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This is the time of his life for Tom Cruise, the still-only-27-year-old
who is about to complete a mid-air turn from teenage heartthrob with
the bankable smile to respected actor with social concerns. Yes, Tom
Cruise, the guy who turned his parents' home into a whorehouse in Risky Business, treated war as a video game in Top Gun and played the consummate Yuppie in Cocktail, may now demand major reappraisal.|
Rejecting the jaunty and predictable success of his roles in comedies and action movies, Cruise seems on his way to becoming one of that rare breed—an actor's actor who is also a matinee idol. Dustin Hoffman, who co-starred with him in Rain Man, calls him "the biggest star in the world" and cites his seriousness of purpose—which, coming from Hoffman, means serious. First with Rain Man and now in his new movie, Born on the Fourth of July, Cruise seems on the verge of fulfilling Paul Newman's prediction that "this kid has the head and the balls to be one of the great ones...the next Hollywood legend." And Newman, who co-starred with him in The Color of Money, should know about legends.
It has been hard for Cruise to make a movie that wasn't successful since breaking through in Taps, in which, as a psychotic cadet, he stole scenes from the likes of Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton. Nevertheless, the question always was how much acting substance there was beyond those good looks. Rain Man answered that question. Cruise was so good in his performance as Charlie Babbitt, the wheeler-dealer brother to Hoffman's barely communicative Raymond, that some thought he, as well as Hoffman, should have gotten an Academy Award.
With Born on the Fourth of July, Cruise takes on his most demanding role yet, a severely wounded Vietnam vet, and gives the performance of his young life. It was his participation that made possible the making of the film. Born had been a hot-potato script around Hollywood ever since Al Pacino got cold feet after accepting the part 11 years ago. As it is, Universal agreed to a relatively low-budget venture only when Cruise, like Academy Award-winning director Oliver (Salvador, Platoon) Stone, agreed to work for a year with no guarantee of pay.
Cruise could easily have gone an easier way. Even Cocktail, a frothy sitcom of a movie he made while Rain Man was delayed, grossed an astounding $70,000,000. Cruise, the smiling Yuppie, is in great demand; Cruise in a wheelchair is more problematical. The studio heads said they would much have preferred Top Gun II, III and IV—but Cruise wasn't playing. The script of Born on the Fourth of July did not show war as a game. Indeed, it is not so much about war as about manhood—and what it takes to be a man.
To play Ron Kovic, the Vietnam vet disabled after a bullet paralyzed the lower three quarters of his body, Cruise ended up rejecting his familiar props of casual sexuality and swagger. For the better part of a year, he studied Kovic, joining him for wheelchair excursions, visiting Veterans Administration hospitals and learning to see the war through Kovic's eyes. By all accounts, the experience had a critical impact on the actor—and won him new fans. "I predict a blazing, brilliant future for him," says Stone. "He could be another Paul Newman. He has those American good looks and a surprising agility and grace—a lot of what Redford and Newman have: I've met both of those guys and what amazes me about them is their physical dexterity, their litheness. Tom has that, too."
Cruise has also joined that band of Hollywood stars willing to speak out critically on the issues of their time; most recently, he journeyed to the threatened Brazilian rain forests. In real life, he is anything but the wiseacre Yuppie wannabe of Cocktail or Risky Business.
But Cruise argues that he was always serious about acting and about life. He traces his stubborn sense of purpose to his mother, who worked many miserable jobs to keep the family together after a divorce in which Thomas Cruise Mapother III left her with the care of Thomas Cruise Mapother IV and his three sisters.
Born in Syracuse, New York, in 1962, Cruise learned to survive (and to flash his disarming smile) as the new kid in the dozen or so schools he attended as a result of his family's travels. He fell for acting in a high school production of Guys and Dolls. After that, he couldn't get to New York City—and acting school—fast enough; he skipped his own graduation.
The breaks came fast. He was working as a building superintendent on the edges of Harlem, hauling trash, when he landed and expanded what was supposed to be a bit part in Taps. That was 1980, Cruise was all of 18, and it brought him to the attention of Francis Ford Coppola, who cast him as the greaser Steve Randall in The Outsiders. It was during that filming that Cruise was offered his breakthrough starring role in Risky Business, which was the surprise hit of 1983.
Then in rapid order came All the Right Moves and Legend and, at the ripe old age of 24, the lead role in Top Gun, 1986's top movie. He was hot, but as a popular rather than an artistic success, and lead roles in The Color of Money and Cocktail did not challenge that image. Rain Man began the change that Born on the Fourth of July may complete.
It seemed an interesting moment to send Playboy interviewer Robert Scheer to talk with Cruise. Scheer is known to our readers for journalistic bouts with politicians over the years (including the "lust in my heart" Playboy Interview with Jimmy Carter and the Los Angeles Times "winnable nuclear war" interview with George Bush). Scheer's report:
"It was clear to me from our first meeting that Cruise was a lot like the guy he played in All the Right Moves, a movie about a steel-mill-town kid who can get out only by starring on the football team. The movie challenges the basic Yuppie value that winning is everything. I would be shocked if this guy ever sells out what I perceive as a strong sense of purpose about the craft of acting, about being true to certain personal values.
"Oddly enough, for a guy who never went to college, who was dyslexic and who carries a dictionary around to help improve his reading, Cruise is also articulate. He is in a continuous cram course to catch up, studying everything that crosses his path: the interviewer, the book he is carrying, the food being served.
