CRUISE CONTROL: How Five Days Following Tom Cruise Left Me Speechless And Disillusioned

In 2005, I spent five days following Tom Cruise around the world. It sounds pretty amazing on paper, right? But in reality, the experience provided little more than a realization that the man who is arguably the world's most famous actor also seems to be playing a part when he's off the set as well - as Tom Cruise, the star.

 In 2005, I spent five days following Tom Cruise around the world. It sounds pretty amazing on paper, right? I was getting the chance to work with one of the most celebrated actors of my time. Certainly in five days I would get to experience him in a more personal, genuine way. But in reality, the experience provided little more than a realization that the man who is arguably the world’s most famous actor also seems to be playing a part when he’s off the set as well – as Tom Cruise, the star.

 I was invited as a journalist, (at the time I was a producer) to chronicle his publicity tour for War Of The Worlds, and the stories would then run on a network morning show. In exchange for frequent feature stories about the film, I would fly on one of his two private planes, get ‘exclusive’ access to Cruise on a regular basis, traveling along with him to Tokyo, Berlin, Paris, Marseilles, and then London as it premiered in each city.

 It was June of 2005. Cruise was fresh off his couch jumping episode on Oprah. He had dropped his longtime publicist, Pat Kingsley, a year earlier in favor of management by his sister, Lee Anne DeVette. (She would only manage to keep that job until November – many people in-the-know have called Tom’s decision to use his sister as his manager a total fiasco. I would agree.)  The couch episode – a concerted effort to demonstrate to Oprah and the world that he was madly in love with Katie Holmes – became a pop culture phenomenon and a public relations disaster. ‘Jumping the couch’ had replaced ‘jumping the shark’ as a euphemism for an act of desperation.

 Even as the trip began, there had already been rumors that Cruise, with the help of Scientology, had essentially auditioned women for the role of his real life girlfriend. While none of the rumors had been substantiated, names like Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Garner and Jessica Alba had been thrown about as women who had been on a ‘list’ of potential mates who were set up to meet Cruise, but had voluntarily dropped themselves out of the running. (The Church Of Scientology vehemently denies the claims, and no actress has ever come forward to confirm the rumors.)

 While the idea of the Cruise camp writing up a list of potential girlfriends might seem strange, I didn’t find it that surprising, or even that unreasonable. I still don’t. After all, it stands to reason that Tom Cruise can’t simply walk into a bar and just introduce himself to a random person and build a relationship without a fair share of complications. Actors and actresses use their publicists and agents to coordinate dates all the time. A celebrity with his degree of fame would no doubt need a Hollywood-style ‘wingman.’ But indeed, the rumored measures involved in finding his new love did seem creepy. (Pre-Interviews? Background checks? A recent Vanity Fair article even suggests ‘auditing’ – Scientology’s own form of therapy and questioning that involves an ‘e-meter’ which sends electrical pulses to the recipient.)  If the allegations were true, it seemed that Cruise, as the celebrity frontman for Scientology and a movie star who had, up until recently, guarded his image with great success, was taking extreme measures.

 (Please note: I’m well aware of the rumors that surround Cruise’s sexuality, but I find there is little I can add to that discussion that isn’t complete speculation and creative hypothesizing. Suffice it to say, though, if the rumors were true, it would explain a whole lot. Without fail, the questions I’m often asked by gay and straight friends alike include: “Did he ‘seem gay’ to you? Did he set off your gaydar? Did he check you out?” The answers: No, no, and no… whatever ‘seeming gay’ means. And besides… he is a successful actor. He can ‘seem’ to be anything he wants to be.)

 The first stop was Tokyo. It was our first interview with Cruise, and the interview didn’t go well. You see, in most interviews with celebrities, the reporter generally gushes for the first few minutes about how fantastic the movie is and how wonderful the actor was in the film. (Sometimes it’s genuine, sometimes it’s an outright lie.) You see those moments on entertainment shows quite often, but just as often those initial minutes of the interview never make it into the taped spot, but it helps to warm up the celebrity before you get to the more substantive, insightful questions. We were only given three quick minutes to talk to him as he walked into a press conference, (that’s right, we had to interview him as he walked – not exactly what we were sold when we agreed to the trip.) Since there wasn’t much time, we skipped over the superlatives, and immediately afterwards I got a distinct sense that the studio’s publicists (based out of London) were not happy. It was written all over their faces. I was told that we didn’t ask enough questions about the movie, and the tone of the questions wasn’t upbeat enough. (I don’t recall what we were asking, but I assure you it wasn’t an inquisition by any means.) They threatened to pull the plug on the whole trip for us. Knowing I had a team of people in the US that expected content every day, I hastily apologized and assured them that the subsequent interviews would be everything they hoped for and more.

 After a long day of screening the film, attending a press conference, and covering the red carpet, we all headed to the airport to board one of Cruise’s two private jets. All of us, Tom included, were standing on the tarmac together waiting for the planes to be ready. Given that our first interview was a frenetic, last minute ‘run and gun’ moment, this was my first opportunity to have a casual, one on one moment with Cruise – perhaps even have a real conversation. I’ve done interviews with a lot of celebrities before, and I assure you, the vast majority can be very down to earth, relaxed and even more fun when the cameras are down.

