Conversations with Cruise
Tom Cruise’s eyes still light up when he talks about making movies, even after a career of hits spanning Top Gun, Rain Man and Magnolia; co-stars such as Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman, and George C. Scott; and directors including Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, and Francis Ford Coppola. In two days of soul-searching interviews, Cruise takes his Jerry Maguire director, CAMERON CROWE, from the underwear dance in Risky Business to the epic, joyful struggle of making Eyes Wide Shut with wife Nicole Kidman and the late Stanley Kubrick – and then on to the cliff-hanger scene in his latest film, John Woo’s Mission: Impossible 2
Fall 1998, Tom Cruise is on the phone. He had just finished reading my very long new script, set in 1973, a semi-autobiographical story about my love affair with music and rock journalism. In the coming months, Cruise will be making Mission: Impossible 2 and Magnolia, having recuperated from the two years he spent shooting Eyes Wide Shut with Stanley Kubrick. I will be filming my own movie with Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson, Frances McDormand, and an unknown actor from Utah, Patrick Fugit, in the lead.
“If you want to hear anything read aloud,” says Cruise, “let me know.”
Actually, there is a part I’m interested in hearing. It’s the part of Lester Bangs, the late, great rock critic, one of the wonderful shadow figures in modern music. Bangs was a beefy man, part blowhard and part poet; those who loved him complained about his smell. He had given me my first national assignment, for Creem magazine. The scene I wanted to hear read aloud is based on an actual conversation we’d had. In anguish over a story I owed Rolling Stone, I had called my then hero Bangs for advice. He had true contempt for flash over substance, a gregarious hatred for all things faux. He was suspicious of celebrity, and now, almost 16 years after his death, his words are being spoken by the world’s most successful and glamorous star, Tom Cruise.
This is a few days after our phone conversation. “Great art,” says Cruise as Bangs, pacing across the small screening room/den in his Los Angeles home, “is about guilt and longing. Love disguised as sex. Sex disguised as love. And let’s face it, you’ve got a big head start.”
The words rattle to life, and I soon glimpse the level of performance I will later get from Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs.
“Good-looking people – they have no spine,” thunders Cruise. “They get the girls, but we’re smarter!”
Cruise closes my script. “That was fun,” he says.
Spring 2000. Cruise works late into the night on the score of Mission: Impossible 2. For a climactic moment in the last reel, director John Woo, producer-actor Cruise, and composer Hans Zimmer choose to abandon large-scale orchestration in favor of a simple guitar score. The bullets suddenly mean more, and in a key moment between Cruise and his co-star Thandie Newton, the emotional story roars to life. It is what moviemaking is about, at its best.
The session finished, Cruise is unable to drive home. He’s too excited. He stands on the dark Santa Monica street, laughing, recapping the evening’s events. Even in the darkness, his eyes catch the light from a nearby street – the spark that most people acquire on their wedding day, that’s Tom Cruise on a typical weeknight. He hasn’t slept more than a few hours per night in weeks. He misses his family, off in Australia, where his wife, Nicole Kidman, has been filming Moulin Rogue with director Baz Luhrmann. He has ridden the awards circuit with Magnolia, including an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. In little more than a month, Mission: Impossible 2 will be in theaters. At 37, he has accomplished enough to be jaded, three or four times over, but Tom Cruise is still buzzed on movies.
We sat down in mid-April for a conversation about his life as an actor. The talk would stretch over two days and include some soul-searching not often seen in his interviews. I had directed him in Jerry Maguire, so I was well aware of Cruise’s infectious move-fandom. Before I could even turn on the tape recorder, Cruise chewing gum and wearing a cap that read “Sonny Liston Night Train,” was off and running. He was discussing Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, a movie he misunderstood on first viewing and later revisited to find that it was one of his favorites.
Tom Cruise:…and I think that it’s interesting because, you know, I hear that about Eyes Wide Shut too – that people had a preconception. And I see how that affected the picture.
Cameron Crowe: What do you think they expected?
Cruise: [He shifts on the sofa. For a moment he appears to consider the politic response…and then, shrugging, opts to think aloud.] Well, I think they expected some big sex movie. As opposed to – and Stanley was very specific about it – sexual obsession and jealousy. It’s not about sex. And there were rumors out there about how Stanley was going to make a pornographic picture. But that wasn’t the movie he was making. You can see that they didn’t quite grasp what the movie was, even when they saw it, because they carried the baggage in. They read [screenwriter Frederic] Raphael’s ridiculous book [which portrayed Kubrick as a self-serving collaborator]. And they kind of reviewed it based on that.
Crowe: Do you think the teaser trailer had something to do with the expectation of a more pornographic movie? Was he toying with those expectations?
