This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of playboy magazine.
For 20 years Tom Cruise was the closest thing to a sure bet Hollywood had, shining on-screen and endearing himself to studios by working as hard promoting his films as he did making them. He surrounded himself with great filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg and Michael Mann, and stood toe-to-toe with such vets as Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman and Dustin Hoffman. His movies have grossed well over $7 billion, earning him hundreds of millions of dollars.
While not surprising that Cruise’s firm grip on the leading-man crown would eventually loosen, it was shocking that he caused it to happen himself with several ill-advised TV appearances. He got into a testy encounter with Today’s Matt Lauer. There to promote his film War of the Worlds, Cruise appeared to get on a soapbox for his religion, Scientology. Consistent with the teachings of his faith, he showed disdain for psychiatry and made aggressive statements about the perils of prescription drugs such as the antidepressant Paxil and the ADHD medication Ritalin. That followed a couch-jumping appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, a display of his exuberance for his future wife, actress Katie Holmes. Cruise was suddenly in real trouble. Never mind that other actors had endured true scandals and been largely given a pass; Cruise was forced to pay. His long-standing producing deal at Paramount Pictures was not renewed, and chairman Sumner Redstone publicly mentioned Cruise’s behavior as a prime reason. He also became fodder for parody on South Park *and other shows and in *Scary Movie 4. With partner Paula Wagner, Cruise moved on and raised more than $500 million to take over United Artists, but that eventually fizzled.
Although Cruise had been on top a long time, he was no stranger to finding a way around adversity. He grew up without money, raised by his mother (his father was absent after a divorce and died in 1984). Cruise was a scrappy kid who worked to help his mother and sisters as they moved from city to city. That meant continually starting over in schools, a situation not helped by his dyslexia.
As he nears 50, Cruise has put his temporary career crisis in the rearview mirror and is once again among the handful of stars whose participation gets a movie made. Seven years after being on the precipice, Cruise is coming off the biggest box office hit of his career in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, a crowd-pleasing film he also produced. It reunited him with Redstone’s Paramount Pictures, for which he just completed One Shot, an adaptation of Lee Child’s popular novel built around Jack Reacher. Cruise continues to take calculated risks: In the books, Reacher is a six-foot-five, 250-pound mass of muscle who towers over the bad guys and tears them apart bare-handed. Cruise is about five-foot-seven and maybe 160 pounds.
In Rock of Ages, which comes out this summer, he plays a decadent 1980s rock icon named Stacee Jaxx. It’s the first movie in which he sings.
To catch up with Cruise, playboy sent Michael Fleming to the Baton Rouge set of Oblivion, a postapocalyptic sci-fi thriller that was just getting under way. Fleming reports: “For all the adversity he endured the past half decade, I’m not sure I’ve ever met an actor who seems as content and comfortable in his own skin as Cruise. Despite the media fixation on his life, the industry has always loved his work ethic, and his fan base is still there. His life is a lot simpler than many might imagine. He works hard and keeps his family, including his mother and sisters, close to his side. He dotes on wife Katie and his children, Bella and Connor (from his marriage to Nicole Kidman) and Suri, his daughter with Holmes. Cruise flashes his trademark smile often as he talks about what seems like a great life, but he has also learned a lot in the past few years as he rescued his own career.”
You turn 50 on July 3. It’s a time most men are battling a gut, getting colonoscopies, losing their hair and monitoring their blood pressure. How is it you look about half your age?
I honestly have no idea. [laughs] I work. I’m always with family. I train, go without sleep. I just go hard.
You’re not wrinkling up like a lot of your peers. Have you had, or would you get, cosmetic surgery?
I haven’t, and I never would.
What does this dubious milestone mean to you?
When I made Taps, really my first film experience, I remember lying at night in the hotel room, thinking, I love this so much. I’d wanted it since I was four, and there I was, thinking that if I did my best on Taps, maybe I could do this for the rest of my life. Turning 50, when I’m still doing this, is okay. On July 3 I’ll be in Iceland, filming on my birthday. My family, my wife, they understand. It’s who I am. I’ve spent many birthdays on a movie set, all great days.
What have you learned that you didn’t know 20 years ago?
