Interview: Tom Cruise

Pushing thirty, the star of 'Far and Away' gets his life together with the help of Scientology and wife Nicole Kidman

Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise share romantic moment in a scene from the film 'Far And Away', 1992. ( Credit: Universal/Getty

Tom Cruise hits the accelerator and slides onto a deserted stretch of Sunset Boulevard behind the wheel of a car so hot, so space-age sleek, that you can't find one anywhere — not in a Porsche showroom, not in the Malibu Colony, not in the hippest Hollywood parking lot.

Cherry red, rippling with curves and built low to the ground, it's a car of the future, with a moniker to prove it — Destiny 2000. But what really throws you is what happens when Cruise puts the pedal to the metal. You don't hear a thing. No revved-up engine, no grinding gears. Whoosh. It sounds like a glider slicing through the late-morning air, with only the tiniest hum – a soft, electronic purr – barely audible over the rush of the wind as the car snakes through a curve down Sunset toward the Pacific. There's only one catch: At this rate, we might reach the ocean by nightfall. This is Hollywood's brashest daredevil behind the wheel – the guy who flies F-14s, dives out of airplanes and hits 170 mph on the racetrack – and he's poking along at, to be generous, maybe 28 mph.

Has Hollywood's Top Gun lost his nerve? Has he gone soft on the throttle? Hardly. Cruise is simply test-driving an electric car. The vehicle keeps its speed as we head uphill, into another turn. "I'm blown away," Cruise exclaims. "It goes right up the hill — BANG!

The Destiny 2000 is actually a Pontiac Fiero refitted with a trunkful of foil-wrapped batteries. An ardent environmentalist, Cruise has borrowed it for a couple of days to see if it might make a practical second car — or third, if you count the Bluebird, his on-location motor home that's the size of a troop transport plane. The Destiny is definitely cheaper than Cruise's current No. 1 set of wheels (a $65,000 black Acura NSX), but it can't compete in the velocity department. The NSX clocks in at 168 mph; the Destiny's top speed is about 55 mph.

Of course, if anyone could get a speeding ticket in an electric car, it's Cruise. Wearing a white T-shirt, jeans and cowboy boots, his hair slicked back in a modified ducktail, he even looks a little like a Fifties hot rodder, raring for action. Taking the Destiny down a Sunset straightaway, he somehow revs it up to 35, then 40 mph. Just as he's pushing 45, he slams on the brakes — he has spotted a cop. "Jeez, that would be embarrassing," he says with a nervous laugh, watching the LAPD cruiser pass. "We're out here ten minutes, and we get stopped for speeding in an electric car."

After taking the Destiny through a few more curves, Cruise returns to his starting point, a park nestled in the hills of Pacific Palisades. Hopping into my car, I make the mistake of belittling the Destiny 2000's less-than-studly road performance. I say that my car could probably beat the Destiny down Sunset — in second gear.

Cruise grins. His cocky Cruise grin. "Not if I get a head start, you won't," he says.

Swinging the car around, he heads for Sunset. Suddenly the dumpy Destiny 2000 leaps forward, accelerating like a stock car with a massive V-8 under the hood. Somehow Cruise has squeezed a burst of energy from this battery-driven powder puff.

By the time I pull up alongside him, he's already down at Sunset, waiting for traffic to clear. He can't hide a triumphant smile.

"Guess you didn't catch me, did ya?"

WHETHER HE'S FLYING FIGHER PLANS IN 'TOP GUN,' hustling pool in the The Color of Money or burning rubber in Days of Thunder, Tom Cruise is a guy with the Right Stuff. In fact, with his peculiar combination of earnest enthusiasm and coolheaded ambition, he's eerily reminiscent of the young John Glenn from Tom Wolfe's famous account of the packaging of the astronauts.

Smiling, courteous and ineffably self-confident, Cruise is — as his Born on the Fourth of July director Oliver Stone once put it — "a kid off a Wheaties box." But he's also, as Wolfe described Glenn, "a true believer and a half... a guy with a halo turned on at all times." There's something about Cruise you can never quite touch. That's why he looks so right in Top Gun. He's the daring flyboy who never removes his visor.

Hard to pin down for an interview and ferociously protective of his private life, Cruise is always uncomfortable playing the Celebrity Game. But it's that time again. He's touting his new film, Far and Away, the Ron Howard-directed saga that stars Cruise and his wife, Nicole Kidman, as a mismatched pair of Irish immigrants seeking their fortunes in the land of opportunity.

