NEW YORK - "I make a lot of different kinds of movies," Tom Cruise says, "and I'm always looking for something that's challenging. But I want to entertain an audience."
Cruise is describing what drew him to his new movie, "Valkyrie," which opens Thursday. However indirectly, he's also describing what it means to succeed at having it both ways: art and entertainment, critics and audience, respect and fame.
One definition of stardom might be as the shortest distance between having it both ways. And while Cruise is a very big star, "Valkyrie" puts that stardom to the test and at a peculiar point in his career.
The film's directed by Bryan Singer, who made the first two "X-Men" movies and "Superman Returns." It's no comic-book extravaganza, though. It's about a real person, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who was executed after almost succeeding in assassinating Adolf Hitler in 1944. Germans . . . history . . . failure: Is it any wonder that during an interview Cruise keeps calling the film "a conspiracy thriller"?
Box office isn't the only potential problem. When it was announced Cruise would play von Stauffenberg, a national hero, there were protests in Germany because of Cruise's connection to Scientology. His involvement in running United Artists (the distributor of "Valkyrie") has proven, at best, a distraction. And at 46, Cruise has reached an age where hits are harder to come by.
True, his most recent movie, last summer's "Tropic Thunder," did well, and Cruise's over-the-top performance as studio head Les Grossman earned him a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor in a comedy. But it's not Cruise's picture; and the one before that, last year's "Lions for Lambs," flopped. The most interesting Cruise picture - certainly, the most prominent one - is the ongoing tabloid franchise that is his life with wife Katie Holmes and their daughter, Suri.
Betting against Tom Cruise has rarely been a smart move, though. His movies have earned aggregate grosses of $6.4 billion - and there's a reason the tabs keep putting him on their covers. It's not just what he does but also who he is. "There was that point where, that's it, he saw the trajectory," Cruise says of von Stauffenberg. He could be speaking of himself and a different kind of trajectory. Until such time as Will Smith or someone even younger overtakes him, Cruise may be the last real Hollywood star.
In his "Biographical Dictionary of Film," David Thomson likens Cruise to a latter-day Clark Gable: the confidence, the charm, the staying power. A better comparison may come from literature. Think of Cruise as Jay Gatsby, only he's a Gatsby unlikely to end up face-down in his own swimming pool. The worst that's happened to Cruise has been jumping on Oprah's couch and lecturing Matt Lauer about Ritalin.
"I traveled within America and Canada as a kid," Cruise says. "I couldn't wait to grow up. I was one of those guys - I don't know if you were like that - I didn't want to be a kid. I didn't want to be treated as a kid. I wanted to work and I knew very early on I had wanderlust. I dreamed of traveling and adventure and experiencing life." Like Gatsby, Cruise got his wish.
People who fulfill their dreams tend to be driven as well as dreamers. There were snickers when it was announced Cruise would be playing von Stauffenberg. In fact, Cruise bears a physical resemblance to him. More important, there's that matter of drive. Cruise is a guy you could definitely imagine taking on a challenge like knocking off Hitler. He might not get it done, but he'd at least come close.
There's an intense purposefulness to Cruise. He's highly self-aware without seeming at all self-conscious - a useful combination for someone in his line of work. He performs for an interviewer no less than he does for the camera. Is he always on? Who knows, but you'd hate to see him when he's off. "He focuses on people," says the Dutch actress Carice van Houten, who plays Cruise's wife in "Valkyrie." "I was treated like a princess on that set by him."
In conversation, Cruise draws in the other person. He doesn't just make eye contact; he makes laser eye contact. He asks questions. He offers encouragement. He can display an almost antic solicitousness ("May I call you Mark?"). Above all, there's that killer grin. When it flashes, as it frequently does, it's like Kobe Bryant taking a jump shot or Michael Phelps getting wet: instinctive, inevitable, invincible. None of it's fake - or, what amounts to the same thing, none of it gives the impression of being fake - but it is a performance.
Cruise may look boyish (still) and just off the street. His hair's mussed, and he's casually dressed in an open-neck dress shirt and dark slacks. He's just come from an interview with ESPN, and you can easily imagine Cruise sprawled on a couch (no, not that couch) watching "SportsCenter," just like any other guy his age or the dozen years younger he might easily pass for. But Cruise is an absolute throwback in one crucial respect: He realized from the get-go that stardom isn't an adventure. It's a job. That's something he's never forgotten. "I'm not the guy who hangs out in the trailer," Cruise says with quiet pride. "I'm on the movie set."
There's a reason Cruise has been a major star for a quarter century, an eternity for someone of his endlessly overexposed generation. The roots of that stardom are back on display, thanks to the recent "Guitar Hero: World Tour" ads that parody the most famous scene in "Risky Business," Cruise's breakout movie. One features Bryant, Phelps, Alex Rodriguez, and Tony Hawk; the other has Heidi Klum. That's how big a name Cruise is: It takes five stars to spoof him.
"Yeah, yeah, that's cool," Cruise says of the parody, his face lighting up. But it's the original he wants to talk about. " 'Risky Business' was released, in these B-run theaters, on Aug. 7, 1983," he recalls, effortlessly summoning up the date. "I remember Warner Bros. didn't think that it would do anything. 'Uh, you know, it's this thing,' " Cruise says, with the faintest tinge of Les Grossman disdain. "And it took off."
Among those younger than the Nicholson-Pacino-Hoffman generation, only Tom Hanks, who's six years older, rivals Cruise for megastar longevity. It's not just a matter of looks or talent or kismet, though all of those things help. It's also a matter of always keeping your eye on the ball and taking nothing for granted. When James Brown died two years ago, the title of Hardest-Working Man in Show Business went with him. By all rights, it should go to Cruise. He laughs at the suggestion - an appreciative laugh. "I would not mind that title," Cruise says. "You know, you don't accomplish anything if you don't work hard."
"He's so professional," says van Houten, "He knows everything. If you would ask him how big a camera is, he would tell you right down to the inch. Most co-stars I know are just eating a sandwich! He likes to learn things. He likes challenges. He's not afraid to throw himself into something. And if he's stupid, he'll say, 'OK, I fouled up.' "
"Valkyrie" might prove to be an example of fouling up. Or it could be another of those unexpected twists in Cruise's career, like "Born on the Fourth of July" or "Jerry Maguire" or "Collateral," that advance it. In the meantime, Cruise professes to take everything in stride.
"Are there some days you go -" his face collapses and he heaves a sigh, feigning despondence. "Yeah, but I never have and I won't let myself go down that road. It's easy to do that. But for me - and everyone has their own journey in life - I'm lucky. It's a dream; and whatever comes with it, that's what comes with it. . . . I'm engaging in life, and sometimes it's at a very high velocity."
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.