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 adrenalin buzz, Cruise, depending on the stunt, either offered to do it himself, or insisted, or allowed himself to be cajoled into it.
"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.'
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 guys and they're looking at me, they don't want to be the guy, you know, [to tell mehow 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 adrenalin 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.
"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 Cruise's 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."
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.
Cruise, who turns 34 in July, is 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?"
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, 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 backward and forward and knew what we did and didn't need." For example, a recruiting sequence that would have cost a couple of 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.)
Ving Rhames, one of Cruise's co-stars in "Mission: Impossible," 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. "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. "
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."
Pub Date: 5/22/96