Friday, May 20, 2016

TOP GUN and Tom Cruise: A Look Back

In celebration of the 30th Anniversary of the release of Top Gun, I am reprinting my interview with Tom Cruise, which was conducted in May 1986 at the UN Plaza Hotel in New York City, the day after the film premiered for press at the Paramount Theater. The article originally ran in the May 20th 1986 edition of the Georgia State University Signal's Tuesday Magazine: 

Tom Cruise is neither as arrogant nor as innocent as he may sometimes seem on screen. He constantly walks a tightrope between the two extremes, yet he recklessly does so in a way that could make one think he could flip-flop at any moment. He could probably make a person feel indispensable one minute, then turn and intimidate them with his own assuredness. He doesn't seem like the type of person who would actually do that. But he could if he wanted to.

That strength of personality has afforded Cruise the opportunity to tackle a variety of roles in his five-year film career. He has moved swiftly from the pathological Red Beret in Taps to the naive high school student in Risky Business to the ambitious football player in All The Right Moves to the heroic hermit Jack O' The Green in Legend and has approached each role with vitality and a total commitment to purpose. Perhaps that is why he was the first actor to pop into the minds of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop) when it came time to cast their newest film Top Gun. The producers knew they had to have an actor that could express an exceptionally vigorous love for his (and for the lead character's) profession, so Simpson and Bruckheimer agreed Cruise was their man.

In the film, Cruise plays Lieutenant Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, one of the finest fighter pilots enrolled in the Navy Fighter Weapons School, a training program set up for the Navy's most expert and elite pilots--a program more popularly known as "Top Gun."

In an interview conducted on a sunny May day at New York's UN Plaza Hotel, I found that, as he does with much of his acting, Cruise puts force behind his words and beliefs, not solely because it's his job, but because he himself wouldn't have it any other way. It would be unwise just to write off what he has to say about his acting and his films as a con--he speaks that intensely. It would be simple to flick his emphatic stance away and to disregard it as a fervent performance given by an expert salesman. But Cruise, dressed modestly in a pair of fashionably worn cowboy boots, an over-sized brown wool sweater, some slightly baggy white pants, and with a then-unoccupied pierced left ear, is not a salesman; he may sport that brand of tenacity, but he speak with a clear-eyed honesty.

For instance, he doesn't hesitate to admit that, while he was taken with the film's script from square one, he had his reservations about agreeing to star in Top Gun when the producers first offered it to him. "I didn't want to make a war film. I was more interested in making a piece about character. Luckily, [Simpson and Bruckheimer] didn't want to make a war movie, either. If we had wanted to make that type of film, we would've opened with MiGs blasting out and put explosions all the way through it. We could have done that," Cruise says, smiling at the thought. "But we were careful to stay away from it. "

The actor maintains that, in keeping an open mind about the military, he learned a few things about it if which he previously (from working on Taps back in 1981) only had inklings. "The thing that I understood prior to Top Gun was that the military was just a tool of the government. You're not making policy, you're enforcing it. I got involved five months prior to the shooting of the film. I did a lot of research, going down to San Diego, spending time at the Top Gun base in Miramar, spending time looking for what it was about this character that makes him what he is. Going into the film, I had, maybe, this idea of the fighter pilots themselves, even when I was getting involved with them and spending a lot of time with them. In doing that, I met these great old fighter pilots from World War I and World War II. Talking to them, I got the feeling--especially from the older guys who flew the B-51s--of their passion for flight and their love of competition. I found that, among these pilots, there's a camaraderie, a great and equal respect for any man who's brave enough to go up and fly in these jets. It's a whole different world, a different reality."

