Hot Shot in Top Gun
It has been three years since Tom Cruise made his starring debut as Joel Goodsen, the awakening young capitalist in Paul Brickman’s “Risky Business.” The movie was a perfect showcase for Cruise’s style – equal parts comic vulnerability and dramatic strength. When the family egg tumbled through the air at the end of “Risky Business”, audiences everywhere felt the full weight of Joel’s predicament. By the time it landed, Cruise had arrived.
Now 24, Cruise has worked steadily since that memorable turn, but due to a combination of lengthy schedules and production delays, he hasn’t been seen since 1983’s “All The Right Moves.” That hiatus is about to end. This year will see the release of three high-profile Cruise releases. First comes Ridley Scott’s long-awaited “Legend.” The summer blockbuster, “Top Gun” will hit theaters this month, and due in December is “The Color of Money,” Martin Scorsese’s sequel to “The Hustler.” Cruise stars as the pool playing protégé/nemesis of Fast Eddie – Paul Newman.
I spoke with Tom Cruise at the Columbus Dynasty Restaurant on New York’s Upper West Side. A model of manners, Cruise rarely missed an opportunity for a “sir” or “ma’am.” When our talk was over, he thanked the waitress, hoisted his backpack onto his shoulders and disappeared into a crowded subway, looking a lot like Joel Goodsen a long way from home.
Cameron Crowe: You’re someone who is associated with a lot of people’s adolescent thoughts and fantasies…
Tom Cruise: Yep, I’ve been laid just about everywhere. On the train, in the bedroom, on the stairs….[laughs]
CC: What was your own adolescence like?
TC: I’ve had such extremes in my life. From being this kind of wild kid, to one year studying to be a Franciscan priest at the seminary….I was very frustrated. I didn’t have a lot of friends. The closest people around me were my family. I think they felt a little nervous about me because I had a lot of energy and I couldn’t stick to one thing. If I worked in an ice-cream store – and I’ve worked in a lot of them – I would be the best for two weeks. Then I was always quitting or getting fired, because I was bored. I feel good about the fact that I finally found something I love. I never lived in one place for very long – that’s the way my whole life has been. I was always packing and moving around, staying in Canada, Kentucky, Jersey, St. Louis – it all helped because I was always learning new accents, experiencing different environments.
CC: How close did you come to becoming a Franciscan Priest?
TC: Not too close. I was there for one school session. I remember we used to sneak out of the school on weekends and go this girl’s house in town, sit around, talk and play Spin the Bottle. I just realized I loved women too much to give that up.
CC: What was the turning point, when you decided on acting and moved to New York?
TC: I was 17 and started in a school musical. Guys and Dolls. And I just loved it. At the schools I grew up in, sensitivity was something that was not accepted. Especially being the new kid. I felt vulnerable a lot of the time, constantly having to put up these guards to take care of myself. You didn’t sit around with the guys and talk about, “God, that really hurt my feelings, what you said.” It was more like, “Yeah, let’s go out, have some beers and kick some ass.” That was really frustrating to me. So the first time I did the play, all the guys came and saw it and said, “Whoa, we didn’t know that you could do that.” I felt good about it. Not just the fact that they saw it, but I felt good about it in my heart. My mother taught creative drama, so I’d always enjoyed it. I told my parents I was going to New York. I never really planned on going to college anyway. I had saved money and I was going to go to Europe and find the “big picture” there.
CC: Does your rebel side ever come out in the movie-making process?
TC: Like getting into a fistfight on a movie set? No. But I am very aggressive. You’ve got to be aggressive; there’s too much responsibility not to be. When you look at Taps, a lot of that character was my childhood. I wasn’t intense like that, but the character is just fear. That’s what he does when he’s afraid – he fights. I have an aggressive side, absolutely. I need a creative outlet. Now I work out every day. I get up and work out 45 to 60 minutes. And that’s how I start my day. Discipline is very important to me.
CC: How did you learn to deal with the constant rejection of going out on readings?
TC: I felt that the people rejecting me were there to help me in the long run. Sometimes it hurts, but I truly believe that there are parts I’m supposed to get and parts I’m not supposed to get and something else is going to come along.
