Vanilla Sky – Entertainment Weekly

The Mind of the Unmarried Man

How the single life led to singular twists of fate in the heady Cruise-Cruz romance Vanilla Sky

Cruise knows that you dream about him. He knows that you covet his life. He knows that being responsible for some of the most indelible moments in movie history – sliding across the floor in his underwear, feeling the need for speed in an F-14, demanding the truth from Jack Nicholson, showing Cuba Gooding Jr. the money – has had a profound effect on you. In his new Paramount film, Vanilla Sky, which reteams the actor with his Jerry Maguire writer-director Cameron Crowe, Cruise acknowledges this reality; the movie is a risky, romantic, trippy psychological thriller that toys with the actor’s place in the pop-culture firmament. Cruise portrays yet another one of his charismatic, cocksure Ubermales; in fact, his David Aames seems like the sum total of every top gun he has ever played. It’s a mask that he wears so often and so well that you have to wonder: When Tom Cruise looks in the mirror, does he, too, see the epitome of modern masculinity?

“Well, of course I do,” the 39-year-old star deadpans before exploding in such a spasm of laughter, he nearly chokes on the “No!” that he hastens to add. It’s the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and Cruise is lounging on the Twentieth Century Fox lot in Los Angeles, where he and Crowe are overseeing the final stages of postproduction on Vanilla Sky. He’s just been asked to elaborate on the whole man-in-the-mirror thing, and the actor – clad entirely in black, sleeves rolled up to his elbows – is gradually warming to the topic. After taking stock of his short black hair (he usually cuts it only for a role) and his bumpy nose (twice broken, from fights in his youth), Cruise arrives at his smile – that killer, daisy-cutter smile, with its one for two chipped teeth. “This happens to me a couple times a year,” says Cruise. “I’ll be in a restaurant, and a guy will come up and say, ‘You know, I can fix that smile. I’m a dentist. I’ll do it for free.'” He laughs incredulously. “My face? It just is what it is, man.”

Where Tom Cruise sees plain old Tom Cruise, the rest of us see… Tom Cruise. And the Tom Cruise we know has had a bruising year, beginning with his decision in February to serve Nicole Kidman, his wife of 10 years, with divorce papers, for reasons he’s never discussed. But tabloid journalism abhors a vacuum, and subsequent disclosures have only inspired innuendo and speculation to fill it. Kidman’s miscarriage. His romance with costar Penélope Cruz. An allegation of a liaison with a gay porn actor. By now, much of this has been settled: Cruise and Kidman have divvied up their reported $350 million in assets and agreed on joint custody of their two adopted children, Isabella, 8, and Connor, 6, while the sex allegation was discredited and withdrawn. What remains to be seen — and what Vanilla Sky may provide an indication of — is if any of this has affected the appeal of the world’s biggest movie star.

Asked if he’s worried that audiences might hold his personal life against him, Cruise’s voice grows gravely quiet, as the frustration of being Tom Cruise becomes explicitly apparent. ”If I had to give myself a review on all of this, I feel like I handled it in a way I can be proud of,” says the actor, sitting deep in the couch. ”I don’t know what people think. People like to gossip, but as far as I’m concerned, my personal life is not open to discussion. And our lives — Nic’s and mine — it’s between us. Whatever the press has written or speculated, they’ll never know, because it’s none of their business, and Nic and I will never talk about it. So if someone is going to judge me based on something they’ve read, or whatever they perceive of me, honestly? F— them. You know? F— them.”

All right, then. Let’s talk about the movie.

Those versed in Cameron Crowe arcana should recognize Vanilla Sky as the alternate title he initially came up with for his last film, the rock & roll saga Almost Famous, after DreamWorks rejected his first choice, Untitled. In his new movie, ”vanilla sky” is conjured by Cruise’s character to describe the soft-serve clouds in a Monet painting; in truth, the phrase is the first among a plethora of subtle clues and allusions hinting at the Big Secret at the film’s core. Allow us to explain (without ruining everything).

David Aames is the big-shot publisher of a Maxim-like magazine called Rise. On the night of his 33rd birthday party, as a hologram of John Coltrane entertains guests, David falls hard for a sultry dancer named Sofia Serrano (Cruz); something like a soul even stirs within him. Alas, the next morning, he gets into a car with Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz), a sometime sex partner who has construed their physical intimacy as an unspoken promise of commitment. When David begs to differ, Julie drives them off a bridge. The crash leaves David grossly disfigured, and he takes to wearing a latex mask. Then things turn really sinister. Business partners plot against him. Julie returns from the dead. There’s an accusation of murder. Clearly (or not), somebody’s messing with his head. For David to have any hope of winning back Sofia — of reviving, like Monet, the beauty of that single, precious, irrecoverable evening — he’s going to have to find out who.