I’ve always had the same values. Family for me has always been important. When I shoot, everybody comes. When Kate’s shooting, I’m there with her and the kids. We’re always together. I’m always around my mother and sisters. I always wanted to be a father, a husband. And I’ve always had a work ethic. I’ve had paying jobs since I was about eight years old—cutting grass, raking leaves, paper routes, selling Easter cards and Christmas cards.
I went door-to-door in Canada and Kentucky. I was basically raised by women, and my mom at a certain point was paying for everything. We all had to pitch in. So work to me is important.
Where was your father?
He was mostly working, and then they got divorced. We moved a lot, and early on it was because he moved from job to job.
How did growing up with an absent father inform who you’ve become?
It wasn’t a big conflict when I was growing up; that’s just the way it was. I don’t look back and feel bad. I know some people do, but it’s not a burden I carry through life. It’s more like, Okay, this happened. That’s how he behaved, that’s how he did things. He tried, but it just was who he was. Traveling has given me a broader understanding of people, and I’ve always been interested in the similarities we have and why people make certain choices in life. I got an introduction to that as a young child, but it never felt like a weight I carried on my shoulders.
How much of a hardship was it to have your mother supporting the family?
We were better off than a lot and not as well off as others. For me, it was more basic. Like, if I wanted to go to the movies as many times as I wanted to go, I had to find money to pay for it. I learned to go get things. And we moved around a lot.
You’re always the new kid, with the wrong accent, the wrong shoes. You learn about people and yourself and how to deal with what was not always a safe environment.
That’s got to be tough on a kid.
I liked going to a new place. I’ll never forget, there was a cardboard box they’d put in my room. You pack your stuff up, everything goes in the car and off we go.
Was it jarring to leave school and friends and start over?
I found it adventurous. Did it bring challenges? Yeah. You’re always the new kid, with the wrong accent, the wrong shoes. You learn about people and yourself and how to deal with what was not always a safe environment. You had to figure it out. That is what life’s about, change and solving problems and living it. My mother worked three jobs, but she’s a woman for whom the cup is always half full. I wanted to help her and my sisters.
What else did you do with your money?
From as early as I can remember, I wanted to ride motorcycles and race cars. I wanted to do jumps and stunts. Every birthday I wanted only a motorcycle. By the time I was 12, I’d bought my own.
How rough is the motorcycle learning curve for a 12-year-old?
Very. [laughs] No one taught me. I crashed a lot, because I like to go fast. I used to do other stuff. We were living in Canada and I liked gymnastics. I would do flips off the roof. I’d climb to the highest part and see how many flips I could do before I hit the snowbank. I’d do one flip, and I’d wonder, Can I get two? [laughs]
So you were that guy.
I was that guy. I used to like to do stuff to show my sisters. They were always like, “Tommy, you’re going to kill yourself, and then Mom’s going to kill you.” I’d be doing flips and the neighborhood kids would come over and look. Then I tried a double and got through only one and a half before I missed the snowbank, landed on the sidewalk and broke my ankle. I was like, “Aghhh!” I crawled to the bedroom. I’ve broken my leg, my nose.
How’d you break your nose?
The first time, I got hit by a fastball. Another time, I got hit with a baseball bat by accident. Then I rejarred it on a motorcycle. No one thought about helmets or pads back then. When I was 18, on the set of Taps, I met the stunt guys. I was like, “You train for stuff like this?” Back in the day there were no videos of this stuff. I’d create ramps to try to jump over garbage cans on my bike, figuring it out on my own. When I was five years old, I’d climb the tallest tree possible, get to the top so when the wind was blowing I’d hang on as the branch swayed back and forth. Then, can I go from this tree and get to that tree?
Aside from broken bones, what did you get out of all this?
I learned that even in times that were challenging, you have a choice whether to let problems overwhelm you. When you’re going to new schools, you’re confronted by different things, but you always have a choice, and mine was to learn to handle it.
How does this translate to doing your own stunts in movies?
I train pretty hard. For The Last Samurai I spent a year training six hours a day, seven days a week to be able to handle a sword and do it on uneven terrain, because I didn’t want to blow my knees out. You’ve got to build the body up for impact. I remember trying to put my shirt on at one point and couldn’t because my forearms had gotten so big. It was the same with Rock of Ages—five hours a day learning to sing, three hours a day dancing.
