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From the Archives: Cruise-ing in the media stratosphere

Tom Cruise, Anthony Edwards
Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards in a scene from “Top Gun.”
(Paramount)

Even though “Top Gun” is now credited as one of the films that helped to launch Tom Cruise’s career, when the movie first came out in 1986, some felt the actor’s performance was divisive. He was also in the midst of navigating his newfound stardom. In an interview with The Times just after “Top Gun” opened -- that’s right, 30 years ago today -- the actor said he often felt uncomfortable when faced with personal questions. “I’d be asked about my childhood. That didn’t mean I’d want to talk about it,” said Cruise, who was 24 at the time. “Then someone would ask about my parents’ divorce. And I’d say to myself, ‘My God, I’ve never told anyone about these things before in my life.’ You know?” To celebrate the film’s three-decade anniversary, here’s that interview in full -- one in which he reminded our writer of a “kid sister’s boyfriend” who you’d expect to see “shooting down Sunset Boulevard in his dad’s Porsche.” Here’s our interview with Cruise, originally published on May 25, 1986:

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FOR THE RECORD

May 16, 8:18 a.m.: This article indicates that “Top Gun” opened on May 13, 1986. The movie’s release date was May 16, 1986.

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We all know about Tom Cruise -- and we’re going to know even more if we survive the publicity blitzkrieg for “Top Gun.”

Never mind that many critics took aim at the film -- which opened with a winning $8.2-million weekend -- and its hunky star. (“Cruise brings little but a good build to the role” -- New York Times’ Walter Goodman; “Supposed to be a super flyboy, he comes across more like just a fly or a boy"--USA Today’s Jack Curry; “The likable Cruise is simply miscast. He’s not the dangerous guy everyone’s talking about, but the boy next door” -- Newsweek’s David Ansen.)

He stares seductively from the cover of Interview (his first “official” cover, if you discount his countless teen-magazine fronts). And there’ll be Cruise coverage in Rolling Stone, People and Us. He schmoozed with newspapers at a New York junket. In Los Angeles, he did interviews with Associated Press, New York Times Syndicate, Knight-Ridder Syndicate, USA Today and some radio. Plus TV, including “Good Morning America,” “CBS Morning News,” “Entertainment Tonight,” the Movie Channel and Cable News Network.

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If this doesn’t get the word out, his producers are out and about and talking. So are co-stars like Val Kilmer and Tom Skerritt.

Cruise’s willingness to talk follows a self-imposed silence of three years. He went mum during promotion for “Risky Business"--the film that made him “hot.” As he told us -- during Calendar’s turn at bat -- “I supported the film up to a point, then, when everything kind of started going, I pulled back and stopped it all.

“I had to say, ‘Listen, guys, for myself, I’m just not personally ready to do this.’ ”

The reason? “It (publicity) was a whole new thing to me. I traveled around a lot while I was growing up; my dad was an engineer. No one ever really got to know me. It’s like I was always the new kid in town. When you travel like that, you can kind of make up who you are. But I couldn’t do that in interviews.”

By the same token, admitted Cruise, he didn’t know how to respond to prying questions. “I’d be asked about my childhood. That didn’t mean I’d want to talk about it. You know how it is when you’re a kid and you aren’t wearing the right kind of shoes and they hang you up in the locker room for being a nerd? Well, I was never wearing the right shoes. I never had the right clothes.

“Then someone would ask about my parents’ divorce. And I’d say to myself, ‘My God, I’ve never told anyone about these things before in my life.’ You know?”

There are subjects Cruise still doesn’t want to discuss, but these days they’re more likely to involve money and negotiation. “I make it a policy not to talk about money,” Cruise insisted, though he stressed, “In choosing a role, money is not an issue if I want to do something.” (Industry sources put Cruise in the league of $1.5 million per film.)

He spoke from the rooftop and, later, from the room of his favorite West Hollywood hotel -- his home away from his New York home. (Knowing the persistence of fans, the hotel will remain nameless.)

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It was an interview fraught with politeness. (Other reporters also have taken note of Cruise’s exceptional manners.) He had ordered a lunch to be served outdoors. (“It’s such a beautiful day, and my room is kind of stuffy.”) Once seated, he remembered that he’d asked the desk to hold his calls. “But I’d better let them know where we are, or your photographer won’t be able to find us.”

His ability to (now) meet the press is partially the result of going to London for the lengthy production of “Legend.” “When I went there, they hadn’t yet seen ‘Risky Business’ or ‘All the Right Moves,’ ” he said. “No one knew who Tom Cruise was. It really gave me some perspective on the situation. I thought it out. I now know that this (attention) comes in waves. And that I can deal with it.”

