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Tom Cruise is Calling to Change a Word. He Begins the conversation without a greeting and cuts straight to the chase. "Can you change the word surreal to the word real?" he asks.
We've just finished a three-hour interview, and although I have a hard time remembering exactly when Cruise uttered the word surreal, he has no such difficulty.
"When I was talking about Top Gun," he says. "I meant to say real. I said surreal instead. I want to change that."
Oh. Okay. This is typical Cruise. He's more than a little interested in controlling the situation. He asked that this interview, which took place in Oklahoma City, where he is filming Rain Man, be conducted in my hotel room rather than in his suite. The ostensible reason was that his room would be too hectic, that there would be too many distractions. While that was probably true, it's also true that in my room there would be no shred of his personal life, no clues to his nature.
Cruise is very careful about what he reveals, whom he decides to trust and what his next career move will be. He's made some mistakes — Ridley Scott's fantasy film Legend, which took a year to film, comes to mind — but Cruise is the only member of the so-called Brat Pack to make it as a full-fledged Movie Star. And he isn't going to slip up now.
Cruise, who is twenty-six, honed these survival instincts at an early age. His father, an electrical engineer, moved the family — Tom, his mother and three sisters — wherever his job took him. When Cruise was twelve, his parents divorced, and he became "the man in the family." It was not a happy time. Cruise, who was born Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, describes his childhood as "very difficult, very pressured." "I look back upon high school and grade school and I would never want to go back there," he has said. "Not in a million years."
Skipping his high-school graduation ceremonies, Cruise chucked his last name and moved to New York in search of a career in show business. His mother, once an aspiring actress, gave him her blessing, and within five months Cruise had landed his first part: a small role in the film Endless Love. Next came Taps, in which he played a crazed military cadet, and then, in rapid succession, Losin' It ("My very favorite of my films," Cruise says sarcastically of the teen-exploitation bomb), The Outsiders and, in 1983, Risky Business. "Things went a little crazy after that," he says with typical understatement, "but they really went crazy after Top Gun."
Top Gun was the number-one box-office hit of 1986, earning $171.6 million. Cruise next made The Color of Money, starring opposite Paul Newman, and was set to star in Rain Man, opposite Dustin Hoffman. But Rain Man was fraught with difficulties. While the problems were being sorted out — the script was revised, directors came and went — Cruise filmed Cocktail, directed by Roger Donaldson (No Way Out), the story of a "star bartender" in Manhattan. Cocktail's theme is somewhat similar to the theme of almost every Tom Cruise film: Brian Flanagan, Cruise's character, must choose between Good (true love) and Evil (success in the fast lane).
Cruise studied bartending for the part — he even worked a few nights in a Manhattan hot spot — just as he perfected his pool game for The Color of Money and went up in the jets for Top Gun. Extremely disciplined, he reshapes his body to suit each character. "In Risky Business, I was softer, heavier," he says, offering examples. "In Top Gun, I was very toned. Each time, it's different."
In real life, Cruise, who's five nine, looks taller than he does on the screen and is noticeably fit. He is happiest when he's working. His wife, actress Mimi Rogers, usually accompanies him, and she's here in Oklahoma City, along with Cruise's personal assistant and a great deal of gym equipment. Cruise is relentlessly upbeat, enthusiastic about his marriage ("I have never been happier"), about Rain Man and about his next project, Born on the Fourth of July, to be directed by Oliver Stone. Born on the Fourth of July is the true story of Ron Kovic, a Vietnam vet who was disabled during the war. Cruise will play Kovic from the age of seventeen to twenty-seven and will reportedly work for scale. (His salary for Rain Man, on the other hand, is an estimated $3 million.) "Pacino was going to play this part at one time," he says. "But no one really wanted to make the picture. It's not commercial, and the studios were afraid, because it's not a cheap film to make."
