Top Gun: Maverick’s Cannes Film Festival premiere marks another high point in the movie star career of Tom Cruise. The actor turns 60 on July 3, and unlike most leading men of that age who become quicker to call for the stunt double, Cruise shows little evidence of slowing down after 43 films. If anything, his Mission: Impossible stunts seem to grow more ambitiously dangerous, not to mention the fact that he and director Doug Liman will become the first to actually shoot a space film in space for real—aboard one of Elon Musk’s SpaceX crafts with the cooperation of NASA.
So how does Cruise continue to carve such a path?
“I’ve gotten to work with a number of actors who’ve had great success and long careers, Tom being at the top of the heap,” says Top Gun: Maverick director Joseph Kosinski. “He approaches every day with the enthusiasm that it’s his first movie, and at the same time puts the effort into it like it’s his last movie. That’s a good attitude to have; never take it for granted, give 110 percent every single day. Constantly push the crew and yourself to achieve excellence. I’m amazed by that, that he’s 40 years in and still loves what he does and isn’t slowing down at all. It seems like he’s accelerating, which is pretty amazing.”
Here, a group of directors, producers and actors look back on their Cruise experience and why Hollywood won’t see another global superstar quite like this one.
Top Gun & Top Gun: Maverick
“Tom was our first and only choice for Top Gun, that’s who Tony Scott liked, and Don and I really pursued him,” recalls Jerry Bruckheimer, who produced the original hit with late partner Don Simpson. “I don’t think he was a pilot back then, but he just had the charisma and we loved what we saw in his film career. You could tell he was a terrific actor and that is so much of what it is all about.”
It was to become Cruise’s signature immersion into the process of preparation. “He went down to Miramar in advance and hung out with a lot of the pilots, found out what they liked and why they did what they did. He just cares so much, and not only about his character but the whole movie. A lot of actors walk into a role and just worry about themselves and how they’re perceived. Never Tom. That was the way he was back in ’85 when we made the first one, and he showed it again this time.”
On the first film, Cruise was the only cast member who didn’t lose his lunch while filming dialogue scenes inside those roaring jets. Mindful of that unpleasant experience, he made it his mission to make sure the new crop of actors playing Top Gun pilots in the sequel fared better.
“We learned on the first one,” Bruckheimer says. “He was the only one we got good footage on; we couldn’t use the footage on the other actors because he was the only one who didn’t throw up. So, Tom designed a flying program for all the actors this time. It took months to do this. First, they went up in a single engine prop plane, just to get a feel for flying. Then, an aerobatic prop plane, and then a jet, and once they were comfortable in that jet, he put them in the F-18. Tom designed [the process] himself to acclimate the actors to the G forces they would experience.”
Kosinski previously directed Cruise in the 2013 sci-fi film Oblivion. In the Top Gun sequel, the director says Cruise put so much into mentoring the young actors on set who were in awe of him. “Tom is an actor that, if you can get him interested in your project, then you can do almost anything,” Kosinski says. “When you combine that with something beloved like Top Gun, it becomes an unstoppable force when you go to make it. We needed that on this movie because what we were doing was very intense and there were a lot of things that hadn’t been done before. Having Tom there to push through the ideas and techniques we were going to use was really helpful. Tom knew just how difficult capturing those images would be, just how physically grueling it would be for the actors.
“I remember one day on the carrier, when Tom was sitting with these young actors, most of them just starting their careers,” Kosinski adds. “Miles Teller has a lot under his belt, but the rest were new. For them, every day was like a master class, and he would make time for them every day. He would sit down and have these impromptu sessions with the actors, either to talk about the scenes we were shooting that day, the technical aspects of shooting an aerial sequence, or broader advice, like how to build a career. I remember Tom asked Glen (Powell), what kind of career do you want? Glen said, ‘I want your career, Tom.’ So, Tom said, ‘How do you think I got that?’ Glen said, ‘By choosing great roles.’ And Tom said, ‘No. That’s not how I did it. I did it by choosing great films. Then, I took the roles and made them the best I could.’ That advice blew Glen’s mind. If you look at Tom’s career, that’s exactly what he did. He chose great films and directors he admired. Regardless of the size of the role, especially on a movie like Taps. And then he created something with it, made the role his own. That’s something these younger actors hadn’t thought about and can only get from someone who spent 30 years as a movie star. I thought it was really interesting to watch.”
