Staying on top in Hollywood, now that’s a real mission impossible. But it’s something Tom Cruise has managed for 20 years. Like the can-do heroes he plays, he seems to conquer whatever comes his way with lots of hard work, unwavering dedication, and a flash of that famous grin. His latest movie mission is portraying a Civil War captain, who comes to learn the way of the Samurai. Meanwhile, just keeping up with the guy is risky business.
Okay, it wasn't exactly the Tour de France, but our two-mile trek along a Santa Monica dirt trail was still a leg-burner. We’d asked Tom Cruise what he liked to do for fun. Be careful what you ask for. but there was no way I was going to spend an afternoon with top-gun Tom in the granny gear.
Tom Cruise: “Now she’s pourin’ on the speed. She’s kickin’ it!”
Katie Couric: “Bikin’ with Tom. That’s me.”
Cruise: “Just kickin’ it with Katie. You’re good, girl!”
The mountain biking was Cruise’s idea — the sushi picnic in the park was ours. We felt it apropos, since he’s about to release his next film, “The Last Samurai,” an epic story about an American calvary officer’s search for redemption amid the upheaval of late-nineteenth-century Japan.
At 41, Tom Cruise is still one of Hollywood’s most beautiful and bankable stars. He’s still saying “show me the money” to studios that reportedly dish out $20 million a picture. But if you ask him, you’ll find out Cruise’s favorite roles are off-screen: as boyfriend to sultry Spanish actress Penelope Cruz, and father to his two children, eight-year-old Connor and 10-year-old Isabella.
Couric: “I know, Tom, that you really make a huge effort to be there for your kids, but it must be hard, is it? Because you’re on location, you’re traveling. I mean, your work schedule is so demanding.”
Cruise: “But I— the schedule goes around the kids. That’s what we do. They’re the priority.”
Couric: “Did they come with you, for example, to Japan?”
Cruise: “No, not to Japan. But they were in New Zealand, and they, you know, what greater place to learn about life? And I feel as a parent, my job is to educate them and give them the ability to make good decisions and learn about the world. And they have an opportunity that I never had, they get to see the world. So they have a great life, you know. I want to be my kids.”
Couric: “Me, too.”
Still, when your dad is Tom Cruise and your mom is Nicole Kidman, and shared custody means dividing time between New York, Los Angeles and Australia, life could, at times, seem a little unconventional.
Cruise: “You know, people say, well, what about a normal life? I didn’t have a normal life growing up. It wasn’t normal. I’ve never met a normal person. Like what do you say, he’s normal? You know, when you meet someone, and you start looking at their life and what they’re going through and their challenges, their problems, the things that they enjoy, everyone’s different. Everyone has a story. Everyone has a story.”
Tom Cruise’s story was interesting long before he gyrated in his Fruit-of-the-Looms in “Risky Business” back in 1983. Cruise, the son of divorced parents, grew up on the move, with 18 different addresses in just eight years. And being diagnosed with dyslexia at age seven didn’t help the new kid in school make friends. But for Cruise, the instability wasn’t so much a hurdle as a catalyst for restless ambition.
Cruise: “People say, well, you know, you work hard. You’re a perfectionist. No, I take pride in what I do. I take pride in the way that I live my life and I want to do great work. And I want it to be a great experience. And I’m not one of these — I don’t like sitting on a beach reading. If I’m going to go to a beach we’re going to go, you know, the kids and I we’re going to go in the waves. We’re going to go, you know, for a hike. We’re going to, you know, I want adventure.”
And what a ride it’s been, with 27 films in 22 years, three Oscar nominations, and box-office receipts worth almost $2.5 billion.
Couric: “So, Tom, I’m reading the production notes and of course they have a little resume of your career. And I kept reading it and kept reading it, because I thought, did I see that Tom Cruise has never won an Academy Award? What’s the deal?”
Cruise: “It’s cool to be nominated. And if it ever happens one day it’ll be fun. And if it doesn’t happen, that’s cool, too.”
You could say Cruise has made all the right moves. even on the personal side, his very public divorce from Nicole Kidman now seems amicable.
Couric: “It seems like after a tough period, that you all have kind of come to terms with the situation, and are friends, and have got into a certain kind of rhythm for your lives, for your lives separately now.”
Cruise: “I’ve always loved Nick. And I always will. Always. And, you know, that will never change, the times that we’ve had together. And I’ve always just wanted her to be happy. And enjoy her life and we’re in a great place right now. And that’s what I want. I want her to be happy.”
Apparently, she is. News that Kidman’s been consorting with rock ‘n’ roll rebel Lenny Kravitz has been widely reported. And naturally, everyone’s wondering if Penelope will be Penelope Cruz Cruise.
Couric: “How’s Penelope doing?”
Cruise: “Oh, she’s doing good. She’s a good girl.”
Couric: “Do you think you’ll ever remarry?”
Cruise: “Do you think you’ll ever get remarried?”
Couric: “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Cruise: “I’m not going to rule it out at all. I like relationships. I enjoy that — I’m not opposed to marriage at all. I think it’s a great thing.”
And it’s an appreciation for tradition that led Cruise to “The Last Samurai.” He plays Captain Nathan Algren, a disillusioned Civil-war hero haunted by the deeds of his past. In a world where courage, sacrifice, and honor are forgotten words, Algren discovers Bushido, the way of the warrior, virtues practiced not just on the battlefield, but in daily life as well.