I remember being flown out to Los Angeles to read for a series. I didn’t know anything – I didn’t know how touch it was. I went in to read and this director was sitting there in his office – he thought he was the coolest thing happening. I read, and I knew I was terrible. And he said, “So, how long are going to be in California?” And I’m thinking, “He’s probably going to want me to come back and read again with someone else”. I said, “Well, just a couple of days.” He said, “Good. Get a tan while you’re here.” [laughs] I couldn’t help it. I walked out, and I thought it was the funniest damn thing. Tears were coming out of my eyes,, I was laughing so hard. I thought, “This is Hollywood. Welcome, Cruise.”
CC: Your first major role was in the film Taps. Did you feel like you were on the ground floor of something special, working with Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton?
I felt like it was a chance for me, and a beginning. Me and Penn, I really don’t know if we ever slept during that movie. We’d stay up all night and just talk about the film and about acting. And Hutton was working every day, so he couldn’t hang out that much except on the weekends. We were really scared and nervous and excited – we didn’t know what was going to happen. It was a special time in my life because it was my first movie, and it was Sean’s first movie. Hutton had just won the Academy Award and he was all excited. You felt that something special was happening.
I didn’t know anything about agents and business or scripts. Coming off Taps, I felt like, hey, everyone wants to make a great movie. Everyone who’s doing this loves their work. It’s too hard a line of work to not love it. You work as hard as you can and you get everything and something has to work out. Then I did a film they titled Losin’ It. When I first read it, it was worse than the released film. I had this small agent at the time who said, “Do it, do it.” I worked hard, but it was a terrible time in my life.
CC: How did you make the transition from Losin’ It to working with Francis Ford Coppola on The Outsiders?
TC: I learned the things I wanted, and the things I didn’t want. I got a new agent and thought, “I have to work with good people and good directors and grow.” I heard about the movie, and I came out to Los Angeles and stayed at Emilio’s [Estevez] house over Christmas. And I stayed at the Penn’s house in the summer. That’s when Sean was doing Fast Times. I just went to Francis and said, “Look, I don’t care what role you give me, I really want to work with you. I want to be there with all these young actors. That was a hell of a good time. I just wanted a wide body of work. After Taps came out I was offered every horror film, every killer-murderer part. I told this one agent that I wanted to work with Francis. He said, “Francis! He’s not going to pay you anything!” It was never a main role, but I created something. That was where I learned I had a sense of comedy. I still wanted to work with Francis again.
CC: In Risky Business, Paul Brickman took the youth-oriented genre and really opened it up visually and musically. It’s been very influential. Were these elements part of the movie from the beginning?
TC: Yes. Francis offered everybody a change to go on and do Rumble Fish the same week I was offered Risky Business. I thought Paul Brickman was a very bright man with great taste. He knew exactly what the movie was going to be.
CC: What was your audition like?
TC: I was doing The Outsiders in Tulsa, and I had to come back to Los Angeles for a day for some reason. Originally, Paul had seen Taps and said, “This guy for Joel? This guy is a killer! Let him do Amityville III!” Somehow, my agent, without me knowing, arranged to have me just drop by the office to say hello. So I went in wearing a jean jacket, my tooth was chipped, my hair was greasy. I was pumped up and talking in an Oklahoma accent, “Hey, how y’all doing?” Paul just sat there, looking at me. He said, “Let’s just read a little bit.” I’m not a very good cold reader. What I do is start with a line and go off and ad-lib and kind of find my way down the script. I started reading the thing, and they were ready to say, “Okay, thank you.” I didn’t know. I cut them off and said, “let me try it this way.” I started from the top again and I did it another way and we ended up reading through half the script. It was fun, we were all laughing.
Then I came back later and tested for it at six in the morning. I was shooting nights and so I flew in late, got in at 1:00 A.M. and I had to leave at 10:00 P.M. to shoot the rumble scene in The Outsiders that night. Here I was again. My hair was greasy and I was heavy, but now I was wearing this preppy maroon Adidas shirt. My arms were huge. I walk in and see this stunningly gorgeous woman sitting there looking at me and I’m thinking. “Oh my God.” Rebecca [De Mornay] had already been cast. They wanted to see the two of us together. I tested, and to make a short story long, we didn’t test that well. Paul just believed in me. I told him exactly what I was going to do. We talked about it for a long time and he trusted me.
CC: A lot of people have ideas about what the movie is about. What’s your theory?
