Tom Cruise has ruled the box office for more than 30 years, and even though he is 56-years-old, there is no telling just how long his reign could last.
His first breakout role in Risky Business in 1983 marked his arrival as a Hollywood leading man. Expectations for this summer’s sixth installment in the Mission: Impossible series, Fallout, are already sky high. In over three decades at the top of the Tinseltown heap, Cruise’s many varied triumphs have included Rain Man, Top Gun, A Few Good Men, Jerry Maguire, Magnolia, and of course, the Mission: Impossible series.
How does he do it?
The answer comes with a number of moving parts, but the bottom line is that he has run his career as a business, and understands that he is the product. Cruise has combined the virtues of being at the right place at the right time with the right look with a meticulous control of every aspect of his career to create sustained box office success. He carefully manages his roles, his money, his body, and his PR so that he can remain at the top of his game. At the same time, he has deftly adopted to the changing realities of Hollywood in order to maintain his place at the top.
Younger actors have taken note of the various methods Cruise has used to build and maintain his career. Through his sustained success, Cruise has forever changed the way that Hollywood thinks about what it means to be a star.
In 1990, Roger Ebert articulated the “Tom Cruise Formula,” breaking down the commonalities shared across Cruise’s already vast body of work:
“The elements are Cruise playing a boyish and naive, yet talented and spirited, character; a mentor (such as Paul Newman in The Color of Money or Tom Skerritt in Top Gun); a woman who’s taller and more mature than the Cruise character (Kelly McGillis in Top Gun); a craft that Cruise must master (pool hustling, cocktail mixing); the arena (a pool hall, a race track); the arcane knowledge that goes with the craft, and the trail that leads to where the masters practice their craft (the Caribbean in Cocktail, Daytona in Thunder). And don’t forget the proto-enemy who at first is a rival but becomes an ally (Michael Rooker in Thunder); the eventual enemy who surfaces toward the end of the movie (Cary Elwes in Thunder) and the friend who dies.”
This was the model Cruise followed through his early leading man roles, and though his career has evolved, this kind of precise control of the characters he plays is a constant. The Washington Post’s Ryan McCarthy and Jim Tankersley broke Cruise’s career into distinct periods that are roughly chronological. In each of these eras, you can find a number of common themes, tropes, and character arcs:
The Hyper-Talented Maverick-Entrepreneur-Cowboy-Leader: Risky Business (1983), Top Gun (1986), Days of Thunder (1990), A Few Good Men (1992), Jerry Maguire (1996), and Collateral (2004).
The Working-Class Guy Caught in the Middle of Bad Institutions: All the Right Moves (1983), Color of Money (1986), Cocktail (1988), Born on the Fourth of July (1990), Far and Away (1992), The Firm (1993), Jerry Maguire (1996), Minority Report (2002).
The Cool, Unemotional Specialist Who Saves the Public: A Few Good Men (1992), Minority Report (2002), War of the World (2005), Knight and Day (2010), Oblivion (2013), Jack Reacher (2012), Mission: Impossible Franchise
This breakdown makes it clear that Cruise understands himself as a business. He hits on a version of “Tom Cruise” the public wants and rarely deviates from that model. When he does change it up, it is as though he is testing a new “product,” and if it succeeds, he shifts the business model. After all, he couldn’t play the rakish young stud in Ray-Bans forever.
To date, Cruise has only played the villain once, in Collateral. Famously, Cruise maneuvered to fend off an attempt by Paramount to replace him with Jeremy Renner in the Mission: Impossible films, fighting tooth and nail to hang onto the role of Ethan Hunt. When he takes a minor role, it is almost as though he’s commenting on how funny an idea it is for him to take less than top billing, as in Tropic Thunder.
Tom Cruise wants you to know he is a hero, and that he is your hero.
It isn’t a new thing for an actor to understand their “type” and exploit it. Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe both played a type. But, modern actors have followed Cruise’s model of doggedly working in one particular style while simultaneously testing the waters elsewhere before their career leaves them behind. Jonah Hill and Steve Carell set up more serious dramatic careers for themselves while they were starring in big budget comedies. Jeremy Renner has been careful to pick up work in films like Wind River to carve out a more prestige niche for a time when action roles aren’t as frequent.
