"They said, ‘Do you want an assist?’" says Chatwin. "And I was like, ‘What’s an assist?’ And they said, ‘It’s kind of like a back massage.’ So I said, ‘Of course, I’ll take an assist! Can this be a 45-minute assist?’ So I lay down on the table and they assisted me. It’s really relaxing."

Cruise says there’s nothing more to the tents than simple goodwill. "My crew work very, very long hours," he says. "I’ll do whatever I can to help them." Or anyone else, for that matter. "I’ve always looked at things in terms of, Is this improving, helping people, or is it not helping people?" says Cruise. "And is it helping me, or not helping me? Is this helping the world?"

"The last time I saw Tom I was talking to him about some things," recalls his close friend and Collateral co-star Jada Pinkett Smith, who now home-schools her kids with Hubbard’s Study Technology. "Just the difficulty in helping people be better. How people will resist that. And he’s like, ‘Hell, no! You don’t ask permission to help somebody! No, no, no, no . . . That’s not how you go about that.’ I thought that was interesting."

Sydney Pollack, who co-starred with Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut and directed him in The Firm, sees Cruise’s strong embrace of Scientology as part of a personality that takes no half-measures. "He’s dead serious about what he gets into," Pollack says. "During Eyes Wide Shut, he didn’t know how to cook anything, so he would sit there and videotape everything I did and write it all down and practice them. And now he can cook every single one of those dishes. I’m quite sure there’s something in Scientology that works in a positive way for him—that he finds a sense of validity or encouragement or motivation—or he wouldn’t be doing it."

"Catholicism, Judaism, Buddhism—whatever gets you through the night," says director Harold Becker, who gave Cruise his big break in Taps. "People look in from the outside at someone like Tom Cruise and they say, ‘How wonderful to be blessed that way, with everything.’ But nobody ever knows what torments anyone has to go through."

Cruise calls from 30,000 feet up in the air, somewhere over mid-America. He is on a private plane to Rome to accept a David di Donatello award—Italy’s Oscar—for lifetime achievement. It is two days after our meeting at H.E.L.P., and unbeknownst to me (and everyone else), he will shortly make a pit stop in New York to pick up Katie Holmes for their Roman holiday. On the phone, Cruise continues to try to explain his church and his beliefs, and it prompts an existential question—what does he think happens when someone dies? "They leave their body and go get another one," he says matter-of-factly. "I believe in reincarnation, absolutely. I believe that man is not his body. He’s a spiritual being. And he lives many lifetimes."