always a real go-getter, but a good guy. I’ve not got a bad word to say about Tom. I think wrestling gave him some focus and a way of dealing with his aggression. He had times where he was struggling to be accepted and with wrestling, you made your own mark at school. He certainly felt like that. It wasn’t a popularity contest, but we both were looking to make our own mark. He really wanted to achieve, but didn’t know what to achieve in. I think his disabilities like dyslexia held him back, so acting and wrestling were perfect for him.”
“I ran into his mum the year after I left school and she said, ‘You’ve got to speak to Tom, as I want him to go to Duke University [in North Carolina].’ She looked up to me and really wanted to get a nice environment for him. Thank God I never spoke to him, as he’s now making $20 million a movie!” Is Cruise’s biggest stunt yet to come – in rescuing his waning power and recovering the mojo that seemed to be lost some time in the mid-2000s? If the critical mauling of The Mummy is anything to go by, it may be saved for future glories in the Mission: Impossible saga or the throwback to his ‘Maverick’ role for Top Gun 2. In any case, one can assume that for as long as he’s drawing breath, his name will remain in lights.
Images: Getty, via the interviewhub.com