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He Accepted the Mission

David Kronke is a regular contributor to Calendar

If this movie star thing ever peters out on him, Tom Cruise just might have a promising career as a stuntman. Cruise, who dabbled in race driving for a while and enjoys the odd act of aerial derring-do in his own plane, is the kind of thrill junkie who finds putting life and/or limb on the line for a “cool” (his word) shot “fun” (see previous parenthetical comment).

His latest vehicle, “Mission: Impossible,” a high-tech, $64-million updating of the cloak-and-dagger CBS-TV series, gave him plenty of opportunity. In his quest for movie-magic verisimilitude, not to mention an occasional adrenaline buzz, Cruise, depending on the stunt, either offered, insisted or allowed himself to be cajoled to do it himself.

“Before each take, I’d get the ‘hurt factor,’ ” Cruise recalls. “Either, ‘This is gonna hurt a lot,’ or ‘This might hurt you,’ you know; ‘This one should be OK, but please watch this, because you could break your ankle.’

“People see it and say, ‘That looks like it hurts.’ Yeah, it hurts. I’m hitting that train, and people say, ‘Your face looks so real.’ Yeah, because I was flying across the Bond Stage [at Pinewood Studios in England, where many Bond films have been shot], and I hit the train.” He claps his hands, popping them together loudly to simulate the abruptness of the impact. “That really hurts! You don’t have to act that!”

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Cruise mentions a stunt about which even he had some reservations: “There was a scene where we blow up these tanks, huge fish tanks, thousand-gallon tanks. First they’re going to blow the tank [seven feet] behind me and then blow the tank overhead. And if I’m there, you know, I’m really gonna get hurt. I thought, ‘Aw, I’m not going to worry about it,’ but I’m looking at how nervous everyone is. I’m looking at the special effects guy and they’re looking at me, they don’t want to be the guy, you know, [to tell me how dangerous it is].”

The demands seemed to get ever more complicated, Cruise says, until he turned to director Brian De Palma and said, emphatically, “ ‘Brian, I’m an actor.’ ” Cruise laughs at the memory of the exchange. “I said, ‘I am an actor. It’s gonna take everything in my power to stand there when that first tank blows.’ ”

His wife, Nicole Kidman, tried to provide a voice of reason: “Nic’s going, ‘I don’t want you to hurt yourself, what are you doing?’ She’s going, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t know, why don’t you do a little family drama or something?’

“Now there’s a huge audience watching, and I don’t want to get creamed. They count off, ‘One, two'--my adrenaline is going, and on ‘Two,’ I hear the first explosion and it takes everything in my power to stay standing there, and then on three, I went, and it was a wall of water. So then the water rushes out and I’ve got to run faster than the water and chunks of glass are everywhere and I have to jump over a guy.

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“I don’t remember anything, but one of the stunt guys was knocked down by the water and ended up with a chunk of glass in his leg; it was a gash. It was a gash; I thought, ‘Oh, jeez.’ My ankle got bruised and I was slightly limping and then I saw this guy--I wasn’t going to mention my ankle after seeing him. It was, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine.’ ”

“I just stood there, wringing my hands,” says Paula Wagner, Cruise’s partner at Cruise/Wagner Productions, which produced “Mission: Impossible.” “I was a little nervous with him hanging upside down and doing stunts. It makes you nervous, but Tom is so responsible and reliable, his timing is letter-perfect.”

Before forming Cruise/Wagner with the actor, Wagner was Cruise’s agent. She remembers first meeting him just before he made 1983’s “Risky Business,” the movie that made him a star.

“I had heard about him, and seen some footage of him in ‘Taps.’ I saw some photographs and then I met him,” she recalls. “When I met him, I said to myself, this man has something, something compelling and honest and energetic. His work was wonderful. There are few things in life you just know, but [his impending stardom] was one of them.

“It was a great opportunity to watch his work grow,” she continues. “He made intelligent choices as a young actor, working with people he could grow with--the right directors and actors. He’s been very strong in the kind of choices he has made, and the roles he has opted to do.”

Wagner says his expertise expands beyond the art of filmmaking and into the craft and business areas. “He just has an amazing movie sense,” she says. “He just understands it in all areas. He knows how to carefully nurture a film while it’s being made and how a film is handled once it’s presented to the studio, not to give away too much in a trailer. His instincts are impeccable.”