Cruise’s turn as the star sports agent who loses his throne after an existential crisis would mark his second Oscar nomination and one of his best-remembered performances.
Cruise shows a different side in the romantic comedy. Writer-director Cameron Crowe wrote many lines that were execution-dependent, that would be the difference between heartwarming and cringe-worthy, and Cruise embraced all of them. That includes the climactic scene, when Maguire pleads with his estranged wife (Renée Zellweger) to give him another chance, a plea delivered in a crowd of pessimistic women who’ve all had their hearts broken by cads.
“Oh, Tom couldn’t wait for that scene,” Crowe says. “I was a little nervous about some of the lines, like, ‘You complete me.’ It’s a slippery slope; if you lean wrong into a line like that, it’d probably be the first thing you cut. But he said, ‘I want to say I love you in this movie, and I want to say it with that line.’ And by the time he got to it, it was two in the morning, at the end of a long week.
“Tom surprised the women because we didn’t tell them that he would be there to do the scene with them that day. In he comes, and in the most loving way, this heavyweight was ready for the knockout. He gently crushed it. The ladies were crying. The crew members were crying. And Renée was a mess. He just took great pleasure in being able to deliver a line that he knew I was on the fence about. He’d said, ‘Just give me a shot, man. You’ll see if I got it, or if I didn’t.’ And, you know, I’m still just so proud of it.”
Crowe recalls other ways that Cruise endeared himself to those around him, from one late night when an In-N-Out Burger truck showed up, courtesy of the actor, or the way he handled the first young actor who pulled out of the precocious child part that eventually went to Jonathan Lipnicki.
“Tom stayed in touch with the mother of the kid who had asked to be replaced,” Crowe says. “Tom wrote him and called and sent him stuff. I only knew this because his mother called to say, ‘Thank you for everything Tom Cruise has done to make my son feel good about even being in the movie and working with him as much as he did.’ I went to Tom on the set and said I couldn’t believe what he’d done, spending the last few weeks making sure his spirits were high. Tom just said, ‘Well, I just don’t want that guy growing up, looking at movies and feeling disappointed about what happened. I want him to love movies.’ Wow.”
When Russell Crowe changed his plan from playing the assassin who conscripts a cab driver to drive him to a series of murders in Collateral, director Michael Mann went right to the doorstep of Cruise, even though it would be a decided departure from the actor’s résumé of hero roles.
“In Tom, I saw Lee Marvin,” Mann says. “When Tom zeroes into a certain kind of person, if they are far enough away from him so that it’s a turn-on for a man of adventure, to be on some kind of a frontier with a character he can get to know but is very different from him, I could tell that within him it becomes a real adventure. To play Vincent, this solipsistic sociopath, who has all the f*cking answers and is so methodical and good at what he does, it felt like Tom was a perfect fit. He’s a perfectionist about knowing how to do the things he is supposed to do, which is why he does his own stunts in Mission: Impossible. The sociopathy of this guy was so unique, in his cosmic indifference and outrageous statements that still crack me up when I see some of the scenes with Jamie Foxx in the taxi cab. ‘You ever hear of Rwanda? So, what do you care about one fat guy who gets thrown out the window?’ Or answering Jamie’s accusation of ‘you killed him’ with, ‘I didn’t kill him. The bullets killed him and then he fell out the window.’ The flat irony of Tom’s delivery on those lines is so perfect. It was a very different character for him, and I knew Tom would throw himself into whatever I needed to take him through to become that assassin.”
When I mention the memorable shootout scene in the nightclub and that Cruise’s proficiency with weaponry is reminiscent of the acumen shown by Keanu Reeves in the John Wick films, Mann is quick to correct the record.
“John Wick’s are not real techniques,” he says. “What Tom did, those are real techniques and there was a lot of training with my friend Mick Gould, who was the head of close-quarter combat training for the British SAS. The scene in the alley, there’s no cut in that scene… It came down to doing the work. There was nothing he was doing that wasn’t established close-quarter combat moves that came from months of training. That included blending in. Obviously, people know Tom, but I wanted him to feel what it would be like to blend in, to mix with people and have conversations. He went to Central Market and trained to be a FedEx delivery guy. He said to me, ‘They’re gonna know it’s me.’ I said, ‘No, they’ll see the sign that says FedEx, and you’ll wear sunglasses and a cap and carry that portable computer that drivers used to have when they made deliveries.’ Tom went in and delivered something to a liquor stand and sat down and struck up a conversation with a couple people and insinuated himself into the lives of others. There was a lot of psychological training he did. Tom is a dream. He sees the adventure in what we do, just the way I do, and I imagine other directors do. He just goes for it.”
