Every journalist who covered Hollywood in the Golden Era that stretched roughly from Risky Business (1983) through Top Gun: Maverick (now) has had a Tom Cruise moment. I had mine in 2002.
My father had just died. It was a rough death, not quick, and as I was driving back for the last time from attending him in Sacramento, I made myself a promise: I would be at peace with everyone for a while. No fighting. No arguments. What anyone asked, insofar as I could, I would just do.
As luck would have it, the first test occurred somewhere around Bakersfield. On the road, I got a call from Maer Roshan, now editor of Los Angeles Magazine, then editorial director of Tina Brown’s Talk.
We have a problem, explained Maer. Talk had scheduled some sort of theme issue–something about business and/or professional life in America. But Tina had managed to promise the cover to Tom Cruise. Maer couldn’t see a connection. But maybe I could figure it out. The interview was already set. Just be at the Hotel Bel-Air in about three days, interview Cruise, and write something, if not brilliant, at least sensible.
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Right. No fighting. No arguments. Just interview Tom Cruise.
When I got home, the first words from my 14-year-old son were: “I’m so sorry, Dad. I heard about Tom Cruise.” We’d long since dealt with my father’s decline; and he knew how I felt about celebrity interviews. I didn’t like them.
But there it was. So I went to the Santa Monica Library, which was more a repository of information than homeless camp in those days, and studied up. Mostly, I read some old, largely empathetic books about Scientology, including what seemed to be a outsized encyclopedia of Scientological terms, beliefs and “technology.” I figured it couldn’t hurt. Just in case the subject came up.
Which is where things got interesting.
I did indeed meet Cruise at the Bel-Air. It was one of those bright, fresh Southern California winter mornings when you can’t see why anyone would live anywhere else. Tom was charming. Of course, he grinned. But I got straight to the point.
We have a problem, I said. The next issue is all about business and professional life. But we’ve got a movie star on the cover—you. If we don’t want to look ridiculous, both of us, we’ve got to figure out what you, the Risky Business guy, Jerry Maguire, the Top Gun hotshot, Mission: Impossible (with Minority Report then on deck), can teach doctors, or lawyers, or investment bankers, or whoever Talk’s ad-hungry publishing staff might have in mind.
To his eternal credit, and my undying gratitude, Cruise didn’t even blink. Instead, he began an intelligent, structured conversation about his movies, his career, his goals, and the principles that had seen him through ups and downs in a slippery, treacherous industry. Having prepped at the library, I could follow the basic Scientological parts. Mostly, it was direct, genuine, and he did all the work.
God bless him.
Because there was more to the adventure. For one thing, Talk folded before the piece was published. But Pat Kingsley, Cruise’s publicist at the time, was not one to let the disappearance of a magazine deprive her of a cover. She somehow managed to ship the whole thing over to Esquire, which published it in May under a foreboding headline: “The Most Dangerous Place.”
Cruise never became a buddy—professionally distant, I didn’t kid myself into thinking I had movie friends. But he was surely solicitous for a while. Once, he sent a plexiglass stand-up inscribed with the essential maxims of Scientology. My son kept it as one of his pop cultural artifacts, along with a Charles Bukowski poster and a Stooges album he found in the pile. At one point, Cruise even invited my wife Judi and me to a grand banquet at Scientology’s Celebrity Centre.
We went. It was strange, mostly because we were seated at a table with a couple of Creative Artists agents and the top brass of Paramount Pictures, who didn’t look comfortable. In fact, a certain Paramount officer, seated at my left, was so agitated that Judi gently asked whether we couldn’t leave halfway through the proceedings. “That guy’s making me nervous,” she said.
When we slipped out, the parking valet gave me a shock. “I’m sorry you have to leave early,” he said. “We’ve all read your article.”
Cruise sent a note, saying that he, too, was sorry we couldn’t stay, but he hoped we’d have a chance to talk someday.
But we never did. My Tom Cruise moment was over.
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