H.E.L.P. is a learning center based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbardís Study Technology, which Cruise credits with curing his dyslexia. After a tour of the place, we go upstairs to a nondescript room and sit around a coffee table filled with platters of nuts and cookies and raw vegetables. Cruise takes off his tan leather jacket, revealing a T-shirt thatís the same deep-green color as his eyes. In jeans, with his short helmet-mussed hair, he looks a good 10 years younger than 42. He cracks open a bottle of water and grabs a handful of cashews. Itís easy to see the five-foot-seven, squarely built Cruise as Ray Ferrier, the blue-collar deadbeat dad he plays in War of the Worlds, Spielbergís $135 million take on H.G. Wellsí classic science-fiction novel.

"Ray is more of a child than his children," Cruise says. "His back story is kind of Bruce Springsteenís ĎThe Riverí—first love, got married, had children, ended up getting divorced. And parents, if they tend to not do well with children, they love them, but they just step back."

The family dynamic is familiar to Cruise, whose parents divorced when he was 12, leaving him the man of the house with three sisters and a mother who worked three, sometimes four jobs at a time. Cruise didnít see his father, an electrical engineer, for about 10 years. "Emotionally, he was having a tough time in life," Cruise recalls. "But I also know that in his own way, he was trying to help. He just was incapable of doing it. And, you know, some people hurt when they help, and when that happens, they feel bad and withdraw."

In 1983, newly famous thanks to Risky Business and All the Right Moves, Cruise received a call from his grandmother, who told him his father was dying. "So I went and saw him," Cruise says quietly. "It was very powerful, because the last time I saw him I was a boy, and now Iím a young man. I felt bad for him." He sighs a heavy sigh. "You know, it happened. Whatever. Iím gonna live my life and be the person that I want to be. And do the right thing. Thatís what I felt—I want to do the right thing."

That weighted relationship is in sharp contrast to the one he has with his mother, a devout Catholic who became a Scientologist two years ago. Even during the most trying times she never wavered in seeing the world sunny-side up.

"We called her Merry Mary Lee because she just laughed, a big beautiful southern laugh," remembers Cruise. "If I got lost or separated from her, I would just wait in the mall, wherever we were, and Iíd just close my eyes and wait for her to laugh." He closes his eyes, hearing her now. "It was so loud and distinct that I would go to that laugh. Where is she, where is she, where is she?"