After scripting the Cruise World War II thriller Valkyrie, Christopher McQuarrie became the actor-producer’s creative partner on the Mission: Impossible franchise with 2015’s Rogue Nation, 2018’s Fallout, the recently completed Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One and the eighth installment currently in production. Cruise had stepped up his commitment to outrageously ambitious stunts right before McQuarrie got there, when Brad Bird directed Ghost Protocol, and Cruise scaled the glassy exterior of the world’s largest skyscraper in Dubai, 123 floors up. But it was on McQuarrie’s watch that Cruise hung from the exterior of a flying Airbus A400M in midair for Rogue Nation, and when Cruise broke his ankle after a leap during a chase in which he crashed into a wall. It was a rare mishap, and McQuarrie feels that Cruise is so meticulous in his stunt prep and so confident in his ability to walk away unscathed, that the director swallows hard and says yes.
“I was asked once by a film student: ‘How do you know when you’ve made it?’” McQuarrie says. “I said, ‘You don’t make it. You’re making it. Actively. All the time. May you never make it. May you always be making it. May you look back one day on all you’ve made and go right on making more.’ Tom embodies that. There is no finish line, no pinnacle, no summit. He applies all he’s learned to something new, then studies it with brutal honesty: Where did we go wrong? Where did we go right? How do we apply it to the next thing? How do we push the limits of what is possible? How do we create the most immersive, engaging experience for the widest possible audience? How do we do all that with an emphasis on character and story first? Tom’s not still here by accident.”
McQuarrie could not recall a stunt Cruise insisted on doing that the filmmaker tried to talk him out of. “I get asked that a lot,” he says. “Honestly, no. Is there anything I wish I hadn’t suggested? Absolutely. When I’m sitting in an A400M with the engines running and my friend is strapped to the fuselage, I’m thinking, Maybe I should have kept this one to myself. The truth is, that stunt seems tame now. What we’ve done since, I still can’t believe. If my hair could get any whiter, it would… Tom understands how all of the individual parts function. His level of preparation is exceedingly present and aware. The bigger the stakes, the higher the awareness. That awareness is contagious and enormously clarifying.”
J.J. Abrams made his feature directorial debut on Mission: Impossible III, the one in which Phillip Seymour Hoffman went mano a mano with Cruise after kidnapping the agent’s wife (Michelle Monaghan). Abrams says the stunts weren’t as eye popping as the ones in the films directed by McQuarrie and Bird (Abrams is a producer of all of those films). While Abrams was a hotshot TV director and showrunner with Alias, Cruise pushed for him to direct, despite his being untested on the big screen.
“I blame Tom Cruise entirely on my having a career,” Abrams says. “He did all the impossible heavy lifting I don’t think anyone could have done to give me a shot. I will be forever grateful for everything he did.”
They met when Cruise and Steven Spielberg wanted Abrams to script War of the Worlds (scheduling didn’t work) and they cooked up a Mission: Impossible movie different from the one Paramount thought it was going to make. “While I was shooting the Lost pilot, Tom watched Alias and asked if I would be interested in Mission: Impossible. They were meant to shoot that other version of Mission. Steven was meant to shoot Munich and then War of the Worlds, and somehow Tom convinced both Steven and the studio, and it seemed like a herculean task only Tom could do, but he managed to reorder the films. Steven agreed to do War of the Worlds first, and Mission: Impossible got moved to after. What I remember is that I had a meeting with Tom and Sherry Lansing, who was high on this other version of the movie. I remember Tom basically saying, that he and I were going to do Mission: Impossible together. I remember Sherry saying she liked the other script and Tom saying, ‘This is the one we’re going to do.’ And she said, ‘OK.’ I’m sitting there, watching him take a wild chance on someone who had never directed a feature before, and I couldn’t believe it was me. I came to learn that kind of thing is a normal Tuesday for Tom.”
