When Tom Cruise is asked if he'd like to dispel one of the many myths that surround him, he laughs that famous laugh and flashes that million-dollar toothpaste smile.
"Oh man, we'd have to get into a long conversation," he says. True, Cruise has generated many wacky stories over the years. Like the one that suggests his marriage to Katie Holmes is a sham, or the one where he has supposedly pushed Nicole Kidman out of their adoptive children's lives. And did he really eat the placenta after Suri was born?
Cruise decides to play along. "OK, let's go for one," he says. "Do I like to take control? There are certain times you have to take control. At a certain point you just know a lot about film and it doesn't mean I'm not inviting new ideas because I want new ideas."
Clearly Cruise is abreast of the stories that paint him as a power-hungry maniac. According to Forbes magazine, however, he has all that he needs because he has been crowned the most powerful celebrity in Hollywood twice (in 2001 and 2006). Cruise pretends that it's news to him. "Oh, am I? Good to know," he laughs.
It's a bit disconcerting to discover that Cruise – who is supposed to be a complete nutter – can actually laugh at himself. But perhaps he has had to learn how to of late?
Cruise was born to sell and, for more than 25 years he has sold himself so successfully that he is one of the top box-office-grossing stars in Hollywood. In the last 20 years only six of his films have failed to make more than $100m. But, ever since the infamous couch-jumping incident in 2005, when he declared his love for Katie Holmes and then began extolling the virtues of Scientology... well, let's just say that when Mission: Impossible III was released in 2006 it didn't break box-office records. Paramount Studios (the film's distributor) decided to sever their 14-year relationship with the actor.
Cruise admits his behaviour was over the top. He was in love, he lost his head, got caught up in the moment. "But I was shocked by it all," he says, speaking of the criticism that followed. "Because it just kept going. But all you can do is go, 'OK, I'm going to live through this. Just keep going, keep living your life, and do the best you can.'" So he did. In 2006 he married Holmes (he had been married twice before, first to Mimi Rogers, then Kidman) and welcomed their daughter Suri.
Cruise is now 46, a little older and a whole lot wiser. Ask him about Scientology these days, he'll tell you to "go on the website, read a book".
"I'm not a poster child for anything," he says, heatedly. "People would ask about it and I'd answer, and then I'm accused of prophetising; then I don't answer, and I'm not talking about it. It's secretive. So now I'm absolutely not going to go there."
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Which brings us back to today. Cruise's mission, which he has chosen to accept, is to fix the self-inflicted PR disaster. His plan is to remind people that he's a jolly good actor (whether you think he's mad or not) – and his recent Golden Globe nomination for Tropic Thunder, the Ben Stiller film in which he plays a dirty-dancing, potty-mouthed studio executive, will go some way towards that. As will Valkyrie, he hopes. It is directed by Bryan Singer (X Men), and is a true story in which Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a high-ranking German officer who tried to assassinate Hitler on 20 July 1944.
Cruise has played real people before with startling results. Born on the Fourth of July earned him an Oscar nomination in 1990 (he was also nominated for Jerry Maguire in 1997 and Magnolia in 2000). But, ever since the sofa incident, critics have been ready to write him off. "No one will buy the all-American action man in this role", they say. "It's too much of a departure." Singer disagrees. "Stauffenberg was an intense, charismatic individual, so we needed an actor who could really portray that," he says.
Cruise has heard it all before. "When I was a young actor doing Rain Man (1988), people were like, 'what are you making that movie for? It's career suicide'. Then when I did Born on the Fourth of July, and people were like, 'what are you thinking? No one wants to see that movie'. And then I do Interview with the Vampire, then it's, 'oh no, it's definitely done. You're through'," he laughs.
What the doomsayers forget is that Cruise was a character actor first, leading man second. He has never lost the "character-actor stuff," says Singer, meaning he can transform himself into all manner of being. As for playing against type, that's when he has often done his best work, like as the misogynistic motivational speaker in Magnolia or the cold killer in Collateral.
"I've always taken on challenging roles," says Cruise. "This was very challenging because it's a suspense thriller, and yet here we are dealing with actual events. So it really took all of our skills to bring this about. It was intense but we had this great cast with Kenneth Branagh and Bill Nighy, so it was also an enjoyable experience. But we were carrying the spirit of the resistance and there is that nervousness there. I can't sleep the night before I start to shoot. I care about the work I do."
Directors love Cruise because of his phenomenal work-ethic. Singer was particularly impressed. "Tom would do anything and he would do it as many times as I asked. But I knew that as many times as I asked it would never probably be as many times as Kubrick probably asked," he laughs.
Cruise is not a method actor, but he likes to perform his own stunts and master the skills his character possesses. On The Last Samurai he learned Japanese. On the Mission: Impossible films he performs many of his own stunts. Valkyrie didn't require any of that. The only thing needed on this one was good, old-fashioned, talent. That was the appeal.
"When I read the script I couldn't wait to turn the pages to see what was going to happen next," says Cruise. "And, even though I knew the outcome, I got caught up in the piece. But, besides being an incredible story, this is a film I felt was important. Because it's about someone dealing with real oppression and standing up for what they feel is right in the face of odds that, as much as you and I try to understand, are incomprehensible, actually."
It's interesting that Cruise mentions oppression. He experienced a bit of that himself in Berlin. The Germans didn't want a Scientologist playing one of their national heroes. In Germany Scientology is considered a cult, not a religion. So permits to shoot on location were denied, protestors disrupted filming, and headlines screamed, 'Mr Cruise Go Home'.
"It has been 25 years since Risky Business, and certainly I've been through the fires a few times," says Cruise. In the end the permits materialised but was it upsetting? "It is what it is," he says. "You just keep going." That's one of his favourite sayings, "keep going" or "just do it". It's a mindset he cultivated as a youngster. He was 12 when his parents, Thomas Mapother III and Mary Lee, divorced. He and his three sisters led a nomadic lifestyle and by the time he was 14 he'd attended 15 different schools. He was always the new kid, and having dyslexia didn't help. For a while he considered becoming a priest. Then he discovered acting and, at 18, headed to New York.
Within a year he had a small part in Endless Love. Within five years he was starring in some of the highest-grossing films of the Eighties. By the Nineties he was one of the world's highest-paid movie actors.
One wonders if the Cruise of today is anything like the young man whose enthusiasm "drove people crazy" on his first film Taps (1981). "There are things in me that haven't changed," he says. "Like in terms of who I am and how I feel about life and people and my own values. Having children has been the most significant change," he says.
Besides Suri, there's Isabella, 16, and Conor (who he adopted with Kidman), 13. "I want to be my kids," he jokes. "Because they get to see the world and experience life from many different levels and that was always my dream to travel like that," he says.
Conor made his acting debut recently with a small role in Will Smith's Seven Pounds. Does he think his children will follow him into his profession? "They're going to do whatever they're going to do," he laughs. "Just like we did. I just encourage them in everything they do."
Unlike his own father, Cruise is a "very hands-on dad", even though he co-runs United Artists studios and can be off on location for months at a time. Home can be anywhere. "Right now we're based in New York because Kate's doing the play on Broadway," he says.
"You've just got to be really efficient and try to accomplish a lot within a short period of time," laughs Cruise. "That's why I depend on the people around me because at times I have to be more of an advisor. I can't do the day-to-day. I've got the kids and I've got Kate. It is a juggle, but we keep things fluid around here. We know what the priority is and, no matter what, it's family. Life is busy and chaotic but you just do it."
'Valkyrie' is out today
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