It had to happen. Tom Cruise has fallen out of Hollywood’s good graces and joined the ranks of the industry’s unsavory characters.
He’s gone gray and grizzled. That blinding, boyish grin, his trademark the last two decades, now is reserved for moments of morbidly twisted humor.
Cruise has transformed from hitmaker to hitman in “Collateral.” It’s his first turn as an all-around bad guy, a contract killer who hijacks a taxi and forces the driver (Jamie Foxx) to ferry him from hit to hit on a one-night spree across Los Angeles.
It’s a major sea change when an era’s biggest leading man turns to the dark side after playing the action hero, the dashing romancer and the crusader for justice.
“I really dug the story and dug the character. I just choose roles where I go, ‘OK, this is interesting, I’ve never played this before,”’ Cruise said.
“I look for characters that I feel are going to be challenging. This is definitely right out there. A very, very complex character, playing this anti-social personality.”
Though he has earned three Academy Award nominations, Cruise has yet to rise to the level of peers such as Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington and Sean Penn as serious actors. “Collateral” is a reminder that Cruise has more depth and willingness to go to dark places than his heroic turns would imply. But, as Cruise points out, it’s not like everyone he’s played before is a candidate for sainthood.
“If you look at it, I really play a lot of different kinds of characters,” Cruise said, and he chooses them for their creative appeal, not to fit the mold of his public image.
“I don’t look at things in the third person. I’m me. I don’t know how to go, ‘What are people going to think?’ I don’t live my life like that. I live in terms of, I like this material. Can I make it work?”
In “Collateral,” Cruise does make it work, bolstered by a tremendous foil in Foxx’s frantic cabbie, plus nice support from Jada Pinkett Smith as a prosecutor and Mark Ruffalo as a cop on his trail.
Playing against type
Cruise’s killer Vincent, with salt-and-pepper hair and scruffy beard, stalks the night with absolute bravado and amorality. He’s a perversely likable villain akin to Washington’s corrupt cop in “Training Day” or Anthony Hopkins’ serial killer Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs.”
In Cruise’s words, Vincent is “rough trade in a good suit.”
“If Tom had played this guy a couple other times, I wouldn’t have been enthused about the notion of it,” said “Collateral” director Michael Mann (“The Insider,” “Ali”).
“But I hadn’t seen him do anything like this character, and I know he could, there’s no doubt about it. So it presented itself as a great opportunity to have Tom play it, and it’s such a complex character in his incarnation of him.”
No stranger to gunplay in movies, Cruise had to learn a whole new style of handling firearms, training with live rounds on a police firing range for the first time. Mann had him repeat the art of assembling a gun and snapping off rounds until the weapons became another appendage of his body and the action became second nature, Cruise said.
He also had to get into the head space of a professional killer, doing mental drills to case out targets and bystanders, memorize details and study locations for their layouts and exits.
“Just looking at life from that perspective everywhere you are,” Cruise said. “You get in a room like this, you go, all right, I’ve got three points of egress, and I know the second I walk in, you’re facing here, OK, and no one’s around there. This is the way these guys think.
“Just looking at the moral code, looking in terms of what I know about life, he’s the antithesis of who I am and how I feel about people and humanity,” Cruise said.
Personal and professional struggles
Though his marriage to Nicole Kidman broke up three years ago, Cruise sounds as much the doting family man as ever when he mentions their two children.
He places much of the credit for his longevity in Hollywood with the Church of Scientology, founded by L. Ron Hubbard. His faith in the church is so strong that he launches unbidden into a harsh, five-minute condemnation of psychiatry as a destructive pseudo-science, a belief espoused by Scientology.
Cruise readily drops the subject to resume discussing Hollywood matters, particularly his next project, a third “Mission: Impossible” movie. Director Joe Carnahan recently departed the sequel, citing creative differences with the filmmakers, which include Cruise and partner Paula Wagner as producers.
The movie originally had been scheduled for release next May, but distributor Paramount pushed it back to late June, a date that would be hard to make now. Cruise has not yet settled on a new director, and shooting, which was supposed to begin in early autumn, has been delayed for at least a few weeks.
“I will definitely make ‘Mission: Impossible.’ No question, I am going to make it. I really love making those movies,” Cruise said. “It’s just a matter of who and when, but I’m definitely going to make it.”
Cruise also hopes to re-team with Mann for “The Few,” a film biography of Billy Fiske, an American pilot who fought with the British before the United States’ entry into World War II. It will be a return to the air for Cruise, who rose to superstardom playing a daring aviator in “Top Gun” and is a licensed pilot and stunt-flying enthusiast.
Also in the works is a reunion with Steven Spielberg, who directed Cruise in 2002’s sci-fi thriller “Minority Report.” The two plan to collaborate on an update of H.G. Wells’ Martian-invasion tale “The War of the Worlds.”
Cruise also is thinking ahead to his personal future after his three-year relationship with Penelope Cruz, his co-star in “Vanilla Sky,” ended early this year.
“I’m looking,” Cruise said with a hearty laugh. “Nothing official, nothing official...I really am the kind of guy who’s going to get married again. But if I meet a girl, I’m not going to marry her next week. But I really do love relationships, but nothing, nothing official.”