Margot Robbie’s recent role in I, Tonya and her upcoming Mary, Queen of Scots are clearly meant to look towards a future without Harley Quinn and bathtub cameos.
His production company
It has been said that the role of Ethan Hunt was constructed from the ground up by Tom Cruise. This is a level of control unusual for an actor, and was only possible because Cruise was acting as a producer on the film.
In 1993, Cruise formed a production company, Cruise/Wagner Productions, with his former talent agent, Paula Wagner. The first film they produced together was Mission: Impossible. The relationship between Cruise and Wagner would continue for 14 years across 13 films, generating billions of dollars.
Cruise made sure he saw a significant cut of that money. Because Cruise was a key participant in getting the film off the ground, he was able to negotiate incredibly favorable terms into his Mission: Impossible contract. The result was a historic backend agreement that involved 22% of the gross revenue. On the first film in the franchise alone, Cruise made $70 million. Not only did producing make him rich, but it afforded him even more control over his future projects.
The partnership between Wagner and Cruise would endure some of Cruise’s most erratic public behavior — including the infamous Oprah couch jumping incident — and see the team make a short-lived run at running an entire studio, United Artists.
Rebuilding United Artists proved to be impossible for the team. While Wagner and Cruise were incredibly successful at making movies together, they discovered what the two were truly good at wasn’t just making films, it was making Tom Cruise films. Their non-Cruise projects flopped. The two stopped working together and abandoned the UA project.
To this day, Cruise still works under the Cruise/Wagner umbrella though Wagner has moved on to other projects. The upcoming Top Gun: Maverick will be a Cruise/Wagner production.
It turns out that Cruise was ahead of his time. While Clint Eastwood’s Malpaso Company, formed in 1967, predated Cruise/Wagner, Cruise’s success birthed a legion of celebrity shingles, and established the celebrity production company as a common Hollywoood practice. Alicia Silverstone, Demi Moore, Kevin Costner, and Chris O’Donnell all opened companies after Cruise, but none found the same level of success.
In recent years, many A-List actors have come to view forming their own production company as an essential step in brand building. Reese Witherspoon’s Type A Films (Now Pacific Standard / Hello Sunshine) and Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment have been two of the most successful, but dozens of them proliferate throughout Hollywood. Pitt’s production company has taken home Best Picture Oscars for 12 Years A Slave and Moonlight while Witherspoon has been behind hits like Gone Girl and Big Little Lies.
If you think of Tom Cruise as a business, as well as an actor, it is a bit easier to understand why he insists on doing his own stunts. When you “buy” Tom Cruise, you get Tom Cruise. The actor famously values his connection with audiences and he views stunts as a part of that.
During the production of Mission: Impossible 2, producers had to bluff insurance companies so Cruise could perform his own stunts. The success of Mission: Impossible 3 is partially attributed to Cruise’s crazy stunt on top of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which some critics believe saved his position in the franchise. As foolish as it may sound for a man nearing retirement age to do his own stunts, Cruise and his fans view it as a necessity.
Stunt coordinator, Wade Eastwood, told the New York Post, “He stomps his feet and fights for it and tells [the studio] that basically if they don’t [let him do his stunts], he’s not going to do the movie. When he wants to do something cool, he’ll fight to the death in order to do it.”
In order to be able to perform his own stunts, Cruise keeps his body in great condition. Before it was fashionable for leading men to maintain a voracious gym schedule, Cruise was keeping his instrument in tip-top shape.
This isn’t to say that Cruise isn’t already blessed in a number of ways. The man is handsome, kind of a prerequisite for movie stardom. And at 5’7”, he ranks right in the middle in terms of average leading man height (stars historically skew shorter). But, not unlike Tom Brady and NFL quarterbacking, longevity as a leading man requires a fitness plan.
Lee Childs, the writer of the Jack Reacher books said, when Cruise was cast as the titular character, “[The character’s 6’5”] size in my books is a metaphor for an unstoppable force. Cruise portrays that in his own way.”
Part of that is intensity, but part of that is a rigorous diet and exercise routine. Cruise has been known to take training and nutrition tips from David Beckham. His 1,200 calorie diet is low on carbs and high on grilled meats. Many of Cruise’s past co-stars, including Jake Johnson and Simon Pegg, have praised his dedication to physical training and dietary discipline. Cruise is a notorious gym rat.