Cruise says this the way he says everything — with great earnestness and a touch of surprise. A combination of shrewdness and all-American boyishness is one of the reasons that Cruise has been so successful in his career. Yet there is an edge: Cruise is serious about his goals. He's like a boy scout — thoughtful and brave and loyal and all the rest — but his honest-to-gosh good-guyness is mixed with steely determination. And that's what audiences find so compelling. "He believes anything is possible," says Top Gun coproducer Don Simpson. "That's the key to Tom Cruise."
[Q] You seem to alternate between typically commercial films, like 'Top Gun,' and less commercial films, like 'The Color of Money' or 'Cocktail.' Is that intentional?
[A] Well, see, I really don't know what is commercial and what is not commercial. If you look at Top Gun, you think, even from the bad script, that it has very good commercial potential. But Top Gun could have totally gone the other way. It's got to be a roller-coaster ride, and it could have been a kiddie ride. With Cocktail, they were nervous about making the picture because it's a character piece and it doesn't jump out at you. It's kind of a stern, serious depiction of what the American dream is now. And the character never really becomes this great success. In the end, what the film says is "You have got to be happy with where you are and who you are," and I don't know if that's a real commercial idea. But then, maybe it's an idea that will generate millions of dollars. It's very hard to tell.
[Q] Are you attracted to characters who lose their innocence, who are briefly tempted and then regain their integrity? Are those choices intentional?
[A] Well, it's not like there has been a whole lot of other material offered to me. Especially for a young actor. But I am attracted to those kind of characters and those kind of stories.
[Q] Word has it that 'Cocktail and 'Rain Man' are your first "grown-up" roles.
[A] Why make that an issue? Let the audience figure that out. It always amazed me when I was nineteen years old and they'd say, "Well, he's always playing teenagers." I'd think, "Look at me. This is all I can play right now."
In Rain Man, my age is not the point I play a character who has shut himself out emotionally from the rest of the world. He can't really take responsibility for someone and really care about them. And during the picture — I don't know how much of this I can say — my business starts to go under. My character imports Lamborghinis, and I make a mistake and get ripped off. This character is always five steps ahead and not thinking about what's going on. I mean, it is just move, move, move.
And then I go back to Cincinnati, Ohio, after my father has died, thinking I am going to get my inheritance. I don't get it. It goes off to my brother, who I don't know, who is in this institution. He's an autistic idiot savant. So I show up at the institution, and I'm trying to find out information, and through a series of events I find my brother, and I just take him. I just take him from the institution. They don't even know. I just say, "Hey, do you want to go for a walk?" And just get him in the car and take off. I really don't even know what I'm going to do with him, but I decide I'll take him to Los Angeles, where I live, and try to get a custody hearing. But he is terrified of flying. He can't get on a plane. And he doesn't want to drive on the highway, either, so what happens is his character slowly starts to break me down. It's some pretty funny stuff.
[Q] It's a comedy?
[A] Absolutely. But I also think a lot of people will begin to see their own autism through these characters. Outside of people being entertained and walking out and enjoying the picture, they are going to say, "God, I'm like that." Or "I do stuff like that."
[Q] In 'Rain Man,' Dustin Hoffman plays your brother. You probably saw 'The Graduate' when you were ...
[A] Ten. I saw it when I was ten years old.
[Q] Did you get it?
[A] Oh, I think I didn't really understand it much. But I saw it again when I was fourteen or fifteen, and I had a much better understanding of the piece.
[Q] And then you go and make a movie with Hoffman.
[A] Yeah. It's fantastic. I mean, it's like all the painters You want to study with the masters and to be able to work with Hoffman and Newman and Martin Scorsese [who directed Cruise in The Color of Money] — well, that's what it's about.
When I met Hoffman — well, I'm always nervous to meet famous people, especially if I admire their work and it's made an impact on my life in music or film or theater. I always think, "What are they going to be like?" And just in terms of rejection, because I'll be working with them. Hoffman and Newman just make you feel good about yourself and confident in your work.
[Q] 'Rain Man' was beset with problems. A number of directors — Martin Brest, Sydney Pollack, Steven Spielberg — were considered before they finally settled on Barry Levinson. Did you ever think it was going to get made?