Did you know you could sing before you took on Rock of Ages?
I knew I could hold a note. I sang in a glee club when I was 14 years old and in a high school musical. But I never had a singing lesson. No one ever taught me how to use my voice.
You had help from Axl Rose’s vocal coach. How do you develop an arena voice?
He was an opera singer who taught me how to control my voice. It’s like learning a new sport or a skill for a character. I had to find out how to move air through the vocal cords and where to place it in my head, in the chest. It’s something you have to do every day to strengthen your voice.
After singing 1980s rock anthems in front of a wild crowd in Rock of Ages, is it more fun to be Tom Cruise or Bruce Springsteen?
For Bruce, I’m sure it’s more fun to be Bruce. I like being me because making movies is all I ever wanted to do. But when I look at Bono, Springsteen, Bon Jovi or Axl Rose and hear the songs they wrote and how they perform them and the life they have, I have a greater appreciation. It takes so much work to get to that level.
The first song you sang in front of a crowd was “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” with Def Leppard there, watching you. Pressure?
Director Adam Shankman said they were eager to abuse you, but you ruined it by nailing the song.
I was down in Miami, recording different songs, and Adam called and said, “Def Leppard’s coming by the set.” I said, “Man, that’s cool.” Then I paused. “Wait, I’m rehearsing their song tomorrow.” And he’s like, “Yeah!” [laughs] So we started right in the deep end, and that was the first scene I shot in the movie. It’s a great song, and I grew up listening to them. They went to the back of the Bourbon Room, and I looked at my band and was like, “Hit it.” All the crew was watching them watching me.
So what did they say?
Well, the lead singer, Joe Elliott, points at me and goes, “Fuck you! Fuck you!” Then I saw big smiles on their faces, and I realized I’d gotten their stamp. It was a very cool moment. It was important they knew I was honoring their music and not making fun of them.
It’s hard to take your character that seriously. He’s prone to theatrics, and his only real friend is a baboon.
He’s a slave to rock and roll. When he’s onstage, he gives it everything. Off it, he’s looking for soulful moments in odd ways, and that’s where the comedy comes in. We had this sweet love song, “I Want to Know What Love Is,” and I’m falling in love with this girl. But it’s a sex scene, and that’s where it has to be funny, because it’s rock and roll. I read all this stuff about Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Axl Rose, Motley Crue and the groupies. My character has them, but suddenly there’s this sweet scene that changes everything. If it works, people will laugh and it’ll be emotional. This hard-rock guy is singing this romantic duet, falling in love with this woman. But since it’s rock and roll, he’s singing most of it to her backside.
On the other side of the spectrum, those scenes you shot running and jumping 124 floors up that Dubai skyscraper in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol were impressive. Knowing it was you dangling by a cable, it was so——
It’s high. [laughs] Yes, it’s high. I always wanted to do something like that. It was one of those times I could build myself up to it physically, train and push myself, and have it fit the story and the character. We spent months figuring it out.
No matter how much planning, you have to get out there and look down. Way down.
You could have done it from the second floor, and they also have computers and stuntmen.
But it wouldn’t have looked the same. As great as visual effects are, it just would not have been the same experience for the audience—especially when my director, Brad Bird, said he wanted to shoot in Imax, which I was so damn excited about. I started thinking of -Harold Lloyd dangling from the clock, and Buster Keaton, when you feel the danger. And look, if I’m at the third or the second floor, a fall will kill me anyway. [laughs] I might as well be on the 124th floor. At a certain point the height was the least of the challenges.
After a rough couple of years when some questioned your viability as a leading man, Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol grossed more money than any other film you’ve ever made. What did that mean to you?
I’ve always just wanted to make the movies I wanted to make, see studios make money so they’d let me do it again and see an audience enjoy it. I’ve tried to keep my head down and just do good work.
But we can see you are competitive. Your Collateral co-star Jamie Foxx told us you and Will Smith were the most competitive guys he’s ever met and that you have to win at everything.
