Want to meet my Mom?" Tom Cruise asks as we walk through the halls of the Celebrity Centre, ground zero for Scientlogy in Los Angeles.
We round a corner and enter the president's office, where Mary Lee (a.k.a. Mom) has just ordered a salad. In town from Florida, she is leaning against a door frame near Lee Anne DeVette, Cruise's sister and publicist, and Tommy, who manages Cruise's philanthropy work. Mom is thin and tan, and she beams an even toothier smile than her son when she is introduced.
Considering that she is a practicing Catholic, it is somewhere surprising to see her in the Celebrity Centre. "I just finished taking the Way to Happiness course," she says. "I learned so much."
She pauses for a moment and reflects on the day's lesson: "And I though I was happy before."
Cruise joined Scientology, the controversial church of religion and life philosophy started by L. Ron Hubbard, after church courses helped him overcome his dyslexia in the Eighties; he was followed, one by one, by his three sisters. His mother was the lone holdout in the clan. A year ago, however, after going through what she describes as "some things," she relented.
But doesn't Scientology conflict with her Catholicism? Not at all, she says: "I think Jesus wants me to be here right now. My church may not agree, but I personally know that."
We sit down on the couch, and Lee Anne puts in a video. It is a tape of Tom Cruise speaking at her daughter's graduation from the Delphian School, which uses. L. Ron Hubbard's learning principles. It is a passionate speech, in which Cruise sings the praises of Hubbard's "Study Tech" and rails against psychiatry and psychiatric medication. After graduation, Lee Anne's daughter will work in Cruise's office. They're a tight little family.
On the surface, Cruise seems to be at a turning point in his life and career. Romantically, he is along, having divorced Nicole Kidman after ten years and broken up with Penélope Cruz after three. And he recently left his longtime — and notoriously overprotective — publicist, Pat Kingsley, preferring representation by his family. Meanwhile, in his movies, he is taking steps to shed his old persona of headstrong-young-hotshot-with-a-good-heart-underneath-it-all in favor of progressively more evil characters — from Lestat in Interview With the Vampire to Frank "T.J." Mackey in Magnolia to Vincent in his latest film, Collateral. An older character with salt-and-pepper hair, Vincent is not a nice guy: He is a cold-blooded killer and an unredeemable sociopath who leaves a trail of bodies in his wake.
But the most surprising change is that the famously press-phobic Cruise seems more open than ever about his commitment to Scientology, having provided funds for a detoxification clinic to help New York firefighters who became sick after 9/11.
Since Scientology, in the popular imagination, is such a loaded word — often associated with heavy-handed recruitment tactics, strong-arm-lawyer assaults and steep membership and course fees — one would think that Cruise wouldn't be so willing to take a journalist through that world.
"Who are those people that say those things?" Cruise asks when I bring it up over lunch one day. "Because I promise you, it isn't everybody. But I look at those people and I say, 'Bring it. I'm a Scientologist, man. What do you want to know?" I don't mind answering questions."
He lists some of Scientology's selling points: its drug-abuse, prison-rehabilitation and education programs. "Some people, well, if they don't like Scientology, well, then, fuck you." He rises from the table. "Really." He points an angry finger at the imaginary enemy. "Fuck you." His face reddens. "Period."
It is a beautiful exhibition, and I don't believe that he's acting. Before meeting Cruise, I had been warned roundly by my colleagues. They told of restrictions set in interviews, documents that I would have to sign, unprintably generic answers I would receive. They said that he smiles and listens and talks and looks you in the eye, but afterward, when you walk away, you realize that you've really been given nothing but a command performance.
Frankly, none of that turned out to be true. My afternoon in the Scientology Celebrity Centre, a church (featuring a restaurant, a hotel, a spa and classrooms) that caters to Scientology's Hollywood dignitaries, was the cap to a fascinating and unusual week in the world of Cruise that began in the blistering heat of the Mojave Desert.
I'm training to jump a trailer," Cruise says when I arrive at a Willow Springs International Raceway wheelie school in Rosamond, California. He is in black bike leathers, with a matching black helmet tucked under his left arm and two days of stubble on his chin. He points out a trailer sitting just off the track. "It'll be bigger than that one," he continues. "But it's not that hard."
