Tom Cruise knows that you dream about him. He knows that you covet his life. He knows that being responsible for some of the most indelible moments in movie history—sliding across the floor in his underwear, feeling the need for speed in an F-14, demanding the truth from Jack Nicholson, showing Cuba Gooding Jr. the money—has had a profound effect on you. In his new Paramount film, Vanilla Sky, which reteams the actor with his Jerry Maguire writer-director Cameron Crowe, Cruise acknowledges this reality; the movie is a risky, romantic, trippy psychological thriller that toys with the actor’s place in the pop-culture firmament. Cruise portrays yet another one of his charismatic, cocksure Übermales; in fact, his David Aames seems like the sum total of every top gun he has ever played. It’s a mask that he wears so often and so well that you have to wonder: When Tom Cruise looks in the mirror, does he, too, see the epitome of modern masculinity?
”Well, of course I do,” the 39-year-old star deadpans before exploding in such a spasm of laughter, he nearly chokes on the ”No!” that he hastens to add. It’s the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and Cruise is lounging on the Twentieth Century Fox lot in Los Angeles, where he and Crowe are overseeing the final stages of postproduction on Vanilla Sky. He’s just been asked to elaborate on the whole man-in-the-mirror thing, and the actor—clad entirely in black, sleeves rolled up to his elbows — is gradually warming to the topic. After taking stock of his short black hair (he usually cuts it only for a role) and his bumpy nose (twice broken, from fights in his youth), Cruise arrives at his smile—that killer, daisy-cutter smile, with its one or two chipped teeth. ”This happens to me a couple times a year,” says Cruise. ”I’ll be in a restaurant, and a guy will come up and say, ‘You know, I can fix that smile. I’m a dentist. I’ll do it for free.”’ He laughs incredulously. ”My face? It just is what it is, man.”
Still, where Tom Cruise sees plain old Tom Cruise, the rest of us see…Tom Cruise. And the Tom Cruise we know has had a bruising year, beginning with his decision in February to serve Nicole Kidman, his wife of 10 years, with divorce papers, for reasons he’s never discussed. But tabloid journalism abhors a vacuum, and subsequent disclosures have only inspired innuendo and speculation to fill it. Kidman’s miscarriage. His romance with costar Penélope Cruz. An allegation of a liaison with a gay porn actor. By now, much of this has been settled: Cruise and Kidman have divvied up their reported $350 million in assets and agreed on joint custody of their two adopted children, Isabella, 8, and Connor, 6, while the sex allegation was discredited and withdrawn. What remains to be seen—and what Vanilla Sky may provide an indication of—is if any of this has affected the appeal of the world’s biggest movie star.
Asked if he’s worried that audiences might hold his personal life against him, Cruise’s voice grows gravely quiet, as the frustration of being Tom Cruise becomes explicitly apparent. ”If I had to give myself a review on all of this, I feel like I handled it in a way I can be proud of,” says the actor, sitting deep in the couch. ”I don’t know what people think. People like to gossip, but as far as I’m concerned, my personal life is not open to discussion. And our lives—Nic’s and mine—it’s between us. Whatever the press has written or speculated, they’ll never know, because it’s none of their business, and Nic and I will never talk about it. So if someone is going to judge me based on something they’ve read, or whatever they perceive of me, honestly? F— them. You know? F— them.”