Any fear Abrams had that the film’s star and producer would impose himself on a young director was quickly allayed. Abrams says Cruise had a clear understanding of the lanes each occupied, and that he relied on good directors to push him to do his best work.
“Any first film is a surreal experience,” Abrams says. “To have it be something where the first day you are filming in Rome with Tom Cruise on a Mission: Impossible set, now that is incredibly surreal. On the second film I directed, which was Star Trek in 2009, I remember getting to the set the first day and feeling the palpable sense of the absence of Tom Cruise. Which is to say, I had only known shooting a movie with Tom, which was a kind of gift you can’t find anywhere else. You have someone who you always know is working as hard — if not harder — trying to make something work, and he is number one on the call sheet. It’s an incredible rarity.”
Doug Liman, who directed Cruise in the fact-based American Made, the sci-fi Edge of Tomorrow and the upcoming film they’ll shoot in outer space, got to see more than most filmmakers what it is that makes Cruise tick.
“I lived with Tom when we made American Made,” Liman says. “When you work with Tom, it’s a seven-days-a-week job. No matter how hard a worker you are, and I consider myself that, it’s nothing compared to Tom. After 40 or 50 straight days, we were coming up on July 4 weekend. It happens his birthday is July 3 and I’m thinking that since his birthday happened to fall on a holiday, maybe Tom will want to have a long weekend off to celebrate his birthday somewhere. I mention to Tom, ‘Are you thinking of going away for your birthday?’ Tom says, ‘No. I was thinking since we have the day off on July 3, we can use that time to have the eight-hour aviation meeting that we’ve been having trouble scheduling.’ I am beyond tired and I’m like, ‘You want to have an eight-hour meeting on your birthday?’ He said, ‘Yes, that’s what I want for my birthday. I want to be making a movie. That’s the best birthday present.’ There was no blowing out candles, either.”
“Cake? No, Tom doesn’t eat cake. You don’t get to look the way he looks, by eating birthday cake. You have to make a life choice there. You know the suit of armor, the exoskeletons he wore on Edge of Tomorrow? They were extremely heavy, cumbersome, took 10 minutes to get on and off and was too heavy for him to sit in between takes. He would get out of the armor and go, we’re wasting all this time, me getting in and out of this suit. So, Tom gets this idea that, between setups, it would save time if, instead of getting in and out of his suit, we converted a child’s swing set into something with hooks that he could hang from, in between setups.”
For the result, picture the gangster Carbone, hanging from a meat hook in the freezer truck in Goodfellas.
“Yeah, that is the visual,” Liman says.
“Living with Tom on American Made, I came to the conclusion that it would be like if you imagined a premise for a high concept movie, where you got to wake up and be Tom Cruise for the day. He gets up with so much energy. He was a real taskmaster when it came to chores in the house. We didn’t have a housekeeper, for security reasons, and we had to clean the house. He would constantly pull out a pot that I had already cleaned and put back, and say, ‘This is not clean.’”
Liman is circumspect about timing and the story he and Cruise will film in space, but not the intent. “The thing both of us have in common is, we’re not interested in the gimmick of shooting a movie in outer space,” he says. “For Tom and me, it’s a challenge to make sure we make a movie that is so frigging good it can survive the inevitable criticism, ‘Did they really have to go into space to shoot that?’”
Barry Levinson, who directed Rain Man with Cruise, saw the film win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Dustin Hoffman’s turn as the autistic savant. Cruise wasn’t nominated for playing Charlie Babbitt, the hustler who kidnaps his brother Raymond and drives him to L.A. to claim an inheritance, but in Levinson’s mind, “Tom had the harder job,” he says. “It was a difficult role because he basically had to drive the movie. Otherwise, Raymond would just be content to sit in a motel. His obligation is to continually drive it and push him, and at the same time not exhaust the audience with a one-beat, ‘C’mon, we’re going.’ It was a very hard role, and he never got the credit he deserved for that film.”
Levinson got the job after Martin Brest, Spielberg and then Sydney Pollack were in and then out because of the tricky nature of the material. Levinson says they found the movie while shooting on the road trip, and what surprised him was Cruise’s skill in improv, and willingness to try most anything they could think of.