But I have a standard of what winning is. How do you define winning and losing? If I get beaten in a basketball game, I don’t care. How a movie does is based on so many things, including release dates and marketing. I understand the box office game. I was there in the beginning when they started fixating on the number one film and the competition in that. I really came up with promoting films around the world, and studios fought me, but I mainly did it because I wanted myself and my kids to see the world. But here’s the game I’m playing. I want to make great films that entertain an audience and hold up. I can control only the effort I put into it and the experience we all have making it. After that, it is what it is.
When Paramount was planning Ghost Protocol, they brought in Jeremy Renner, and the perception was that they were hedging bets with you. True?
No, because here’s the thing: I had creative control and final cut on Mission Impossible. I brought Renner in. So there’s a separation between what’s happening versus what people say. This is something I learned growing up, moving and always being the new kid. There’s what people say, and there’s reality, and you can’t worry about stuff like that. Do you wish they wouldn’t say certain things? Yeah, you wish. Does refuting things help? Not really. There comes a point when you just have to go, You know what? Here’s how I’ve lived my life: I’ve never been late to set. I make films I believe in. I feel privileged to be able to do what I love. You just have to keep going and remember that. The other stuff? I hear it, I read it, I get it. But life is not a matter of trying to prove anything to anybody.
And yet you constantly seem to be proving things to others.
Here’s the thing about competition. I don’t think that wanting to do my best qualifies as that. I love making movies. Whether it’s making a film or raising my children, personally I’m striving to do the right things and to learn. I’m an all-or-nothing kind of person, and when I become interested in something, I give it my all. In life, I always wanted adventures and to learn different fields of endeavor. The great thing about being an actor is I’ve gotten to see what a fighter pilot’s life is like and a race car driver’s. I’ve gotten to fly airplanes, race cars, learn about motorcycles. In Rock of Ages I studied music, learned how to sing and see it from a singer’s vantage point. I carry those interests and lessons through my own life. I guess I am always striving to be competent. But when it comes to working with other actors or releasing movies, I don’t feel competitive. It’s a group effort.
You ride bikes, drive fast cars, fly planes. If you were going to drive away for a bit and clear your head, what would your favorite mode of transportation be?
Each one has its different level of freedom. A fast motorcycle is wonderful, but I’d have to say it would be the P-51 Warbird. I have a 1944 Tuskegee Airmen P-51 that was part of their training squadron. When I traveled around as a kid, I had a picture of a Spitfire and a picture of a P-51. P means “pursuit,” and you can fly hard through the canyons. It’s a beautiful airplane, unlike anything else.
Could you fly when you were making Top Gun?
No, but I always wanted to fly, and that was one of the reasons I did Top Gun. I just never had the time to learn. Then I met Sydney Pollack. I was 19 or 20. He was editing Tootsie, and I’d just finished Risky Business. I got a meeting with Sydney that was supposed to be 20 minutes and ended up being over two hours. Outside of my admiration for him as a filmmaker, we talked about a big mutual interest that we had in aviation because I knew he flew. Sydney became a lifelong friend, and when we finished The Firm together in 1993 or 1994, he gave me flying lessons as a gift. He said, “I know how much you love flying. Take the time, right now, and do it, because otherwise you’ll never get to it.” I had two kids by then, and I worked all the time. In a few months I had my instrument rating, and a little while after that I had my commercial rating. I trained mostly in aerobatics, because I wanted to fly the P-51. I was doing rolls, loops, all kinds of aerobatic maneuvers. My first airplane was called a Pitts, and then I flew a Marchetti. That’s a third-world air force trainer they use in the Navy’s TOPGUN schools for air-to-air combat. This was all in preparation to fly the Warbird, the P-51. I searched all over the world for my P-51 and found it in 2000. It’s called Kiss Me Kate, which covers two things I love most, my wife and movies.
You don’t seem to have many fears.
It’s not that you don’t feel fear; it’s about figuring out why and what to do with it. There are times you’re doing things and the fear is there. It’s not like I just jumped in a car and started going 200 miles an hour. I get the feel of the car, learn the track, work my way up to it.
What’s the fastest you’ve gone?
More than 200 miles an hour, at Daytona.
How nervous does all this make the studios, with you doing your own stunts, performing aerobatics in your P-51 and driving 200 miles an hour in a car?