"Cruise is now legendary for his attention to detail, challenging everything from a line in a script to the exact shading of make-up. Stone admitted that while Cruise always tried to be decent to the people he worked with, his drive for a controlling sense of excellence could get in the way. Temper tantrums were not unknown.
"The upside is that Cruise means well and his desire for control is tempered by a need to get it right. Like Kovic, he takes himself very seriously, and when guys like that get hot in a culture that's often frivolous or superficial, they can miss a beat. In Cruise's case, it can bog him down in his own intensity. But if the kid comes across as a bit serious, hey, life can be serious, too. As Cruise said, at least he could get up out of that wheelchair after each scene; Ron Kovic never can."
PLAYBOY: Your latest movie, in which you play Ron Kovic, an angry, paralyzed Vietnam veteran, may come as a shock to your fans. You've given up all of your props: your looks, your smile, your hair. There must have been people who cautioned you about doing this film.
CRUISE: I never felt that there was something to give up—I don't want to base my work on a smile or a grin.
PLAYBOY: But in this movie, you're not Tom Cruise. You are not someone teenagers are going to fall in love with. You are a guy who is sexually impotent, sometimes drunk, in a wheelchair——
CRUISE: I disagree with you. I think they will fall in love with him—and ride along with him.
PLAYBOY: Still, weren't you at all worried about giving up your looks for the film?
CRUISE: I was never worried about giving up my looks or my body. That's never been a concern of mine.
PLAYBOY: Was it a concern of your agent?
CRUISE: No. My agent is the only person who understands what I really want. And my wife. Other people just don't get it.
PLAYBOY: Get what?
CRUISE: What I want, what I want to do, how I approach things, what I want for my life.
PLAYBOY: But here you are, after Risky Business and Top Gun, in a movie in which you give up your proven box-office appeal to become a sometimes enraged antiwar guy with a big sex scene in a Mexican whorehouse. Isn't that risky business?
CRUISE: You know, people think in terms of box-office appeal just like they do sex appeal. I don't think like that. I think, If you make a good movie, people will go to see it. I have never thought it was as simple as just smiling through a movie.
PLAYBOY: Why did you choose to do Born on the Fourth of July?
CRUISE: It's one of the most powerful scripts I have ever read. I knew I wanted to do it ten pages into it. Kovic and Oliver Stone, who directed Platoon as well as this movie, wrote the script. It's as true a story as ever told about the effects of the Vietnam war on America—and on the times America lived through.
But I don't want people thinking of this as just another Vietnam movie. It's a film that tells us we can't just blindly trust the leaders of this country, that we ourselves must search and find out where we stand and what we believe in. It's not easy finding the truth about anything.
PLAYBOY: It's also the flip side of Top Gun, which is essentially war by Nintendo game and a paean to blind patriotism.
CRUISE: OK, some people felt that Top Gun was a right-wing film to promote the Navy. And a lot of kids loved it. But I want the kids to know that that's not the way war is—that Top Gun was just an amusement-park ride, a fun film with a PG-13 rating that was not supposed to be reality.
That's why I didn't go on and make Top Gun II and III and IV and V. That would have been irresponsible.
PLAYBOY: Is Born a redemption of Top Gun?
CRUISE: They are two different things. Top Gun is a joy ride and shouldn't be looked at beyond that. Born is about real people and real events. Top Gun should be looked at as going on Space Mountain—it's like a simple fairy tale.
PLAYBOY: A lot of boys have gone off to war to that kind of drumbeat. That is the history of war—young, callow kids marching off to fairy-tale glory as in Top Gun.
CRUISE: Think of that: I am totally responsible for World War Three [laughs]! Come on. Let's look at the reality of what I am saying—where my beliefs lie. I didn't have anything riding on Top Gun. The fact is, I really want people to see Born on the Fourth of July—it's a movie that had to be made.
CRUISE: Because I felt Ron Kovic could have been me. I was interested in the fact that I didn't understand a lot of this—the whole thing of confusing the war with the soldier. It's innocence lost and true courage found. I was born on the third of July, Kovic was born on the fourth.
PLAYBOY: What do you mean by innocence lost?
CRUISE: Well, the look and feel of the picture gradually changes. Early on—in the Fifties, the early Sixties—the feel of the film is like Leave It to Beaver, when we used words like gosh. It was a time when we had killed the Nazis and we were good and we had overcome evil, the idea that we were the greatest nation in the world, that we could do anything. The suburb was formed, there was a sense of community, commitment, a real sense of the flag and country, the Pledge of Allegiance. It was a time of blind commitment to our Government. It was very innocent and naïve. It was easy to manipulate people into committing to something like Vietnam. You understand the commitment that Kovic was involved in.
But what happened when our Yankee Doodle Dandy came home? Today, we're in a period when the Vietnam veteran is honored, but there was a time—I talked to a lot of people who lived during that period—when these men thought they were fighting for something, for truth, and found contempt when they came home. Oliver went to Vietnam to be John Wayne. For whatever reasons—to piss off his mother and father, whatever—he was going to go and he was going to be a hero. Kovic was, too. I talked to these guys about this. That's what they were going for. It was a brutal, ugly, confusing experience. War was not Top Gun. It was none of that.
PLAYBOY: Since doing Born on the Fourth of July, what conclusions have you come to about the Vietnam vets?
CRUISE: I talked to some of those Marines who were willing to give their lives for their country—or for John Wayne. They would take a piece of real estate, then give it to the South Vietnamese, then have to take it again two weeks later, at the cost of their buddies' lives. How many times are you going to take this little fucking hill? We had no business being there! But then they came home and the whole country was turning their backs on the vets, saying, "You are killing babies!"
