Tom Cruise: Behind the (megawatt) smile

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  (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

At Cannes this year, his adoring audience hanging on his every A-list word, Tom Cruise, the 59-year-old Hollywood icon, is in dreamland, waxing lyrical about the magic of cinema. ‘I love my audience.

I make movies for audiences… I make movies for the big screen,’ the Top Gun: Maverick star says, pearly whites glittering like a French Sun King in a slick tux. There’s an honorary Palme D’Or (poor Tom has never won an Oscar), a six-minute standing ovation, tears (Cruise’s, ours), fireworks, glossy co-stars in Louis Vuitton and tangerine suits, a military fly-by trailing coloured smoke. When you’re Tom Cruise, they don’t simply roll out a red carpet, they paint the sky in red, white and blue.

Who is the man behind the Maverick? He is at once Mr Relatable, the big brother you always wanted on the big screen, and wholly inscrutable. A riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside a really, really nice suit. A man who will bounce up and down on Oprah Winfrey’s sofa screaming his love for Katie Holmes. A natural in front of an audience and a mystery one-on-one. ‘Why all the stunts, Tom?’ he was asked at the Cannes masterclass event in his honour, 30 years after he last attended the film festival. You’re a family man. A father [he and Holmes have a daughter, Suri]. Why go the extra mile when you could get yourself killed? ‘No one asked Gene Kelly, “Why do you dance?”’ he replied. No one asks Mr Cruise why he’s always running.

The actor has made 68 films in 30 years, working with directors from Martin Scorsese to Steven Spielberg, John Woo to Ridley Scott, and Paul Thomas Anderson to Francis Ford Coppola (let’s throw in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, while we’re here). As recently as 2012 he was Hollywood’s highest-paid actor, banking $75 million from the likes of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

Try as I might (believe me, I’ve tried), I have yet to meet anyone with a bad word to say about the movie star. He is ‘the last of his kind’, friend, colleague and fellow Mission Impossible alumnus, Simon Pegg, tells me. ‘A movie star in the truest and most traditional sense. It’s not something that has been conferred upon him, it’s something he has achieved with the kind of dedication and hard work that seemingly only he and he alone is capable of. Put simply, he is unique.’ This is a common theme among the stars who know him closely. ‘Considering he reached living legend status quite a while ago, [and] continues to maintain his exemplary high standards as performer and producer par excellence, [he] is one of the most hard-working men in the business’, says actor Timothy Spall, who starred with him in the 2001 sci-fi thriller, Vanilla Sky.

Petro, the barman at the Cow in Notting Hill, won’t hear a word against the man who showed up in 2014 for a glass of red wine with his buddy David Beckham (Becks was on the Guinness) during the Brazil World Cup. ‘The pub was suddenly filled with people,’ says Petro, wistfully. ‘Ladies, everywhere.’ A respectful ring formed around Cruise. ‘I told anyone who approached them they’d be barred.’ Petro was rewarded with a picture with the two. ‘His skin was incredible and so was his hair. He looked about 30. He also had these thick heels [Cruise claims to be 5ft 7in, a little shorter than Britney Spears in a top hat].’ Wasn’t he star struck? ‘We’ve had Johnny Depp here until 3.15am before.’

Nouman Farooqi, the general manager at Asha’s Indian restaurant in Birmingham, tells me that while filming Mission: Impossible nearby, Cruise turned up and ordered the £19.45 chicken tikka masala, twice in one sitting. ‘A lovely guy,’ says Farooqi. ‘He likes his spice.’ Then there’s Alison Webb and her partner, Neil Jones, in whose back garden Cruise landed his helicopter — he was running late for filming and the nearby airport was shut (they scored tickets to the premiere). And Cruise’s habit of sending $50 (£38) white chocolate coconut bundts to his closest friends at Christmas, including Kirsten Dunst, Henry Cavill, Angela Bassett, Jimmy Fallon and Graham Norton.