Cruise: Probably. That [trailer] was the first stage for him. You have to understand: it’s Stanley Kubrick. It’s not going to be what you think it is. And he’s not going to tell you everything. So even the people who think they know Stanley Kubrick’s movies…missed it. Because whatever preconception you have, you’ve got to take it on its own merits and not the surrounding elements. In the same way, when I look back at Ryan’s Daughter and I hear and read the stuff that David Lean went through…[The big-budget 1970 film was panned by critics and did poorly at the box office; the experience discouraged Lean, the director, from making another film until 1984’s A Passage to India.] It’s a very painful, lonely, desperate picture. [Shakes head.] And a great one.
Crowe: How do you consider those years spent filming Eyes Wide Shut? Acting years? Student years? Exploratory years?
Cruise: Yeah, exploratory years. Acting years, Student years with him, definitely…[Cruise yanks a cushion from the sofa and props it behind him, stretching his feet over the arm-rest. Warming to the subject, he continues.] Because Bill [his character from the film, a tightly wound doctor]…I didn’t like playing Dr. Bill. I didn’t like him. This guy’s holding everything in for such a long time. And he never broke out. Every moment, it’s just about containment. It was unpleasant. Who wants to be there that long? [Pause.] And Stanley understood that. But to be there with him and to see how he created, and what he did…time was important to him. I learned a hell of a lot. A hell of a lot. Stuff that I know has carried onto other pictures that I’ve done. Magnolia…that character [the charismatic leader of “Seduce and Destroy” seminars for men] was the perfect character to play after Bill Harford. [Laughs.] Just break it out! Really. That was kind of a gift, to play that.
Crowe: Did you sit down with Kubrick and talk about his work?
Cruise: Yeah, I did. Oh, I did. I talked about all his pictures. And he broke down how he figured out the whole thing, how to shoot 2001. How he came up with “Singin’ in the Rain” in A Clockwork Orange. He showed me the camera that he threw out the window during A Clockwork Orange. [Smiles fondly.]
Crowe: How did he come up with “Singin’ in the Rain”?
Cruise: Kubrick was on the set [shooting the scene] and he asked [actor] Malcolm McDowell, “Can you sing? What songs do you know?” He heard him sing. And then he came up with “Singin’ in the Rain.” He thought it would be great to have that song in there. He went back to the house – because he wouldn’t shoot anything unless he had rights to it – and started making phone calls, secured the rights, gave it to McDowell, said, “Learn this.” And they went on to shoot it. He said, “Tom, that’s why I want time to do this. You only have time to make it once. Once it’s done, it’s done. And had I not had the time to think of that idea, it wouldn’t be there.” When he worked on a scene, he focused on making that scene everything that it can be. It took time.
Crowe: Apparently Kubrick was going to do interviews to promote Eyes Wide Shut.
Cruise: He was. He was going to do more for this film that he had done in many, many years. [Reflective] And who knows what Stanley would have done with the picture [had he lived]. Once he passed away, not a frame was touched. But Stanley also decided to change The Shining the weekend it opened. He changed the last reel.
Crowe: Did you discuss the digital masking that ultimately happened on a few of the shots in the orgy scene?
Cruise: Yeah. He knew that he was going to have to do that, possibly, for the M.P.A.A. [Motion Picture Association of America, which determines movie ratings].
Crowe: How will you remember Kubrick? What’s the definitive image of him that you hold in your mind?
Cruise: It was his laugh. I just picture him laughing. He had a charming laugh. When things would get really tense…I just remember him laughing. Kind of a chuckle. Sometimes he’s laugh so hard tears would come to his eyes. [Offers the mischievous laugh of an older professor.] The second image would be him carrying his viewfinder. [Drops his hand to his side, as if cradling a hefty piece of machinery.] That was him, always with the long lens, just kind of standing there in his blue cotton suit. Holding the viewfinder. That was Stanley.
Another one is his eyes. Because he was short, he’d look up at Nic and me. [Tilts his head down, looking upward with a wicked glint.] Always with those eyes. Those magnetic eyes. Charming…and sly, intelligent eyes. What an experience.
Crowe: William Goldman [the screenwriter] came up with the famous line about Hollywood” “Nobody knows anything.” And I think what he’s really saying is that the audience employs Hollywood, and the audience is a wild, unpredictable boss. What’s your theory on surviving in Hollywood?
Cruise: [Thoughtful pause.] I guess when it comes down to it, when the waters are divided, you have to feel confident in your own choices. A film may not be as commercially successful, or as critically successful, as you want…You cannot base your choices and your self-worth and decisions on which way the wind’s blowing. You cannot. I will never get away from the fact that it is a privilege for me to be able to do something that I love to do. And I will never take advantage of that.
Crowe: Have your instincts ever failed you?
[The question stops Cruise’s momentum cold. He thinks about the questions for a few beats, then grins with mock pretension.]
Cruise: No. Never. [Explodes in laughter. He then goes on to describe several instances where his instincts were improved upon in the Mission: Impossible 2 editing room.]
Crowe: Mission: Impossible 2 is your first sequel. Was that a major bridge to cross for you?
