The Rehabilitation of Tom Cruise

by Stacy Elaine Dacheux


Last week, Amy Nicholson, LA Weekly’s resident film critic, met me at a diner in Koreatown, not far from the Paramount lot. Tossing her purse into the booth, she scooted in, got comfortable, and greeted me with warm, fixed attention. Such unpretentious posture is impressive, considering her acclaim — she won a 2015 AAN Award for Arts Criticism — also, she was famished. After casually ordering a few tacos, we got right to the point, discussing her latest book, Tom Cruise: Anatomy of An Actor (Phaidon), Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, and how, maybe, just maybe, we’ve been led to believe that we dislike Tom Cruise more than we actually do.

For your book, did you watch every film back-to-back, or what was your process like?

I watched every film at the very beginning. When you look at his career, you’re looking for what are the roles that are the most interesting, the most different from each other, and also the most telling about where he was in his career. I wanted to space it out from the very beginning, with Risky Business all the way over to M:I Ghost Protocol.

As a reader, I felt like I travelled in time with him.

His career is so long. I thought when I started, I would do Collateral. I love Collateral, but it looks like it doesn’t fit into the whole story. When it came out everyone was like — it’s the first time Cruise plays a villain, and when you look at what he’s done, that’s actually not true at all. He’s played so many villains; it’s just nobody paid attention. Collateral, even though I didn’t put it in the book, is important. What we think of when we think “Tom Cruise” is totally wrong. We think of this guy who is always a hero, always cocky, always right — but if we look at what he’s doing, he’s never that. He starts out at a sociopath in Taps; he plays a screw up who gets kind of cocky in Risky Business, but he loses almost everything he cares about in Top Gun. Even in Cocktail, he’s a bad guy — and Cruise thinks he’s a bad guy — but the audience thinks he’s a good guy, and that’s what’s weird about it.

What role of Cruise’s did you personally relate to the most?

The one I respect the most is Interview with the Vampire. That’s where you see what makes Tom Cruise different than any other movie star. He does this film with Brad Pitt, who is supposed to be the next Tom Cruise, and Brad Pitt doesn’t even read the book Interview with the Vampire. He famously says he threw it in the trash.

Tom Cruise doesn’t just read that book, he reads every single other book in the series by Anne Rice, so he knows that character better than anybody — even the director. The director didn’t even read the rest of the books. I love that performance because he did that for a movie nobody took seriously. Nobody wanted to play it. They wanted John Malkovich. They wanted Daniel Day-Lewis. He is so good in the movie. He almost ruins the movie because the director and Brad Pitt have no idea that he’s making that character so much better than they think it is. It’s Cruise preparing.

The role I was most surprised about was Jerry Maguire. Everyone remembers that final monologue and it’s quoted all the time and thought of as this romantic film, and it’s not at all; it’s a tragedy.

Jerry Maguire as a romance isn’t really a romance.

Here’s a question I wrote after reading and watching it. Jerry Maguire stays in a loveless marriage because he wants to be a great man with great values. Ron Kovic joins the military to be a great citizen, to make the town proud. Both characters surrender to what they think other people want them to be, in order to be liked or valued, with harrowing results, flipping this idea of greatness on its head. It’s really haunting. That said, on a broad spectrum, how would you break Cruise’s career down in relation to this similar greatness — pleasing others or proving oneself? Is proving in reaction to pleasing?

I like how you are hitting on this idea of perception. From the beginning of his career, he’s been trying to get us to change our perception of him, but it never takes. How is the biggest movie star of the world hiding in plain sight? How do we all know his movies but we have no idea what’s happening in them? We picture them so wrong. We think of Risky Business as him sliding around in his underwear, when it’s a movie about maybe he won’t go to college, how he’s failing, how he opens a brothel. It’s a really serious drama, yet we picture him in his underwear and that’s it.

Yeah, why do you think that is?

Maybe it’s a certain level of movie stardom. You can’t really think of that many people who have been a movie star the way that he has, even the comparisons like Brad Pitt or George Clooney. They never had Cruise’s string of hits. They all have had mistakes; he’s never been a failure. Even his baddish films are not failures. He’s the first global movie star of our generation. He was the first one to go to Russia and China and get the world to know who they were.

Cruise has played Mission: Impossible’s protagonist Ethan Hunt since 1996 — that’s almost twenty years. Does the character Ethan Hunt get better/more interesting with age?

There is not an Ethan Hunt character.

So, there’s no aging in Ethan Hunt? Because in the book, you do talk about how in Ghost Protocol he’s deliberately different. He can’t handle things as easily or gadgets don’t quite work out. It’s also a reflection of how we see America itself — sort of falling apart, which is also confirmed in Rogue Nation as well.