Fortunately, a degree in art history isn’t needed to make sense of the movie’s origins. In 1998, Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner purchased the English-language remake rights to the Spanish film Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes), directed by Alejandro Amenábar and starring Cruz, who reprises her role in Vanilla Sky. ”I just fell in love with the filmmaker’s voice,” says Cruise, an exec producer of Amenábar’s English-language debut, The Others, starring Kidman. ”I just dug this movie. I get offered a lot of foreign films to buy and remake, but this one had universal themes that weren’t dependent on any particular culture. It left enough room for a filmmaker to come in and ask his own questions.”

Enter Cameron Crowe. Soon after the acquisition, Cruise invited the director over for a viewing. ”We sat there after watching it and just talked, for the longest time. We had so much fun dissecting it,” says the lanky, baby-cheeked Crowe, taking a break from mixing Vanilla Sky’s sound. After finishing Almost Famous, he called Cruise. ”He said, ‘You know that movie we saw once? Abre Los Ojos?”’ recalls the actor. ”What would you think if we — ” Cruise didn’t even let him finish.

On the surface, reinterpreting a Spanish psychological thriller might seem like an odd choice or the director of the very American romantic comedies like Say Anything… and Jerry Maguire. “When he first told me the story,” says Almost Famous alum Jason Lee, who plays writer Brian Shelby, David’s best friend, “I was like, ‘What the f— is this? This isn’t something you would do.’ But of course, I knew it would ultimately be very much a Cameron Crowe movie.”

“Vanilla Sky is as personal to me as Almost Famous, if not as overtly,” says Crowe, 44, whose celebrated teenage years as a scribe for Rolling Stone during the 19070s served as the basis for his Oscar-winning screenplay for Almost Famous. Crowe saw in Amenábar’s film the opportunity to explore two themes that have always intrigued him. Once was the consequences of casual sex. For the character of Julie Gianni, Crowe says he drew upon conversations with women from his Me Decade youth, “the heyday of casual sex. And I realized how little of what passed for casual sex was actually casual. Someone is always pretending, whenever the lights go down.”

Crowe’s other preoccupation in Vanilla Sky reflects his media-soaked mind” the influence of pop culture on our self-image. The theme is announced early in the film, when Cruise runs through an eerily empty Times Square, bombarded by a blizzard of celebrity images, brand names, and news tickers. “What I wanted to do,” says the director, “was make a movie that asks, What is real in a world dominated by pop culture? Are your standards dictated by things that impacted you from pop culture when you were a kid?” To that end, Crowe has also filled Vanilla Sky with more pop-culture references than an issue of this magazine. The most crucial: Jules et Jim, To Kill a Mockingbird, and a Bob Dylan album cover. The soundtrack includes songs by REM, the Beach Boys, and Radiohead. (There would have been a bunch of Beatles tunes as well, but the rights proved too expensive. Crowe did, however, manage to get an original song out of Paul McCartney.)

As an homage to his inspiration, Crowe even wanted to find ways to cite Abre Los Ojos itself. “That’s what led us to having Penélope come back,” says Cruise. “The idea was almost to create a dialogue between the two movies.” To combat any feeling of deja vu, Cruz played a game on the set. “I pretended everything was new to me,” she says. “Like, ‘This is where the character jumps? Really?’ It was funny, which was good, because the movie was so intense.”

Vanilla Sky’s most conspicuous reference of all may be Tom Cruise. “Tom Cruise is pop culture,” says Crowe, waving a hand at his star, who accepts this with a bemused smirk. “When you see him in a scene, things take on a greater resonance because people bring their knowledge of everything.” Crowe plays ironically with his star’s celebrity throughout Vanilla Sky; in perhaps the film’s most auspiciously meta moment, Cruise, as David, declares that he is very much “not gay.” The intention wasn’t to tease. Rather, the director and star regard these touches as tantalizing facets designed to lure you into the mystery of David Aames. “Very early on, Tom and I talked about the whole ‘Paul is dead’ game,” says Crowe, referring to the notorious Beatles hoax from the late-’60s, when fans became convinced through song lyrics, sonic tricks, and album art that Paul McCartney had died and was replaced by a look-alike. “Divorcing it from whether Paul was really dead or not, that was a really great parlor game: searching for clues, the excitement of different layers, some of them chilling, some of them really funny. It was a great model for us.”

Cruise says he completely supported Crowe’s concepts, but admits he can’t quite grasp this whole “Tom Cruise is pop culture” business. “That freaks me out, to be honest,” says the actor. “I have this whole vision of myself as a guy who’s a dad and who just works. But I just can’t grasp that whole other aspect. I just go to work, and work hard.”