[A] There were some times, man. It was a hard two years. But every time they'd go through a change, I would talk to Dustin, and he'd say, "Listen. If we want to make this film, we'll make it. Do you want to make this movie, Cruise?" And I would say, "Like I want air, I want to make this movie." And he'd say, "Well, let's just hang in there and stay tight, and we're going to make this film."
[Q] When you started out in this business, did you have a great deal of faith, a sense that you would make it as an actor?
[A] I had no idea. For instance, I had no idea about agents. I didn't even know what they were. But I felt that I didn't really have a lot of other choices in life. Acting was the one thing I found that I could direct myself into.
[Q] Was there a moment when you decided?
[A] I was playing Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls. It was in high school. All of a sudden you are up there, and you're doing something you really enjoy, and you are getting all this attention, and people who never turned their heads or said anything before are now saying, "Gee. Look at him." And I said to myself, "This is it." As soon as I started acting. I felt, from that point on, that if I didn't go for this, I would be making a terrible mistake.
[Q] How old were you?
[Q] Was there anyone you asked for advice? Did you know how to proceed?
[A] Actually, a classmate had this manager in New York. She was an actress who had done some commercials and stuff like that. So now I have this manager in New York, and I took my mom — we were living at the time in New Jersey — and we drove to New York. I remember we drove in this old green Pinto I paid fifty bucks for. It was rush hour, and my mother and I had had an argument about something. I think the two of us weren't talking, and because I was seventeen, I couldn't get a manager unless my mother cosigned for me. So she gets in the car, and we're going to New York, and I don't have any pictures or anything, and I just ran up to this manager's office. I told my mother, "Just park the car somewhere." And I went up to meet this woman.
[Q] What was she like?
[A] She had me read this Hershey's commercial, and, you know, it was one of these "Yeah, yeah, yeah, babe, you're beautiful, I'm going to make you a star" sort of situations. And I started out with this person. I remember she would call me into New York — this was even before I graduated — and say we were going to have a very important meeting. And I'd get to the city, and she'd ask me to run errands or go grocery shopping for her. So after a month of that, I said I wanted to fire her. And she said, "Well, you can't." I had signed a five-year contract. Thank God I was only seventeen. I just called a lawyer and got another manager. Soon after that, I didn't want a manager anymore. I just had an agent. Managers can be a Hollywood trap.
[Q] Did you give yourself a deadline in terms of becoming a success?
[A] In order to ease my parents' anxiety, I told them I would give it ten years. If it doesn't work in ten years, I told them, I would move to L.A. and become a beach bum or something. But ten years isn't up yet, so I guess I'll decide then.
[Q] You are known as a very self-sufficient actor, meaning you are involved with all aspects of your career.
[A] I think it's dangerous not to be. A lot of actors don't want to know about the business, don't want to know about their finances, don't want to know about scripts. For instance, I don't have a reader to go over the scripts that are sent to me. I really do it all myself.
[Q] The first script for 'Top Gun' was terrible, so you worked on it with producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer before agreeing to star in the movie.
[A] Top Gun had just an idea for a character, and, yes, the first script wasn't good. But you just look for an idea for a character, and that's what you start with. You get involved, and you make it work.
But I was nervous about Top Gun. I was offered the movie after I made Legend, and Legend was a huge movie and very tiring. After that, I wanted to be careful about getting involved in a kind of epic production again. Although I did really learn a lot making Legend — you look at some of those scenes in that movie, and they just take your breath away — I don't think Ridley Scott necessarily needed me to do the movie. It could have been anyone in that part.
[Q] Why do you think 'Top Gun' was such a huge hit?
[A] The jets. The whole trick about that film was the jets. It was the gimmick that made the film work.
[Q] Did the militaristic nature of 'Top Gun' worry you?
