“Listen, I have Suri right here, who’s falling asleep,“ Tom Cruise says sotto voce. He wants you to know that he’s not speaking softly to sound intense. Suri murmurs. Something about scissors. “What? You don’t want to get your hair cut?“ Cruise is apologetic—he asks, “Do you have kids?“ The most powerful star in the world really doesn’t want you to think his cherubic daughter’s feelings about bangs rule his life.
Or maybe that’s precisely what he does want you to think. There’s always an ulterior motive with Tom Cruise, right? Something sinister lurking behind his sunny demeanor (he sure does smile a lot), his absurd good looks (we hate that in a leading man), and, most of all, his aggressive sincerity. And now he’s coming back to us dark, subversive, disfigured: The most quintessentially all-American movie star since John Wayne is donning an eye patch and a prosthetic forearm stump and daring you to root for him in a Nazi uniform. Hell yes, he’s got a motive and you can read as much into it as you want: He intends to make you rethink some fundamental assumptions, like who’s good and who’s evil. “When you make people reconsider something that they’re so certain of . . . I found it very compelling. It’s the reason I’m doing it,“ Cruise says. “When I was a kid, we’d play war, you know, and it was always Kill the Nazis.’ I wanted to kill Hitler.“ Cruise laughs. In his new movie, Valkyrie, he plays Claus von Stauffenberg, an aristocratic Bavarian army officer who joins the German resistance and leads an attempt to assassinate the führer and wrest Germany from Nazi Party control. The historical thriller, due out the day after Christmas, was directed by Bryan Singer. Fittingly enough, Singer’s last film was Superman Returns, whose plot reads like a pulp-novel retelling of Tom Cruise’s past few years: American icon leaves the scene to attend to family affairs; during his absence, his adoring public starts to believe it no longer needs him—until, that is, the clean-cut hero resurfaces at a dark time and everyone sees just how indispensable he is. The question is why Tom Cruise would make his triumphant return in a film this complex, this heavy (its tagline: “Many Saw Evil. They Dared to Stop It.“).
“There’s always someone telling you not to make a movie,“ he says. “When I did Born on the Fourth of July, they said, This is going to ruin your career. What are you doing?’ Suicide? I’ve committed it. There were people who didn’t want me to make Top Gun.“ Of course, Cruise won that roll of the dice in the days before playing a loose-cannon Navy jet pilot nicknamed “Maverick“ had any connotations. The stakes are different this time. Cruise is 46 years old. His eyes and cheeks are settling ever so slightly into his chiseled face, as you’ve probably noticed in the paparazzi shots of him with Katie and Suri. And, of course, Mr. All the Right Moves has been sort of idle for a while.
In spite of or perhaps because of his recent self-imposed sabbatical, the Tom Cruise of 2008 is able to operate above the entertainment industry. He’s MI-free—liberated from having to save the day, get the girl, or be Tom Cruise. If he wants to decry political apathy about the war in Afghanistan (and play alongside Meryl Streep and Robert Redford), he can slip into the role of an oily, scheming senator in Lions for Lambs. If he’s in the mood to mock Hollywood, he can take an unbilled cameo as a balding, ball-busting studio exec in Tropic Thunder. “When I was working with Ben Stiller, I said, I want to play this character, but I’ve got to dance,’“ says Cruise. “I haven’t danced that much since Risky Business!“ And if he wants to make you see the good in something that the whole world views as monolithically evil (that’d be Nazi Germany—not Cruise himself), well, he can do that, too.
Do you really doubt he can pull it off? To get Valkyrie made, he had to win over a country that’s moved to outlaw his religion—one German official called him “the Joseph Goebbels of Scientology“—and refused to let him shoot at the army’s historic Berlin headquarters, the Benderblock. The tabloids feasted and the nabobs of negativity nattered every time it seemed Cruise’s comeback vehicle had blown a tire, but the star prevailed. “That was always just a small group,“ he says of his German critics. “When there was finally dialogue between us and they realized what it was we were doing with the story, they relented. This was a hard movie to make on many levels—but that was just one challenge.“
He won’t go into the other hardships; appearing to ask for sympathy would be . . . un-Cruise-worthy. But he clearly felt a connection to Stauffenberg, his crisis of conscience and his conflicting loyalties. “Certain decisions at points in my life . . . I absolutely related,“ he says. “Stauffenberg went from saying, Someone should shoot that bastard’ to realizing, I’m the only one who can do it. You can’t really know until you’re under that kind of pressure. I’m not saying this in some chest-pounding way, but I do feel I’d have that kind of courage.“
It’s the sort of Cruise-ism that sounds so true-blue it can’t be anything but heartfelt. “It’s about the power of him looking at his children and saying, How do you want them to be raised?’“ he says. “And then, years later, them realizing, My gosh, my father was a hero. He’s someone who deserves to be admired.“
No one would or could script this but Tom Cruise. “It’s about doing the right thing,“ he says, “but also about finding out what the right thing is. You know what I mean? I do feel that this movie was the right thing to do . . . I love movies. Yeah, man, I love movies!“
Yes, Tom Cruise still likes to flash his too-white teeth and boyish overexuberance. But he’s also learned the importance of speaking softly for any number of reasons. “Look—she’s out,“ he says, back in his whispered voice. “Asleep.“ And then he excuses himself to return to his 2-year-old daughter—perhaps the one person who sees him as anything but the most powerful star on the planet.