Call Far and Away an old-fashioned epic, with the emphasis on old-fashioned. Shot in Ireland and Montana, it's a coming-of-age romance, brimming with boozy Irish peasants, red-faced Boston machine politicians and rough-hewn Old West adventures. With Cruise as its box-office anchor, Far and Away will hit about 1300 theaters Memorial Day weekend, where it'll go up against such kick-out-the-jams competition as Lethal Weapon 3 and Alien 3, sequels with a built-in audience.

For a risky period film like Far and Away, Cruise is much-needed insurance. "We couldn't have made this movie without Tom," says producer Brian Grazer. "We simply wouldn't have done it." Grazer isn't exaggerating. After Schwarzenegger, no Hollywood icon packs them in more than Cruise. Just nearing thirty, he's starred in a string of movies that has earned upward of $1 billion. It's no wonder he's been labeled a recession-proof movie star. With Cruise above the title, even a stinker like Cocktail took in $70 million. "Tom is not overpaid in the least," says Grazer. "When you have a good movie with him, the sky's the limit."

Still, Cruise sounds a bit defensive about his high-rent movie salary. According to recent industry estimates, the actor will make somewhere between $10 million and $12 million each for Far and Away and the Christmas release A Few Good Men, which costars Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore, plus a percentage of the gross profits on both films.

Cruise insists these figures are inflated. "I don't have a set price — to me each film is different," he says. "The people who own studios didn't get to where they were by being dumb businessmen. They aren't going to pay me one penny more than I'm worth, especially in this marketplace. They wouldn't pay it if I wasn't worth it And the day I'm not, they won't."

Far and Away will be a true test of Cruise's drawing power. Running nearly two hours and twenty minutes, it unfolds at a leisurely pace, with Cruise wearing tweedy period outfits and speaking in a thick Irish brogue. Industry insiders who've seen the film wonder if Cruise's fans — weaned on MTV and glossy Hollywood fantasies — will find it, well, a wee bit quaint.

It's possible the scene moviegoers will remember most is one in which Cruise doesn't say a word. Here's the setup: After being walloped over the head, Cruise is taken to a deserted bedroom, where he is seen lying unconscious – and naked, except for a chamber pot strategically placed over his crotch. When Kidman, playing an Irish landlord's daughter, enters the room, she can't resist lifting the pot and sneaking a peek at his private parts. What she sees leaves her amazed. If Kidman was nervous shooting the chamber-pot scene in front of a film crew, she doesn't let on. "Listen," she says with a giddy laugh. "There's something very special about what's under that pot, let me assure you."

Actually, what's most revealing about the filming of that scene isn't Kidman's reaction — it's Cruise's. "Tom had to have his eyes closed, so he couldn't see any of what we were shooting," Kidman says. "It was very frustrating for him because he couldn't get involved in the scene. After each take, he'd open his eyes and say: 'What'd I miss? Tell me what happened.' "

It's a classic Cruise reaction. He's not a go-with-the-flow kind of guy. He likes to be in command. Since his first days as a movie star, he has always been a stickler for quality control. What's unusual is his total involvement in every aspect of the filmmaking process, from casting and script changes to marketing and publicity decisions. When Far and Away's producers previewed highlights of the film at ShoWest, an industry trade convention, Cruise not only came along, he scheduled personal meetings with each of the six major-theater-chain owners.

"Tom didn't just sit in on the marketing meetings," says Grazer. "He made the meetings. He has a point of view about everything — the posters, the trailers, the distribution pattern." Grazer laughs. "He's always testing you. But I don't mind it, because it isn't about his ego. It's about the movie."

Somewhere down the line, perhaps after getting critically drubbed on Cocktail (which Cruise admits "was not a crowning jewel"), the actor decided to exercise his considerable clout. "I try to put together the A team, the Super Bowl team," he says on a soundstage where he's spent the afternoon watching Far and Away composer John Williams set the images onscreen to music. It's a process most actors wouldn't bother to check in on. Cruise thumps his fist on a table. "I invest too much in my movies," he says. "I want it to be great every time."

Cruise spent weeks with Howard and screenwriter Bob Dolman, reworking scenes in the Far and Away script, bringing more focus to his and Kidman's characters. Yet the director insists Cruise never demanded star treatment "Despite his confidence in his own ideas, he really wants to be directed, he wants his ideas to be edited," says Howard. "He's the kind of guy who won't take yes for an answer. He wants you to really mean it."

According to industry estimates, Far and Away cost at least $60 million. Shot in a 70-mm format, with hundreds of extras, complicated crowd scenes and expansive period sets, its budget could have easily skyrocketed. But not with Cruise on board. "When I hear about people showing up late — wow, I just can't believe it," Cruise says, shaking his head in disbelief. "I work hard every day, and I expect that from everyone else around me."