“When Sydney dropped out, we were seven weeks out from shooting and we hit the road and kept working on dealing with the relationship between the two of them as we went along,” Levinson says. “We did an extensive amount of ad-libbing and improv work for that film, and Tom jumped in there and ran with it. It was at that point very different for him, not only to be that type of character, but also because the movie was a two-hander. It’s just these two guys basically, and they’ve got to carry the movie. Tom was never resistant to the idea of, well let’s just see what happens if we do this. I said to him once, ‘Let’s get in a car, I wonder if the audience is thinking, the brother hasn’t done anything for Raymond. I think he needs to do something so at least he has made an attempt to deal with him.’ He said, ‘Well, what about if I gave him fresh underwear? That will lead to an argument. Raymond can’t wear that because he gets his underwear in Cincinnati.’ That was the basis of the idea to just have a little something, riding in the car. The two worked really well with each other. I know it sounds like it can’t be true, but it was as good a relationship between the two guys and in terms of what we were trying to accomplish. They were both contributing, and Tom was the one who had to push this movie all the time and I think Dustin would acknowledge that. You keep slowly seeing the changes, as he becomes more emotionally attached to his brother.”
A Few Good Men
To A Few Good Men director Rob Reiner, there is just about nothing Tom Cruise can’t do as an actor, and so he was not at all surprised by the way he went toe-to-toe with Jack Nicholson in his prime during that electric courtroom scene.
“I’ll tell you something. He’s a great actor,” Reiner says. “I know in the last many years he has been doing his Mission: Impossible movies and different things. It seems every really good actor, whether it’s Chris Evans or Mark Ruffalo, they are all in these big action pictures. The thing Tom used to do is, he used to balance that out. I would love to see him do some things that aren’t the franchise films. I’d seen him do things like Taps, Risky Business, and I never worried about him going up against Nicholson because Tom has an incredible work ethic. At that time, I’d never met a young actor with as much dedication as he had to the process. He worked his ass off in rehearsals. He was not only on time, but early every day, and always had his lines nailed. Never had I seen a young actor with a work ethic like this guy. He may tell you behind the scenes that he was intimidated by Jack, but I never saw it.
“When Jack came and we had the first reading of the script, he came fully loaded to work, with a performance at the table. In a table read, you’re usually just kind of marking it. And when Jack got into his performance, it just sent a message to every other young actor. Kiefer Sutherland, Tom, Demi (Moore) and Kevin Bacon and Kevin Pollack, everybody involved knew, you better step up here. We’re not messing around. Tom was always right there with it. I would love to see him play more complex characters than the ones he’s doing now because people don’t realize how great an actor this guy is.”
When Francis Ford Coppola adapted the S.E. Hinton novel The Outsiders, he wound up with a cast filled with the most promising young actors in the business, from Patrick Swayze to Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon, Emilio Estevez, Ralph Macchio and C. Thomas Howell. Cruise’s role was smaller by comparison, but Coppola had an inkling he might be special based on how the rest of the cast buzzed about how it was Cruise who got the starring role in Risky Business, while the rest of them were confined to ensemble work.
“It’s hard for me to remember that time since I was so focused on casting all of the boys’ roles, of which there were many,” Coppola says. “In those days, I was very experimental about the way I handled auditions. I felt strongly that everyone who showed up be given a chance to show their strengths, so we held them in an open arena where everyone was able to watch the other actors’ auditions for the same roles. The method was as new to them as it was for me. Through that process, I discovered a wealth of talent from which to choose. It’s the luck of the draw I guess, but certainly Tom more than justified his promise. Risky Business was a great showcase for him, and as I recall, he left our set a few days early in order to begin production on that film.”
What stood out to Coppola was the young actor’s openness to messing with what would become his signature thousand-watt smile, to fit the character.
“I was impressed by his willingness to go to extremes in creating a character,” Coppola says. “If the role called for a chipped tooth, he would willingly chip his tooth. He is also very athletic, which you can clearly see in the scene where he backflips off a car. He did not go light or easy in his commitment. I liked his look, and I liked his performance in Taps. He might have been suitable for the older brother role, except he was a little young compared to Patrick Swayze.
“I can’t say that I would have predicted [what was to come for Cruise] at the time, but back when we worked together, he did impress me as a very committed actor with many gifts. Certainly, the incident of the self-inflicted chip in his tooth is an example of his whole-hearted commitment to character.”