Cruise: I never looked at it as a sequel in making it. I never wanted it to hinge on anything. When you look at the style that John Woo [the director] brought to it, and what he wanted to do with it…I think we really achieved that. He said, “Look, it’s a love story. I want to make this movie an action love story.” Hopefully, with this new one, we’ve just imbued it with a different kind of tone and character. And I’ll see if the audience goes with it. It’s a different movie. And it still embraces the elements of a mission that’s impossible. But you know, it’s more character-rich and, hopefully for the audience, a more emotionally connected experience. I never felt it to be a sequel. Having John Woo come in, I was really excited. He said, “Look, I want to make a love story.” He wanted to do it – bringing that wonderful quality of his – as a mythic adventure picture. All the color tones in the picture are earth, wind, and fire. And having Robert Towne’s storytelling and character and dialogue there. That’s what got me excited. It’s not going to be a direct sequel. You don’t have do that with Mission: Impossible, because every time it’s a different adventure, you know. The director dictates the style. Producing it as a fan of John Woo, and as a fan of Mission: Impossible, I wanted to see what he was going to do with it. I was there to serve. It’s Woo’s Mission: Impossible.
Crowe: The close-up of you hanging from the cliff [on location in Moab, Utah] is a big moment in the trailer. Where was the camera?
Cruise: In a helicopter.
Crowe: You’re really hanging from a ledge?
Cruise: I’m hanging out there, with the helicopter filming.
Crowe: What are you thinking, as an actor, hanging from a ledge as the camera pushes in on your face?
Cruise: Well, it’s funny that you ask that, ’cause John said, “Just look at the view. Look at the beauty.” He basically said, Look at how awesome the world is. That’s what I’m thinking.
Crowe: How did you feel when Billy Wilder praised you as a master of light comedy?
Cruise: I can’t even confront that. [Laughs.] I can’t even think about that. I mean, that’s just…amazing. [Shakes his head, smiling.] I really found that with you on Jerry Maguire, I have to say. I told you after, when I was working on M.I., working with John and Thandie Newton, I’d think of all the stuff we did together on Jerry Maguire. Listen, people don’t know the time it takes to get those [moments of romantic comedy]. To write it properly, and just to stick us in a bathtub [In Mission: Impossible 2] was a very tricky thing to shoot.
Crowe: Cary Grant once said, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant…even me.” Do you feel that way about Tom Cruise?
Cruise: No, I want to be my kids. [Laughs easily, then settles back to consider the question.] Yeah, I mean, I like being me. I like my job, my life, my family. It’s interesting, though. I think in those days they created an image of who Cary Grant was. And he kept playing that same role over and over again. And today it’s not like that. You know, there are really no facades. But back then the studio used to control the media and the image and the public life of the actors. The characters I’ve played, I guess from [Frank T.J.] Mackey [in Magnolia] to Born on the Fourth of July, Jerry Maguire…the studio isn’t dictating what kind of movie you should do, and you don’t have to fulfill studio contracts. I don’t know what people really think of me. I mean, I am who I am. You know what I mean? “Tom Cruise” is not a character I play. It’s me.
Crowe: Do you consider Taps [the 1981 film in which Cruise played a prominent supporting role] your first real screen entrance?
Cruise: Yeah. Yeah.
Crowe: I’m going to play you the scene. Tell what goes through your mind.
Cruise: [Watching the television monitor.] Oh, let me see this.
[He watches the scene with great humor. In it, a stern-faced young Tom Cruise passes Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton on a military-academy staircase. Then 18, his hair in a buzz cut, Cruise is exquisitely funny in his first screen moment (not including a brief appearance in 1981’s Endless Love). He unctuously sucks up to Hutton and flips off Penn behind Hutton’s back – a swift little turn that makes the adult Cruise laugh.]
Cruise: That’s hysterical. What do I think? I think, Jesus, look at that hair. This was the first scene that we shot.
Crowe: Are you nervous in the scene?
Cruise: Well, Sean wasn’t Sean until after the movie, you know. It was Hutton and [co-star] George C. Scott. Penn and I, we were just a couple of grunts. Sean actually had done more work than I had done. He worked on Broadway, but there was George C. Scott. I’m sitting with Patton, you know, and General “Buck” Turgidson [from Dr. Strangelove]. This brilliant actor. And Hutton had given that extraordinary performance in Ordinary People, and just won the Academy Award. I remember being nervous, really nervous, because at that point, when you’re young, you just don’t want to get fired. You have that it’s-so-much-fun-I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening. And Harold [Becker, the director] was really smart, taking these young actors and putting us through four weeks of boot camp, which helped us and acclimated us to making movies and working on characters. So we had all that time to get familiar and comfortable with the environment And he created a bit of tension, you know. I mean, I was a young actor, getting into character and not wanting to leave any stone unturned. But I remember, I was nervous, man. I was nervous. I thought, This is too good to be true. I wonder what’s going to happen. And Sean, Hutton…these guys are from California, and I’d only been to California once before that, reading for a TV series. And they didn’t want me for it.
