At an asking — and getting — price of $20 million per role, things were going just fine for Tom Cruise. He might well have remained rich and famous simply by relying on his smile or, if things ever got tough, getting out his Skivvies and dancing for his supper. But last summer, in Mission: Impossible, the sweet-faced actor looked us dead in the eye and told us never to underestimate him. ”You haven’t seen me mad,” he growled. Actually, we’d never seen him so adult. After Mission — which was Cruise’s maiden producing voyage — went on to make a fearsome $180 million at the box office, Cruise impressed the world again by taking a lighter approach. As a complex, down-and-out sports agent in his new comedy Jerry Maguire, Cruise proves once and for all that there’s more to him than cheekbones and charm.

This might have been an awkward time for the boyish Cruise: At 34, he’s a long way from the ranks of elder statesmen like Harrison Ford, yet he wisely eschews the plane-flying, motorcycle-riding, womanizing Young Turk roles that made him famous. Cruise still takes our breath away, but he has done so by crafting his career carefully, and putting himself in the hands of talented directors and costars in projects like The Color of Money and Rain Man. The result: Cruise has shrewdly ensured that his image aged gracefully along with the audiences who discovered him in 1983’s Risky Business. His next acting job will be conducted by no less than director Stanley Kubrick — ”pretty much the greatest filmmaker who ever lived,” says Cruise — in Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s first movie in nine years, which costars Cruise’s wife, Nicole Kidman, and is currently being filmed in England.

If his turn as Jerry Maguire is remarkable for its cynicism and anti-heroism (the character is wholly responsible for screwing up his own life, however endearing he might be), you would be hard-pressed to find such character flaws in Cruise: The actor spent much of his downtime this year rescuing people from burning boats, saving children from stampeding crowds, appearing as a doting father, and, as always, masterfully minding the media.

Still, you might take heart in the evidence that it’s not all too good to be true — perfection has its cost. And even if the wrinkles and bags aren’t showing, as they might on mere mortals, it’s a relief to know Cruise does feel the strain. ”There’s so much going on in my life all the time,” he says. ”The kids. The work. The traveling. Yeah, it does sometimes kinda seem like a lot.” Admitting to being overwhelmed: How very grown-up of him.