On Vanilla Sky, which began shooting last fall, going to work meant laboring as producer and actor. As the former, Cruise had to persuade New York City officials to close off 40 blocks around Times Square so he could run through it alone early on a Sunday morning last fall. He also had to convince Martin Scorsese to release Diaz from the director’s Gangs of New York shoot in Rome for a few weeks. ”One day, I would be in period New York, with wig, full costume, and accent, and then the next morning, after an overnight flight, I was super-contemporary New York girl,” says Diaz. ”The jet lag was insane. The whole experience was a total f—ing blur.”

Cruise could say the same thing about his experience on the film, though more literally, due to the caved-in eye, crooked mouth, and lumpy face created by Vanilla Sky’s makeup artists. ”It limited what I could see. It was claustrophobic. And it changed my speech,” the actor says, demonstrating by sliding his jaw in a manner that makes half his face seem to melt away. ”But I loved it. This role had everything: physicality, humanity, humor.”

And to think he was capable of that while grappling with a collapsing marriage late in production. Jason Lee remembers that during the shoot, Cruise ”had the energy of a happy child, keeping everyone up, jumping up and down, clapping a lot, giving a lot of energy to a lot of tired people. Had I not been told what he was going through, I never would have had any idea. That’s how on the ball he was.”

”It was brutal,” Cruise admits. ”But everybody was cool, very supportive. We just kept it on the work. I’m not someone who believes in making your personal problems part of other people’s problems. So my first thing is to just say to myself, ‘As hard as this is, you just have to push through.”’ He says he never considered taking some time off. ”I couldn’t. There was no time,” says Cruise, referring to the threat at the time of possible writers’ and actors’ strikes. ”Plus, I was working evenings on The Others. There were times when I was only sleeping two, three hours a night. I didn’t tell anyone that. But I’ve got responsibilities, and life goes on. When I say I’m going to do something, I do it. This film, it was an outlet for me. It helped.”

Real life would impose itself twice more after Vanilla Sky wrapped early this year. First came the Cruise-Cruz romance, which the actor insists did not begin until after shooting. For those going into Vanilla Sky looking for a motion-capture of their developing amour, Cruise says not to bother. ”I have a whole theory about chemistry: It’s the director’s responsibility,” he says. ”There’s so much that goes into creating something like that — editing, writing, and shooting things properly. When it comes down to it, it’s like a mathematical equation.”

Regardless of how Cruise adds it up, Crowe is happy. “My concern is always the same: Do these people fall in love on screen?” he says. “What’s cool is they had chemistry. Because this guy has to go on a very long ride to get back to the girl he loves. If the audience is going, ‘Don’t sweat it, Tom, there’s a world of girls out there,’ you’re sunk!”

The second and far more serious intrusion came on Sept. 11. The film’s climax takes place atop a skyscraper with a panoramic vista of Manhattan — including the World Trade Center’s twin towers. ”I could not wrap myself around the idea of taking them out,” says Crowe. ”To take them out would be a greater comment than leaving them in — and not the greatest comment at that.”

Crowe concedes Vanilla Sky is a bit of a gamble, but believes it will reward those willing to invest some time in it. “It’s a movie to think about and talk about later – that idea was built into it, and one of the reasons why I wanted to make it,” says the filmmaker. “But I want people to know that at the same time, the intentions were as heartfelt as anything else I’ve ever done.” He’s already made a believer out of the man who inspired the movie; as this interview winds down, Cruise’s publicist interrupts to bring in Alejandro Amenábar himself, fresh from seeing the film on the Fox lot. It’s a momentous – and suspiciously well-timed – occasion; before taking on Vanilla Sky, Crowe decided not to talk to Amenábar about his movie, for fear of tainting his own vision. But throughout the process, he imagined the day when they would compare notes. Amenábar’s review is a rave: The film is respectful of his original, he says, but at the same time wholly original itself. “You should feel very proud,” says Amenábar. After he has left and the door has clicked shut, Crowe and Cruise high-five and exchange some finger-pointing, you-the-man props. “That,” says Crowe, “was big.”

“The movie is definitely out of bounds,” says Cruise, putting a fine point on the challenging material. “My hope for it is the same as everything: I hope the studio can make some money so the next time we make a movie, I’ll have enough juice to make it the way it should be made.” Actually, Cruise won’t need the juice for his next project, as Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi thriller Minority Report is already in the can. But he’s uncertain how he’ll follow that up; contrary to reports, he hasn’t committed to Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain. “Nothing’s signed, nothing’s sealed,” he says.

As for all the rest that’s none of our business, Tom Cruise says, “Everything’s good, and everyone is fine. I think about what I’ve been through this year – it either crushes you or makes you stronger. And it’s made me stronger. I live my life the best way I can, every day. Make the right decisions as father and do my best with my work and my life. Those are my goals. Just like most people.”

Courtesy of Entertainment Weekly – Jeff Jensen – December 7, 2001