Crowe: In the early 80s, Sean Penn and Jennifer Jason Leigh exploded out of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. John Hughes was making his ensemble comedies. What was it like being off in Chicago in 1982, making Risky Business at 19, with a whole move hanging on your lead performance?
Cruise: [Leans forward, flush with memories.] By that time, I had actually gone through the whole experience of The Outsiders [the 1983 film directed by Francis Ford Coppola]. Going from Taps and The Outsiders, having had the whole opportunity of a workshop environment with Harold Becker and then Coppola. I found something when I was working with Francis in the workshops. I discovered comedic timing. I remember [co-star] Emilio Estevez and I got up and did a scene together. We were ad-libbing. Francis was there, we were all hanging out, and he just created a really relaxed environment…and I tapped into this comedic moment. I’d played around with it. I mean, it’s silly…I had it in high school, when we were doingGuys and Dolls [Cruise played Nathan Detroit]. The audience would laugh. And when I was working with Francis, I found out that I was good at ad-libbing. And I was good at working on character and bringing it to life. And finding the drama-comedy.
I remember the whole thing about how they didn’t want to read me for Risky Business because of Taps. They thought I was this character actor, just this character actor. “That’s not my Joel” was what [writer-director] Paul Brickman had felt. Then we met, and I got the part. For some reason, I wasn’t nervous making Risky Business. I felt confident. I just…wasn’t nervous. And it wasn’t as if I was trying to break away [from his peers], but suddenly after Taps things had changed. I was starting to get bigger opportunities, and they were making serious kinds of young-teen films, because of Taps and Ordinary People and the stuff Matt Dillon had done –
Crowe: Over the Edge, the underrated pioneer of early-80s youth movies.
Cruise: Yes, and there was Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver. Obviously, she was just in a different league from any of us. I mean, to have that opportunity to work with [Robert] De Niro and [Martin] Scorsese. That was just…that was fantasytime…And there was Tatum O’Neal, of course, in Bad News Bears, and we all had the hots for her. And Jodie, and those pictures [which were making stars of actors in their teens and 20s] started to come out. So there was a chain of events. I was lucky. And then Risky Business [which made Cruise a star when it was released, in 1983]. And I had a feeling that it was such a well-written screenplay. And Paul Brickman’s ideas and how he integrated music. He played me [pieces he was planning to use in the film like] Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight,” Tangerine Dream … and I just knew. It was a hard moment. I was offered a small role in Rumble Fish [Coppola’s 1983 follow-up to The Outsiders], and I wanted to stay working with Francis … but I couldn’t – I wanted to do Risky Business. Francis was great about it, but he was curious. He asked me what the movie was about. And it’s not a movie you can really describe. I remember looking at Francis Ford Coppola’s face as I was saying, “Well, it’s about this guy, who … Well, this call girl … Well, this is what the story is, but it’s not really what it’s about … and he runs a brothel out of his home … but it’s really good.” And here’s the director of Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, and The Godfather And I’m going, Oh, man. Here I am turning him down to do this movie about hookers. [Laughs.]
Crowe: So before shooting, Brickman had the music?
Cruise: Before shooting. He knew the music, where he was going to put it. I’d never seen anything like this … in all my 19 years! [Laughs raucously.] I just felt that this is what I’m supposed to be doing. And I even felt it at that age. I turned down a lot of things. Different opportunities that I had. I felt, Look, I’ve never had money before … I don’t need money. I don’t. I love what I’m doing. And this is what I want to do. And even then, with the young actors, there was always that issue … what was a commercial movie versus what was an artistic movie? Now it’s “independent versus studio.” But there was always that “East Coast versus West Coast” type of feeling. And I am one who never felt that way, that one had less or greater value than the other. I mean, I loved going to Star Wars! I love those movies. I love seeing adventure pictures and I love thrillers and I love dramatic pieces. And I’m thankful that everyone’s out there making all of them. That’s how I’ve always been. I like having the option of opening my newspaper and saying, “O.K., what do I feel like tonight?”
Crowe: As an actor, do you ever fear a character or moment’s being too iconic? So indelible that an audience carries it into the next movie? Like Stallone inRocky –
Cruise: I’ve never felt that. I don’t realize the iconic moments until later. I mean, it either works in the context of the picture or it doesn’t. And then, yes, certain scenes become something else. The dance [in his underwear] in Risky Business. I remember Paul Brickman called me after he’d seen the rushes and was just over the moon. He was laughing hysterically when we were doing it. He called me and just said, “This is going to be a great scene. Come by the editing room-I’d love you to see it. It’s gonna be so much fun.” And then it became something else, you know.
Crowe: What was it when you did it?
Cruise: I was just doing a scene. I never thought of it beyond what it was.
Crowe: It was a big set piece, though. You are sliding around in your underwear.