That's what really stuck in my mind about that time. There were charges that the vets had booby-trapped candy for babies. These guys would get accused of something like that without anyone's hearing their side of the story. They were put totally on the defensive.
PLAYBOY: In the film, we learn that Kovic's patriotic fervor—doing it for John Wayne and for glory—is what led to his being paralyzed. He stood up after being hit in the heel, guns blazing, and shouted, "Come on, you Commie bastards!" thinking, as he says in the movie, that he was John Wayne.
PLAYBOY: Doesn't that happen because of what we're taught to admire as boys?
CRUISE: Yeah. The dreams of being a hero, of being John Wayne. Listen, when I was a kid, I played with guns. If I'd watched Top Gun, I'd have played at war. I grew up with GI Joes. I look at Oliver's kid and he points a gun and—krpow!—in the face. You look at television and see death all the time. Vietnam was the first TV war. I remember watching combat scenes while we were sitting there eating dinner. You look over and it doesn't seem real. We used to play war, cowboys and Indians. If you want to get down to it, it is the whole sense of athletics: "Kill the enemy! Let's win the game and kill the enemy. You will be victorious." Taking pride in getting the enemy.
PLAYBOY: You're part of the post-Vietnam generation. How much knowledge of the Vietnam war did you have before you began filming?
CRUISE: I had been working on the film a year before we started shooting, so my knowledge of the Vietnam war had grown considerably. I lived in Canada in the late Sixties and early Seventies, and when I came back to the States in '73, I remember hearing Nixon on the radio saying, "The war is over." I remember people were cheering in the streets.
In '76, when I was back in the States, this girl in my class was wearing a copper band because her brother was missing in action. I didn't understand. I saw young kids arguing in the playground over who won the Vietnam war. Some kid saying, "You know, we got our asses whipped in Vietnam," another saying, "We won the Vietnam war, we are America!" and others saying, "What is a Vietnam?" Even in high school, we really were not educated about it. They did not talk about the Vietnam war in terms of what happened; it was not part of our curriculum.
From what I understand, very few people were truly aware of what was going on in Vietnam at that time. Even the press then—correct me if I am wrong—was pro-Vietnam. You know: "Let's go kick some Commie asses and prove our superiority." So that's the way I played it.
PLAYBOY: But you couldn't share Stone's and Kovic's intensity. They were the Vietnam vets; you're only twenty-seven and missed the war completely.
CRUISE: True. Any time we got stuck in a scene, I would just turn to Oliver and Ron and ask, "What was it like for you?" If there seemed to be something missing or not working, I lived it through their eyes. When this film was finished, I wanted Kovic and Stone to say, "Yeah, that's what it felt like." I didn't want a false beat.
CRUISE: Because it meant a lot to me.
PLAYBOY: As an actor?
CRUISE: As a human being. Because there's a message I wanted to get out. The film is about so many things. It's not just a guy coming back from the war. It's also a personal struggle with his body and his manhood, his penis and his balls. That's what Vietnam was. It took away our power. The country became impotent and embarrassed. Hopefully, we're a greater nation looking back and learning.
PLAYBOY: But you're saying that beyond the war and politics, the movie is really about a person's struggle with conventional notions of manhood.
CRUISE: Yeah. You look at what someone like Kovic went through, and he did have to re-evaluate what it is to be a man. I mean, "Am I a man if I can't get an erection? I don't have my penis anymore." The whole notion now is that a man is a man because of his penis or because of the size of his penis or how many girls he can lay. For any man, the thought of losing his penis is frightening on so many levels. Having children, having pleasures, having what it is that defines the male. In the film, Ron is able to satisfy a woman even though he himself can't get an erection.
What you learn when you talk to a lot of people is that the penis isn't the man. Ron's injury really made him a better person because he had to search for who he was. This movie's about searching for who you are. "Where do I fit in here? What am I going to do? Where is my mark?" You look at what Kovic accomplished as a result of his injury: He is a survivor. I want to make it clear that he has girlfriends and he's not isolated. I mean, I've seen lots of women around him.
PLAYBOY: You obviously feel passionate about this movie.
CRUISE: I could feel this script in my balls. It was painful once I began to research it. I met a lot of young people with injuries. I went to many hospitals and visited them and kept in contact with them. I remember I was going around with Kovic; we were going into some stores and I was in a wheelchair. It was very difficult getting up on curbs; it was exhausting. Every day that I was in the chair, I built up different muscles, but I was still tired. It was a big metal chair and it was uncomfortable going around in it. I went into a store and this girl comes up to me and says, "Excuse me, sir, I'm sorry, but could you please stop rolling around on our carpet or I'm going to have to ask you to leave." I said, "Why?" She said, "Your tires are ruining our rubber carpeting." I could not believe it.
There were nights I went home and I would have long talks with my wife, Mimi, and I just couldn't help but think that this could be me. The kind of courage that these people have makes you realize what the human soul is capable of in terms of surviving.
PLAYBOY: Do you think you would have gone to Vietnam if you'd been of age?
PLAYBOY: You would have believed in the war the way Kovic did?
CRUISE: At that time, with everything going on, yeah.
PLAYBOY: And do you think you would have made the transition he eventually made?
CRUISE: I would hope I would have. You don't know until you have to face something like that.
PLAYBOY: Is it true that Kovic gave you one of his medals?
PLAYBOY: How did that happen?