Even so, Cruise notes, there is a darker, colder, heavier side to the military that he had also never fathomed before: namely, its effect on men as individuals, not as just pilots or officers. "The thing they say," Cruise remembers, "is if they had wanted you to have a family and a wife and kids, they would've issued them to you. So it's tough. I mean, we lived on a carrier for four days and I was thinking the whole time I was going through it that these guys are on there for nine months at a time. Nine months of their lives. They kiss their wives goodbye, maybe she's two months pregnant and they come back and there's a baby that's a couple of months old." Shaking his head, thinking back on his experiences, Cruise says "Living on a carrier, it's prison with the threat of drowning. That is definitely not a nice environment."

Though Cruise is still very much the actor, he inevitably has been bitten by the production bug. Like many actors, he has his own production company set up in Los Angeles, with six projects in development, both for himself and for others. Top Gun, he says, was useful in his filmmaking education, as it finally gave him the chance to study what goes on behind the camera. "It was my first time in getting involved that strongly on the production side of it," he says. "Getting that whole different point-of-view [producers] Don and Jerry really shared a lot of that with me: the development of the piece, breaking it down. Some films come in and they're three or four hours over their projected length and you've got to cut them and reshape the whole film. These guys are very sound with what they do because they start out with a lean script and they decide what kind of picture they want to make prior to the shoot. Every scene that we shot," he says pridefully, "is on the screen. There's no excess."

Overall, the actor adds, he is pleased with Top Gun as a final product. The film is everything he expected it to be, especially when he takes into consideration how difficult the extensive aerial sequences were to shoot. Cruise feels that the combined effects of the air story and the ground story are going to be well received by audiences. "My little sister at in the theater, watching the film, and I was right behind her," Cruise says, trying to control the grin that begin to curl at his mouth. "I watched her and her head, every now and then, would go like this..." Cruise ducks his head violently, then laughs. "So I felt satisfied with the film."

One interesting thing about Cruise's latest effort are their directors. Top Gun, on one hand, was director Tony Scott's follow-up to The Hunger, an immensely popular cult film starring David Bowie as an aging vampire. Legend, on the other hand, was directed by Tony's more famous brother, Ridley Scott, who has given us such visual masterpieces as The Duelists, Alien and Blade Runner. In tone and in visual style, the Scotts' films are peas in a pod, particularly in their smoky cinematography. However, Cruise finds it difficult to compare their directorial methods without being unfair. "They're two different people," he says. "Their common interest is one of wanting to make different, interesting, bigger-than-life films. They're ambitious filmmakers. But it would be unfair to compare them because of the different types of films. If I had worked with Ridley on a character piece like Top Gun, or possibly even Alien, then I would be able to make a comparison. But as it stands, they were two totally different films."

Legend, in release for over a month now after being shelved for a year by Universal Pictures, has received fairly lukewarm notices, with most of them praising Ridley Scott's technical acuity rather than Cruise's acting, which has gotten, for the first time in his career, roundly slammed. Cruise is not bothered by the critical reaction to the film, though, just as he won't be bothered by the reception of Top Gun, whether it be good or bad.

"If I did let things like that bother me, for the rest of my life and career, I'd go nuts. I knew exactly what I was getting into with Legend. In the future, I'm going to take a lot of risks. And there are going to be other films people are not going to like. It's going to be that way. But it's the process and the actual making of the work that is the challenge, or at least most of the challenge. I mean, I want everyone to love my movies and everyone to go see them and to get great notices, but that can't be the reason for doing them."

Cruise is one of a handful of very successful young actors today that is not a member of the so-called "Brat Pack." However, he still takes offense when the term is dredged up. He feels that it is not only an insult to the actors to whom the label is aimed, but is, in reality, an insult to all actors, including himself. When asked why he hadn't done a film with the actors more famously included in "The Brat Pack," he struck back, not with aggressiveness, but with a modicum of irritation in his voice.