[A] Yes. I realized getting into it that the movie was going to get hit from people thinking it was a right-wing military movie. But what excited me about the film — and I think you have got to approach it by looking at how it's been shot — was the planes. I love planes. I saw the movie as Star Wars with real aircraft. What we were reaching for was more of a sense of competition, the old rah-rah military. And then the navy set up recruiting stands right outside of theaters. I can't control that, and I can understand how people would say, "Well, you are killing people in Top Gun." But I did not make the film as a propaganda movie.
[Q] Do you like going to your own movies? Do you like watching yourself?
[A] I don't always like watching myself. Sometimes it's frightening. But I go to dailies, and it actually helps me to see the character and if I'm on the right track or not. Because sometimes making a movie is like stabbing in the dark. If I get a sense of the overall picture, then I'm better for the film.
[Q] Do you "become" the character you're playing? I heard that during 'Taps' you were heavily influenced by your character.
[A] Yeah, I was. You know, I had my red-beret group in the movie and out of the movie. We would get a keg of beer and go crazy. I was pretty intense. But it takes time to develop a skill, and then you realize you don't have to live that 100 percent of the time.
The best way I can get the character together is to make sure that I'm in good shape. I can't concentrate unless I feel good and clean. I can't act when I'm tired.
[Q] In 'Taps' you costarred with Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton, who became friends of yours. And then you were in 'The Outsiders' with, among others, Ralph Macchio, Emilio Estevez and Matt Dillon. When did you first hear the term Brat Pack?
[A] I think I was in New York. Someone told me about a story in New York magazine on the Brat Pack, and that's when I realized I was a brat. "I'm a brat, Mom." "Girls, I'm a brat." What are you going to say about something like that? I mean, how did I get lumped in with that?
[Q] Well, to some degree, it is a community of actors.
[A] The thing is there really isn't a community of actors. I mean, that is false, absolutely false. There is not a community where we get together and sit down. When you are doing something like Taps or The Outsiders, you hang out together and become friends, but the term Brat Pack is a bunch of crap, a lot of bullshit.
[Q] You're married to Mimi Rogers. Does it make it easier to be married to an actress?
[A] It's easier. It's very helpful to be married to an actress, and Mimi is very secure in herself and very, very understanding. After you work these hours, it is good to have someone who understands, who doesn't say, "Why do you have to work fifteen hours a day? What do you mean you have to get up at 5:30 in the morning and you're not coming back until midnight? What do you mean you've got to do that with a girl?" She is very cool about it.
[Q] When you were growing up, did you have some idea of what it was to be famous?
[A] I always thought, "God, when I grow up, I'm not going to have any problems." Or "When I become rich and famous or successful as an actor, I won't have any problems." I thought there wouldn't be the same kind of politics. When I was a kid, we moved almost once a year, and the politics of always being the new kid in a system was very intense. The cliques, you know. You've got your Democrats over here, your Republicans over there, your country-club kids, the athletes, the writers all over the place. And then there was me. I didn't fit into any group. I'd be studying American history in one school and then move to another where they're studying the Cro-Magnon man. And on the day I'd show up at the new school, there would be an exam.
It was very pressured, very difficult. I didn't have many friends. I mean, I had friends, but not people who really knew me. I think it made me self-destructive. I was very self-destructive when I was growing up.
[Q] In what way?
[A] I was reckless. I'm still that way, but in a more specific way. My recklessness goes into the work. But then I was always looking for attention. I'd get into fights, get suspended from school. I think it was out of a need to be creative. Because if you can't create, you eventually start to destroy yourself.
[Q] Did you have certain survival mechanisms?
[A] Sure. In every different place, I became a different person. You've got to create your own world when you move like that. That was just my way of dealing with things. When you have to cope with a lot of problems, you are either going to sink or you are going to swim. You're either going to take the challenge and rise to the occasion or it's just going to devour you. You just make that choice. Am I going to survive? Or am I going to get eaten alive? And I was trying to survive the best I could.
[Q] Has that really changed? Being an actor is something of an ongoing struggle. There isn't much in the way of job security.