TC: It’s about today’s capitalistic society. Do the means justify the ends? Do you want to help people, or do you just want to make money? Joel is questioning all of that. So am I. Today the thinking of young people is so linear and non-creative. It’s all about money. Unfortunately, we need something like Vietnam to force people to deal with political issues. I’m not saying I’m some erudite political figure – but it bothers me. At least I’m asking the question. The movie is Joel’s exploration of society, how he gets sucked into this wild capitalistic ride.
CC: Supposedly there was a major battle over the ending.
TC: Yes. We had to change the ending to make it more upbeat and commercial. Geffen Films felt it was too…basically they felt it was a bummer, okay? [laughs] At one point, Paul said he wouldn’t direct the new ending. They were going to hire another director to direct it. Paul really fought it. We all did. We all loved the piece so much. I didn’t want to sell Joel out. In the end, I think we got across the same point, though. Joel knows in his heart that this women is more important than money. That’s what I wanted to get across. A lot of people, when I discuss the ending of the film with them, say Joel didn’t sell out – some say he did. It’s a subtle film and you walk out with what you want to walk out with. It has so many different levels.
CC: What was the original ending?
TC: It was this great, emotional scene in the restaurant. Instead of the scene outside where Rebecca says, “Do you want to come over?”, she sits on my lap in the restaurant and it just ends on the sunset background coming up and me stroking her hair with her head on my shoulder. It cuts back and forth and then I say, “Isn’t life grand?” It was really nice. They felt it was too sardonic. So we made it more specific and upbeat.
CC: Whose idea was it to do the dance in your underwear?
TC: Brickman’s idea. What he did was he set up the frame of the shot. He showed it to me and said, “Let’s really play it and use the whole house.” We had talked earlier and he said, “Look, I want Bob Seger’s ‘Old Time Rock & Roll’ or maybe some Elvis, but if you can come up with something else, great.” I went through tape after tape. In the end, nothing beat Bob Seger. So I took the candlestick, and I said, “How about making this the audience?” And then I just started ad-libbing, using it as a guitar, jumping on the table. I waxed half the floor and kept the other half dirty, so I could slide in on my socks. As we went along, I threw more stuff in. Like the thing with the collar up, jumping on the bed. Originally, it was only one line in the script: “Joel dances in underwear through the house.” We shot it in half a day.
CC: Have you ever been close to marriage?
CC: How private do you feel about your girlfriends?
TC: I don’t hide from cameras or anything. It doesn’t bother me. I don’t seek our press for the women I’m dating, but if it finds me, it finds me.
CC: You were close to Rebecca De Mornay for several years. How hard is it for you to balance your career with your relationships?
TC: It’s not easy. I spend a lot of time alone. I mean a lot of time alone. But I’ve spent time alone my whole life and it doesn’t bother me. I feel lonely at times, but I don’t want to get into a relationship with someone if it is not right. I’m not the type of person who just does things to do them. It takes time to get to know people.
CC: With the success of Risky Business, how quickly did you start to feel the room tip toward you when you entered it?
TC: I’m really very private, in my own world. Suddenly I was someone walking on the street and people were looking at me and I was thinking, “Jesus, is something hanging out of my nose?” It took time to get adjusted to it. It was such a perfect time to do Legend in England. Everyone is looking at you and somehow just moving your hand seems so much more exaggerated.
CC: Why was Legend delayed so much?
TC: That’s been overblown, first of all. The press kind of took that and blew it out of proportion. It’s a movie-movie. There was a lot of post-production. Ridley [Scott] made a fairy tale, a breakthrough visual film. I think the studio thought the whole piece was a little too romantic. So instead of just releasing it, Ridley said, “Okay, let’s go back and rescore it and give it a little harder edge.” Now it’s ready to go.
Legend was an interesting thing. I don’t know how Harrison Ford has done so many of those types of films. I mean, I did All The Right Moves, and I thought, “Okay, I’ve done the two extremes of high school life. I’ve done that.” In Legend, I’m this magical character, Jack O’ The Green. The sets were huge. Sometimes we would be working on a scene that might last 30 seconds in the film, but it took a week to shoot it. It’s stunning and gorgeous and poetic and most of the time I would be looking at a piece of black tape and having to imagine all of it. It was exciting, but it made me hungry to do a piece like Top Gun.
CC: How did you feel when Reagan forced down the Egyptian jets with American F-14s? Like this was Top Gun territory?
