Superhero? Saviour? Kook? Why we’ll never know the real Tom Cruise

·8 min read
Hollywood’s superstar black hole that absorbs everything around him (Getty)
Hollywood’s superstar black hole that absorbs everything around him (Getty)

When they were adapting Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho in the late Nineties, Christian Bale and filmmaker Mary Harron found inspiration for their sociopathic serial killer Patrick Bateman in an unlikely source. “One day he called me and he had been watching Tom Cruise on David Letterman,” Harron said in 2009, “and [Cruise] just had this very intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes. [Christian] was really taken with this energy.”

Bale had been watching a 1999 appearance by Cruise on Letterman’s US talk show. Try and find the clip now and YouTube’s most popular rip is titled, “Tom Cruise goes crazy live”. In it, Cruise recalls co-piloting a private plane and turning a passenger’s oxygen off so that he could keep flying at high altitude. The actor finds it riotously funny. A bemused Letterman can only smile and ask: “But honestly, looking at it from another direction… isn’t that attempted manslaughter?” Cruise laughs harder still.

Twenty-two years later, Cruise’s chat show persona has transformed, the star’s penetrating intensity boxed up, sealed and buried deep. During his recent appearance on James Corden’s talk show, though, there is a moment in which the old Cruise flickers. Preparing for a day of flying together, the pair are filmed by a campfire, toasting marshmallows. “Look,” Cruise tells Corden, setting the marshmallows alight, “this is us tomorrow”. He whirls the flaming confectionery around in the air, mimicking both men being ejected from a burning aircraft. The same unbridled, high-pitched laughter from the Letterman interview returns. Cruise’s mask briefly slips.

With the release of the belated sequel Top Gun: Maverick, America’s ageless Übermensch is once more on the promotional trail. Cruise’s return as Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell proves unequivocally that he still has the charisma, panache and Ray-Ban aviators to carry a gargantuan blockbuster on his stout shoulders. Make no mistake, this is not a film about naval aviation or war or brotherhood, it’s a film about Tom Cruise and the power he possesses.

Cruise, in many ways, is bigger than Hollywood, and audience trends. He is a superstar black hole that absorbs everything around him. Take Miles Teller and Jennifer Connelly, his co-stars in Top Gun: Maverick. They are celebrities in their own right. But in this film, they exist merely as things for Tom Cruise to kiss or fight with. They are props.

Cruise reached astronomical heights as an actor by appearing in a string of smash hits, films that showed his range as a drama player as well as an action hero. Top Gun. Rain Man. Jerry Maguire. A Few Good Men. It’s easy to forget just how many modern classics Cruise commandeered. His career has since culminated in the Mission: Impossible franchise, which has raked in more than $3.6bn (£2.9bn) at the box office over six movies.

It’s led to unparalleled industry power, which has only been bolstered by his inner knowledge of how it all functions. From his very first role in the 1981 movie Taps, Cruise has been a student of cinema. “I went to every single department and studied every single department,” he bragged to a Cannes crowd this month of his time working on the film. Today, he is keenly aware and in control of practically everything that happens on his film sets, from catering to flight training programmes for his Maverick co-stars. While filming the forthcoming Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning last year, he was caught on tape shouting at crew members who’d been accused of breaking Covid restrictions. “I’m on the phone with every f***ing studio at night, insurance companies, producers and they’re looking at us and using us to make their movies,” he said. “We are creating thousands of jobs, you motherf***ers.” It was a rare peek behind the curtain, and in keeping with everything we know about Cruise’s devotion to filmmaking.

That devotion is perhaps never more on show than in Cruise’s stunt work, which he famously insists on doing himself. His most revealing quote came on The Graham Norton Show last year, when Cruise admitted: “I’ve been told a few times during shooting a stunt to stop smiling.” In 2018, Cruise proudly showed off behind-the-scenes footage of him snapping his ankle while jumping from one building to another in Mission: Impossible – Fallout. The scene is extraordinary: Cruise grimaces, pulls himself up, and limps off out of shot. It ended up making it into the movie. Similarly, when filming stunts for 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol on Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper, Cruise arrived early one morning to take a photo on top of the building’s 830-metre-high spire – no safety cables, no anything. Like Greek fables, these are all stories that feed into the myth of Tom Cruise. Kevin LaRosa Jr, the aerial coordinator for Top Gun: Maverick, tells The Independent that he wishes Cruise – just sometimes – might keep himself out of harm’s way: “We all think that way, right? Tom absolutely does things on this movie where I’m sitting there going, ‘Oh boy, that was crazy’.”