Ving Rhames, one of Cruise’s co-stars in “Mission: Impossible,” says: “He’s a better actor than what I expected. I thought that a lot of times in the past, he was, quote unquote, playing himself, like John Wayne in most films just played John Wayne. He is so popular and has that reputation as the all-American guy. So it kind of surprised me with how focused he is, how tuned in he gets when working, how he listens to other actors, which is the key to being a good actor. I felt we had a nice chemistry, which was needed between our two characters. He’s almost a perfectionist, as far as his work is concerned.

“He’s really down-to-earth and very generous,” Rhames continues. “Even in his adopting children [Cruise and Kidman have two adopted children: Isabella, 3, and Connor, 1]--he’s a special human being. Can you imagine the opportunities they will have because they were adopted by Tom Cruise? Who wouldn’t want to be adopted by Tom Cruise?”

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In “Mission: Impossible,” Cruise stars as Ethan Hunt, a member of the Impossible Missions Force who discovers he has been betrayed by a fellow operative and must not only right this wrong, but also evade those trying to kill him. Only one character from the original series appears in the film--Jim Phelps, the Peter Graves role, played here by Jon Voight.

More we cannot tell you, because frankly, Cruise has gone stark raving Method actor for this movie, becoming astonishingly secretive and spy-like in his reticence to divulge state secrets--in this case, the film’s story line and how the movie’s characters relate to the old series.

His response: “We had to ask ourselves, this is post-Cold War--where are these guys? In a simple way, one of the lines is, it’s, you know, more"--he takes a considered pause--"you know, cause you’ve got to have characters, and those, they were just really"--another pause--"you know, more, you know, in this kind of, you’ve got to service the plot in a picture like this. But the characters, you know, what is the story? Which way? What is it, post-Cold War? Where are these guys headed now with the level of corruption and, you know, the, uh"--a pause--"so that’s the kind of stuff we looked at. So it’s inspired by these characters.”

Where’s a white-hot interrogation lamp when you need it?

Cruise, who turns 34 in July, is similarly circumspect when discussing the rumors of difficulties swirling about the production of “Mission: Impossible.” This is the first film from Cruise/Wagner Productions, and the two weren’t content to cut their teeth on a simple chamber piece--they opted for a loud, splashy action-epic with multiple European locations and elaborate stunt work.

“Paula and I had a lot to prove,” Cruise says in his spacious office at Cruise/Wagner, on the Paramount lot. Rauschenberg prints hang on the office walls; a thick book of Pauline Kael’s film criticism rests on the counter behind his desk, while his bookshelves are laden with scripts and the unmistakable yellow-and-black bindings of Cliffs Notes. “Even though I’ve been successful as an actor, this is a different game.”

Three years ago, Cruise initially pitched a film version of “M:I,” learning that Paramount Pictures coincidentally owned the rights and had tried for years, unsuccessfully, to get a movie off the ground. “It lends itself to wonderful geography, and sequences I thought that could be different for this genre,” Cruise says, explaining his attraction to the material. “Basically, it was a film I wanted to see. I make my decisions about pictures by: Would I want to see it?

“It’s fun working on this kind of movie, because you are the audience. It’s, ‘OK, what do you want to see? What would be really cool?’ It’s as basic as that sometimes--what do you think is really cool?”

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More than the famous smile, the most striking thing about Cruise in person is his penetrating gaze; when his bluish gray eyes bear down on an object, they practically scream with intensity. When he gets serious, they become a twinkle-free zone. Of course, thankfully, that’s only temporary, but it can be distracting, such as when he’s forced to consider stories of backstage angst. Three separate screenwriters were recruited at various junctures in the production to furiously rewrite dialogue and concoct a satisfactory conclusion; many scenes reportedly were re-shot.

“Gossip,” Cruise says, though stopping short of dismissing it as untrue gossip. “It’s hard making movies. I’ve never made a movie where I heard someone say, ‘God, this is so easy!’ You’re moving this mammoth machine and trying to contain the flames. So there are problems, there are always problems, especially on a picture this size.