He narrows his eyes and squints at the trailer for a moment, visualizing the feat. "Well, the jumping's not that hard," he says. "It's the landing that's difficult."
He cocks his right hand and slugs me in the shoulder. Cruise has spent the day training to be an action hero. The trailer jump is part of his warm-up for Mission: Impossible 3. Earlier in the day, he took his Cessna plane out to practice loops, prepping for his role as a World War Il fighter pilot in his next collaboration with Collateral director Michael Mann, The Few. I have been summoned to the desert to learn to do wheelies with Cruise. There is only one flaw in the plan: I've never ridden a motorcycle in my life.
But I'm willing to learn — it's part of the job when you're writing stories about sports and other skills. "That's great," Cruise says. He reaches his right hand out to shake mine as a gesture of approval. When his hand grips mine, his elbow comes flying out of nowhere and slams into my chest, knocking me off balance. He has a habit of making great bonding alpha-male gestures of body contact. When you've said something that earns his agreement or respect, you get a firm handshake. Respect mixed with encouragement earns you a spine-collapsing clap on both shoulders. And if he feels a little healthy surprise, you get the flying elbow to the chest. He is the ultimate high school jock, but not the mean, arrogant one. He's the one who's so guileless and friendly that even the nerds don't resent him.
Cruise shows me the powerful Triumph bike I will be riding — the brake, the clutch, the gearshift and the wheelie bar added to the back of the bike. If a line could be drawn between comfortable personal space and invasive personal space, Cruise would always be just a centimeter over the line. His behavior is not meant to be rude, only sincere and attentive. "Look at this," he says, rapping on the wheelie bar, which trails behind the bike and stabilizes it when the front wheel lifts off the ground. "It's gauged to make sure you don't go too high."
Cruise is a dedicated student of the action-hero disciplines: He wants to gain competence, he says, at rock-climbing and flying; he is loath to use a stunt double, preferring instead to spend months training in swordplay, Nascar racing and bike-riding for films. As he talks about his adventuring skills, one gets the feeling that in the event of an apocalypse, an action hero would have a more likely chance of survival than most ordinary folk.
Cruise considers the idea. In fact, there's nothing that you can say that he won't seriously consider. He pays attention, almost to a fault. "I can live out in the woods," he begins. "I would eat bugs. I can use a sword and a pistol and stuff."
Cruise, ultimately, is a survivor. "There's a confidence that comes from knowing you can work, no matter what," he says. "I can deliver papers. I can take care of myself."
Cruise's dogged work ethic is one reason directors love him. He has worked with some of the best: Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick. And he rarely limits his involvement in a film to just acting — he has helped produce, write, even scout locations. Even rarer for an actor, he is a team player. In movie after movie, he has played the straight man in order to enable great performances by his co-stars, whether it be Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire, Paul Newman in The Color of Money or Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men.
When we return to the riding lesson, there are two words that seem to recur over and in Cruise's stories and instructions: competence — his goal in learning anything new — and gradient, which is a step in the process of learning. Days later, when he supplies me with material written by L. Ron Hubbard, I will learn that they are concepts that come from his pamphlet The Way to Happiness (Step 17: Be Competent) and his Study Tech manuals (Barrier 2 to Study: Too Steep a Gradient).
We drink some water and pop a couple of salt tablets to prevent dehydration. then get on our bikes. While Cruise races around the track on his back wheel, I inch along at 10 mph on his 955cc Triumph. Afterward, we adjourn to his trailer for lunch. Nearly every available inch of wall space is filled with photos and montages of Cruise and his family: his mother, his children, his sisters and his nieces and nephews. Even the dashboard is covered with framed photos of the younger generation of Cruises. Cruise currently lives in Los Angeles with his sister Cass, her three children and, when they are with him, the two children he adopted with Nicole Kidman, Isabella, 12, and Connor, 9.
Cruise removes his bike gloves, pulls off his motorcycle helmet and runs a hand through the perfectly shaved black stubble on his head. "That's my daughter," he says, pointing to a girl in his arms on the wall of images. "Look at that. So cute. And that's my son doing his first oral presentation, on Ulysses S. Grant. And that's us in New Zealand."
He pauses, then reflects, "I would live with all of my sisters if I could. We've always been very close, my sisters and me. And we always dreamed of making sure that when we grew up, our kids were together and had their cousins and family."