So just how did Cruise discourage dawdling? "If Tom had to go to the bathroom while we were shooting, he'd RUN to go take a pee," says Grazer. "Not walk. Run. Sprint! And if Tom Cruise can run from his trailer to the set or run to the bathroom, it sets a tone for everyone else. They realized how serious he was about bringing this movie in on time."

IT'S THIS MANIC WORK ETHIC  —  CAN YOU IMAGINE JACK Nicholson sprinting to the urinal? – that sets Cruise apart from his celebrity peers. It's no wonder the guys on Days of Thunder nicknamed him Laserhead. His gaze is all focus — no irony, no sarcasm, no cynicism. Total attention. As Grazer puts it: "It seems like all of this man's energy comes out of his eyes. When I see him, I say, 'Oh, boy, it's the Cruise Energy Force Field.' "

During an interview, Cruise can't sit still. He's always bursting out of his seat, snapping his fingers or pounding a hand on the table. He acts out scenes from his childhood as if he were straining to bring them back to life. He's so intense that you can't help but wonder: "Jeez, Tom, how does Nicole put up with it? Does she ever get you to lighten up?"

Cruise ducks his head. He's grinning. In fact, he's almost blushing. The force field has momentarily vanished. "Nic just makes me feel fun around her," he finally says. "She makes me laugh. The littlest things she'll do will get to me." To make his point, Cruise mimics Kidman's girlish, Aussie accent. "She'll say: 'Oh, a little tense today? The world's treating you a little rough?' When she does that, you realize things aren't so terrible."

It seems that Cruise, who was married once before, to actress Mimi Rogers, truly savors domesticity this rime around. "For a long time, until I met Nicole, I always put my career ahead of everything," he says. "Now we do everything together. Now work doesn't belong in the book next to the definition hard, awful yoke. It's like a whole new life opened up. She's the most important thing to me."

Cruise makes no secret of the fact that he had a difficult childhood. His father, Thomas Cruise Mapother III, moved the family — Tom, his mom and three sisters — to a dozen cities before Tom was twelve. Then his parents divorced. Each year of high school Cruise attended a different school. He was the perpetual New Kid in Town — and dyslexic besides. "I traveled so much, going from school to school, that I was always trying to adjust," Cruise says. "It was like I was picking up a part, playing a role along the way. If we went South, I'd pick up a little Southern accent, because having a Canadian accent wasn't cool."

Cruise says he felt his first stirring of interest in acting at age five. By the time he appeared in a high-school production of Guys and Dolls, he was convinced. After landing a small part in the Brooke Shields weeper Endless Love, he graduated to a more sizable role in Taps, which led to Risky Business in 1983 and stardom. Yet Cruise insists he had no master plan, none of the insistent work ethic he has today.

"I was always the kid who forgot to take the garbage out on Tuesdays," he says, leaning back in his chair, sitting still for a few moments. "I was in the back yard, stating at the clouds, daydreaming. I was the kind of kid who wanted adventure. I craved it. I'd go around the back yard, dreaming up monsters and dragons. It was all about needing adventure. I had an active imagination." Active or overactive? Cruise laughs. "I don't think there's such a thing as an overactive imagination." And what did his mother think about all this? He laughs, louder this time. "My mother thought, 'If you have all this imagination, why can't you take out the garbage!' "

If anyone has a good theory about the source of Cruise's steely determination, it's Kidman. They're a yin-yang couple, with her playful, relaxed manner contrasting with her husband's earnest intensity. "I think the self-confidence comes from inside him," she says. "It's always been with him. When you talk to his mother, she says he's been like that since he was two years old. Tom was raised by women, by his mother and his sisters, under very difficult circumstances. And I think when you have that loving support group, it really grounds you. I think it made Tom confident enough to handle anything."

Others say some of Cruise's focus and intensity come from his involvement in Scientology. He became active in the controversial religion several years ago; his first wife, Mimi Rogers, is a Scientologist Kidman has also been involved since she met Cruise. Scientology has its own lingo, like clear, TRs and OTs, as well as a belief in past lives and the existence of galactic civilizations; presumably, this belief is an outgrowth of founder L. Ron Hubbard's science-fiction writings. Adherents like Cruise say Scientology sharpens their focus and helps them gain more control over their lives. In Cruise's case, church courses also helped him overcome his dyslexia. "I was always focused on my career, even before I became involved in Scientology," he says. "Essentially, it's enabled me — it's just helped me to become more me. It gives me certain tools to utilize to be the person I want to be and explore the areas I want to explore as an artist."

Scientology has been criticized for its high-pressure sales tactics and cultlike paranoia and security measures. Cruise insists that contrary to Hollywood scuttlebutt, he hasn't forced any of his staff, agents or publicists to attend church classes. "I haven't asked or told anyone to do anything," he says evenly. "If they're interested, that's fine. But there's no pressure from me."