Cruise: It was two lines in a screenplay. [Shakes his head.] You know, two lines. “Joel dances to Bob Seger’s ‘Old Time Rock and Roll.”‘ I loved doing it because, of course, I’d done it myself [Laughs.] It was a moment I … I understood. [Laughs.] I remember Brickman waxing the floor, and he said, “Here’s my frame, O.K.? What do you want to do?” So I tried it in my bare feet and I couldn’t slide across. And he said, “No, no, I want you to slide into the frame. You oughta get in some socks, Tom, slide into this thing.” And then what happened was I nearly slid into the wall. I slid all the way across, from one end to the other. I didn’t stop. And he said, “No, I want you to stop in the center of the frame, like this.” So we got some dirt and mussed about, and stopped the wax at a certain point. And then, finally, after a few takes, the slide happened perfectly, right in frame. And then he said, “Pick something up. Pick the candle up here.” He told me it was a very difficult sequence to edit because I did something different on every take. Which I tend to do a lot. Because I don’t want to get locked into one particular way of doing something. If we’ve got it that way, let me try something else. I like giving room in the editing room for different moments. And finding those moments where I forget about the camera, and just let go.
Crowe: Here’s another iconic moment …
[I hand Cruise a photo. It’s the famous gung-ho thumbs-up shot from the cockpit of his fighter jet, set against the American flag, from 1986’s Top Gun. He’s clearly entertained by the image from his first blockbuster hit.]
Cruise: [Like a teenager] That was a dream come true, flying those airplanes. I wanted to be a pilot my whole life. To fly in those jets … you know, I dug it. I dug making that movie.And that day, I remember, we were doing that photo shoot. They put up that big American flag, and I’m on this army base in San Diego. Top Gun. [Shrugs shamelessly.] You know. Iloved it. I mean, I’m sitting in an F-14, I’m flying an F-14. Come on! I remember, we were working on it … there wasn’t a lot of script there, wasn’t a lot of character. But I gonna bedifferent and it was exciting for me to be part of that. And also to have the opportunity to see Tony Scott [the director] work. Just every element of it. Tony Scott was firing on all cylinders. Simpson-Bruckheimer had just produced Beverly Hills Cop. It was an exciting time. I remember working on the scenes and coming up with [sings]
Crowe: Was your reaction when the movie became a poster child for Reagan-ism and the jingoism of the 80s? [Cruise is still smiling.] Was you reaction: Bring it on – this is the kind of thing that happens to a huge hit movie?
Cruise: [Laughs shamelessly.] Yes! [more laughter.] Yeah, it was.
I mean, I knew that, for me, a defining moment was coming right up, I was in the middle of the movie, I got a call, and I was offered this Paul Newman -Martin Scorsese picture. The Color of Money . And I read it and immediately said, “Yeah. Can’t wait.” I couldn’t believe that this was happening to me. And I knew then that Top Gun wasn’t the only kind of movie that I would be able to make. They came and they wanted to do sequels on that. And I knew there was no room for a sequel. That time had passed. And for me the defining moment was working with Paul Newman and Martin Scorsese.
Crowe: You went through a period of working with bigger and more established stars, like Newman, and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man . What is the most vivid moment you recall from when you started working with the big boys?
Cruise: With Newman, I remember we were at rehearsals. I’d met I Newman, I’d read for Harry and Son [a film Newman directed in 1984]. I was too young. But I’m looking at him, thinking, Butch Cassidy, Sting, Hud. I remember his wife, Joanne Woodward, sitting there knitting. They’re very down-to-earth people. But the first day of rehearsal [on The Color of Money], I walk in and there’s Newman, playing pool. I’d just finished Top Gun. I’d read the script of The Color of Money, and I knew how to play Vincent. I showed up on the set. I’d dyed my hair black – I’d worked this huge bouffant swooped back. The joke was my hair was guaranteed up to 90 miles and hour. And there’s Newman. There’s Scorsese. When I was doing Taps, I must have seen Raging Bull five times in one week. And now I’m working with Scorsese and Paul fucking Newman. He immediately made me
What surprised me about Scorsese is the joy he had. Joy of the characters and the behavior of the characters. He got off on the characters. There were times, behind the camera, we were doing scenes, he would just start laughing. And with Newman, the more you watch the picture, you see the layers upon layers. Same way you look at The Verdict. It was just effortless … confidence … and when you start working with him, you realize the calm. Of course, when I was younger I was all confidence. Bold confidence. Knowing I’ve got a lot to learn, but willing to just walk into that wall. Whereas you look at Newman and its a different confidence. It’s an easy confidence. I had a close connection with him, always have. He’s just a damn gent.