CRUISE: It was for my birthday. He felt that it was an acknowledgment of his feeling that.... I told him when we started the film that I didn't want to compromise at all and that I was willing to give everything. And he'd been through tough times trying to get the film made. We shared a lot when we were making the film. He shared his soul with me. So at the end, he gave me a medal congratulating me on my courage throughout the film and my...[shyly] my uncompromising position toward playing the role.
PLAYBOY: Why did it require courage?
CRUISE: I remember I met Ron with Oliver. Oliver was nervous. He said, "Look, nobody wants to make the film." Ron was scared. He had been through this once before: He'd written the book Born on the Fourth of July twelve years earlier, and Oliver had tried to get the movie done. The project had been dropped. Ron said, "I don't know if I can go through this again." I remember saying, "Ron, I promise you—I promise you, this film will get made. I promise you that I will give every inch of my soul and my ability to try to make this come to life and be as great as I feel that it should be."
PLAYBOY: The film was given a very tight budget. Why?
CRUISE: Because people were afraid of the movie; they said it wasn't an easy sell.
PLAYBOY: Even with your box-office appeal?
CRUISE: We got sixteen million dollars. But considering the scope of the picture, that's not very much. Everyone who worked on it gave his heart and soul to it. Oliver really brings out that kind of commitment.
PLAYBOY: Did Stone defer payment on this film?
CRUISE: Yeah, we all did.
PLAYBOY: What does that mean, exactly?
CRUISE: It means you don't get paid.
PLAYBOY: You mean until the film makes money? No money has changed hands?
CRUISE: No, it's cost me plenty [laughs]. Listen, for me, it is not about money. We did the same thing on Rain Man. We never thought that film would do anything at the box office; we did it because we wanted to make the movie.
PLAYBOY: Are you saying that you don't pay much attention to the commercial aspects when you choose a film?
CRUISE: I can't predict what is going to be box office and what is not. I think anyone who says, "This is going to be a hit" before the thing is made really doesn't know. Nobody knows. So you'd better do something you believe in and you love, because if it's not financially successful, you'd better walk away with something.
PLAYBOY: It's interesting that this early in your career, you already have a sense of what you want to do and what to avoid—as an actor, as a celebrity. You seem to have a kind of maturity.
CRUISE: I have always worked at it. You come in young and don't really know a lot about business or how to protect yourself. But even early on, when I didn't have any leverage or power, I was very careful in making sure I couldn't be exploited—like getting hailed by the press when it wasn't deserved. I'd go beyond my ability and put myself in a situation where I could learn.
PLAYBOY: For a guy associated with light roles and a big smile, you're very serious.
CRUISE: Yeah. People say that. I remember the night I finished Born on the Fourth of July. The next day, I took a walk with Oliver and I said goodbye to him. Oliver looked at me, very concerned, and said, "What are you gonna do now?" I said Mimi and I were gonna take some time together—travel and relax. He said, "Take some time and enjoy being young. You are too serious sometimes." I looked at him and I've thought about that a lot since.
PLAYBOY: When we talked with Paul Newman about you, he suggested something similar.
CRUISE: During the filming of The Color of Money, he apparently noticed how intense I was. I was so serious. I always had the feeling that I wanted to do everything yesterday. My whole life was like I was always on the run and nothing was enough. I always felt like I was a day short of what I wanted to know about life, about acting, about the world. And Newman gave me good information about living, about acting.
PLAYBOY: And about pacing yourself?
CRUISE: Yes, pacing myself. Then, when I started shooting Cocktail, he sent me a six-pack of beer and said, "You're always working. I want you to sit down. I want you to take a weekend. I want you to drink all these beers." Essentially, he was saying, "You don't have to do everything by six o'clock tonight." And I've thought about that a lot. And I have slowed down. Some.
PLAYBOY: Where did all this seriousness come from? Why are you so different from a Hollywood brat who just wants to get famous?
CRUISE: It didn't just start when I decided to become an actor. I was always a very serious person. I was never very frivolous. I did things I wanted to do well and took pride in them.
PLAYBOY: How early on?
CRUISE: I hear stories about when I was four years old. When I wanted to learn how to hit a baseball, I would stay out in that yard until I could hit that baseball. I guess I always had a great sense of adventure. My mother tells me a story I don't remember myself. When I was two and a half years old, I used to just leave the house. I wouldn't come back for hours, and they would have the police out looking for me. I kind of remember the police picking me up and my mother being very nervous. Finally, one day, she said, "Where did you go?" I told her, "I went on an adventure." She said, "Next time you want to go on an adventure, why don't you get me and we'll go together."
So one day, my mother was scrubbing the floor and she saw these two little feet walk up to her. She tells me that I said, "It's time." My mother got up, got my three sisters dressed and we all walked down the street. I took them into these woods. There was this pond there and my mother says her heart began to beat fast because she realized I'd been going there alone and could have drowned. So she said, "What do you do here, Tom?" I said, "Oh, I just sit and think and throw rocks in the water." She tried to explain to me that it wasn't a good idea to go there without her. She emphasized that if I ever wanted to go there again, I should go with her so we could share the experience.
PLAYBOY: She sounds like a great parent.
CRUISE: Yeah, she was quite extraordinary. She was from Lowell, Kentucky, and she just wanted to raise children. She loved being a mother.
PLAYBOY: Was she very religious?
CRUISE: Early on; more philosophical as time went on. She went to college for one year; she didn't have a great education, but a good one. [Pauses] You know, when I think back, I realize there were a lot of things like that. I was quite lucky. Also intense. I was always very intense and I would do something until I was good at it.