[A] Well, life is just problems, and how well you get through life is how well you cope with the problems. Things don't really get any easier. You go back into battle every day, every single day. Just because you've done one thing, it's not enough. For example, I don't feel satisfied with the work I've done.
[Q] Are you always this hard on yourself?
[A] Yes. I've tried in the past couple of years to ease up on myself and enjoy life a little more. But nothing was ever good enough. And I was losing perspective on my work.
[Q] You seem happiest when you're working.
[A] It's true. Between Color of Money and Cocktail, I didn't work for almost two years, and I was going nuts. There were the problems with Rain Man, and there was nothing I really wanted to do, and I decided to take six or seven months off. I'll never do that again. I also don't like to stay in one place. I live in New York, but after I'm there for, like, three months, I'm ready to travel somewhere or do something. I like a lot of change.
[Q] Weren't you going to do 'Bright Lights, Big City' at one point? That was shot in New York. Was it tempting to stay home and work?
[A] Yeah. I could have stayed home. But I decided really shortly after I got involved with Bright Lights not to do the picture.
[Q] 'Cocktail' sounds similar to 'Bright Lights' in some ways, what with your character, a willing innocent, being seduced into a fast-track lifestyle by Bryan Brown, who's older and more experienced.
[A] Well, Brian Flanagan, in Cocktail, is more of a wanna-be, a guy who wants to be a yuppie, and he just can't. He wants to be, and he's just not being let in. He wants to be successful in life, and he sacrifices his own ethics. He takes on other people's values and morality in an attempt to try and understand himself. I think this is a movie that really rings true for anyone who's in the singles world or who really wants to be successful. A lot of people assume other people's ways of living and end up destroying themselves.
[Q] Do you look for a character to be likable when you consider a part? Would you play a villain?
[A] I'd like to find something unlikable to play. With Flanagan, the character could be seen either way.
[Q] You're famous for lip-syncing and dancing, as you did in 'Risky Business.' Do you dance in 'Cocktail'?
[A] No. Bryan Brown and I do flip bottles as a team, though. That's the kind of thing these star bartenders do. People rush to go see these guys. And they do have their techniques. For instance, they give the pretty girls free drinks because they get the guys up to the bar. It's like "Yeah, yeah, yeah, hi, hi, hi," but if the customer is not giving the tips, he doesn't get the drinks. You don't clean his ashtray, you don't spend the extra time with him. These guys do not call themselves bartenders. They call themselves extractors. They extract the cash out of your pocket into their own pocket. It's about money.
[Q] 'Cocktail,' supposedly, is a "hard R," meaning that your scenes with the likes of Lisa Banes and Elizabeth Shue are supposedly quite sexy. You've been a sex symbol since 'Risky Business,' yet I heard that you have it written into your contracts that no stills from your movies can be released without your approval -- the idea being that no overtly sexy poses be used to promote you. Is that true?
[A] Yes. You know, there is a business element to this industry, and that's kind of the easy way to do something about it. You know, sex scenes are not as exciting as they look. They have got to be spontaneous, but you talk about what you're going to do beforehand. The director is usually embarrassed. Although by now it's not as difficult as it used to be.
[Q] Just part of the job.
[A] Another day at the office.
[Q] In past interviews, you've called yourself lucky. In 'The Color of Money,' Paul Newman's character says, 'There's an art to being lucky.' What do you think he meant?
[A] I think he was talking about talent. If you don't have the talent when the door opens, if you can't make that timing work for you, then you're not using your luck. And you've got to be smart enough to trust your talent. You've got to know when the time is right.
Because the thing about success is you get afraid to take chances. I think back now, and I wonder, "Would I have done a Risky Business?"
[Q] Do you think that you would have?
[A] Oh, yeah. I think that I would have, but then again, you look at Risky Business, and it was a first-time director, and who knew? That's why every movie has to be like the first. You can't rule out anything. It would be easy for me to go into a commercial movie, but I want to do something that will get me out of bed in the morning. And if you make a mistake, well, you know... But so far I've been very lucky. I think if you don't play it safe, then anything's possible.
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