I don’t ask them. When I was stunt climbing at Mojave for Mission: Impossible 2, Sherry Lansing was running Paramount. I held back sending them any film until we’d finished the sequence because I love her and didn’t want to give her a heart attack. Then we sent the rushes, and normally Sherry would call right away to discuss them. I never heard from her on those. Finally, when I got back, it was like, “Tom, we’re not even going to talk about this.” But I don’t go into these things in a haphazard manner. You train so if things do go wrong, you know your outs and your backups. In One Shot, we did a car chase, and essentially I did every stunt in every shot in the movie. When you watch, you can see that. There was tremendous preparation, and that’s what people don’t understand—months of figuring out the car, the tire temperatures, the handling, the temperature of the pavement. You have to be on top of all of it.
You are clearly detail oriented about your career. But you had a lapse with that testy interview with Matt Lauer, making comments about Brooke Shields, psychiatry and prescription drugs for postpartum depression. And on Oprah you jumped on a couch. What did you learn?
I agree with you, and I never meant it that way. When I go back and look at it, I find myself thinking, I don’t feel that way. I get how it came across, but I don’t feel that way, and I never have. Telling people how to live their lives? I saw how that came across and how pieces were edited.
If I don’t talk about my religion, they’re like, ‘He’s avoiding it.’ If I do talk about it, it becomes, ‘Oh, he’s proselytizing.’
Are you more cautious about how much of yourself you put out there with the media?
When I’m promoting a film, I’m there to promote a film.
Is it fair to say that your relationship with Scientology is now in the category of a private matter?
What’s interesting is, if I don’t talk about my religion, if I say I’m not discussing it or different humanitarian things I’m working on, they’re like, “He’s avoiding it.” If I do talk about it, it becomes, “Oh, he’s proselytizing.” Reviewing the whole thing and how things can be edited and misinterpreted, I decided, You know what? Here’s the deal. I take responsibility for what happened, but everyone now knows that if I am dealing with humanitarian things, I will talk about that. When I’m promoting a film, I’m not going to get caught up in anything else, and that includes all my personal things.
The aftermath of that controversy hurt your career. Were you concerned that this dream you’re living of making movies had been jeopardized?
No, I really didn’t. But it was important to me to take responsibility, take a hard look and decide where I go from here. That time was interesting. It was that moment when the internet had really spun out. It was a learning experience for all of us, how these things go. All you can do is learn and say, “This is the way it’s going to go from now on. Here is the line.”
Plenty of stars have done a lot worse and gotten a pass. There’s no tape of you erupting on a set, no rehab stints. Yet it seems you get a harder time than most for perceived missteps. Why is that?
I look at it in terms of what I can take responsibility for and being honest about that and going, “Okay, I get it.” My whole life, I’ve wanted to take care of my family and be the person people can depend on. I feel that about myself. Do I make mistakes? Yeah. I don’t care who you are, life has challenges. Whether it’s as a father, as a man, in my work, you go through things. I want to look at those things for what they really are, take responsibility, make it right and move on. How harshly I’m judged or not judged, I don’t think about stuff like that. I feel lucky. I remember as a kid I wanted an adventurous life, and I’ve gotten it. So if someone judges me harshly, it’s okay. I don’t even judge them harshly for doing it.
Did that perspective come with maturity?
I think it’s something I’ve always felt. I remember back as a little kid, going into a new school. Always, you know there will be a guy coming up at you, and you just wait for it. The first day someone’s going to slam me against a locker, and then it’s on. I don’t want the fight, but it’s there, it’s happening.
And you have to stand up for yourself.
You have to. There’s one thing you know with a bully. I don’t care how big or mean they are. If you allow it, if you don’t stand up to that.… And there are different ways to do it. There’s the school yard, but sometimes just confronting them works. I learned hard lessons as a kid, and you think that once you grow up and aren’t at school, it will be different. It isn’t; it’s just bigger. I was being evaluated by the world. You have language barriers. There are lots of ways to incite incidents through miscommunication. The internet has made it more immediate for false stuff. I’ve learned to just let it go or communicate where you can. Since the beginning of my career, you can find something with anyone.
You’re not totally passive. You have sued over some particularly personal things that have been written about you and your family. Was it worth it?