TC: I felt like I had some insight into it. Because trying to get the jets for the movie, we had to go to Washington and sit down with the secretary of the navy and all the naval officials. I mean everybody. I hung out with the fighter pilots for nine months. I love flying in the F-14. I’m not big on weapons of war, but I enjoyed flying. Those pilots go up there and risk their lives every time. Duke Cunningham is a naval ace; he helped me a lot and he gave me his gold wings to wear in the film. All these guys talked to me. They’re very emotional about it. When you fly in the F14, it’s one of those experiences that is bigger than life itself. It blows your shit away. These guys do it every day and you know why they want it. Flying is so intense and emotional. But ever since I got involved in Top Gun, I didn’t want to make a warmonger movie. I wanted to get into the personality of these guys, what makes them fly. What makes my character, Maverick, want to fly? I wanted to give him a sensitivity. And I think in the dogfights, before he goes up, you see he’s nervous. I mean, you’re not a fighter pilot just because you want combat. It’s the flying, the F-14.
CC: There’s a graphic plane crash in the movie. How do you research your performance for a plane crash?
TC: What I did was I looked through tapes and talked to pilots who had been in crashes. I actually saw a six-minute tape of one. They filmed some air combat maneuvers at Top Gun school. A helicopter was out there filming these jets when all of a sudden one of the engines went out. You can hear the pilots’ voices. The cameras have him right in frame. They start following the jet down, and the thing is that because of the gravity, the blood is rushing to your brain. What can happen in that situation is that there is so much pressure that some pilots just die. The blood explodes through them – they can’t handle the G’s. They have to reach back to rip the ejection, and they’re pinned so heavily that they can’t reach. And you hear them trying to talk, and your heart is in your throat watching this. It’s just bits and pieces…of…them…trying…to…talk, and you feel their training, trying to keep that control and knowing that, my God, this is it.
CC: Did they die?
TC: No, thank God they didn’t. At the last second the plane hit an air pocket 500 feet off the ground, which gave them just enough to rip up and punch themselves out. They both lived. And the plane went down. You can see it all.
CC: Have you ever used your celebrity to get something that you really wanted?
I guess meeting Dustin Hoffman was the closest to that. Usually I would never do anything like that. But I was in this Cuban restaurant up on Columbia Avenue with my little sister. All of a sudden she got up to go the bathroom and when she sat down, she had this big smile of her face. She pointed and said, “That’s Dustin Hoffman over there.” He was doing Death of a Salesman, and I had just gotten back from finishing Legend in London. I knew that this was his last weekend and it was impossible to get tickets. I feel really shy about going up to people and saying hello, telling them I appreciate their work, but I went up and said, “Hey, Mr. Hoffman,” and he turned around and said, “Cruise?” He was so cool. He said, “Look, we’re having the last performance coming up, why don’t you and your sister come by into my dressing room and watch me get made up for it?” He made sure that we had seats and everything. Afterward, we went to dinner with his family and his cousin. That’s the stuff that makes you feel good. As I was doing Top Gun, I was thinking I’d really like to work with an established older actor whom I can learn from – and an established director. Then Marty [Scorsese] called me and said he wanted me to read the script for The Color of Money. He wanted to know what I thought of it. And I was thinking, “He wants to know what I think of it. What does that mean?” [laughs] I read it and thought, “There’s a role in here for me. Holy shit. This thing is great.” I told Marty how much I enjoyed the script and he asked me if I wanted to do it. I said, “I’d love to!” So that’s what I’ve been doing, that and playing a lot of pool. I’ve improved 200 percent in the last few weeks.
CC: What is the relationship between your character and Paul Newman’s in The Color of Money?
TC: Newman’s character, Fast Eddie, is a corrupt hustler – any means justify the end. My character, Vincent, is a pure pool player. If he could just have pool, sex with his girlfriend, a Bud in his hand and his job at the toy store – what the hell, he’s set. Newman sees this raw talent and thinks, “Man, I’m going to make a lot of money off this kid.” He tries to turn Vincent into a hustler. They each act as a catalyst for the other. Eddie sees what he is missing. When you start messing with your mind it is hard to know where the purity is. You lose your perfect shot, you lose your finesse. If you are a liar, then you are going to think everyone in that room is a liar. You are not going to be able to look at someone and say, “I trust you.” I believe that. Eddie gives Vincent a cue and that is the bond between them. There’s a great scene where Eddie says, “You don’t deserve this cue,” and I say, “No, you don’t deserve this cue. I’m a fucking pool player.” The inference being that Eddie is just a hustler. The Fast Eddie character is great. Scorsese is an actor’s director…details, details, details.