All that stuff was just happening, Top Gun was coming out. It was a really special time. You have to understand … I felt lonely and isolated. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was living alone in New York City, playing pool 12 hours a day. I didn’t want to get sucked into the celebrity. Didn’t want to be one of those guys who just pissed it away. You get that first hit of celebrity, a lot of attention. I realized: You know what? I don’t quite know how to handle all this stuff. Because thinking about what it’s going to be like and then living it are different. MTV was just starting. You could just feel it was a different time. Not just in my life, but in the world. And all of a sudden, going from Top Gun to working with Scorsese, I felt taken care of. I’d go have dinner with his family. I never had such Italian food! There were people I could go to. I could talk to Marty. I could call Newman. He would never say, “This is how it is, kid.” He’d say, “I don’t know. It’s a different time now. But this is how I did it … ” You have to find your own way. Within myself, I realized there were different ways to go … As things exploded, I felt myself needing to buckle down harder. “I’m going to buckle down harder, and I will work harder. I’m not going to take the easy route. I’m not going to take that route, and I’m going to learn.” That’s how it felt making Color of Money. It was one of those vivid times in my life. Really, there are a lot of them. Taps, certainly. Risky Business. Top Gun. And then Color of Money, Born on the Fourth of July – and, in a weird way, Cocktail [the widely dismissed 1988 film, which nevertheless grossed $77 million] was a defining moment for me. In a weird way.
Crowe: How so?
Cruise: As far as studios were concerned. I didn’t really think in terms of [box office].
I mean, we basically restructured and rewrote the last quarter of the film while I was shooting Rain Man. So I’d go back and shoot these things on the weekend. And I remember it was so savaged, the movie. [Laughs painfully.] You know, I generally just don’t read reviews on movies. As a kid, I never read reviews. And that’s kind of how I am about it. I remember talking with [his then agent] Paula Wagner when Cocktail opened. Paula Wagner is my producing partner now. And I said, “So, you know, how’d we do? What’s going on?” We hadn’t yet entered the age of the box office being printed on Saturday night. So I said, “How are things going? We’re opening this weekend … ” I think I was racing cars somewhere, in the Poconos. And she said, “Well, Tom … I’m sorry.” “What do you mean, you’re sorry?” She said, “Well, we got eviscerated.” And I said, “What do you mean,eviscerated?” She said, “There’s not one good review.” “What do you mean?” “No”, she said, “I’m telling you, I’ve read them all. There wasn’t one good review!” [Laughs.] And I remember thinking, Well, what does that mean? What’s going to happen?
By Sunday morning, everyone called me. Jeffrey [Katzenberg, then the studio head at Disney, which produced Cocktail] called me and said, “Congratulations. You are now able to open a movie. It’s one of the biggest openings in Disney history.” Something like 11 million. [$11.8 million.] And in some weird way, you know, that really changed everything. That became, as far as the business side, a defining moment in terms of me getting certain pictures made, like Born on the Fourth of July. I didn’t even really grasp what it meant at that time. And only later do you kind of look at it. [Thoughtfully] You can’t get messed up … cannot cannot cannot get mixed up in the power games and the gross games. Because then you start making decisions that aren’t organic to what you want to do and you’re going to be very dissatisfied with the choices you make. If your choices are based on grosses and the film doesn’t do well, what does that mean? It leaves you with nothing. I’ve always felt that. [Pause.] Michael Caine’s [Oscar] speech was very funny, and I enjoyed that – it was a beautiful moment. [Caine, who won the best-supporting-actor award over Cruise, paid tribute to him by joking that had Cruise won, it would have lowered his price tag.] But, for me, it’s never been about the kind of money that I get. I get paid because I’m worth it and they should pay me that much. But I’ve never done work for money, ever. Never made a decision based on a financial condition. And I’ve felt that all the way from Taps. It is my life, it is what I do, it is what I love to do. And it’s … you know, it used to be my entire life, until I got married and had kids. Now those decisions when I go to work mean that much more, because there is that element of time that’s taken away from family. Michael Caine made a very funny comment. But I went home and I thought about it. And I thought, Is this what [people think] … ? Because I take it for granted that no one thinks that.
Crowe: Let’s talk about the experience of working with Oliver Stone in Born on the Fourth of July [for which Cruise received his first Academy Award nomination, for best actor].
Cruise: Oliver. I remember I was actually prepping Rain Man and Born on the Fourth of July at the same time. Rain Man, all of a sudden, was moving forward. So I was meeting with Dustin and Barry Levinson [Rain Man’s director] in the mornings, and then I’d go work with Oliver and Ron [Kovic, the paralyzed Vietnam veteran whose memoir was the basis for the Stone film]. There was a lot of ground left to cover. I remember Oliver just kept calling, calling, calling. Finally I had to say, “Oliver, you don’t know me. Back off Just let me do it. Just know it, if you say, ‘Do it 10 times,’ I’m gonna do it 12 times. If the call time is 6 A.M., trust me, I’ll be there at 5:30. You don’t have to worry. Everything’s going to be organized. I’m committed to you, I’m committed to this film, and by the end I will give you everything that I have. Trust me.” And from that moment, there was a bond that I felt with him.
And Oliver believed in me. But you felt that he wanted everything from me. People say he’s brutal, or he’s tough. I don’t know that man. The man I know is the guy who is working 18 hours a day – he’s committed to the film. Creating an environment for his actors. He held me in his hands, in his arms at times, and he knew what I was going through. When you’re working with a director, it’s his life – the camera is an extension of who they are. I got to see the world through his eyes.
