Ten years ago, Tom Cruise’s public image was dangerously close to self-destructing. In January of 2008, a nearly 10-minute-long video of Cruise solemnly discussing Scientology wound up on the now-deceased Gawker. “We are the authorities on the mind,” Cruise says in the clip, as a riff on the Mission: Impossible theme plays in the background. “We are the authorities on improving conditions.” In the video, Cruise alternates between uproarious laughter and stern lecturing, extolling the power of his religion—whose members, he says, have the power to stop crime and rescue auto-accident victims. Cruise’s affiliation with the group was never a secret, but the video made his devotion all the more clear. “You’re either on board,” he says, “or you’re not on board.”
At the time, plenty of people were decidedly not on board with Cruise, then stuck in what can now charitably be called his “Weird Tom” era—which had been brought about, in no small part, by the internet. It had begun in May 2005, when Cruise showed up on for an appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, where audience members screamed maniacally for the actor, leading a keyed-up to Cruise to scamper about the set and, briefly, wind up atop Winfrey’s couch. If the incident had occurred a few years earlier, it likely would have been forgotten—but Cruise’s couch-trip took place just a few months after the introduction of YouTube, and at a peak era for ’00s meme culture. It didn’t take long for someone to add some Return of the Jedi-style Emperor-shocks to Cruise’s appearance, just one of many online responses hinging on the idea that the always-steady Cruise was somehow out of control.
That perception only grew, thanks to a Today Show appearance soon after. During the multi-segment talk, Cruise lectured Matt Lauer on the evils of psychiatry—a practice Scientology abhors—and criticized Brooke Shields, who’d recently disclosed a battle with postpartum depression. Videos of the exchange seemingly commandeered the entire internet, where Cruise was vilified as a bully. The off-putting back-to-back appearances didn’t hurt Cruise’s War of the Worlds (which remains Cruise’s highest-grossing film). But a year later, Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone severed the actor’s long-running production deal with Paramount, the studio behind the Mission: Impossible films, citing the actor’s behavior as “not acceptable.”
By the time Gawker released the widely-seen Scientology video in 2008, Cruise was already in a delicate position. It only grew more precarious when millions of people saw the actor straight-facedly claiming to possess heightened powers, and laughing like he’d just landed a Reebok sponsorship for Rod Tidwell. And the video wouldn’t go away, even after the church tried to pull it from the web, ultimately leading to a war of the words between the organization and Anonymous. Oprah, The Today Show, the Scientology tell-all: The three videos only added to the belief that Cruise was either completely out of touch, or completely out of his mind—possibly both.
So Tom Cruise did what he always does when he’s in trouble: He ran.
Considering he’s been acting for more than thirty years, it seems strange to think that anyone would need a primer on Tom Cruise’s career. But for those who only know him for his ankle-annihilating Mission stunts, a quick recap: Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Cruise was the biggest, most consistent movie star in the world. He made some very good hits (Risky Business, Rain Man), and some very bad hits (Cocktail, Days of Thunder). And he used his industry goodwill and star-charm to lure moviegoers into such potential career danger-zones as Interview with the Vampire, Magnolia, and Eyes Wide Shut—the latter being a nearly three-hour-long drama in which members of a Long Island faux-Illuminati wear fright-masks and languidly bonk each other to gregorian chants.
But more than anything, Tom Cruise was extraordinarily good at being Tom Cruise, the grinning, winning, Maverick-but-not-a-maverick. He was so unimpeachable that, in 2002, when the producers of the Academy Awards needed someone who could soothe audience members after 9/11, they tapped Cruise to deliver the show’s opening remarks. Cruise’s image had been carefully maintained via the press, which he largely avoided early on in his career, before signing with powerhouse publicist Pat Kingsley in the early ‘90s. That led to more than a decade of cover profiles in magazines like Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, Newsweek, and Time.
Cruise has retreated from just about any situation in which he’d have to relinquish control of the greater Tom Cruise narrative. Instead, he’s spent the last several years rebuilding his image in 4- to 5-minute bursts, by mastering the same medium that launched the Weird Tom era to begin with.
