Cruise controlled

Cover story Tom Cruise is determined to show the world that he still has box-office pull - and that he's nice too.

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From his new film, Valkyrie, released by his own studio, to its peacemaking publicity tour, Tom Cruise has taken the reins when it comes to his public persona. Linda Barnard meets a man determined to show the world that he still has box-office pull - and that he's nice too.

There are two sides to the public Tom Cruise, and lately he has been immersed in a delicate dance of keeping them in balance. There is Cruise the megastar, with the piercing blue eyes and chiselled jaw, a Hollywood heavyweight who burst on screen in Risky Business 25 years ago and has powered movies like the Mission: Impossible franchise, Rain Man and Top Gun to box-office gold. He has been crowned among the world's most beautiful people and sexiest film stars, and beyond the trite accolades, he has been nominated three times for Academy Awards - for Born On The Fourth Of July, Magnolia and Jerry Maguire. And then there is the other Cruise, the side that has been in the spotlight for personal reasons rather than professional, especially since his whirlwind wooing of Katie Holmes and their 2006 marriage. His affiliation with Scientology raised eyebrows and led him to scold publicly those who support psychiatry while on the Today show, during which he berated the actress Brooke Shields for taking antidepressants. His manic couch-jumping, fist-pumping profession of love for Holmes on The Oprah Winfrey Show drew gasps. His over-the-top antics have not only cost him fans and had an impact on his box-office pull, they brought a 14-year relationship with Paramount studios to an end the same year. As far as the tabloids were concerned, he had a bull's eye on his back.

To Cruise, 46, there's nothing new in being gossiped about. "I've been dealing with that for 25 years," he says with a smile. "There are certain things that are out of your control. You have to look at the things you can affect and do the best you can with it. You have to live with yourself and your family and do the right thing by them." Cruise is clearly seeking to bring his two public sides into more favourable alignment, embarking on a huge publicity swing for his latest film, Valkyrie, which opens in the UAE next week. The tour, which brought him to Toronto last month, also had an element of peacemaking. The following week he apologised to the Today show host Matt Lauer and Shields during a recent appearance. As for his couch-jumping on Oprah, he admitted during this interview: "I could have handled things better."

Published reports have pegged the publicity tour's price tag at about $70 million (Dh257m), a considerable expense on top of the rumoured $90m (Dh330m) cost of Valkyrie. The movie, about a group of German officers who plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and end the Second World War, opened in the US and Canada on December 25 to cautiously favourable reviews. Much is riding on Valkyrie for Cruise. It is his second project as co-owner of United Artists and a film that industry watchers say is critical to his continued seat at the high-stakes player's table in Hollywood. It is also his chance to redeem himself and prove he's still got box-office pull after UA's first movie, the poorly received Robert Redford-directed Lions For Lambs (starring Cruise, Redford and Meryl Streep) barely got out of the gate last year.

As is usually the case with Cruise's films, Valkyrie is earning solid box-office numbers (some $60.7m - Dh223m - since opening, according to Variety). Critical acclaim, however, remains elusive. Most reviewers have tended to praise the supporting cast of UK heavyweights such as Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Terence Stamp, but have been less generous about Cruise's often wooden performance.

Oscar's golden statue appears to be beyond his reach again. The movie also failed to get any Golden Globes nominations last month; ironically, the performance he did get a Globe nod for was his small, yet very funny role, as the foul-mouthed studio boss Les Grossman in Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder. All of this goes far beyond the scrutiny a movie star typically lives with. For the first time in his career Cruise is facing the need to shore up his popularity and reaffirm his status as Hollywood royalty. Does he still have it?

After we were ushered into his coolly elegant boutique hotel suite to find a confident Cruise standing alone at the end of the entry hall, smiling and holding out his hand in greeting, doubts about his ability to stay at the top of the Hollywood heap started to fade. If wanting it means getting it, the very focused Cruise is destined to stay on top. Very slim, tanned and wearing brilliant white tennis shoes, dark jeans and a black shirt, the sleeves rolled up to show a heavy stainless-steel watch, he is a gracious host. Where would you like to sit? Couch? Chair? He has outgrown the pretty-boy good looks and is guarded about how he answers a reporter's questions. However, he is still consciously out to soften the tone with frequent smiles, sometimes breaking into his hearty, now-familiar laugh.