PLAYBOY: After your parents got divorced, were you the man of the house?
CRUISE: Yes. I really wore the pants in the family in a lot of ways. If something in the house had to be fixed, I'd take over. I remember having to take on a tremendous amount of responsibility after the divorce. Work became very important. When I needed money, I would cut grass, rake lawns, work at ice-cream parlors, sell Christmas cards and save the money for going to movies and things like that. I loved to go to the movies.
PLAYBOY: So in real life, you are much closer to the working-class character in All the Right Moves than to the upper-class one in Risky Business.
CRUISE: Yes, but it varied. There were times when my father was working. I remember that for about a year, we lived in a nice house in a nice neighborhood. Then later on, times really got tough. But it was exciting, it was challenging. And there was a sense of teamwork. We all worked together and when the team broke down—there were problems—it wasn't easy.
I was a troubled kid. When I look back at my educational problems, and how I got through them, it's unbelievable. There was a lot of frustration. I used to run away from home. I remember taking the car out when I was thirteen and doing crazy things. But there were a lot of great times, too.
PLAYBOY: Some of your educational problems were due to dyslexia.
CRUISE: Yes. I didn't know my left hand from my right hand. I used to have my Gs and Cs backward. I misunderstood words. All of that was compounded by the fact that I was transferring to so many schools and getting such a diverse curriculum.
Since then, I have had to look back and really focus on re-educating myself. I go back and teach myself grammar again. I always sit down with a dictionary when I read, because my vocabulary was horrendous. If in my formative years in education they had made me look up the definitions of words, I would have had a stronger comprehension of the English language—when you look up a word, a lot of times, it has a Latin or French derivation. When I finally began doing this as an adult, I started to understand our language and was able to use words properly.
In some places, teaching is just baby-sitting. It is very difficult to teach a child in fifth grade who has a second grade vocabulary. I am not talking just about kids in East L.A., I am talking about kids in private schools. I was one of them—even though I mostly didn't go to private schools.
PLAYBOY: Getting back to your father, did you spend a lot of time with him?
CRUISE: No, he wasn't around very much. I love my father, but he'd come home at six o'clock and we'd sit and watch Walter Cronkite and then Batman on television. Then he'd go back to work or it was time for us to go to bed. As a kid, you're kind of afraid of your dad, because he is the guy who usually comes home to punish you and beat the hell out of you and send you to bed with no dinner. I didn't get to know my father better until later.
CRUISE: When I was about ten years old, for about one year, we got real close. But then he and my mother got divorced and I didn't see him for a long time.
PLAYBOY: Did that shake you up?
CRUISE: Yeah, you don't realize it until you really look back. I was the only boy, and a lot of times, I would live at my aunt's house, because things were very difficult and we didn't have a lot of money. My aunt and my cousin really helped me out a lot. After we moved from Canada to Kentucky, I was on the ice-skating team—I was, like, twelve years old—and so I stayed a lot at my aunt's house, because it was closer and my mom was working all the time.
PLAYBOY: You also went to a Catholic private school for a year.
PLAYBOY: Was that a stern atmosphere?
CRUISE: It was actually the best scholastically. It was the only time I made the honor roll, because all I did was study. It wasn't all religious stuff. But there was a lot of pressure in the family. I felt it. My mom was coming home crying; there was no money. My mother is a very proud woman.
PLAYBOY: Why would she be crying?
CRUISE: Because a lot of times, I wore my cousin's clothes and stuff. I had to wear a jacket and tie to school and the big thing was having a bike. I remember the prom my sophomore year, we went out to buy a suit. I didn't want to wear one of my cousin's suits, because a lot of them were from the Sixties. I said, "Look, I can't go to the prom with this girl in one of my cousin's suits." So we bought a suit that was two sizes too big so that I could wear it to the two dances I'd go to that year [laughs]. I mean, it cost like a hundred bucks and we couldn't afford that. So here's this huge suit and within four months, I had outgrown it. My mother was a proud woman.
PLAYBOY: It sounds like you grew up to be more comfortable around women, less macho, that the average guy.
CRUISE: I think so. I'd have been different if I'd grown up with all brothers. Listen, it was great. If I ever had any girl problems, I'd talk to my sisters about them. Some men are afraid of women, they don't understand them. I love women. I've always been very close with women, felt much more comfortable around them than I did around men. Especially growing up, like, if I went to a new school. Guys are very competitive. And I can be competitive.
I remember I was—God—I guess I was in third grade and my oldest sister was, like, in the sixth or seventh grade. And after school, I would just literally sprint home, because her friends were just starting to go out with boys and they would practice on me—put me on top of the sink and, you know, teach me how to kiss. And we'd spend hours after school. I knew when the girls were going to come by and I'd sprint home.
So you ask if I feel comfortable around women. Absolutely.
I was also very protective of my sisters. I remember working at a country club as a bus boy and some guy would look at my sister the wrong way, and I'd stare at the guy like, "You son of a—" You know. And then there was this kid I knew who liked my sister and wanted to kiss her. And I pulled him aside and I said, "You touch my sister and I will kill you." So this guy never kissed her. He was a year older than I was and he never kissed her. And she always wondered why this guy never kissed her, you know what I mean?
PLAYBOY: "Thanks a lot," right?
CRUISE: Yeah, that's what she said. "Thank you, Tom. How many other guys have you frightened away?"
