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.”
PLAYBOY: 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?
CRUISE: I honestly have no idea. [laughs] I work. I’m always with family. I train, go without sleep. I just go hard.
PLAYBOY: You’re not wrinkling up like a lot of your peers. Have you had, or would you get, cosmetic surgery?
CRUISE: I haven’t, and I never would.
PLAYBOY: What does this dubious milestone mean to you?
CRUISE: 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.
PLAYBOY: What have you learned that you didn’t know 20 years ago?
CRUISE: 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.
CRUISE: 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.
PLAYBOY: Where was your father?
CRUISE: 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.
PLAYBOY: How did growing up with an absent father inform who you’ve become?
CRUISE: 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.
PLAYBOY: How much of a hardship was it to have your mother supporting the family?
CRUISE: 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.
PLAYBOY: That’s got to be tough on a kid.
CRUISE: 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.
PLAYBOY: Was it jarring to leave school and friends and start over?
CRUISE: 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.
PLAYBOY: What else did you do with your money?
CRUISE: 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.
PLAYBOY: How rough is the motorcycle learning curve for a 12-year-old?
CRUISE: 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]
PLAYBOY: So you were that guy.
CRUISE: 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.
PLAYBOY: How’d you break your nose?
CRUISE: 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?
PLAYBOY: Aside from broken bones, what did you get out of all this?
CRUISE: 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.
PLAYBOY: How does this translate to doing your own stunts in movies?
CRUISE: 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.
PLAYBOY: Did you know you could sing before you took on Rock of Ages?
CRUISE: 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.
PLAYBOY: You had help from Axl Rose’s vocal coach. How do you develop an arena voice?
CRUISE: 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.
PLAYBOY: 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?
CRUISE: 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.
PLAYBOY: The first song you sang in front of a crowd was “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” with Def Leppard there, watching you. Pressure?
CRUISE: Yes. [laughs]
PLAYBOY: Director Adam Shankman said they were eager to abuse you, but you ruined it by nailing the song.
CRUISE: 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.
PLAYBOY: So what did they say?
CRUISE: 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.
PLAYBOY: It’s hard to take your character that seriously. He’s prone to theatrics, and his only real friend is a baboon.
CRUISE: 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.
PLAYBOY: 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——
CRUISE: 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.
PLAYBOY: No matter how much planning, you have to get out there and look down. Way down.
CRUISE: Yes. [laughs]
PLAYBOY: You could have done it from the second floor, and they also have computers and stuntmen.
CRUISE: 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.
PLAYBOY: 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?
CRUISE: 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.