I ask him how often he sees his kids. "A lot," he replies, unzipping his bodysuit to reveal his trademark immaculately white. T-shirt. "Nic and I don't talk publicly about custody, but, definitely, both of us share the kids back and forth. They're amazing kids."
He pauses and his eyes narrow, as they usually do when he's speaking about a serious topic. His left-eye tends to close a little more than the right one, giving the appearance of deep focus. He nods his head and repeats the thought with more emphasis. "They're amazing kids."
There are few questions that Cruise won't answer, but there are many that he won't give a direct answer to. The general rule is that the more difficult the question, the longer the silence before he answers. These periods of silent contemplation tend to mean that the answer will be a deflection to another topic. And the last line will be a firm and resolute statement, so that it seems as if a meaningful answer has been given. For example:
I ask, "Since your parents' divorce affected you to some degree, were you worried that your breakup would affect your kids.?" One second, two seconds, three seconds. "When it comes to divorce, it's . . . " Four seconds, five seconds, six seconds, seven seconds, eight seconds, nine seconds. "The important thing with a child is that you love them, you protect them and you help them to grow and find out who they are. And as a parent, it's my responsibility to help them to become independent and get all the knowledge and a broad view of the world and life. I know that Nice absolutely agree with that. And that's what's important: being there."
OK. Moving on . . .
At a table near the back of the trailer, a small feast of salad and finger sandwiches has been laid out. Everything always seems to be running with maximum precision in the world of Cruise. In fact, whatever your feelings on Scientology may be, Cruise seems to have life worked out for himself pretty well. There are essentially just three things he divides his time among: his work, his family and his Scientology-related activism. That's all. "Yeah, that's exactly it," Cruise says, slamming both hands on the table. "I've got my family, I've got my work and I have my humanitarian things that I'm doing. If I have any more time, then I get to go fly my airplanes."
That doesn't leave much time for finding the third Mrs. Cruise, after Mimi Rogers and Kidman. That may be one reason why most of the women he's been linked to he has met on set.
I ask whether he ever wants to have natural children of his own. He answers that, although he's single now, it's not out of the question. "I might meet a woman, and we'll sit down and talk about it and see, you know." He stops and corrects himself. "I mean, I am going to meet a woman. I do plan on getting married again one day. I really enjoy relationship. And I just really want to find a woman who just shares that."
On a ledge above the table is a framed picture of his children. He lifts it up and puts it next to the plate in front of him as we discuss his criteria for the perfect mate. Suddenly, Cruise snaps his fingers loudly. An epiphany has been reached. "I'd like to be with a woman who goes [he switches into a woman's voice], 'I've reviewed your schedule, and I'm going to set up this motorcycle trip for you, because you've been working really hard. And I'm going to go riding together. And I've already been working on it for a couple days so it can be special.' "
And now, here it comes: the famous Tom Cruise laugh. It comes on just fine, a regular laugh by any standards. You will be laughing too. But then, when the humor subsides, you will stop laughing. At this point, however, Cruise's laugh will just be crescendoing. And he will be making eye contact with you. Ha ha HA HA heh heh. And you will try to laugh again, to join him, because you know you're supposed to. But it doesn't come out right, because it's not natural. He will squeeze out a couple of words sometimes between chuckles, in this case, "Wouldn't that be awesome." And then, as suddenly as he started, he will stop, and you will be relieved.
"That woman," he concludes, "I would worship."
And then Tom Cruise does something funny: He tilts the picture of his children closer to him. And it makes me wonder. Everything about him — socially, physically, emotionally and professionally — has the appearance of being so perfectly in order that it begs a question:
Are you obsessive compulsive?
Little things don't bother you if they are out of place?
No, things don't bother me if they are out of place. But I want to be prepared in an airplane. Because if I take someone up in an airplane, what's the worst-case scenario? Death.
Well, that's obvious.
No, I'm very responsible. I'm one of those people that if I say I am going to do it, I don't need a contract. I will do every-thing I can to get it done.
So maybe you're obsessive but not compulsive.
No, I just show up on time. If I'm not there, people are concerned because something went wrong. Something major went wrong. And with that comes one of those a-little-too-long Tom Cruise laughs.