PLAYBOY: Nevertheless, your family wasn't the image shown on TV sitcoms. It sounds more like the family in All the Right Moves, where if the kid doesn't get the football scholarship, he will end up in the steel mills like his father and brother. Was that your own reality growing up?
CRUISE: We shot that movie in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, when things were very difficult there. Some of the guys in that movie were kids who hadn't gotten out. It was an endless cycle—almost like The Grapes of Wrath. Texas was the promised land and people still ended up in tent cities. People out of work at the mills in Pennsylvania would go out to Texas looking for industrial work, but all they knew was the mill. So they'd go out there and they'd end up living in tents. You had people denying that those places really existed. It was unbelievable.
PLAYBOY: All the Right Moves, in a way, tells your story.
CRUISE: I think on certain levels, I could identify with the guy. But I didn't need the ticket out. I didn't really feel trapped.
PLAYBOY: Why not?
CRUISE: Because I had decided I was going to see the world on five hundred dollars. I had money saved up before I went to New York to look for work. First I was going to see Europe on a Eurailpass. I was going to see the world. It was an adventure to me; I was gonna go out and see what I could see and do what I could do.
PLAYBOY: You weren't a small-town by, then, afraid of the big world?
CRUISE: No. I had been to three different high schools—I didn't even go to my graduation ceremony. It didn't mean anything to me. I was out there. I knew I was going somewhere, I just didn't know where.... I sure didn't know it was going to be this.
PLAYBOY: Somehow you got the confidence.
CRUISE: When you travel the way I traveled, and learn and see the kind of things that I did, you also learn how to take care of yourself. Unlike the character in All the Right Moves, I was lucky enough to live in places where I could always make money. I always had paper routes and scooped ice cream and raked leaves and cut grass. There were a lot of people who needed those services and I was good at them.
PLAYBOY: Were you happy?
CRUISE: There were times when I didn't like delivering the paper in the morning. I had to get up on Sundays at four-thirty in some of the worst storms ever. But there was a sense of completion that I liked. The sense of doing something, having my own money and a sense of independence.
I'm not saying that I wasn't afraid or that I didn't fail, but I always wanted to turn failure into success. If it wasn't right for me, I wanted to learn why wasn't it right for me, where do I go?
PLAYBOY: Did you think that you measured up to the other kids?
CRUISE: I didn't feel as good as them. I wasn't a popular kid. In some sense, I always felt like I was playing a role.
PLAYBOY: Did you always know you were good-looking?
CRUISE: No. I never felt particularly good-looking. I always had a strange accent; I was always the new kid who was being introduced to the class. I don't know why teachers do that—they take you up in front of the class and say. "This is so-and-so, now you be nice." Everyone's looking and all of a sudden, you realize you are not wearing the right clothes and everything is outdated. But I enjoyed the adventure of it. I enjoyed the adventure of going to a new school and going to different places and meeting different people. It was frightening—it always is—but somehow, I enjoyed and used the fear of that challenge.
PLAYBOY: Let's go back some—to your first real break. You'd moved to New York. There you were, working as a building superintendent, trying to hustle acting jobs. And then you got—what?—discovered?
CRUISE: I guess Taps was where it really started for me. I had done a small role in Endless Love, but that was really nothing, like one day's work. So I read for Harold Becker, for Taps. And I remember, I literally didn't have a dollar to my name. And even though I didn't have the role yet, I felt really good about the interview. Next I had a meeting with the producer and the director. It was like a two-minute meeting—you know, pull your hair up, read this line. And that was it.
I walked out of the meeting. I was going to see my family—they were living in Jersey—but because I didn't have a dollar to take a bus home, I hitchhiked. While I was walking up our driveway, I saw my mother talking on the phone through the window. She was all excited. When I got in, she said, "It's your agent on the phone." And my agent said I got the movie.
I jumped up and smashed my head on the door frame, I was so excited. I was on the floor, almost knocked myself out. But I remember dancing around the house with my family; we were all so excited.
PLAYBOY: Did the excitement stay with you as you began doing the film?
CRUISE: Yeah. Sean [Penn] was doing a play on Broadway and Tim [Hutton] had already won an Academy Award for Ordinary People. So I learned a lot. We had a month's rehearsal and literally lived together at Valley Forge. There was a lot of heat on Sean and me, especially since Tim had won the Academy Award. In Hollywood, people were waiting to see who the other roles in the film were after Tim's.
After Taps, I went to my agency and told them I wasn't interested in doing commercials or television—that after my experience on Taps, I wanted to make movies.
Then I went on to do a film called Losing It. It had been immediately offered to me and, even though I didn't know a lot about the business, I did know that there were things about the script that I didn't like. I went out to meet the producers in California, and they were all saying that this was going to be the next Breaking Away. You know what I mean? They were, like, pumping me: "Don't worry about the script right now; we're going to work on it."
But the experience itself was not a great one, in terms of where I'd just been—working with Harold Becker, Stanley Jaffe, Sean and Tim. It was a totally different experience; creatively, it was stifling. So I learned a great lesson in doing that movie. I realized that not everybody is capable of making good films and that I'd have to learn how to survive in the business and not let it eat me up. I knew that the kinds of films I wanted to work on from then on had to be made by the best people.
PLAYBOY: Why were you so determined?
CRUISE: Because there I was, with the opportunity to be a working actor—and at that time, there were a lot of young actors and a lot of youth films being made—and I remember thinking that this wasn't going to last forever and that I'd better take advantage of it. Money was never a factor with me—I wanted to learn on a film. Money goes, but what you learn can't be taken away from you.