Tom Cruise at the Cannes Film Festival to promote ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ (2022 Invision)
Tom Cruise at the Cannes Film Festival to promote ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ (2022 Invision)

Cruise has always had a penchant for self-mythologising. The actor was born to a working-class, largely itinerant, Catholic family with an abusive father. “He was a bully and a coward,” Cruise told Parade in 2006. Not comfortable with the life he’d been given, Cruise decided to create his own. “I saw how my mother created [her life] and so made it possible for us to survive… And I decided that I’m going to create, for myself, who I am, not what other people say I should be.” It’s all very Great Gatsby.

The life Cruise settled on, after a brief foray into the priesthood, was that of an actor, and he went into it with an irrepressible, obsessive desire to succeed. Speaking to the Daily Mail in February this year, Cruise’s first manager Eileen Berlin recalled presenting the actor on his 19th birthday with an album of articles about him from teen magazines. “He screamed, ‘I don’t want to be in the teen mags’,” Berlin said. “He had told me he considered himself an adult, not a teen idol. He threw the album hard at me and it hit me on the cheek.” Berlin’s gift did not align with the Tom Cruise he imagined for himself.

While Cruise has stayed true to the identity he’s crafted over the years, it has undergone some necessary renovations. His reputation suffered in the Noughties after he began vocally advocating for the Church of Scientology, a highly secretive and controversial religion. Cruise claimed that Scientology cured his dyslexia, and he became a public proponent of the organisation’s opposition to psychiatry and psychiatric medication. This culminated in a 2005 feud with actor Brooke Shields over her use of antidepressants. In a heated interview with the subsequently disgraced US news presenter Matt Lauer, Cruise said that “psychiatry should be outlawed”.

Cruise swung violently from one end of the spectrum to the other that year, which also saw the infamous “couch jumping” incident on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show. Cruise’s exuberant public courtship of the actor Katie Holmes led him to leap onto Winfrey’s sofa and wrestle with the revered host, apparently unable to contain the sheer joy of his new relationship. Cruise and Holmes married the following year, before divorcing in 2012. “It was a time when he really just let himself go, and let his freak flag fly,” Brandon Ogborn, the writer behind The TomKat Project, a 2013 play examining Cruise’s reputation, told The Ringer in 2018. “It was also a time when he was really proselytising for Scientology. I think it was a huge explosion of press that was bad press, because the Tom Cruise machine just stopped.”

Tom Cruise jumping on  the sofa in the notorious Oprah intervview (YouTube)
Tom Cruise jumping on the sofa in the notorious Oprah intervview (YouTube)

The Cruise machine was indeed taken off the road for a while after that. Upon its return, the airing of his more provocative beliefs was dialed down. Over time, the world quite simply forgot about the actor’s wild side. Even Shields was enamoured when Cruise visited her to apologise for his comments about her. “I was so impressed with how heartfelt it was,” she said. Cut to today and Cruise is gracefully extending his arm to Kate Middleton as she ascends the red carpet steps to the Maverick premiere in London. All is forgiven.

Perhaps Cruise benefited from the lack of social media at the time of his public outbursts. Or perhaps he survived because of our collective willingness to ignore the shortcomings of artists whose work we enjoy. In any case, it’s hard to get angry at someone who is, like Patrick Bateman, simply not there.

Is Cruise a dinosaur? Hollywood’s saviour? The greatest action star of all time? Is he simply the product of a very different cinematic era? There’s no clear answer to any of these questions. But as long as there’s something left to unravel, we’ll keep watching.

‘Top Gun: Maverick’ is in cinemas now