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Behind Tom Cruise's apparent outburst, Covid-era anxieties and power imbalances

The audio recording is a clear sign that the actor is under pressure, industry professionals say. But it also raises questions about Hollywood’s culture.
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When the film producer Anna Halberg first heard the leaked audio of the actor Tom Cruise apparently erupting at crew members on the set of "Mission: Impossible 7," reportedly because he believed they breached Covid-19 protocols, she wondered if the outburst was entirely professional.

And yet Halberg, who has spent recent months on the set of a science fiction movie in Hungary, understood the fierce urgency of Cruise's words, heated as they may have been. Covid-19, she said in a phone interview, is a serious threat that film crews need to take seriously.

"I think there is a heightened level of anxiety around making sure the production doesn't shut down, making sure you're not spending extra money, and of course keeping people safe and healthy," Halberg, who is producing the sci-fi film "Distant" for Steven Spielberg's company Amblin Partners, said.

"You can definitely feel that tension on set," she said, adding that the crew on "Distant" thoroughly abided by "strict" Covid-19 guidelines: masks, face shields, social distancing, three-times-a-week testing, extensive sanitization.

The leaked audio was published by the British tabloid newspaper The Sun, which reported that Cruise was berating two crew members who he believed had broken Covid-19 safety protocols while filming the latest "Mission: Impossible" franchise entry near London.

NBC News has not confirmed the authenticity of the audio or its context, but it has reached out to Cruise's representatives, the actor's lawyers and Paramount Pictures. The New York Times and Variety both cited unnamed sources close to the film confirming the authenticity of the recording.

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In the leaked audio, Cruise appears to tell the crew that Hollywood is relying on would-be blockbusters like theirs to boost the film industry in a time of stalled productions and theater closures.

"We want the gold standard. They’re back there in Hollywood making movies right now because of us, because they believe in us and what we’re doing," Cruise said, according to the recording.

High stakes, uncertain times

Jeremy Hartman, a cinematographer who has worked on music videos and commercials during the pandemic, said he believed the pressure to comply with the new rules was especially great on top-level producers, financiers and executives behind projects.

The stakes are high for those figures even in a normal year, but especially so these days: Coronavirus-free productions could set a template for movies and television shows stalled by the pandemic, and producers could take a major reputational and financial hit if something goes awry, Hartman said. They're also responsible for the safety of a small army of actors and behind-the-scenes workers.

Image: Tom Cruise
Tom Cruise and crew members on the set of "Mission: Impossible 7" in Rome, Italy, on Oct. 9, 2020.Agostino Fabio / GC Images

"He feels he's putting his reputation on the line, judging by his outburst," Hartman said. (Cruise is both the star of the "Mission: Impossible" series and one of its producers, not to mention a world-famous celebrity with legions of fans.)

But the realities of shooting during a pandemic also weigh heavily on ground-level craftspeople and technicians, Hartman added: "There's obviously an extra level of risk we have to take because we want to work, and we want to feed our families, too."

Yves Wilson, a union camera assistant whose credits include the Robert Downey Jr. version of "Sherlock Holmes" and the FX drama series "The Americans," said he believed most crew members were united in their commitment to abiding by Covid-19 protocols, cumbersome as they might be on occasion.

"You know, as annoying as it may be to wear both an N95 [mask] and a face shield and other gear while we work, it's a relief to know there are rules in place to protect us, at least on most productions," he said.

Wilson felt some "hesitation" about returning to physical sets in late August, when he began getting opportunities to work on documentaries, commercials and the upcoming Queen Latifah crime drama "The Equalizer." But once he got back on the job, he felt grateful.

"I think there is an agreement where it's basically, 'Listen, we are very lucky to be working right now.' You can make a pretty good living in the industry while a lot of Americans are struggling and out of work," he said.

Toxic tirade?

Twitter, Facebook and other platforms flooded with reactions to Cruise's apparent rant Wednesday. The verdict was decidedly mixed, with many observers commending him for taking such an aggressive stand, and some of his fellow actors — George Clooney, Whoopi Goldberg, Josh Gad — coming to his defense. But many others faulted the veteran actor for what they saw as an unnecessarily cruel and expletive-laden tirade against workers who have significantly less power.

"lol all these people defending Tom Cruise have clearly never worked in a toxic environment under a screaming, egotistical man," the writer Olivia J. Rowe tweeted in one characteristic reaction.

The entertainment industry professionals who spoke to NBC News generally agreed that the angry tone of Cruise's apparent outburst was out of bounds. The recording is sure to draw particular scrutiny, given renewed focus on what has been described as Hollywood's culture of bullying.

"Hollywood has an entrenched and endemic issue with bullying that is exacerbated by the industry’s power imbalances,” the Hollywood Commission on Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality, led by Anita Hill, said in a report released in October.

Melanie Liu, a producer who has worked on television commercials and digital ad campaigns, said she could "understand the sentiment behind what he said."

"I get the frustration," Liu, who has produced advertisements for Kleenex and other major brands, said.

But the apparent rant also inspired her to look inward: What if she had behaved that way on a set?

"I can't even imagine how I would be reprimanded," she said. "That's not a way that I can act on the set, and we shouldn't, we certainly shouldn't exclude him from following that type of standard."

"He's a rich, powerful white man that has been placed on this pedestal on a world stage," Liu went on to say. "But if I, a young Asian American woman, took that tone with my crew on a set — that just wouldn't be acceptable."

Ava DuVernay, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker behind "Selma" and the Netflix miniseries "When They See Us," struck a similar chord in a tweet Wednesday morning.

"If you’ve shot during the pandemic, you know the Herculean effort it is to keep a project going within Covid protocols. Then some dude doesn’t wanna wear his shield? Nah. Been there. Felt the rage," DuVernay wrote, apparently alluding to the Cruise incident.

She added: "Also: If I did that on set, I’d be directing icing videos for the local bakery."