It’s not all sunshine and smiles. Andrew Morton, Princess Diana’s official biographer, describes the young Tom Cruise Mapother IV in Tom Cruise: An Unauthorized Biography as ‘something of a ladies’ man’ with an ‘intense raw energy’ and a ‘dash of Irish blarney in his soul’. Young Tom was born in Syracuse, New York, on 3 July 1962, the day before US Independence Day, before moving to Canada and being raised as a devout Catholic. Always the smallest in his class, he was obsessed with GI Joe action figures. ‘He was not the Don Juan of the year,’ an ex-girlfriend told Morton, sniffily.

Cruise himself says his father, Thomas Cruise Mapother III, an electrical engineer, ‘was a bully and a coward... the kind of person where, if something goes wrong, they kick you. It was a great lesson in my life — how he’d lull you in, make you feel safe and then, bang!’ His mother, a teacher, the sunny ‘Merry Mary Lee’, Cruise and his three sisters — Lee Anne, Marian and Cass — fled to Louisville, Kentucky, ditching the husband and the surname.

Cruise told friends he would like to become a Franciscan priest or an airline pilot or a self-made millionaire by the time he was 30 — anything to have an adventure. What he became was an actor. ‘It was like he was training for the Olympics,’ his co-star, Sean Penn, later said. ‘I think he was the first person I ever said “calm down” to. A fun guy, too.’ The fiercely driven young men became firm friends on the set of the military academy film Taps — a pattern with Cruise — but were so intense that they had to be separated on set after nearly coming to blows. At auditions for The Outsiders, Cruise literally pulled The Godfather director Coppola aside and said: ‘I’ll do anything it takes, I’ll play any role in this.’ By 1986, he was the (not quite) war hero Maverick in the first Top Gun. That’s right: he is serious.

And… different. Cruise — via a mid-Eighties fling with Cher — was barely into his 20s, a young star still developing Top Gun, when at a dinner he locked eyes with TV star Mimi Rogers, a second-generation Scientologist, and fell in love (Rogers, Cruise told Rolling Stone, was dating a friend of his). They married in 1987. But while Rogers supposedly introduced him to Scientology, they split in 1990 — she says because Cruise wanted to become a monk.

He didn’t. By now a superstar, Cruise decided he wanted to act with Nicole Kidman; Days of Thunder came to pass in 1990. Almost at once they were married. Kidman was just 22. ‘I got married very young but it definitely wasn’t power for me — it was protection,’ she told New York Magazine. ‘I married for love, but being married to an extremely powerful man kept me from being sexually harassed.’ Rumours of infidelity (his) dogged the hyper-famous couple for a decade: in 2001, they also split.

Then Cruise, 41, met Katie Holmes, 25 (she had told Seventeen magazine: ‘I used to think I was going to marry Tom Cruise’). In May 2005, Cruise jumped backwards (twice) on to Oprah’s couch — after having gone down on one knee to cry, ‘I’m in love!’ — and then chased the Dawson’s Creek star around the TV studio before dragging her on stage. At that point he and Holmes had known each other only a month and in July she got pregnant with their daughter, Suri. In 2012, they divorced. It’s rumoured that Holmes’ motivation was to free her daughter from the unique constraints of Scientology.

Yet has anyone worked harder to capture our hearts? To make the viewing public happy? Can you honestly name a Cruise film you wouldn’t watch again and again (okay, maybe The Mummy)? In an age of whizz-bang CGI and big screen unreality, he has the hard-won, harness-strapped authenticity of the action man famed for doing his own stunts. Cruise, as Taffy Brodesser-Akner said in a 2013 New York Times Magazine article, is known for his ‘cocky grin’ — try to imagine Cruise not smiling — jaw clenched as he leaps some enormous chasm or scrambles up some ledge. ‘It’s all his way of saying to us, the audience: “Hey, pal. You and I aren’t so different. Heights are scary.”’ He is the scrappiest, the most dogged, the action man, the greatest hero of them all. That’s the thing about heroes: the camera never lingers on the background. That would spoil all the fun.

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