Cruise insists he is used to being gossip fodder. It has been that way since he was a child who was constantly on the move with his family, hopscotching from school to school. "Being the new kid, you're constantly... I dealt with the rumours," he says, looking straight ahead, carefully choosing each word. He seems to accept there will be questions about his personal life, but Cruise really wants to talk about Valkyrie and clearly intends to keep the interview on that topic, giving long and detailed answers about the film to deflect more personal queries. The thriller, directed by Bryan Singer (who directed the classic bait-and-switch noir The Usual Suspects), stars Cruise as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a German officer who helped lead a failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in July 1944.

Cruise, who bears an uncanny resemblance to von Stauffenberg, brought his typical dedication to his preparation for the part of the German intellectual and aristocrat who was willing to risk his life to eradicate Hitler. Not only did he read copiously and study history for months, he also learned to speak German so that a brief opening sequence in the film would be credible. "I started studying German when we were [in Berlin], and I worked very hard on that accent because it was always the idea to bring the audience in," he explains.

He worked with a coach to master the physical limitations of von Stauffenberg, who lost his left eye, right hand and fingers on his left hand while serving in Tunisia. "I couldn't pick up the phone with one hand. Stauffenberg had to learn to write with his left hand. The detail we have in the movie - that only a small fraction of people will appreciate - is that even von Stauffenberg's signature is accurate to the day because his signatures changed."

He even insisted that the cast immerse itself in the world of 1944 Germany when rehearsing - no television or mobile phones. The Valkyrie shoot seemed beset by problems. There were reports (since denied by both Cruise and Singer) that German officials were reluctant to let him shoot crucial scenes in Berlin because of his affiliation with the Church of Scientology. Then 11 extras were injured on the set and they subsequently sued. The film's opening date has been shunted around from last June to February 2009 - the producers say it was in order to allow reshoots - with openings in key cities in North America on Christmas Day, hardly an obvious time to release a film about Nazis. But the timing was crucial to garner some word-of-mouth publicity and also to qualify for Oscar nominations. That last strategy may not have been worth the effort.

However, Cruise is so dedicated to filmmaking and so intense as he speaks about his craft that he makes it hard to doubt his potential for continued success. He is also an unabashed movie nerd who met the Canadian director David Cronenberg for a quiet dinner while he was in Toronto, not to discuss future projects but because he is so fond of the filmmaker's style. "Are you kidding? I love movies!" Cruise says with a grin, explaining it was a full-on meeting of the geeks when he teamed-up with the writer Christopher McQuarrie (who won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects) and Singer on Valkyrie.

"Part of making a film is being able to hang out and talk about the films and share scenes from our favourite movies with each other and watch films together and hear people's different takes on how it was done. That's the pleasure of creating something together." As for what Valkyrie means to his professional life, Cruise says, "I'm very proud of this movie. I think it's important that I make movies that I'm proud of and I want to make. I've been doing this a long time - 25 years since Risky Business."

In that time, Cruise has had three marriages (to Mimi Rogers, Nicole Kidman and his current wife, Katie Holmes) and three children - two-and-a-half-year-old Suri with Holmes and two adopted children, Isabella, 16, and Connor, 13, from his marriage to Nicole Kidman. Connor seems to be following in his father's footsteps, appearing in his first role in a major movie, Seven Pounds, with the family friend Will Smith. Connor plays Smith as a child and he had to go through an audition process to get the role.

As for Cruise, his shoring up of any erosion caused by public opinion may well be twinned with a new direction in his professional life. Always up for a new challenge, he says he wants to be a song-and-dance man. "I'm glad musicals are coming back, so I can really embarrass myself," he says. But we've never heard him sing on screen, he is reminded. "Exactly!" he says with a grin, slapping his knees with his palms. "I will sing, if I can find the right one. I will sing and you will tell me if I did it or not. It's an interesting challenge."

That seems to sum up Cruise's attitude to both of his sides - whether it's the heavy drama of Vanilla Sky and Collateral or the CGI-heavy, action-adventure movies like War Of The Worlds, or the balance of his public versus professional personas. He patiently answers yet another question about whether Katie is pregnant again ("no, she's not") but clearly would rather talk more about Valkyrie. So we do.

"Every movie I make I want to entertain an audience, and I felt that the story is not only very entertaining and thrilling, but it's a movie about courage, real-life heroes and I found it very inspiring. I think that it's a movie that people are going to like." And if he has achieved what he set out to do with promoting Valkyrie - and himself - people will find they like Tom Cruise, too.