PLAYBOY: Come on—money really wasn't a factor? You were penniless and you got the part; there had to be something liberating about suddenly making a lot of money.
CRUISE: Oh, yeah. But that's not the reason I wanted to be an actor.
But, yeah, having money did mean being able to pay my bills off—which is what I did after Taps, and that was a great feeling. And I also ate a lot. Growing up, I always ate what was on my plate and sometimes there wasn't enough food, so it was like, the person who finished first got that extra piece. So after Taps, once a week I'd go to this place—some steak-and-lobster place—and I'd sit there and, in my mind, I was going, How am I going to eat all of this? I must have put on about ten pounds, until I finally told myself, You don't have to eat everything on the menu; you don't have to eat everything at the buffet. You are going to eat again after this.
PLAYBOY: What can you do with money that you find worth while?
CRUISE: Well, you can do things with it. You can help people. You can pay bills. And it allows you great freedom to travel to different countries, educate yourself in different ways. And, sure, you want to buy nice clothes and all. But when you start making money, you've also got to take responsibility for it. I guess I was a businessman growing up—always very aware of money and being responsible for it. So I'm the type of person who doesn't just hand my money and my business and my work over to somebody else. I know everything that is spent and I economize because I want to keep it.
PLAYBOY: Is there anything you like in the high life? Good restaurants, fast cars, toys?
CRUISE: I like driving fast. I like race cars, but I don't have all the time in the world to do stuff like that.
PLAYBOY: So let's move on. Suddenly, you're in a movie that you don't like much, right?
CRUISE: Right. Losing It wasn't an enjoyable experience. It was a comedy and there sure as hell weren't a lot of laughs on the set. And the work environment wasn't as professional as the one I had experienced on Taps. And even though the film wasn't as bad as it could have been, it still wasn't the kind that I wanted to be involved with.
So next, this other agent calls me and offers—I don't know—some horror movie. And I said, "I'm just not interested in doing it." And he said, "But they're going to fly you first class to New York and they're going to pay you sixty to seventy thousand dollars or something like that." And he thought I was out of my mind to say no. But I didn't care how much money I made. I wanted to work with good film makers.
And that's when the audition for The Outsiders came up. I had been offered some leading roles, but I didn't feel that I could carry a film. I hadn't learned enough and I felt that I would be eaten alive. So when they started auditioning for The Outsiders, I remember pulling Francis [Ford Coppola] aside and saying, "I'll do anything it takes; I'll play any role in this." And he was nice enough to hire me.
PLAYBOY: Was working with Coppola the kind of learning experience you'd been looking for?
CRUISE: Absolutely. We had workshops with all the actors in which we'd ad-lib and play around. And I remember feeling very good, building up my confidence in my own instincts on acting. And understanding more on each level; learning more about film acting and what I wanted to do.
And while I was doing The Outsiders, I read for Risky Business. I heard later that the writer-director, Paul Brickman, hadn't even wanted to see me.
PLAYBOY: Why not?
CRUISE: Because he'd seen me in Taps and he didn't think the psycho I played in that could be Joel Goodson, his nice-guy character. But when I met with him, I ended up reading almost the whole script.
PLAYBOY: Probably the most memorable scene in the movie is the one in which you dance around the living room in your underwear, playing a rock star. Ron Reagan parodied it on Saturday Night Live. Was that scene in the script or did you improvise it?
CRUISE: In the script, the scene was one line that said, "Joel dances in underwear through the house." But I had tried it a couple of ways where it didn't work. Finally, I put on socks, waxed the floor, and then put dirt around the area so I could slide right out to the center of the frame. Then we did the thing with the candlestick—using it as a microphone?—and made it into this rock-and-roll number. And we just kept going, trying different things. Brickman would say, "I want something crazy here," so I'd jump onto the couch and, you know, flip the collar and just let loose.
I saw Brickman after he saw the rushes on that scene and he said, "It's the most hysterical scene in the movie." But it's also obvious that he is an excellent writer.
PLAYBOY: It was also obvious that you aren't too shabby a dancer.
CRUISE: Well, when I was growing up, the big thing was Saturday Night Fever and discos, and if you couldn't dance, you couldn't pick up the girls. You know, you were a schmuck. All the girls loved to go dancing on Saturday night. So I used to watch American Bandstand and Soul Train all the time, and I'd rehearse dancing so that when I showed up at a disco, I could ask girls to dance. I taught myself how to dance. I got all right at it. Used to do the robot, spinning and stuff like that.
PLAYBOY: So in that Risky Business scene, you were actually playing yourself.
CRUISE: Oh, yeah. That's what acting is. Finding yourself in roles and bringing aspects of yourself to life. Not being afraid to do that.
PLAYBOY: You did The Color of Money in 1986. That's when you studied Newman's acting so intently that afterward, he sent you that six-pack. He also told us he thinks you're the one actor in your generation who'll go the distance.
CRUISE: Makes me glad. But Newman did more than teach me about craft. He also helped me in terms of what to take seriously and what not to take seriously in life. I mean, he's really been through a lot of things in his life. He's a very wise man.
PLAYBOY: Did he also have a political influence on you?
CRUISE: Well, I think he was surprised to a certain extent at my knowledge of political issues. And he also talked to me about arms control and gave me a lot of information on stuff that I had no idea about.
So there was an influence there and good information. Sometimes we'd have dinners with admirals from the Navy and talk about arms control. It was exciting. He's got a wide base of people around him who give him good information.