Same with Ron. My head was shaved, I’d lost weight, I was exhausted. And I got into that mind-set, and I saw it in Ron’s eyes. You couldn’t fake it. You had to go there. When Ron got angry … [Rears his head back; his eyes look haunted and furious] he wanted to just explode. And I found it hard to disassociate those moments. It just became the world. And Oliver wanted it, created it, lived in that world. I’m not saying it’s the healthiest thing to do, but it was the right thing to do, and the only way to play that character. I felt at that point, fromRain Man to Born on the Fourth of July, that it was a time for me to see … I felt it to be a real test to see if I really was able … if I was any good. Where am I going? What am I gonna be? Am I any good? Because I’d learned so much, and I felt it was a defining time for me. Can I really do it? Or is it all just … bullshit?
Crowe: On what level is being nominated and going to the Academy Awards a performance?
Cruise: Well, most of the performance is you try to come in gracefully, because you’re just nervous. You’re kind of nervous about getting there on time. And I remember [this year] I stepped on Nic’s dress. And I ripped her train. I mean, the first thing she said was “Tom, now, honey, you’re going to be responsible because I’ve got this train thing, just know I’ve got the train thing.” I said, “Don’t worry about it.” Just as we were going to walk out, we took a picture of the family and you heard this huge tear that echoed. I just turned to her and said, “I can’t believe it.” It was one of those moments between husband and wife. But she laughed hysterically, it broke the tension, and she proceeded to guide me gently off women’s trains all night long. [Laughs.] The cool thing was that Nic and I got to be together. But by the time your name comes up, honestly, I don’t know whether it’s [self- protection] or not, but you just want it over. I remember after Born on the Fourth of July, I thought I would be devastated when I lost. I didn’t feel devastated. If it meant that I couldn’t make a movie again, that it was going to make or break me …
Crowe: …you would cry.
Cruise: I would cry. [Laughs.] If I felt that it meant I couldn’t get a movie, a picture made that I believed in … I’d be on my knees. [Laughs.] I’d like to win one. It would be fun. You know, I’ve given my life to this. And I would enjoy that a lot. But I enjoy being nominated just as much. It was cool…. It’s a great time for movies, when American Beauty is embraced by the American public and the Academy too.
Crowe. Do you look to Robert Redford, or Jack Nicholson … or even Jack Lemmon, for inspiration on the third or fourth act of your career?
Cruise: I haven’t really thought in terms of that. But you study their careers. Redford’s a great director. And Nicholson breaks all the conventions with his career and what he’s done. I guess both of them do. I know now, it comes down to your own personal confidence. And being a director is different than producing movies. It’s different than acting in movies. I mean, it really is. It stands alone. And I know when I direct- I’ve been offered pieces-I don’t know what that will be, I don’t know if I’ll be any good. One day I’ll do it. I admire Nicholson, the characters he’s played. And Redford. Newman. Hoffman. Pacino. All those guys. But you’ve got to go your own way. You’ve got to find what you want to do and what is going to be satisfying. And I don’t know what that’ll be. I’m still learning and I know I’ve got a long way to go.
Crowe: You don’t have a five-year plan?
Cruise: I don’t. I knew I wanted to produce movies. One day I might direct. I don’t have any plans in the future. I’m just having so much fun as an actor and a producer that I’ll have to see what happens.
Crowe: Many artists say that there’s a definitive emotional moment in their lives, something that happened which they visit and revisit in their work. What about you?
Cruise: I don’t know what it is. There are a lot of moments, times in my life that I could say, This is a defining moment as to who I am, but what I do when I make personal choices as an actor, it’s a little different. Because you’re also absorbing the writer. You’re absorbing the director’s moments.
Crowe: But you do have sense memory [an actor’s term for recalling emotions from one’s past for dramatic purposes] when you’re playing a scene.
Cruise: Yeah, but those things, you utilize them for those moments. Turbulence and pain and loneliness and isolation and great joy, exuberance … certainly, parents divorcing [Cruise’s parents split up when he was 12]. Punching someone for the first time, getting beat up. I mean, all those things. But it’s not just one thing. There are different defining moments. I can talk about moments I’ve learned the most from. Seeing my mother struggle [raising four children by herself while working three jobs]. Those nights were certainly defining moments. Seeing what she went through in raising us. She had to play both roles. I was fortunate. I had a great, cool mother.
Crowe: But you weren’t a classic film geek, who sat in a dark room and learned what life was all about from movies. You lived it as well as watched it.