A reporter who takes on a Cruise assignment can expect a flood of calls from friends dying to know what the actor is really like . (Anguished one woman friend, “I think I’m in love.”) Let’s set the record straight: Movies do magical things. You can’t always believe what you see. He may be playing a masterful, macho part on the screen. But in person, he’s not much different from a kid sister’s boyfriend.

In “Top Gun,” Cruise plays a fighter pilot who skillfully romances The Wild Blue Yonder and The Older Woman while sporting a cool pilot’s jacket with lots of insignia. But in Real Life, Cruise comes across as a nice, well-spoken and (dare I say it) cute 24-year-old --who could play much younger. You might expect to see him shooting down Sunset Boulevard in his dad’s Porsche . . . not necessarily a $30-million F-14 shooting through the skies.

Actually, when last seen, he was on the football field vying for a scholarship -- and a way out of a dead-end steel town -- in the critically admired “All the Right Moves.” But it was “Risky Business” -- in which he danced in his skivvies (while lip-synching to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll”) and had an anxiety attack as he watched his dad’s $35,000 Porsche roll into a lake -- that made him a force to be reckoned with. (The New York magazine article that initiated the Brat Pack dubbed Cruise “The Hottest of Them All.”)

He can also be spotted as one of “The Outsiders” (he’s the muscled greaser with the chipped tooth) and sporting a red beret and a psychotic gleam in his eyes in “Taps.” The latter introduced him to Sean Penn (who’s since become one of his closest friends) and also, said Cruise, resulted in “lots of offers to play maniacs.”

This all started with high school stage productions and workshops in New York City. (“I’d bus tables, unload trucks, do day-to-day jobs while I was attending them.”) When time permits, he still participates in workshops. “They give you so much back,” he said. “God, I still remember Mickey Rourke coming to the workshops we had for ‘The Outsiders.’ I know my role in that film was a nothing role, but, to have worked with Francis (Coppola). That’s what I did it for.”

There’s no denying his passion for this, his “transition” film. In addition to getting him out of cinematic high school, “Top Gun” gave Cruise a chance to be creatively involved. He helped on the script and worked extensively with technical advisers on the air story.

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He recounted a World War II tale (told to him during his research for the film) that underlines the respect of bravery that he feels is inherent among top gunners. It’s about this guy who’s flying alone, after having lost his squadron. (“In those days, they were flying those P-51s. I mean, they used to have to open the cockpit to jump out. And guys would get shot four or five times, jump out, get sent home and, later, go back up,” Cruise said, with a shake of his head.) The Japanese fighter pilot who took down the squadron kept coming at the lone plane.

“He was ripping right past the pilot, unloading at him,” said Cruise. “And after this seemed to go on and on forever, this fighter pilot was, you know, saying goodby to his family, praying, talking to God and all that. And all of a sudden, this Japanese pilot flew up wing to wing to him. He looked over at him and saluted, and flew on.”

Cruise was reverential: “It was like he was saying, ‘If you were still in the air after what I’ve unloaded on you, you’ve got my respect.’ ”

Cruise sees “Top Gun” as a homage to that spirit: “It’s not the man they want in competition--it’s the machine. It was important to me that we made a movie about characters and the human element--not a war picture. This movie is about competition, not killing.”

He’s not amused at the suggestion that the movie might also be about exploitation of handsome young male bodies. (“I don’t take my shirt off to sell tickets. The way I look at it is, let a good movie bring the audience in.”)

With a nod to a volleyball scene, in which audiences get eyefuls of muscled torsos, he said: “That scene happens to be very important. First of all, it shows that to fighter pilots physical prowess is very important. Plus, the scene shows the constant competition between these guys--how they compete on every level.”

Cruise is on the lookout for flesh-flashing scenes for which there is no defense: “If you notice, none of the ‘Top Gun’ TV commercials or (publicity) stills being released show me with my shirt off. And you don’t see posters of me like that. Any poster that’s ever been made has been black market--I’ve never authorized anything.”

The Tony Scott-directed “Top Gun” followed the epic fairy tale, “Legend,” directed by Ridley Scott (brother of Tony). (Said Cruise: “Definitely a weird coincidence. I feel like a member of the family.”)

A vehicle for Ridley Scott as a visual stylist, the $30-million-plus “Legend” had Cruise cast as a legendary forest man who romances a princess, cavorts with faeries and elves and does battle with a devilish character named Darkness. As a result, Cruise did his emoting opposite lots of special effects and in the midst of sumptuous sets on the massive sound stage at Pinewood Studios originally built for the James Bond films.

Released four weeks ago, following an exhaustive and much-publicized post-production period, the film brought yawns from the critics and managed to sell only $13 million in tickets.