They know I mean it, that if I have to, I will sue. You start with a letter saying, “Okay, you know it’s not true. Apologize.” There is a point with a lot of things when you just go, You know what? I don’t want to waste my time with this. I’m busy. I’d rather spend this time with my kids and my wife, at home or on our movies, creating a life together. If you have kids, it is the most important thing to create good times.
If I have to, I will sue. You start with a letter saying, ‘Okay, you know it’s not true. Apologize.’ When it involves your kids, you have to go, ‘Here’s the line.’
The night Princess Diana died you called CNN to talk about how the intrusiveness of the press had gotten out of hand. This phone-hacking scandal on Fleet Street has closed one major newspaper and reached all the way to Rupert Murdoch. Have you ever been hacked?
What do you make of this invasion of privacy?
I put that in a minor pile of things I have to handle. But with certain ones you have to go, “Okay, you crossed a line, and now you have the attention of my lawyers.” [laughs] When it involves your kids, with these guys you have to go, “Here’s the line, and anytime you cross it.…” But there are lots of times when you just have to say, “Please don’t cross that line. Be decent. Let’s not do this.”
The press makes much of your marriage to Katie Holmes. How does she respond?
She is an extraordinary person, and if you spent five minutes with her, you’d see it. Everything she does, she does with this beautiful creativity. When she becomes interested in something, she doesn’t talk about it, she does it. One week I said to her, “You’ve been up in the middle of the night. Is everything okay?” She smiled and then threw this thing on my desk and said, “I wrote this script.” She wanted to try it, and she did. She wanted to try designing clothes, and now her line is wonderful and, to me, an example of how she just creates beautiful things in her life. She has a voice and warmth as an artist, as a mother. She’s funny and charming, and when she walks into the room, I just feel better. I’m a romantic. I like doing things like creating romantic dinners, and she enjoys that. I don’t know what to say—I’m just happy, and I have been since the moment I met her. What we have is very special.
You just starred in and produced One Shot, based on Lee Child’s best–selling novel about the brutish ex-MP turned drifter Jack Reacher. When you signed to star, there was an outcry from loyal readers who said, “Wait, Reacher’s six-foot-five, 250.” No offense, but you are not——
When you starred in Interview With the Vampire, Anne Rice was publicly critical until she saw the movie and changed her mind. What would you say to readers who might be thinking, Well, here goes Hollywood screwing with my favorite book series?
I learned from the Anne Rice scenario. I should have called and sat down with her first, like I did for Born on the Fourth of July. I sat with Ron Kovic and said, “I’ve been offered this. How do you feel about it?” It was really a job interview. I wouldn’t have done One Shot if Lee Child had said no, but Lee was the one who convinced me to do it. And he created such a great character.
Reacher is an oversize badass. What do you bring to the table that compensates for the fact that this guy towers over everybody, is the roughest guy in the room and kicks ass constantly?
Well, I bring all of that but the height. [laughs] It’s a visual thing. There are some ass beatings in this. They’ll see that it delivers what I love about the Reacher series: the visceral action, those ass beatings and the humor of Lee Child’s novels. And the women are fantastic.
You’ve been on top longer than most actors, and you’re still pushing at an age many actors start slowing down. How much of your good fortune do you attribute to your faith?
I have respect for what other people believe. What I believe in my own life is that it’s a search for how I can do things better, whether it’s being a better man or a better father or finding ways for myself to improve. Individuals have to decide what is true and real for them. I’m fortunate in the life I have. I just played the rock-and-roll guy, and my appreciation and understanding of what they do grew. I’ve gotten to travel to different places all over the world, to see the commonality of the human experience. It’s something I look for. Whether it’s in Canada, France, India or Russia, even though people have different color skin and they believe in different things, there is a commonality of the human experience that is very real for me. I try to look to the future and look at life in a way that, no matter how tough something can be, I don’t go in blindly but step back and try to understand it. To me, that’s the search. It applies to racing cars and to playing different characters. There has to be a level of understanding. I hope that answers your question. That’s what I want, and the search never ends. You always have a choice. You can let something overwhelm you, or you can take one step at a time and figure it out. Because life is problems. We’ve all got problems. We like problems, do you know what I mean? [laughs] And getting to that place where you ask how you can solve these problems to better handle life and survive, that is the place I want to be in my life.