CC: What was your first meeting with Paul Newman like?
TC: I met him a long time ago, at his office in New York. He was always cool to me. He had just seen Taps. I walked into the room and he said, “Hey, Killer.” I said, “Listen, man, five more minutes and I would have taken that school over.” He just calls me Cruise now.
CC: What’s the best way to evaluate your film performance? Some people hide in the bathroom and listen to what people say after the movie.
TC: I’ve never done that. I go to rushes every night, not just to see my performance, but to see what the director’s done in terms of choosing his shots and lighting. I enjoy seeing the overall process. At times I look to see if I’m doing what I set out to do. I’m always finding out new things about what’s going on with the character.
Making a movie is like a chess game. It’s about constantly changing patterns, adapting new things. It’s not just black and white, as you know. Every day something happens and you think, “That’s terrific, let’s shift with this.” But I don’t have any specific method when a film comes out.
CC: Where is this all heading for you? Ultimately, are you looking for a Warren Beatty-type of situation where you can produce, direct and star?
TC: I’m looking for overall growth. I need a lot of things happening in my life. I would love to direct, though I’m definitely not ready now. But I enjoy working with writers and their scripts. It’s very exciting to me. Eventually I would like to produce, direct and act onstage, but it’s not a heavy pressure. When I do it, I want to do it well. I’m just educating myself with writers and scripts, because I didn’t read a lot of books when I was growing up…I’m dyslexic, although I’m not an extreme dyslexic like my little sister was. It was just a chore. My energy was always all over the place. Reading was not at the top of my list, because it took me so long. When I wrote a paper, my mother would help me with it. I would take a test and get very nervous. I would skip questions and skip lines. I’ve gotten better. I’ve learned to control my eyes. I used to have to use my finger all the time. I just wasn’t relaxed about it.
CC: How seriously do you take yourself?
TC: Let’s face it, I’m not saving lives here. I feel fortunate, but this is just one aspect of my life. I love my work, but my family is very important to me, too. You pick up the paper and see that there are many things happening outside my little world.
CC: Will you be starring in Bright Lights, Big City?
TC: Quite honestly, I haven’t read a script for it. I keep asking for the script, and before I got deeply involved in Top Gun I came here and met Jay [McInerney]. We sat down and talked, went to some clubs. I loved the book. Jay did a terrific job with it. It’s such an interior piece. I think it’s very daring. It’s not an easy piece to translate into a screenplay, you know. It needs a kind of Risky Business perspective. Joel was a very internal character, too. “The dream is always the same,” he said. I mean, you really got to know him through seeing him dance in his underwear, alone. Bright Lights, Big City, I think, has got to be very stylish and handled just right. But I would like to do the movie if I like the screenplay. I’m not going to be available until next fall.
CC: What is it that you bring to a performance? What do you think your specialty is?
TC: I’m a good listener. I think it’s the one characteristic that’s most important. I’ve always been that way. Not that I take all the advice, but you’ve got to listen to it and have the courage to make your own decision. Then I just go for it. The important thing is to be relaxed in your work. Same in life. Don’t make everything too intense. Then you can let everything go and not “act.”
CC: Are good looks a curse, or is that just a myth propagated by good-looking people?
TC: I don’t know. [laughs] I think I have the ability to look different ways. I look good just as much as I look bad. I mean, I don’t look like Paul Newman or Beatty.
CC: Who is your best friend?
TC: Let’s see, my best friend outside my family is probably Emilio Estevez. Penn’s a good buddy too, but since he’s been with Madonna I haven’t seen him as much. Estevez…we hang out a lot. He’s a very down-to-earth, unassuming guy. A good friend to have.
CC: Your own work has always been well received. How would you respond to the one criticism that you still haven’t played a grown man yet?
TC: Still becoming a man! God forbid if I do everything I want to do before I’m 26. When I get to Newman’s age, I’m looking to still be playing the great characters he plays. I hope the public and everyone realize that I’m still growing. I’m still feeling my oats here. I’m working toward the long range of what I can be as an artist. And I work my ass off trying. Because I know what I want to be.
Courtesy of Interview Magazine – Cameron Crowe – May, 1986