Cruise--who wasn’t available for interviews upon that film’s release--said he has no regrets about having done it: “Ridley is a true visionary and my character is essentially a color within a Ridley Scott vision. It was a very physical role. The set itself wasn’t level and it seemed I was always dropping out of trees and doing gymnastics.”

He also did some talking to the animals -- though not all of them wanted to listen. For his opening scene, in which he’s shown petting a fox, the creature was digging its nails into him: “My legs were bleeding as I was doing the scene.”

And then there was his act with an obstinate bird -- and he chortled recalling the episode. Surrounded by a large crew, Cruise whistled for a bird, which was supposed to fly down to his hand. But the bird flew upward--disappearing into the vast set. Scott called for another take. “And all of a sudden,” said Cruise, “I saw all these workers, climbing the huge walls of this Bond stage, whistling, carrying nets and everything.”

He used a genteel British accent to mimic the animal trainer who told Scott: “I’m sorry sir. We’ve lost the bird.”

According to Cruise, Scott replied: “Well that’s fine. Just bring in another bird.”

“But sir,” continued the trainer, “that was our only bird.”

As it turned out, the trainer had thought that having only the one bird would help cut expenses on the mega-budgeted production. The cost of the feathered star: A teensy 15.

“And Ridley looked at me with this, this expression . . .” Cruise said. “I mean, this guy, with all the pressure that he was under, he just looked at me and started laughing.”

The perils climaxed when the set caught fire and was destroyed. “Oh God, I can remember this scene of Ridley walking through it all, looking around him. And it was all destroyed. And I walked up to him and said, ‘Rid . . . ' But I didn’t know what to say. What could I say? And he looked at me and said, ‘Well, I’m going to go play some tennis. How about meeting me for dinner later? Does that sound fine with you?’ Talk about grace under pressure.”

With the legendary “Legend” behind him, Cruise admitted: “I don’t want to make another movie like that again. I’m glad I did it, because I loved watching that kind of movie when I was growing up. And it was a good experience for me as an actor. But I know now that I couldn’t do another. There are so many things that were out of my control.”

His next film is set for release at Christmas. “The Color of Money,” which he just wrapped in Chicago, stars Paul Newman, with Martin Scorsese directing. It’s the sequel to “The Hustler” (1961). This time, Cruise is the pool-shooting hotshot who learns from Newman.

Working with Newman? “Oh my gosh, it was just -- just the best. I mean, look at the career that guy’s had. He’s had high highs and low lows and he’s lasted three decades. Three decades.”

The shoot kicked off with a two-week rehearsal: “We would rehearse and Marty would adjust his shots to the actors. He’s so meticulous--his style, the movement of the camera. But the camera never got in the way of the actors. You never felt you were moving for it.”

How’s his performance? “Well, Marty likes it,” said Cruise, explaining that he and Newman chose not to watch dailies. “But you know how you feel about what you’ve done. You know when it feels right--when it’s working.”

Newman talked with Cruise about dealing with the press: “He said that they’ll make up things if you don’t talk to them.” And it was Newman who jumped to Cruise’s defense -- in a letter to the editor -- when one of the Chicago newspapers, supposedly acting on a tip from an extra, alleged that Cruise was a lousy pool player.

His name has popped up in conjunction with several upcoming projects -- but he couldn’t discuss them just now. “Nothing’s definite,” said Cruise, who acknowledged that he’s giving college some thought. Meanwhile, his TC Productions, based at Columbia Pictures (where he has what he tabbed “a very loose” deal developing projects), gets lots of scripts. And there’s time to be spent with family. (His mother, stepdad and three sisters are spread out in Philadelphia, New Jersey and Delaware; one of the sisters is in possession of his prized flyboy jacket.)

He talked eagerly about his hopes for longevity as an actor (and, in time, as a creative force). He wasn’t so eager to rehash one of his early career moves -- a teen sex flick called “Losin’ It,” that he made at the recommendation of a former manager. “It was the first film offered after ‘Taps,’ ” explained Cruise. “I really learned a lot in doing that -- in terms of what I did and didn’t want to do with my life as an actor. I realized at that point that I really have to be careful.

“When I first got involved with that film, there was excessive nudity that I just didn’t feel good about. I couldn’t do it. And the language was pretty hard. A lot of it was cut back.

“The film itself isn’t excessively vulgar -- comparatively. But after coming off ‘Taps,’ where we were all so committed to making a good film, it was an eye-opener. And it made me realize that someone can do something for the wrong reasons.”

Since then, said Cruise, he’s adhered to a game plan in which the role -- and the project -- is the thing. As for popularity (the kind wrought by mountains of press), “I can’t be concerned about what sets me apart from everyone else. I’ve got enough just to deal with what I have to deal with.

“Let someone else figure out who’s hot and who’s not and all that kind of thing. I’ll be happy just to work.”


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