He definitely seems more suspicious the older he gets. Maybe by 5, he’s been double-crossed too many times. He doesn’t do much talking, which is weird.

Well then, does Cruise as an actor get more interesting with age?

He could if he would let himself.

Why doesn’t he?

I think he’s still trying to prove himself; he feels like in today’s Hollywood, the only way to prove yourself is with the box office. Where people will go, “Okay, you win.”

Is that true?

Kind of… because as soon as someone wins an Oscar for a little movie, all we do is put them in a superhero movie. We are in such a different time than when Rain Man was the number one film of the year in 1985. [Ed. note: Rain Man came out in 1988.] That won’t happen anymore. I wish it would.

Why is that?

Studios don’t think those movies will pull in numbers anymore, and studios are thinking about the global market — like a character-driven piece with lots of dialogue won’t translate to China. So, that’s where the energy is going, and that’s really frustrating. That era’s over, and he’s trying to figure out how to still be a smart, good actor in a world that doesn’t really seem to reward that as much.

He has his own production company, so he could churn out a Mission: Impossible and then churn out something smaller. Does he do that I don’t know about it?

He’s not making little things. I think the last little thing he did was Valkyrie.

Is he saving all the little things for old age — so, then, he can be like the Jason Robards character that comes in and is dying?
He’s aging so slowly. Maybe he feels like he has to keep doing this while he’s still flexible.

Did you watch Jimmy Fallon last night? He was on. It was interesting because I thought, “Oh, everyone braces themselves when he goes on a talk show because of his history,” but then I thought his song choice was fascinating. I felt like he will never forget what happened in 2005. Or, as you say in the book, “Even the flaws are precise” which is what that brought up for me.

I felt that too. I was like, did he really pick this song? I don’t even know this song.

What I was thinking about is he and Jimmy Fallon walk out and they’re clearly reacting to something we don’t see — the audience, but the camera stays on them. Jimmy looks at him nervously for a second. I’m like what was happening? Were people screaming or yelling? What does Tom Cruise see when he walks into a room?

I feel like he sees a wall of people losing their minds. What is it like to have that effect on people? What we all miss when we are watching his 2005 Oprah appearance is that we are watching a guy as though he’s performing for us: He’s being a lunatic on Oprah. We take away context; he’s sitting on the couch, staring at a huge room of screaming women, thinking, I’m performing for them. We get really uncharitable. When we watch a video, we think it’s all about us. We don’t think at all about Tom. He in a completely different experience than we are watching it on a computer.

That’s what I love about your writing — you bring up empathy and also stepping outside of your own reality to consider the surreality that someone is essentially trapped in. He has no other choice. He has to keep living as Tom Cruise regardless.

This is the guy who in two or three years of starting his career, became the largest star of the next few decades, and he was completely unprepared for that. I think he did a better job than anyone. He didn’t do any of the pitfalls someone like Sean Penn or Robert Downey Jr.

They’re all the same generation.

We forget that he’s a human being who has to make choices day in and day out.

People tell me their personal weird stories about Tom Cruise, and it’s always like, ‘My girlfriend was a caterer at a party and she was supposed to hold a tray of champagne above her head like this, and her arm got weak and she dropped them. Everyone ran away so they wouldn’t get wet, but Cruise ran to her, and helped her pick them up.’ I hear stories like that all the time.

The way we are happy to tear him apart says more about us than it does about him, because honestly, I don’t like Scientology. I don’t know many who do. I think he believes in it, or he used to. I wonder if he doesn’t anymore. He hasn’t spoken about it in a while.

There are those rumors about his daughter and wanting to break away. When people judge him, I feel nothing but again, empathy, because it’s like his whole life is at stake, and from what I’ve read about Scientology, it seems like they do a good job of scaring the shit out of you about leaving.

They’ve controlled his mind since he was a very young actor. You keep your world small. They took over his private world because it’s not like he can go to a bar and meet people. They became his world, and as you saw in the documentary, manipulated his world to suit them.

At this time, he’s been a Scientologist longer than he hasn’t. It seems like he deeply believes it — whereas, I think someone like David Miscavige is a crook. Even if we don’t respect the church, we should respect his belief in it, because to him it seems sincere. Or conversely, if you’re not going to respect his belief, then tell me the names of other actors’ religions that you don’t believe, that they also believe sincerely. It feels very pick-and-choose to me.

As an actor it seems like a precarious situation — you have to be pleasing, but also proving, which is a hard combination, even more so in the climate you are describing. Do you think it’s common for actors to balance both?