Cruise: “What people don’t really know about Bushido, the code of honor, and integrity and honor, compassion. Those are things that, you know, I’d honored. You know, things that I’m interested in and I’m passionate about. It’s a deeply romantic movie, yet it has, you know, has grit. It has courage in its execution.”
Couric: “What does honor mean to you?”
Cruise: “I think it’s doing the right thing, doing what is correct even in the face of adversity. And if you know something is right, you do that, and you stand up for what you believe in, what you know is correct.”
“The Last Samurai” was two long years in the making, during which Cruise immersed himself in rigorous training: horseback riding, hand-to-hand combat, and Samurai sword-fighting.
Ed Zwick (director): “Tom knows only one way to commit, and that’s completely. The philosophy is all about discipline. The philosophy is all about a kind of complete immersion and absorption, and I think that describes how he approaches something. There is something about Tom that already was Samurai before the movie began, and is only going more so.”
Tom Cruise fans won’t be disappointed to discover there is a romantic subplot, but the love scenes are in keeping with Samurai virtues of discipline and respect, even when the object of Algren’s affection prepares him for battle.
Couric: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a sexy scene on the big screen when someone’s actually getting dressed. I was like, wow, it was so erotic.”
Cruise: “I’m glad you liked that. Good.”
Couric: “Can we try it later?”
Perhaps the film’s greatest challenge was the juxtaposition of elegance and serenity with the violence and brutality of war. And in the late 1800s, the Samurai way of life was being threatened by Japan’s lust for modernization.
Cruise: “The culture is a beautiful culture. You know, the way they dress. The way they eat.”
Couric: “And a cleanliness to everything.”
Cruise: “And it’s not about, let’s go out and kill people. It’s about, sometimes you have to fight.”
Couric: “To protect all the things we just mentioned.”
Couric: “Watching this movie Tom, I sort of thought, my life is too insane and hectic, I need a simpler more serene lifestyle. [Laughter] And, of course, I decided, you know, I wanted to quit work and go live in a little village and eat rice and you know, tend to the crops. But when you made this did you kind of long for that kind of life where there is an inner peace? And a serenity that seems so hard to come by today?”
Cruise: “Yeah, I feel that though in my life. I do have that in my life.”
Couric: “Really? You feel like you have that center? That inner peace? That tranquility that—”
Cruise: “Oh yeah, sure I do. Yeah, I mean there’s moments when I don’t, but yeah, absolutely, I do. I do. I do feel that.”
Couric: “Where do you get that? Can I have some?” [Laughter]
Cruise: “It’s called Scientology.”
Scientology is a religious philosophy founded by the late L. Ron Hubbard, who developed a series of unique self-help formulas, intended to clear Scientologists of any negative past experiences. But there are some who have been critical of Scientology’s practices. As I soon found out, when questioned about his religion, Tom Cruise defends Scientology with passion and intensity.
Couric: “You know, that still is so controversial, isn’t it?”
Cruise: “Controversial but with who?”
Couric: “By who, though? That’s who—”
Couric: “I think the consensus sort of in the public and people who are not involved in Scientology is that—”
Cruise: “See you’re wrong.”
Couric: “— it’s weird and — you don’t think so?”
Cruise: “Absolutely, you’re wrong. And I can tell you that my personal experience with it, you know, I’ve been a Scientologist for going on, I guess 17 years. And it’s extraordinary, it’s extraordinary. And you know, you always have to look at someone who criticizes you, you have to look at them and say, okay, so? Who is that person? Why? What do they know? And I can tell you, you’re sitting in front of a Scientologist who knows. And I can tell you from my personal experience it’s been extraordinary for me. I wouldn’t be here where I am today without, you know, those things to help me out.”
Couric: “So this obviously annoys you, I can tell.”
Cruise: “Well I think it’s bigotry. And it’s people’s ignorance. And it’s something that I am offended by. Absolutely I’m offended by what you said, everyone and everybody, and that’s not true.”
Couric: “Do you think Scientology is misunderstood by the general public?”
Cruise: “Well I think Scientology is misunderstood by some people. But I think also you look at Scientology it is the fastest growing religion. It’s helped so many people. I know it, because I use it and I am a Scientologist. And it’s extraordinary, is what it is.”
Cruise has even funded a Scientology-based treatment center for firefighters who developed physical and emotional problems responding to the World Trade Center disaster. Some of them say it is a program that has significantly improved their health.
Cruise: “We’re suppose to help each other. You know, we’re suppose to help. And if you know something that’s going to help, and not pretend help, not, oh this is going to help and down you go, you know? But real help. So I am passionate about it. I am committed to that, no question.”
The Bushido code of honor emphasized, among other things, loyalty, courage, sincerity and sacrifice. Tom Cruise says he may not be a perfect living example of that, but he’s working on it.
Cruise: “You know, when I make choices, it’s not just what is best for me. You know, it’s what is the right thing. What is the right thing to do. And I think through everything that I’ve been through, that I feel I can sit here and say I feel good about it. I feel good about the decisions that I made and I’m happy. You know, I’m really happy.”
Always on the move, Tom Cruise is already filming his next project, a new thriller with director Michael Mann, called “Collateral.” “The Last Samurai” opens on December 5.