And then it suddenly shuts off. He strands up and looks at the clock on the microwave. The time is 2:04 P.M. Soon after, he smashes his fist into the microwave. "I have a production meeting at 3 P.M.," he says. And, as we already know, Tom Cruise is never late.
His parting gesture sticks with me. He hit the clock. The guy actually punched a clock. Now, it may have just been a solid gesture of resolution from a guy who does everything with a strong physical presence and intensity, Or it may have been evidence of a darker, more temperamental side rearing its head. When I meet Cruise at the Celebrity Centre for lunch a few days later, I ask him:
Do you ever lose your cool?
Yeah, I lose my cool. But I'm not a hothead. I'm not someone who screams at people. It takes a lot. It depends on the situation, know what I mean? You look at something and you think, "How much is it going to take to get it done?" Because nothing keeps me from doing something. If I decide I'm going to do something — ha ha HA HA hee hee, you gotta know, Neil, heh heh, you got to know, ha ha — it's gonna get done.
So you've never hit a wall?
Oh, man, I hit a lot of walls. I hit a lot of walls. But there are moments where you just say, "OK, I'm going to climb over the wall."
I meant that literally.
Literally, have I hit a wall? Like, literally?
Yes, you're upset, you lash out in anger. It happens.
Gosh. It's been a long time since I've hit a wall. Probably not since I was a teenager. When things start to get chaotic, I get calmer. If I get upset or freak out, it's not going to help a situation.
But I noticed the way you hit the clock yesterday. And in Rain Man and Jerry Maguire, there are scenes where you lose your temper so well that you must have some experience of the emotion.
I can get intense. Sometimes it depends on the situation and what it calls for. It's not that it's necessarily easy. But I don't want easy . . . . The second you stop learning stuff, man, you're dead.
I remember starting out when I was seventeen or eighteen years old and wanting to be an actor. And I said, "You know, I want to learn about this." I look at you. You have an adventurous spirit. That's cool. Because you aren't going to be that guy who is seventy years old and won't venture out.
No, I'll be calling you, creaking with arthritis, saying, "Hey, man, I've got a hang glider on the roof. Want to come over?"
And I'll say, "Let's fire it up, man. We might not live through it, but it will be a hell of a ride."
A plate of steak arrives, and Cruise digs in. He is clean-shaven and ruddy-cheeked today, wearing a dark-green crewneck T-shirt that fits his body like a glove. He certainly doesn't look "almost forty-two," as he puts it. And though he may never admit to having a dark side, all one has to do is watch his movies. In nearly all of Cruise's films in the Eighties and Nineties, he has an older mentor in his corner, teaching him lessons in life — whether it be Paul Newman in The Color of Money, Robert Duvall in Days of Thunder, even Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. It is a role that makes sense for an actor who didn't even speak to his father for years after his parents divorced, when he was twelve.
Now that Cruise has aged and is playing the older, wiser mentor — for Brad Pitt in Interview and, in a twisted way, for Jamie Foxx in Collateral — the father figure is no longer a nice guy. He is a killer whom his charges try desperately to escape from.
As Cruise puts it, he chose his character in Collateral because he was "interested in playing an antisocial personality in a way that is inviting but unrelenting."
"I'm looking for a comedy after this." Cruise laughs, though he is serious. "I'm working with Steven [Spielberg] on a few pictures, and we are working on a comedy also."
For the past few days, I have been taken around three Scientology-related buildings in Los Angeles and introduced to many of the higher-ups. At the Celebrity Centre, the tour included the sauna — where adepts go to sweat impurities out of their bodies — and the classrooms, where auditors are trained to use the church's famous E-meter, a device that measures skin conductance. But I still have a burning question left.
How much has Scientology helped your career?
It's helped tremendously. I would not have had the success that I've had without it.
So in what ways has it made your success possible?
There are things that I can apply to my life that have helped me grow as an artist, in ways that I wanted to and in ways that were beyond my wildest dreams.
I'm asking more about concrete ways it has helped.
What do you mean?
For example, are there people you've met in the church — lawyers or contacts or other resources — who have had a direct impact on your career?
I'm trying to understand.
Let me try another way of asking this: People always say that there are ways in which becoming a Scientologist helps actors get parts in movies.
No, not for me. It was the tools that I had that they used. No other way. That doesn't make sense to me. I really don't know. If you really want to know, get What Is Scientology?, the book, and look at it, because that's what Scientology is. It's a very large body of knowledge with tools that are available. It's ah . . . it really is the shit, man.