"First of all," he said, "using that phrase, I think, is such a cop-out for the press. There's no such thing as 'The Brat Pack.' It's such a writer's device, y'know? It's really... cute. People who write that kind of stuff, it makes it very secure for them. Then they don't have to deal with the actors as individuals. Anyway, I've been offered those films and other things--I don't want to get specific--but I didn't look at the scripts in terms of how they were going to affect my image. When I read a script, I look at it in terms of 'Okay, what is this script saying? What would I want to say with this piece? What would I be communicating?' and then approaching it on that level." In spite of the success he's so obviously reached, Tom Cruise still has a healthy attitude about being a celebrity and an admired actor. With the most modest of airs, he says "I'm always up-and-coming as far as my work goes. You look at Paul Newman, in his early 60s. He's still growing as a person and an actor. The roles that he's played, he just keeps getting better and better."

Cruise mentions Newman, he acknowledges, mainly because he just finished filming a movie with him in Chicago. Titled The Color of Money, the film is a sequel to Robert Rossen''s masterful 1961 film The Hustler, starring Newman as “Fast Eddie” Felson, a hot-shot pool shark. “It's a movie that stands on its own,” Cruise says. “If you haven't seen The Hustler, it's not going to make any difference when you see this film. It's Eddie Felson 25 years later. He hasn't played pool in all that time, and I'm this comer, this naive but arrogant pool player. It's interesting. For his character, his whole philosophy is 'Money won is much sweeter than money earned.' My character is 'I don't care about money, I just want a guy's Best Game. I just want the best game I can get.' He just wants the challenge. So, throughout the film, Eddie wants to take me on the road, to take me to Atlantic City—we got six weeks—and it's just this conflict of the young and the old. It's almost like the cleansing of Newman's character and the corruption of mine.” Cruise also notes that he did learn to shoot pool for the film, working for many months with pool champion Mike Segal. “Newman and I make every shot in the movie,” he says.

Cruise admits that doing the Scorsese movie was quite a different experience from making Top Gun. “My involvement with Top Gun was much greater. When I came on to The Color of Money, Paul and Marty had already developed the script with the writer, Richard Price. I come off Top Gun, you know, carrying the picture, and then, with Marty and Paul, I was, like, this...kid.” He chuckles now about the experience indicating that it perhaps brought him down a notch. Still, he is close to being speechless when asked to describe working with these two cinematic legends. Acting with Newman was, “exciting—really terrific” while taking direction from Scorsese was a heartfelt “Great!”

But, in all ways, Tom Cruise displays an adventurous streak that, in the past, has usually proven crucial to being a movie star. At no time in our talk did he let this attitude peek through more clearly than when asked about his aggressive style of acting. “I guess I identify with Maverick in the sense that I feel it's unhealthy to just think in terms of only wanting to be the best. I think you should be the best that you can be. If I woke up in the morning and didn't have that feeling that 'Today, I want to do the best that I can possibly do, emotionally or physically,  in any situation,' I wouldn't even get out of bed.”

I should note my meeting with Cruise that I didn't detail in this article. After our interview, I tried to get him to sign my All the Right Moves poster, but I didn't bring a workable pen. So he kindly told me to bring it back up to his room later on and, then, he would sign it for me. After some frantic searching, I found the correct sort of pen and brought the poster back to his room hours later. He was just then getting ready to leave the UN Plaza Hotel, so he invited me downstairs where he was going to wait at the bar for his car to arrive. We talked for a bit in the elevator, and he asked where I was from. When he found out I was from Atlanta, he perked up because he was getting ready to join Paul Newman at the Atlanta Speedway (where he would get a race-car-driving bug from Newman, which led to his film Days of Thunder, and further, to his marriage to co-star Nicole Kidman). At the bar, he had a cranberry juice and I a beer, and he dutifully signed my poster. We talked a bit about the state of the film industry in Atlanta, and before I knew it, he was flashing that famous grin and shaking my hand as we parted. Even today, I still recall his surprising kindness and generosity.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

What a great account of an interview with a big name but conducted with complete awareness, zero fawning, and total knowledge of the subject. Really great. No wonder he was kind to you -- you were certainly not the usual celebrity interviewer!