Such stories, nearly all arranged by Kingsley, would often only mention Scientology in passing. And they rarely, if ever, became contentious or critical of Cruise—an expert salesman who was extraordinarily adept at charming reporters. It’s what made Cruise’s $20 million-a-movie payday worth the investment: When you hired Cruise, you knew he’d do almost anything to sell your movie to the press—even if that meant getting semi-nude on a magazine cover with his then-wife.
Not anymore. It’s been nearly a decade since Cruise allowed for any sort of in-depth interview with a magazine or newspaper writer. He hasn’t even sat down with Larry King, whose CNN show regularly featured Cruise in the ‘90s. And aside from a few Nerdist interviews, the actor has largely avoided the podcast circuit: There’s no WTF episode where Marc Maron grills Cruise about what guitar Eric Clapton played on the wrap party for The Color of Money; no Bill Simmons interview in which he and Tom rhapsodize over Rain Man-era Las Vegas. Cruise has retreated from just about any situation in which he’d have to relinquish control of the conversation, and of the greater Tom Cruise narrative. Instead, he’s spent the last several years rebuilding his image slowly, and in 4- to 5-minute bursts, by mastering the same medium that launched the Weird Tom era to begin with.
What comes to mind when you think about 2017’s The Mummy? I’m guessing it’s this: Eaughh-aghhhhi! Eaughh-aghhhhi! AAauuuuuGGhhhh!
That’s the sound of Cruise screaming in the monster-movie reboot, his yells isolated in this popular video from late 2016. There are multiple versions of Cruise’s anguished yells, including one video that loops them for ten hours, and another that uses them to replace the famed Wilhelm scream. The Mummy itself is barely a year old, but it’s likely that, within time, Cruise’s gargled nonsense will be the film’s sole legacy.
That scream is just one of several Cruise-clips to have gone moderately viral on YouTube, where you can find the actor running in his movies, butchering Yung Joc’s Motorcycle dance on BET, and going wild on a gun range while preparing to shoot Collateral. But in the last few years, Cruise’s biggest hits have come courtesy of talk shows: He engaged in a lip-sync battle with Jimmy Fallon; took an uncomfortable car ride with Conan O’Brien; and just recently threw James Corden out of a plane. He’s also all but moved in to the set of The Graham Norton Show, where he showed off grisly footage of his Mission: Impossible — Fallout injury, and was lavished with praise by Zac Efron. (Efron: “You’re known for being the man.”)
Cruise is a remarkable talk-show guest—maybe the best there is in 2018: Affable, genuinely funny, and seemingly down for anything (even a bit in which he’s asked to repeatedly yell “Show me the Mummy!”). But, more importantly, when he sits on the couch now, he’s in complete control. Like the stuntwork that makes his Mission: Impossible films so unbelievably believable, Cruise’s TV appearances are engineered to ensure he won’t be harmed in any way: There’s no chance of a spare question about his church or his private life, and little room for unplanned interaction.
Cruise is a remarkable talk-show guest—maybe the best there is in 2018: Affable, genuinely funny, and seemingly down for anything. But, more importantly, when he sits on the couch now, he’s in complete control.
Pretty much all chat-show interactions are executed that way, of course. But for Cruise, that assured smoothness has become crucial for someone looking to retain the Quan he almost lost ten years ago. The internet allows him to market his movies, and himself, without ceding power to the reporters and photographers who helped build up his legend in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Other stars have learned how to play the viral-video game, like Dwayne Johnson. But Cruise is one of the few big names to rely almost exclusively on the web. It’s a strategy that other stars of his stature might soon adopt, especially now, when even the most minutely unorthodox comment from an interview lands leads to near-simultaneous howls of outrage (those howls sound like The Mummy screams, only with more growling).
In the mid-’00s, Cruise was merely chastised and mocked for his comments; nowadays, they could very well get him canceled. By facing the public entirely via his movies—and through the web-sticky videos that accompany them—Weird Tom has instead become Crazy-in-a-Good-Way Tom: The guy who plays egg roulette with Fallon, executes HALO jumps over Paris, and always gets the last laugh. And laugh…and laugh….
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