Born on the Fourth of July
Oliver Stone badly wanted to tell the story of wounded Vietnam vet Ron Kovic’s transformation from gung-ho soldier to anti-war protester, and each time the film faltered, he could feel it crush the film’s subject. “I had written it with Al Pacino in mind,” Stone says. The movie fell apart when Pacino dropped out, and the project languished for years. Until Cruise sparked to it. The actor was coming off a string of hits that included Risky Business, Cocktail, Top Gun and Rain Man. He was the brightest young superstar in the business and used that clout to empower a picture that allowed him to test his acting mettle in a new way.
“I was broken hearted, and Ron was a basket case,” Stone says. “I said to Ron, ‘If I ever get the chance, I’ll come back and do it.’ Platoon opened up the world for me, and it was either Charlie Sheen or Paula Wagner who suggested Tom Cruise, who was her client. I had met with Tom, and he liked Platoon so much. Maybe no one was going to give the performance as Kovic that I’d seen Al Pacino do in rehearsals, but Tom had other qualities. He was the right age, he looked far younger [than Pacino] and he worked his ass off prior to rehearsal. He hung out with Ron Kovic for a few weeks, going around L.A. in a wheelchair and getting the moves down, getting the mentality down. Ron was such an enthusiastic teacher and Tom took everything he could and kind of fell in love with Ron in a way that he absorbed him into his performance. And they stayed in touch for many, many years.”
Stone says the shoot was grueling, but Cruise was game. “We started the film overseas in the Philippines, where Platoon was made, and for Tom and everyone else, it was a very tough shoot because of the subject matter. I remember the scenes in the hospital being especially difficult, but Tom stuck through it. I was not surprised because I saw his dedication. Tom is a person with a tremendous willpower and once he committed to the role, he really committed.”
Stone says he wondered if Cruise was saying yes to anything the director asked. “In the early scenes, I was worried because I hadn’t seen him wrestle,” Stone says. “He tells me, ‘I can wrestle.’ Well, I’ve been told that kind of thing by a lot of actors, and when you get there on the day of the shoot, when you have no f*cking time to adjust, you find out they can’t wrestle. So, I’m worried. He said, ‘Just trust me. Don’t put pressure on me, I put pressure enough on myself.’ And sure enough, he actually wrestled very well. So never doubt Tom Cruise, I suppose is the lesson.”
For a young actress playing a difficult role as a precognitive woman in the Spielberg-directed Minority Report, measuring up in a blockbuster can be a daunting task. For that reason, Samantha Morton says she often thinks of how much easier a difficult shoot became because of the film’s star.
“I suppose I didn’t fully appreciate how rare Tom was, but now having been in the industry so long, he’s incredibly rare,” Morton says. “Not only is he unbelievably professional, and at a time when a lot of very famous men around me were not being very professional, he was unbelievably generous to me as an actor and as a creative person in that space. And it wasn’t fake or false in a kind of job way. He is genuinely one of the nicest, kindest people I’ve ever worked with, and I cherish those memories of that experience because the job itself was very tough.”
“Mr. Spielberg was incredibly kind and supportive and they made me raise my game because they believed in me. When an actor of his caliber is on set, oftentimes those individuals can be all about the self, and here’s the opposite of that. Because of (Tom), it was, ‘What do we need to make us better?’
“I was 22 when I worked with him, and I didn’t have a huge wealth of knowledge in regards to his cinema history at the time, and I was just there to get my job done. I’ve since seen how exceptional his body of work is. He’s insanely talented and continues to be so, and I have more praise for him as the years go by. He wasn’t being like that because he had to, back then, it was just how he is.”
Morton mentions Cruise sending a coffee truck on a particularly trying day. “People do that now, but nobody did that stuff back then,” she says. “My character was always very emotional and vulnerable. And maybe I was being a bit too method for my own good at the time. But there were scenes where the character couldn’t walk, and he physically carried me all through this shopping mall because I wasn’t taking my own weight. I said, ‘Oh God, I’m so sorry,’ after I don’t know how many takes of the scene. He just smiled. A lot of other actors would have moaned, said something to the director who would have come back and said, ‘Is there any way Sam can just walk on this take?’ Not Tom. And I can tell you, his generosity and exuberance were contagious.”