PLAYBOY: Do you consider The Color of Money your first serious movie?
CRUISE: No, because I'm serious about everything—as you've said. But I started to realize that what the public and the critics see—like whether or not they take me seriously—reflects what they perceive as what's right for me. Do you understand what I mean by that?
PLAYBOY: We take it you're referring to Cocktail, which got knocked by the critics.
CRUISE: Yeah, yeah. They thought I walked through the film.
PLAYBOY: They also thought it was lightweight and that you played an inconsequential, self-absorbed guy with Yuppie values.
CRUISE: Well, you have to look at the end of the movie. It's not accurate to associate me with Yuppie values. At the end, the character realizes that life is not about marrying the rich woman and going off and getting the easy buck; life is about family, about caring for other people, not just yourself. It is not about having the greatest piece of real estate in the world; it is about being happy at what you do and doing it well.
Look at Rain Man, All the Right Moves, Risky Business—originally, that film had a different ending; it was much more sardonic, but the studio was a little afraid of it.
PLAYBOY: That was where your character didn't get into Princeton, right?
CRUISE: Yeah, he didn't get into Princeton. It ended with the lines "I grossed eight thousand dollars in one night. Hi, my name is Joel Goodson. Isn't life grand?" Something like that. Almost as if to say, "Look at this bullshit. Time of your life, huh, kid?"
PLAYBOY: So what happened? Did a studio executive see it and say it wasn't upbeat enough?
CRUISE: I don't know what happened. I think they didn't feel that the ending was fulfilling enough. I just remember having a big fight. That was a long time ago.
PLAYBOY: There was some press about it. Speaking of which, how are you feeling about the press lately?
CRUISE: I'll tell you: I was sitting at home recently, and I read that I was at that very moment in Venice with Woody Allen, at some rock-and-roll concert. I said to Mimi, "Honey, where am I?" It showed up in People, then on all these TV programs—just because some person had called and said that Tom Cruise and Woody Allen were at this concert! I mean, what level is that? When do you start talking about real issues?
People so easily—blindly—believe what they read. For example, I read the paper and I see so many things about myself that are so untrue. When I started out, I'd think, Those motherfuckers—I am going to go out and get every one of them! But I remember Paul Newman, while we were filming The Color of Money, sitting me down and saying, "You have to take it easy; you have to learn what to worry about and what not to worry about." This is something I think about quite often. But when I read the paper and I am hit by certain information, I can't help but in the back of my mind question how accurate this information is. How accurate are these ideas? Where can I get more information? From what source?
PLAYBOY: A real issue that you've become involved in lately is the destruction of the rain forests.
CRUISE: Yes. I am going to see them with Dr. Thomas E. Lovejoy of the Smithsonian Institution. We are going to be living in the rain forest. I hope we can get communities together on this issue and that Brazil will not feel so isolated—like we are pointing the finger at them. Because, from what I understand, they are saying, "Hey, guys, you have used up your natural resources and now we are in economic dire straits and you're telling us that we can't do this?"
PLAYBOY: So the world as a whole ought to be contributing to save the rain forests.
CRUISE: You also have to bring Brazil in and have it become part of the team. You can't point the finger at Brazil and say, "Why the fuck are you letting everybody take—how many football fields is it a day?—of the rain forests?" I want to understand it more. I want to see it. I want to make sure that there's going to be air to breathe when my children are my age. It's one of the most important issues that this world has to face right now.
PLAYBOY: So what is going to happen to your kids?
CRUISE: What do you mean?
PLAYBOY: Are they going to be spoiled rich kids? How can they help but be?
CRUISE: No. No. Listen, I've never raised children before. I don't know what it's going to be like. But this is something my wife and I talk about, what we went through in growing up. We don't want our kids to grow up that way; we want to set a certain standard: "Look, you make your bed, you clean your room; that's your responsibility." The same way that we were raised. Just giving them a sense of responsibility: "If you do this, you get this." A sense of accomplishment. The kids aren't going to turn sixteen and immediately get a car. Of course, I'm saying that now. I hope I won't do that.
PLAYBOY: You're something of a poster boy for the work ethic. You also represent a kind of smiling confidence, almost a cockiness. Where did you get that confident quality? Is it a survival technique?
CRUISE: I don't know. Maybe it's stupidity. I don't know if it was my mother. She's a survivor. And I know my sisters are that way. They're survivors. I learned from my mother that there was opportunity in life, that you could do anything you wanted. I guess that got translated in a lot of ways.
My mother also taught us decency and respect for other people. It's like, you see some guy throw a little piece of paper out the window when you're driving—that pisses me off. My mother taught us that you don't do stuff like that because you don't want this country to be a garbage dump. If you work hard, you get paid for it. That's what you do. And you do it better than anybody else has done it.
And then you realize that there are so many people in this world who don't really work as hard as they could in terms of taking pride in what they do. My mother said that it doesn't matter what you become, what's important is if you're happy and you enjoy it and you don't compromise yourself in what you do. That's how we were raised.
PLAYBOY: And that gave you the confidence to play in the big leagues—with the Newmans and the Hoffmans?
CRUISE: I wasn't sure if I could play in that league. I was excited enough just to be there—it wasn't important whether or not I won. I always took it from the point of view of a student. I knew the thing that most upset me was how uncomfortable I was about my reading, about the books I hadn't read. So I attacked everything with such ferocity; I truly wanted to understand why. Why? I mean, that's acting: Why does my character do this? Why does he do that? Why is he like that? Why are people like that? There's always a solution.
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