The time has come to unwind, and so we’re taking a spin on Sunset Boulevard in a Honda that belongs to Mimi. For Cruise, who has a Harley motorcycle and a Porsche at his Los Angeles home, this is truly a tame car to be driving — it could belong to any of the UCLA undergraduates in the neighborhood. After Paul Newman turned Cruise on to his longtime hobby, auto racing, Cruise discovered he was a natural and became obsessed with the sport. The very day after Rain Man wrapped, he flew to a race in Pennsylvania, then crisscrossed the map to enter several more on following weekends. In all, he’s driven one of the Nissan 300ZXs in Newman’s stable in fifteen races.
Racing appeals to every aspect of the Cruise persona. There’s intense competition: “It’s a fine line between beating a guy at his own game and ending up in the wall.” There’s the chance to exercise control over imminent chaos: “I like the sense of a piece of machinery being manipulated down a track at a high rate of speed.” And there’s solitude, a man alone with his thoughts and feelings and no one he must share them with: “It’s calming, you know? I’m in a world of my own. I just feel really relaxed.”
In the past year, Cruise has iced his own racing to spend a lot of time on the big-league stock-car circuit, soaking it all up for his next movie, Days of Thunder, in which he’ll play a brilliant young driver with a hell-raising streak that threatens his own destruction. The idea for the film originated with Cruise himself, who brought it to Top Gun producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson. Simpson, who attended a race-driving school with Cruise just after Top Gun came out, has seen his star’s obsession with speed close up. “I have been in a car with Tom in Rome, in San Francisco, in Los Angeles, and each time he was in the driver’s seat and I was truly scared,” says Simpson. “This is a man who is comfortable taking major risks. He likes to be out there on the edge, whether it’s in a car or on the screen.”
Cruise zips the little Honda in and out of the traffic on Sunset, forcing up the rpm’s, driving hard even though the car’s just an automatic. This afternoon he feels like playing some basketball. We pull into a junior high school, and in the parking lot Cruise changes from street shoes to white high-top Reeboks. He says his fame has never hindered him from going where he pleases. Though he is constantly being recognized, he doesn’t habitually wear sunglasses. Nor does he go out of his way to attract attention. He just doesn’t seem to think about it very much. In fact, he’s so normal looking in person that it would be easy to miss him. Today he’s wearing jeans and a gray T-shirt; he has a normal-guy haircut, slightly crooked teeth and even a normal-guy pimple popping up on the right side of his mouth.
The school’s outdoor basketball courts are empty and surrounded by a locked chain-link fence. A sign says, Authorized Vehicles and Persons Only. Cruise doesn’t even see it. He grabs two fistfuls of chain-link fence and pulls himself over the barrier. Just a normal-guy delinquent breaking into a schoolyard. I toss the ball over and climb up after him. We’re the only two hoopsters on a big patch of pavement with a dozen metal backboards.
Cruise apologizes, saying he’s not very good, but it doesn’t matter, because he’s a scrappy player, chasing the rebounds and aiming one jump shot after another. That’s how it was with him and sports in high school. He went out for a bunch of teams, including ice hockey and wrestling, and though he was never exceptional at anything, he was hyperenergetic. It’s easy to imagine coaches wanting a player like Cruise, someone who’s aggressive, who’s driven to be number one, who’s in your face.
“It was like running,” Cruise says of his feelings during his high-school years. “Nothing was quick enough, nothing moved fast enough in terms of life for me. We always traveled a lot. I still like moving around; I don’t like staying in one place. That’s why I like racing — it’s constantly moving on each weekend.”
Cruise’s teenage years are an emotional well from which he seems to draw even today. That time has shaped his personal mythology, and memories of a difficult, often lonely adolescence regularly enter the conversation. His parents divorced when he was twelve, and the horrible vertigo and insecurity were worsened by his mother’s slide into the lower middle class. To ease the financial burden, Cruise spent his freshman year of high school on scholarship in a Catholic seminary in Cincinnati. “More than anything, it had to do with the fact that our family didn’t have enough money to feed me,” he says, dribbling the basketball. “When you’re a kid, you really feel the pressure to lighten it up.”
As for sticking with the seminary and becoming a priest, Cruise never gave it a serious thought. The idea of being celibate — nooo way. “Even at that age, I was too interested in ladies,” he says. “There was a time there when my older sisters and their friends were just starting to kiss boys. They needed somebody to practice on. I’d sprint home from school, go in the bathroom, and they’d put me on the bathroom sink, and my sisters’ two friends would take turns kissing me. They taught me how to French kiss when I was eight years old. The first time I almost suffocated. I was holding my breath.” Cruise has three sisters, no brothers, and after the divorce he was the sole man around. “I grew up around women, you know? I feel real comfortable around them.”
His mom moved her little brood often. Cruise attended three high schools in four years. Thus did he live out the nightmare of the self-conscious adolescent: always the new kid in class, always looking for acceptance from a new gang of kids. Those kids, of course, were already deployed in their tight little cliques, and they weren’t interested in seeing the new kid for who he was. They just wanted to size him up fast: Was he a jock, a duster, a dweeb?
“Sometimes it was frustrating never to be able to break through the social barriers of people’s existence,” Cruise says, lining up a free throw. “If someone was new or different, it was just brutal.”
Cruise didn’t make many friends as a teenager. He was withdrawn and a bit lonely and not given to expressing his feelings. “Traveling the way I did, you’re closed off a lot from people,” Cruise once said. “I didn’t express a lot to people where I moved…. I never really seemed to fit in anywhere.” He was a young man in a hurry, busting to get out. He made the great escape from Glen Ridge High School, in New Jersey — skipped his graduation, in fact — and fled to New York to begin an acting career. There things worked out almost from the start. Alas, the shock was that the real world could be pretty much like high school. People are just as eager to slap a label on you as an actor. “You think at some time you’ll outlive that and it will be different, and it’s a constant, ongoing thing to try to have people understand you,” Cruise says. “People want to put you here, put you there.”
So that’s it. That’s what it was back in the sunny hamburger restaurant, when I brought up Cruise’s trademark screen image, his “traditional audience,” and he grew unaccountably touchy. The fires had been smoldering since adolescence. “That’s why you freaked out when I started to stereotype you,” I say.
“People want to limit things,” Cruise says with feeling. “They say, ‘God, you’re going to lose everything, aren’t you afraid?’ This may be a hard thing to believe, but I don’t give a shit. I don’t care. That doesn’t mean I’ll go out and do anything, but it has nothing to do with me wanting power or me wanting money. It’s not that I don’t want money, but I never expected to have money, and I don’t need a lot. That’s not what acting is for me. I love doing it, and I want to try different things.