Cruise leans forward in his chair, resting his elbows in his lap. He is low in his seat, and his head is parallel with the surface of the table. As he speaks, he expresses himself through gestures as subtle. as changing the aperture of his eyes. The guy was born to sell things: movies, himself, Scientology, you. Every time I make a comment with even a hint of self-deprecation, he jumps on it and throws it back in my face. "Who said that?" he'll ask. "I don't see that at all." Not unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger, one realizes that if Cruise wasn't an actor, he could be, well, just about anything he wanted to be.
At ABLE, an umbrella organization for many of Scientology's social programs, I was shown another videotape of Cruise speaking. This one is at the opening of a new educational facility, Applied Scholastics International, in Spanish Lake, Missouri. Watching his passionate, charismatic and very in-the-moment public-speaking style, it's clear that if Arnold Schwarzenegger can get elected governor of California, then Cruise could definitely win head of state. In fact, ask him about politics and you'll see just how political he can be.
I remember reading early on that you had supported the war in Iraq.
You know what, that was out of context. I'm interested in helping people. I'm not interested in war in general. I love my country, and I'm glad I live in America, but also, I don't want war. It's not in my nature. It's just not who I am, to see people dying.
So do you have feelings about the next election?
I don't know what . . . No, I kind of don't.
There is no simple answer. At this point, my focus is on doing what I can do. People talk about it — I do. I just do. I do what I'm going to do to help contribute in the way that I can contribute.
But even thinking about it objectively, it's hard for any intelligent person to not see how on so many levels this country has declined in the last four years.
It's the same thing as when you bring up that I supported the war. It was really taken out of context. So when we get on this subject, the spinmeisters get on it and spin it either way. I'm not a politician. I'm an artist, and that is my focus.
But let's just say that MoveOn called you and said that if you acted in an anti-Bush commercial directed by Steven Spielberg, it could have a major effect on the election. Wouldn't you want to do that to effect change on a worldwide level?
I find that there are times when change can be cosmetic. There are a lot of wars in our own country that we need to handle. I'm not saying that it's not important, but I'm looking at the amount of things I have on my plate. And you have to pick, as a man, what are you going to do? Am I going to get sucked into politics? Because it doesn't end there. That's why I have to pick things that I totally understand for myself to put my energies into.
One reason why journalists often have trouble with Cruise is because an interview for him isn't psychotherapy. This isn't just because Scientologists are strong opponents of psychiatry, but because of one of his most admirable qualities: He is strong-willed, centered and resolute. Any thinking that must be done, any turmoil that must be resolved, any issue that must be handled is solved first and foremost in a dialogue between Tom Cruise and himself.
"I don't really keep counsel with others," he says. "I'm the kind of person who will think about something, and if I know it's right I'm not going to ask anybody. I don't go, 'Boy, what do you think about this?' I've made every decision for myself — in my career, in my life."
This is one trait of his that Scientology gets only half the credit for. The other half goes to his upbringing — attending fifteen different schools while moving around as a child, being the only man in the family after the divorce and having an exceptionally tolerant mom who allowed him to learn things for himself. "I was the kind of kid who climbed the tallest tree when the wind was blowing," he remembers, "and I remember my body going back and forth, looking way down at my mother. And she'd go, 'Oh, hi, you having fun?'"
When we meet his mother afterward, I ask her about this. "I bit my tongue a lot," she said of his childhood.
The conversation turns to one of the places Cruise grew up, Louisville, Kentucky. His mother has two sisters, one of whom had six children. Their family there extends far and wide enough that when one of her children would start dating someone, she'd have to make sure the suitor wasn't a third cousin twice removed.
His mother's salad arrives, and she sits down to eat. But for Tom, it is clock-punching time again. He must go. When he leans in to bat me on the shoulder, I'm prepared to not be knocked off balance. And I'm prepared for the vigorous double hand clasp goodbye. But what I'm not ready for is his action-packed goodbye: Just as he reaches the door, he turns around, leaps into a crouch, puts his hands in a karate position and widens his eyes. It is his way of saying. "Catch you around."
Some say all these mannerisms are an act. But who really cares if they may have been a facade at one time in history? Now they're who he is.