by Tim Nasson
New York City – It has been a year, almost to the week, that I sat down with Tom Cruise to discuss Collateral – one of last summer’s biggest box office hits. That Tom Cruise, the one I had met many times before – beginning in 1993 when he was in Boston filming The Firm, and again a year later, while picking up his Hasty Pudding Award at Harvard University, and myriad times thereafter for various movies he was promoting – was the Tom Cruise you and I had come to know: The reserved Tom Cruise. The professional Tom Cruise.
A lot can change in a year, especially when one fires their publicist of more than two decades – a fiercely protective, motherly woman of age, (seventy three to be exact), with more than fifty years of publicity experience, who knows how to say ‘no’ to not only her clients but specifically the media. Yes, late last year, Tom Cruise fired his publicist, Pat Kingsley – and hired one of his sisters in her stead.
The new, forty-three year old Tom Cruise first materialized in late-May of this year when he surprised the world on The Oprah Winfrey Show that he is a certifiable nutcase – jumping up and down on her couch, a la Risky Business, professing his love for a mediocre actress sixteen years his junior, (Katie Holmes). Moreover, there seems to be less chemistry between the two than there would be between a lion and cobra.
The old Tom Cruise never talked about Scientology. Nor, when paired with what looked to be another publicity stunt, Penelope Cruz, after making Vanilla Sky together, showed even the slightest form of public display of affection. He even went so far as to sue anyone who claimed he had been involved in gay relationships.
Any actor, or person for that matter, with a modicum of civility and couth, would stand clear of ‘posing’ for the cameras or inviting cameras to tow along on a whirlwind world tour, as Cruise did for War of the Worlds, which is based on the more than century old H.G. Wells novel. Yes, his sister, his publicist, invited various television press to join their “War” train, which traveled across Europe, to catalogue every Tom and Kate choreographed kiss, hug and bow. How genuine does anyone think Cruise’s proposal to Holmes at the Eiffel Tower was?
A week before anyone in the United States was allowed to screen War of the Worlds, I sat at a near empty screening room in New York City along with a handful of my colleagues, each of us who were to interview Cruise and Steven Spielberg the next day.
After watching the movie it was even clearer to me, or at least it seemed, that the reason for all this nonsensical posing and carrying-on was due to the movie’s clear lack of box office potential. Did Cruise and his publicist sister think that by turning all of the attention from the movie to Cruise himself would deflect from the horrid reviews – and horrific word of mouth – the movie will presumably receive?
Fast forward a day. It is Wednesday, a full week before War of the Worlds‘ theatrical debut. There are rumors that Steven Spielberg is not going to appear for interviews with the press as he had been scheduled.
Fret not. Precisely at 5:15pm, right on time, both Cruise and Spielberg walk into a cozy ballroom at The Essex House on Central Park South, where hand picked and very few press from around the world – the ones who were not invited onto the “War” train – are waiting to ask questions.
It’s not going to be easy. For Cruise that is. “What city is this?” Cruise, laughing, asks the small crowd gathered around him and Spielberg, trying to loosen himself up.
The typical nonsensical questions arise from the chosen few press. “What are you going to do to eclipse that of the marriage proposal?” is one, from Us Weekly. Vomit. Who cares?
“I jumped up and down on my couch,” laughs Cruise, again, trying to get comfortable, “when Steven sent me the first 84 pages of War of the Worlds. I wanted it all. All 125 pages. I couldn’t wait to finish reading it and was intent on making the movie.”
Then came the question of the day, from The Boston Phoenix’s Gary Sussman. “Did you relate at all to the movie, to the aliens, since aliens are a major part of Scientology?”
“What?” screamed Cruise. “Are you for real? Are you serious, man? Who are you? What paper do you write for? I have never heard of it. Does anyone read it?” Spielberg, who was sitting close enough to Cruise to touch him, was grinning and said, “Oh. It’s a big paper.” In fact, it’s been around for more than 30 years and is Boston’s most successful alternative weekly, catering to the more than 1 million college students in and around Boston. Sussman, it should be noted, is a Harvard grad and has been with the paper for more than fifteen years.
“You know nothing about Scientology,” continued the ranting Cruise. “There is no correlation between the religion and aliens.”
A minute later, Cruise, speaking directly to Sussman, his blood pressure a little lower, now, says, “If you really want to know what Scientology is about, these are some books you can read…” and began rattling the names of at least four that explain his religion.
Well, if Cruise exclaims that Scientology and aliens are far from related, what is his opinion about intelligent life anywhere else in the universes? “Do I think there is life anywhere else? No one knows. There may be and there may not be,” he answers, or rather refuses to answer.
Spielberg on the other hand has a better response. “I can’t imagine anyone in the world thinks that we are the only intelligent creatures in any universe. However, do I think aliens have made contact with earth? In the 70s I thought so, for sure. I am much more skeptical now. There are millions of video cameras in the world, now, and yet with the millions of people who claim to have seen aliens, UFOs and/or been captured by aliens, there is not one image captured on any video camera to prove such.”
As for the movie, War of the Worlds, both Spielberg and Cruise rant about its second biggest name, yet smallest star, Dakota Fanning. “She has an incredible gift,” exclaims Spielberg, of the eleven year old, going on thirty prodigy. “There is no question that she is one in a billion. She doesn’t question her talent or know how to answer questions when asked about it. I think she is unaware of it. She is just a natural.”
Cruise added, “Yes, she even sends Thank You notes out of all sincerity. It’s not like her mother is telling her to write them.”
Cruise, who seems to always be full of energy explains how he manages to stay so active, focused and positive. “I have a huge interest in life,” he proclaims. “It keeps me energized. I am interested in people. There are a lot of tools in Scientology that have helped me be the person that I am today. Tools that have helped me overcome many barriers.”
Spielberg, who does not wear his Judaism on his sleeve, (he is even a Kosher Jew), perks up when I ask one of the last questions. “I don’t do DVD commentaries on my movies,” he answers, “for a simple reason. Movies are made to be interpreted however anyone wants to interpret them. They are magic. Whether it is E.T. or Schindler’s List or The Color Purple, the movie is a magical experience and I don’t want to taint the experience for anyone with any longwinded diatribe about what was going through my mind while filming scene after scene. Maybe, years down the line, when I retire, for posterity sake, I will do a box set of all my movies, replete with commentary. But don’t count on it.”
Finally, Spielberg answers one of the most intriguing questions of the day. What’s with the box office slump?
“Movies are losing money at the box office not because of video games, DVDs, and home theater systems and/or inadequate or less than stellar movie theaters. Movies are not making money at theaters because Hollywood is not making what people want to see. It is as simple as that.”
War of the Worlds, which took less than six months from first shot to final tweak, before hitting theaters will be a big test. Yes, it stars Hollywood’s biggest actor and is helmed by its richest and most powerful director. And it is reportedly the most expensive movie ever made. (More than $240 million to make. With both Cruise and Spielberg not taking a dime up-front, rather waiting and hoping for a percentage of the film’s worldwide gross). But is it something that people will want to plop down their hard earned money at? We shall soon find out.
Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg War of the Worlds Interview by Tim Nasson.