“We were working on the script as we were going along,” he adds. “But De Palma knew his set pieces, and the structure was intact. Brian knows films back to forward and knew what we did and didn’t need.” For example, a recruiting sequence that would have cost a couple million dollars and eaten up a couple of weeks of production time was jettisoned just before shooting began--"We knew the movie was too long and the movie didn’t need it,” Cruise explains. (De Palma was not available for comment.)

Rhames reports he actually benefited from the re-tinkering. “The rewriting sort of allowed a nobility with my character,” he says. “Some other people wound up dying in it. We all signed to do [sequels], and I think some of them were envisioning doing ‘Mission: Impossibles 2 and 3,’ and unless they come back from the dead I don’t think that’ll be happening. I don’t think they were too happy. But I got an extra scene with Tom right at the end, so for me it worked out quite well.”

Cruise shrugs off tales of frazzled nerves caused by the pressurized shoot. “It was really fun, doing it that way,” he says. “I’ve made a lot of movies, big movies and more contained movies, and I enjoy the pressure of that. It may be a little perverse, but I enjoy the intensity of that, that was the real fun of this picture--we got to get it done, how we gonna get it done?”

His demeanor improves when he discusses his wife. “For me to see her get the opportunity to play these roles [in “To Die For” and Jane Campion’s upcoming “Portrait of a Lady”] is exciting, because she loves acting,” he says. “She loves acting, really loves acting, and that really inspires me, also. She just enjoys seeing wonderful performances, and we read scenes together. It’s really exciting for me to see someone do something they feel so fulfilled by and to have that kind of creative outlet. It’s wonderful.”

Many were disappointed that Kidman’s performance in the black comedy “To Die For” was overlooked at Oscar time. Her husband says, “I was"--his voice drops, to underscore the depth of his gravity--"pissed.” Then he laughs. “She was fine. She was calming everyone else down, her agents and friends were calling. She was just happy she got to play that role; it’s opened a lot of doors for her.”

Parenting, he says, has taught him one thing: “I have a lot more energy than I ever thought I had. I worked an 18-hour day yesterday [on the sports-agent comedy “Jerry Maguire”], got up this morning, had breakfast, took ‘Bella to school, came back, played with Connor, then came into the office. It sounds trite, but it’s just so much fun.”

Cruise and Kidman have had other co-productions that have been less successful: “Days of Thunder” and “Far and Away.” Their next project together, “Eyes Wide Shut,” which begins shooting in the fall, holds more promise since their collaborator will be none other than Stanley Kubrick, working on his first film since 1987’s “Full Metal Jacket.”

“He just called me up,” Cruise says, and his delight percolates even now at the memory. “I got a fax one day saying that there would be a script in a few months, and would I be interested? I got this fax and went to Nic and it felt like Christmas. Nic and I are staring at this fax--Stanley Kubrick is sending us a fax, he’s one of my favorite filmmakers of all time, it’s just a damn miracle, that he wanted me and Nic to do this. It’s gonna be great. I can’t wait.

“Someone said, ‘Well, you know he does a lot of takes.’ I said, ‘I don’t care if he does a thousand takes, I’m working with Stanley Kubrick!’ The other night, I came home from work, and we just looked at each other and just started laughing--we’re working with Stanley Kubrick! I mean, come on! Come on!”

But a question merely asking to confirm the film’s genre shifts him back quickly into tight-lipped mode. “I can’t tell you, I’m sorry.”

This occasional reticence in interviews, as well as Cruise’s superstar status, makes him an easy target on the speculation and rumor circuit. He tries to ignore it, but. . . .

“Listen, that stuff’s a bunch of garbage and it’s vicious garbage. Some jerk just sits back in his office and just decides [who to attack]. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, and it’s just bull----. Vicious bull----. And I think I can sit here and analyze it in many different ways, but I really don’t care. But my family is my family and I just want to protect that; something I consider more sacred than anything in this world is my family.

“I become an angry bear when it comes to my kids and wife,” he says, softening somewhat with a grouchy kind of smile. “I just do my work and live my life and love my family. You just have to learn to do that. I don’t know, sometimes it reminds me of school. Maybe you go to a small school, where the gossip and the stuff that you hear is outrageous and you go, ‘Where the hell did that come from?’ [In Hollywood], you multiply that.”

Cruise is reminded of comedian Martin Mull’s sage observation that show business is just high school with money.

“Yeah,” he says, adding with a laugh, “but I didn’t like high school as much as I like this.”


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