 And yet, that genuine, ‘this is the real, relaxed Tom’ moment never came. Even while waiting on the tarmac, he seemed to be playing the role of “Tom Cruise the movie star.”

He was wearing sunglasses (it was nighttime – and unless you’re Corey Hart sunglasses at night always seem ridiculous to me.) He was having quiet conversations with the security guards. But when he laughed, it was always that overly loud ‘laughing too hard’ laugh. He was acting like a person might behave if they saw their ‘ex’ across the room at a party. Look like you’re having the time of your life. Laugh harder, smile bigger, toss your hair. You’ve never been happier! None of it seemed genuine. On the few occasions that we did make eye contact, (he did eventually take the sunglasses off) I never felt like he was really looking at me. Even in this down time, it occurred to me more than once that Tom Cruise was a man who could not remember what it was like to just be a guy who acts. He only knew how to act. In my eyes, Tom Cruise was playing the role of the ’Tom Cruise’ he thought he was supposed to be. The fun guy that everybody likes.

 The next stop was Berlin, and another red carpet event. Since we needed to deliver a story back to the network, I asked Tom’s sister, Lee Anne DeVette, if we could get another few minutes with the actor. She smiled at me and said no. This remains my most distinct memory of her as a person. Who smiles at you when they’re delivering you the news you don’t want to hear? We were clearly on warning about the last interview, and we were going to pay for it a little while longer. I was still expected to be in ‘groveling’ mode. That said, it was smoothing over, and there were assurances that the next leg of the trip would provide some great opportunities for interviews and photo ops.

 The next morning was Paris. (If you track the mileage, you can see this itinerary makes no sense at all – Tokyo to Berlin is an insane distance, then France… we were exhausted.) That morning, a mass of reporters all gathered at the Gare De Lyon train station for yet another press conference about the film. Given that his whirlwind romance with Katie was still a hot topic for reporters, the questioning from the press quickly turned to Tom’s love life. While the two never even touched each other at the press event, he announced they were engaged. The crowd of reporters gushed! (It’s worth noting that internationally, Tom Cruise is probably an even bigger star than he is here in the U.S. I’ve never seen the kind of reception he got from fans and reporters anywhere, for anyone like the one he got in these different countries.)

 Tom and Katie had only been publicly dating since April. He was 42, she was 26, and she looked even younger than that. Tom was in full ‘elated public appearance’ mode. He said he would be ‘jumping on couches’ – a reference to the Oprah incident – for many years to come, and yes, he wanted children. He beamed as he described proposing to her at the Eiffel Tower. Some of us were skeptical, smelling the not-so-faint air of a well-timed publicity stunt, but we were also running to our respective cell phones, knowing we had to get the news to our respective outlets, since dropping the ball on this development would make the entire trip a waste of time!

 Reporters then boarded a waiting train to Marseilles, France for yet another premiere. It was on this train ride, and at the premiere that followed that I really found myself questioning the legitimacy of their relationship.

 Cruise had reserved the front car of the train for him and Katie, and the rest of the train for the press. As the train rushed along the tracks, Tom was walking along the cars, ‘working the crowd’ when the films’ publicists offered my team the ‘exclusive’ opportunity to get shots of him driving the train for a few minutes.

 (My initial thought was: Tom will be driving the train? I mean – it is on a track – That essentially means we’re getting him sitting in the engineer’s chair, right? But as any journalist will tell you – never turn down an exclusive. We jumped at the opportunity.)

 As Tom continued to work his way to the back train cars, we were brought to the front train car – which was reserved just for Tom, Katie and a few other people.

As we waited, Katie sat in a train seat quietly by herself. She was pretty much just staring blankly into space. I don’t know exactly how a newly engaged woman sitting on a train should look, but this sure wasn’t it. She didn’t look the least bit excited. She just sort of sat there. Another person sat a few seats ahead, but neither of them had a conversation with us. It was a rare moment of quiet. After a few minutes, Tom and his sister returned from the back of the train to their private car. He didn’t immediately notice us, and for just a moment, he seemed his most natural and relaxed. He was just standing there, his sister next to him, taking a breath. It was when he realized that we were there that he immediately turned back on and another performance began.

 Once he saw that we were on the train car with them, he stood Katie up and began making out with her in a very deliberate, obvious way, almost embarrassing way. He kept us in his peripheral vision, making sure we saw him making out with her.  It was as if he was saying “Look at me! Look how in love I am!! See how in love we are?” The ‘show’ continued. His sister was standing right beside him, which was just weird. Who makes out standing right next to their sister? It was completely awkward. Over the years, as I have reenacted this moment to friends, I pantomime myself making out, tongue extended, to an invisible woman, my eyes squarely on the people around me… “Do you see this?”

 This event, this performance – became the defining moment of this trip, and ultimately, my defining personification of Tom – an embarrassing attempt to prove something to the strangers around him.