He did persuade the Far and Away production team, however, to record his and Kidman's dialogue with Clearsound, a Scientology-developed audio system. Sound quality is an obsession with Cruise. The only time he ever shows any anger is when he's asked why, with so many great high-tech Hollywood sound systems, he would need to have his own. "There's no such thing as a great Hollywood sound system," he snaps. "I've done enough looping in my life to know. The sound people in Hollywood are like a priesthood. They're from another era."

His eyes are dark. Gleaming. Laser-head is back. "No one usually gives a shit about sound," he says sharply. Even before his discovery of Clearsound, he pressed the Dolby system on his sound recordists. "With a lot of them, it just pisses them off," he says. "And I say: 'Fuck you, okay? I want the best. I simply found a system that's better. All I want is clarity on the voice. I don't think that's asking for so much, is it?' "

IN MONTANA, THE HORIZON SEEMS TO stretch out forever, as if the prairie were a rippling ocean of tall grass. This day, in the dry heat of July, Howard is filming one of Far and Away's climactic scenes, the epic Oklahoma land rush. Hundreds of covered wagons and buggy teams rattle across the sloping hills, digging up huge divots as they head for the promised land.

Suddenly, a lone figure on horseback appears. Crouched low in the saddle, spurring his horse, is a hellbent Cruise, riding past the wagons, past the buggies — hey, even past Howard. Kicking up a cloud of dust, his horse gallops past a vast assemblage of extras playing farmers, malcontents and adventurers, each in search of a plot of fertile farmland being given away to the wild-eyed participants of Oklahoma's legendary Cherokee Strip Land Run.

Perched on a high-tech camera truck the size of a tank, Howard and his crew are driving on a specially graded road cut out of the prairie, shooting scenes of Cruise's urging his horse past the settlers' rickety covered wagons. Each time Howard calls for action, his crew must set into motion nearly 800 people and 200 wagons, including a group of 250 professional reenactors of historic events. Eleven cameras are going, including one on a crane and one in a helicopter. So far, the camera crew's biggest problem has simply been keeping up with its leading man, who's been galloping across a series of old riverbeds.

Cruise is riding a horse named Whiskey, a lean, muscular steed the color of roasted chestnuts. Asked if Cruise has the swiftest horse on the set, one of the film's wranglers nods his head: "He's as fast as a hole in the wind." After a few weeks of riding lessons, Cruise looks just as comfortable in the saddle as he ever looked in a Chevy Lumina at the Daytona 500.

Between takes, Cruise rides up to the truck. "How was it?" he asks, slapping dust off his brown britches. "Great," Howard replies. "But we were going a little slow. Let's try it again."

When he gets his cue, Cruise spurs his horse, weaving through the columns of wagons. Howard scours the horizon, searching for his star. "Jeez, let's get Tom some eyewash," says Howard. "That dust out there was unbelievable."

When Cruise rides up to the truck, he's caked in prairie gunk. "I know," says Howard. "But it really looked good. Was that enough dust for ya?"

Cruise flashes his toothy Top Gun smile. "Oh, yeah!"

FOR 'FAR AND AWAY,' CRUISE GOT MORE than just a crash course in horsemanship. He also schooled himself in the manly art of boxing for a series of scenes where he earns a living as a bare-knuckle club boxer in 1890s Boston. Months later Cruise has vivid memories of the ordeal. "It was ferocious — I didn't realize it would be so physical," he says. "I really took a pounding. I had knuckles going into my back, my chest. And I really got hit in the ribs a lot. For about a week and a half, I was in constant pain." At the memory, Cruise instinctively rubs his ribs. "Once I got on my knees and just said, 'Let me have a break here, guys.' So they'd give me some oxygen and a little water, and then I'd go back to work. But boy, was it brutal."

Cruise is not complaining. You get the feeling he enjoyed it, as if he had passed a test. "Tom is a throwback to the days of self-improvement courses, to the belief in endless progress that we used to have in this country," says one of his past collaborators. "It's the secret to the magnitude of his movie stardom. He's like Horatio Alger — he really believes in America."

Listening to Cruise describe his character in Far and Away, you can almost hear him trying to silence any cynicism. "This guy I play in the movie, he was a dreamer," says Cruise. "And maybe if he'd stopped to think about all the repercussions of what he was going to do, maybe he would've stopped doing it. But the film's a hopeful movie, and that's the way I feel about life. I still remember the days when I'd daydream about becoming an actor and whether I could really do it."

As Cruise warms to this topic, you realize that he is not talking about the movie anymore. He's talking about himself. 'For me, to be an actor is a dream I've lived out," he says, staring me dead in the eye. "Who would think this kid could grow up and become a movie star?"