Stars have followed Cruise’s lead here as well. Not only do his co-stars often ask to train with him, workout routines have become as important as acting classes for aspiring A-listers. The top grossing actors of 1988 included Steve Guttenberg, Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, and Nicholas Cage (Cruise was #1). The top grossing actors of 2018 include The Rock, Chris Pratt, and Chris Hemsworth (Cruise will likely join the list after MI: 6 hits theaters).
All three of these modern leading men often grace the pages of Muscle & Fitness and Men’s Health, and are love to talk diet and workout routine in interviews. By contrast, the only articles about Steve Martin’s fitness online are ironic.
It’s clear that Tom Cruise won the battle of the bulge.
It is undeniable that Tom Cruise has one of Hollywood’s most complicated personal lives. One of the keys to understanding Tom Cruise’s career is something the star rarely talks about: Scientology.
Over the years, there have been numerous wild allegations against Cruise and the Church. It has been alleged that the Church of Scientology helped turn his children against his ex-wife Nicole Kidman, that the Church schemed to wiretap Kidman’s phone in hopes of finding evidence against her, and that Cruise was set up with girlfriends by the Church as a way of drawing publicity away from his misdeeds. When he releases a movie, there are invariably reports that interviewers are banned from discussing his religion.
Scientology has brought Cruise plenty of negative publicity, but the Church has also acted as a massive, dedicated public relations arm for the star. After The Daily Beast’s Jen Yamato wrote “Teflon Tom Cruise Dodges Scientology Controversy in Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation,” The Church of Scientology released a statement calling the outlet, “The Daily Bigot.” An article in AdWeek around the same time suggested that Scientology rank and file were instructed to flood articles about Cruise with positive comments.
While not every Hollywood star is in the thrall of a secretive religion, due to Scientology’s involvement in his public relations and his very public missteps, Cruise understood before other stars how to control a narrative. Since the first roll of film was developed for the first movie, the tabloids have been a part of a star’s life. But, Cruise understood more than most actors that, in the highest ranks of celebrity, not all publicity is actually good publicity, especially if you want the public to view you in a very specific way.
It has been argued that Tom Cruise’s 2005 couch jumping incident on Oprah changed entertainment PR forever. In the era of print-only publication, it was enough to only give the periodic guarded interview. In the Internet era – Cruise learned the hard way – you have to present a counternarrative, because blogs will find a way to make content out of you no matter what. When Cruise releases a movie today, he (and his people, and Scientology) floods the zone with stories about doing his own stunts, his age, and how dang nice he is, to pull focus from the spiritual elephant in the room.
You can see shades of Cruise’s highly protective PR in the Kardashians regulate the flow of news out of Calabasas. Kris Jenner is notorious for leaking family news when the time is right. There’s something of his carefully curated acts of public niceness in the way that every Marvel or Star Wars release is accompanied by planted stories of stars visiting kids in the hospital or participating in some viral meme. And each time a star “claps back” or “let’s it all hang out” online, you are seeing a bit of Cruise’s playbook on your timeline.
A business, man
Tom Cruise has often been called “The Last Movie Star.” This isn’t exactly true. The Rock, Kevin Hart, Chris Pratt, and Melissa McCarthy would certainly beg to differ. But, if you look at these megastars, you see that they have all adopted Cruise’s playbook to some extent.
The Rock exerts a Cruise-like control over his PR and practices a rigorous fitness routine. McCarthy has a razor sharp focus on her brand as an actress, pumping out films that audiences would recognize as distinctive to her. Like Cruise, however, she is looking to diversify her portfolio with the smaller film Can You Ever Forgive Me, set for release later this year. Increasingly, stars are partnering with producers to create their own production companies, exerting control over their content pipeline. Reese Witherspoon, Brad Pitt, and Kevin Hart have all shifted their careers in that direction.
In a number of ways, Tom Cruise has single-handedly set the tone for what it means to be a star.
Cruise is not the last movie star, but he understands that he is an endangered species. As film grows increasingly franchise driven and monolithic, it takes more for an actor to claw their way to box office dominance and stay there. In short, being an A-list actor is like being a corporation unto yourself, and no one has done that better than Tom Cruise Inc.
For more movie news, check out the trailer for Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, ‘Mid90s.’