 The make-out session continued just long enough for us all to notice, (we noticed – there were only about six of us on this train car, including Tom and Katie) and then we continued on with the photo op of him driving the train. No hellos, no conversation, just enough of ‘Tom the star’ to get the job done.

 Mind you, I’ve now interacted with Tom for three days in a row now, (and yes, our access was far greater than the majority of the reporters there were getting) and yet he never seemed any more friendly or accessible than he did on day one. Sure, Tom poured on the charm for the shots of him ‘driving’ the train, but it was all business. We continued on to the Marseilles premiere.

 Marseilles was a madhouse. Thousands of fans were waiting, and Tom and Katie were led along the barricades like royalty. The crowd was madly shouting a word we couldn’t make out – it sounded like ‘Cahti! Cahti’ Cahti!’ – We were all trying to figure out what they were saying. Even Katie seemed bewildered. What the hell are they saying? (pause, then the realization…) Oh… they’re shouting ‘Katie.’ You couldn’t help but watch Tom and Katie’s every move. After all, that was what we were there to do. I’ve seen a lot of couples madly in love with each other in my life – and this couple, ‘Tom-Kat’ – as they were nicknamed, was not it. Not once, despite a lot of public ‘stage kisses’ did they look like a couple that couldn’t get enough of each other. Tom was in his element… waving, eyes twinkling, teeth sparkling. Katie followed along quietly, her smile controlled and polite. In off moments, she looked bewildered. If I had to guess what I thought was going through her mind, it would be: “What have I just gotten myself into?”

 Our cameras followed the crowd, and then aimed for a shot at Katie’s engagement ring. The film’s publicists scolded me, saying that was a very personal thing. I could only scratch my head at the disparity of a public engagement announcement that suddenly became private where the ring was concerned.

 Our next stop was supposed to be London, but it was already clear that all this time and expense just to get a minute or two with Tom on camera, or in some cases no time at all, wasn’t going to be worth staying for. The entertainment shows were already calling for our video of Tom and Katie, and the ‘exclusive’ of him driving the train. (Which, due to a photographer error, turned out black and white.  Ugh…another frustrating setback in an already exhausting trip.)  We decided to jump ship. We took a train to Paris, then I took a plane to London, and produced a taped spot for that morning, which in the United States was just a few hours away, where it was still breaking news. Tom and his crew would eventually fly to London for yet another premiere. He’d make news again when a person on the red carpet splashed water in his face – an incident of rude behavior that would understandably cause Cruise to lose his cool.

 I returned to New York disillusioned by the whole experience. Instead of feeling like I had gotten an inside look at Tom Cruise and his world, instead I felt like I had gotten an up close look at the veneer of a celebrity who was losing touch with his fans, and seemed out of touch with himself. It became more and more evident to me that Tom Cruise is an actor who is always in the starring role of a beloved celebrity… yet still unaware that his own life’s script needs work.

 Cruise too would return to New York a few days later for an interview with Matt Lauer. It was one of the only interviews at NBC’s studio 1A where all the doors were locked to prevent producers and unnecessary crew members from standing in the studio and watching. A cluster of staff stood outside the studio watching the interview on monitors. I watched as Matt asked Tom about scientology, psychiatry and prescription drugs. Cruise repeatedly lost his temper, calling Lauer ‘glib’ and telling him that he didn’t know what he was talking about. For Cruise, it was a disaster. For TODAY, it was gold.

 Just like the Oprah-couch showboating incident, Cruise was again running off the rails, only this time, it was for being honest about his opinions. It turns out neither did him any good. We all watched in shock as he came across as arrogant, snide, and rude. It would again become a public relations nightmare that would disillusion the public’s already shaky image of the movie star.

 Today, as more rumors and allegations arise about the possibility Tom Cruise and Scientology auditioned women to be his wife, how they selected a woman and later punished her when it didn’t work out, I can’t honestly say what I believe to be true, and what is just rumor. But what I do know is that the man that was once Hollywood’s golden boy has lost his luster, and I don’t think there’s much that can be done to recover from it. His expeditious and publicly civil agreement to Katie Holmes’ request for a divorce was the smartest move he has made in years. Cruise cannot afford to be the bad guy here, as the public’s perception of him already suffers enough.

 A lot has changed since 2005. We now live in a world where celebrities are more and more in touch with their fans. The megastars of today are reaching out and connecting with them in ways that didn’t even exist back then. Ironically, Tom Cruise is more distant than ever. Partly, I think, because Tom Cruise doesn’t know how to play the role of a regular guy. Being a movie star, being a person he thinks the world wants him to be, is all he knows. If he were to try and connect with fans, I don’t think he would know where to begin… and the consequences of that will only become more evident over time.

For more entertainment commentary, follow @BrianBalthazar on twitter. 

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1 Comment

  • Back in the 90’s my husband and I and a small group of friends sat across the room at Cafe Luxembourg from Tom Cruise,Nicole Kidman, and two people they were with. It was uncomfortable for all of us because the Tom and Nicole did nothing but “make out” the entire night. The people they were with seemed totally unfazed by their behavior- we, on the other hand, were stunned, amazed, and baffled by it. It just didn’t seem natural for a married couple to behave that way.

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