It won’t just be Robert Downey Jr. in blackface that audiences will be talking about when they leave theaters. It’ll also be Tom Cruise. ”I’ve always thought he has a great sense of humor,” says Ben Stiller, who cast Cruise as a fat, crude studio head and watched him cuss — and dance! — his way through a scene-stealing performance. Who knew? ”When people first heard it,” says producer Stuart Cornfeld of the casting coup, ”it kind of took them aback.” And it could prove to be the best thing to happen to Cruise’s career since his Oscar-nominated role as a male-empowerment guru in Magnolia.
Cruise has taken a consistent beating in the press since 2005, and while he’s still a massive international star, his image has suffered. Mission: Impossible III performed below expectations and helped sever Cruise’s producing deal with Paramount. The star resurrected United Artists, but his first film out of the gate, Lions for Lambs, stumbled. His next one is a tough sell too. In Valkyrie, Cruise will play a German army officer plotting to assassinate Hitler. The release date has been pushed to 2009, but that delay may prove fortuitous if Thunder helps audiences see Cruise in a new light. ”Tom’s got soul, man,” says Brandon T. Jackson, who costars in Thunder and coached Cruise on his hip-hop moves. ”He’s a real cool dude.” Now maybe the rest of the country will be reminded of that too.