It’s hard to think of people who do.

Thinking of Daniel Day-Lewis again. How do you see him on the spectrum?

We expect different things from Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s allowed to be a tortured artist.

Yes, even that thing about seeing his father’s ghost on stage. That’s very eccentric. If Cruise were to say the exact same thing, people would call him a weirdo. I wonder what allows him to get away with it? Is it because he’s British?

I don’t know. Yeah, like, look at Christian Bale. If Tom Cruise had done any of the stuff we have tapes of Christian Bale doing, people would double-hate him. We just pick and choose who gets to pass.

Why do we not like Tom Cruise — or, do we actually like him, but we’ve just been told that we dislike him?

I think we’ve been told that we dislike Cruise more than we actually do.

After 2005 and his crazy publicity, the studio claimed he was box office poison, but what’s weird is that the numbers don’t add up. He does War of the Worlds, which is his biggest hit ever — at what people called the “worst part” of his career. The story was he had damaged his career. However, the numbers didn’t indicate that, and that’s bizarre. It’s why I think Hollywood believes in jinxes and groupthink.

In the conclusion of your book on Tom Cruise, you write:

Ever since Top Gun, he’s been written off as a flat hero. Finally, in Ghost Protocol, he played one — and people loved it. To audiences, Ghost Protocol was just Cruise doing what he does best. But it’s also Cruise doing what he never wanted to do, and giving up on earning credibility with his talent in favor of earning it with painful stunts. To win back the people’s favor, he had to forsake the career he wanted — but at least if he sold out, he was doing it on his own terms.

‘Here’s the game I’m playing,’ Cruise said with a shrug six months after Ghost Protocol’s success. ‘I want to make great films that entertain an audience and hold up. I can control only the effort I put into it and the experience we have making it. After that, it is what it is.’

When I got to the end of your book, I felt like I had just finished reading Death of a Salesman, starring Cruise as the Biff Loman character, the athlete with potential who doesn’t live up to his expectations. What do you think it means to be great? Does Tom Cruise have it already but not know it? Is his tragedy in the lack of self-respect as opposed to lack of respect from critics? Or is his embracement of the M:I franchise and his recent slew of action/thriller/suspense films an indication that he has found self-respect and is less desperate to seek critical acclaim elsewhere?

I wonder — and I hope it isn’t true — if after he lost that third Oscar, he kind of gave up. Because he had three chances, and he deserved it for all of them. He should have won for Born on the Fourth of July.

Would he have made different choices?

I think he would have made the same choices. We might have just noticed he was putting in the effort. The Jerry Maguire Oscar would have been questionable. He’s won the Golden Globes for all the Oscars he’s lost. He keeps thinking maybe this will be it. I’ll be acknowledged. It feels like he hasn’t made another “Magnolia choice” since Magnolia.

What do you wish for him as an artist? Do you think it’s okay for him to keep doing what he’s doing now?

I think he’s having fun. I think he is working hard. He deserves a ton of credit for that. He’s being the best fifty-something action star that you can be, but if there’s anything I want for him, I want him to go to Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers and say I will do whatever you want. Write whatever you want — because old Cruise would have done that. He saw Boogie Nights and then saw Paul Thomas Anderson and was like, “Write me something.” He is so aware of what the directors are and who’s interesting, but I think he had to close ranks after 2005 because it was rough out there. I want him to feel like he’s allowed to take the risks that he probably would have wanted to be taking right now.

After reading in your book about Eyes Wide Shut, I was surprised or impressed that he and Nicole Kidman stayed together at all, especially after watching that Going Clear documentary — how that Scientologist talks about trying to break them up as a couple, and then Stanley Kubrick and the isolation he put them through — that’s a lot for a marriage to endure.

People think that Going Clear is hurting his reputation. But, if anything, I feel like you should get some empathy, because people are admitting to trying to break up him and his wife. Who has to deal with that?

My hope for him is that he is able to push forward, push out, whatever it is, whatever he needs to express — to not be as pleasing, but to find his own autonomy and not be scared about the feedback. In that sense, it’s strange because I feel like I am rooting for an underdog, but so many people like him. It’s kind of a strange feeling.

He’s a superstar underdog, which is very weird. What gives me hope is that even in his blockbuster movies, he’s still picking interesting things, and he’s still doing interesting performances in them. Edge of Tomorrow is so funny and it’s complicated what he is doing. He’s never phoned it in, even in something like that. So, seeing that he still tries as hard as he ever did, makes me feel like he’s ready for the next act, whenever he thinks it’s time.