Cruise: Yeah. I watched it and I lived it. My life was moving to different schools every year. My life was, you know, you gotta learn to survive in that environment and peer pressure and being the new geek. I never felt myself to be the cool guy. I kinda learned the hard way. My mother just said, Treat people the way – it sounds trite, but – treat people the way you want to be treated. I was both the guy looking to date that one girl … and the guy whose girl took a while to finally come around … sometimes long pursuing her. It was just up and down. It was all over the place. I looked at it this way – my life, my childhood was an adventure. Wherever it took me, my mother gave it a sense of adventure. She taught me that “even if it’s painful, this is life, Tom.” And she had four kids, four. I mean, what the hell. I admire the single mother. We’d call her the Merry Mary Lee because, you know, her cup was always half full. Having lived through that, after all we went through, I know there’s nothing that can happen to me that I can’t come back from and survive. Maybe that’s where the confidence came that I felt when I was a teenager, when I was 18 and I made the [career] decisions that I made. I said, “Look, if I lose it all, well, what’s that, you know? What difference does it make?” Is it something I have to do? You can’t know how it will turn out. And you can’t worry about two years with Stanley Kubrick. It was a choice that I made. And I did it. And I feel very satisfied by that. And it was everything, you know, and then some. [Laughs.] And I mean, in both a good way and a …
[Those days with Kubrick are clearly still with him. Cruise searches for the right word for a long moment.]
Crowe: And in a stressful way?
Cruise: Oh man, it was stressful. God, was it stressful. Are you kidding? Making a movie with your wife and with Stanley Kubrick? And Nic and I just alone, we work really well together. The two of us feed off each other. Her spontaneity – that’s what I love about her acting. She never holds back, never has a plan. She’s surprising. Just that moment she added early in the film when she raises her fingers and says [performing the line with a fan’s relish], “I’m married.” Stanley loved that about her. He called her his thoroughbred. But just the subject matter. I mean, to look at that stuff together and go through that. You know, our marriage is stronger because of it. And our friendship is deeper because of it. And that’s the way it is.
Crowe: Did you feel Stanley let the team down by dying?
Cruise: [long pause.] He’s probably pissed about dying. Nobody could be more pissed about it than Stanley. The fact of him not being there for the release of his movie would have just
Crowe: Anything but that!
Cruise: Anything but that. So there are all those emotions. There’s the bitter disappointment at losing a friend. All of those elements are in there. It’s just … just raw emotion.
Crowe: Since you’ve got kids, how and where do you rehearse a line [from Magnolia] like “Respect the cock, tame the cunt”?
Cruise: With the doors closed! [Laughs.] I know. I know. I didn’t do it around the kids.
I did have to practice it. I got into working with the language. Because I wanted it to be like Ali. Ali was one of the guys that I thought of. Because of his ability with language, how he would keep it going. You hear the rap these guys give – not that Ali is Frank T J. Mackey, but just his ability with language. The rhythm and the rhymes.
Crowe: Paul Anderson [Magnolia’s director] has said that he wanted to write a part that you couldn’t turn down. And it seems, with ,the father relationship, that he keyed into a very personal issue with you. [In the film, Mackey visits his father’s deathbed after a long estrangement. Cruise didn’t speak to his own father for four or five years after his parents’ divorce; they had a single meeting not long before Cruise’s father’s death in 1984.] Did you talk about that with Paul?
Cruise: I asked. He said no, he didn’t know. That [deathbed] scene isn’t the reason I did the movie. When I read it, I thought, When do you get to have a chance to create seminars like that? I’m an actor. I’d never played a character like that. I like humor. I thought it was dark and funny. And that’s what I focused on, working on the humor. The bitter humor of that. I didn’t do it [because of the father relationship]. In the script, it said, “He gets to the door and he breaks down.” And I said, “Look, I don’t feel that.” I was looking for a way to make this guy human. I thought it was funny that he was afraid of [his father’s] dogs. I didn’t know what was going to happen when I got to the house. The whole time with the character, I was skating on the edge.
Crowe: What do you say to the fan who was surprised by the one-two punch of Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia?
Cruise: Well, I think it’s important that you know not every audience is going to connect with every picture. And hopefully they’ll come on these journeys with you. And I thank them for the support they gave Eyes Wide Shut. I hope it promoted conversation, ideas. Not every picture’s the same. And I gotta do what I gotta do. [Laughs.] It’s like Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. I love that album. It wasn’t as big as Born in the U.S.A., but what a classic album. It has an audience in me. And I still buy Bruce’s other albums.
Crowe: Mission: Impossible 2 is also something apart from what people expect, a melding of different genres.
Cruise: It’s hard to predict what people are going to respond to. You want to communicate. That’s the challenge, and that’s the fun. You look at Hitchcock, and how he did it over and over again. Phenomenal. Billy Wilder. You look at the run he had, I love acting, and I love producing. And I don’t take the producer credit lightly. It’s tricky producing a movie like M.I. …these kinds of movies, you know, they’ll send you around the bend. It looks easy when it’s done. Hitchcock made it look easy. But they’re the toughest…. Robert Towne wrote it best, and Anthony Hopkins says it in the movie. “It’s not Mission: Difficult, Mr. Hunt …it’s Mission: Impossible.”
Courtesy of Vanity Fair – Cameron Crowe – June 2000