How Tom Cruise clawed his way back to the top with the weirdest character of his career

Tom Cruise was battling professional and personal setbacks in the mid-2000s, when he conceived, from scratch, the character that would take his career to the next level.

Tom Cruise’s stardom, which he has sustained for over four extraordinary decades, was further cemented some weeks ago with the release of Top Gun: Maverick. The film proved that Cruise is still a big draw at the box office, especially when he’s playing iconic characters in large-scale spectacles. Maverick has since become the year’s biggest hit, grossing over $1 billion worldwide and setting the stage for the next two years in Cruise’s career, with back-to-back Mission: Impossible films up for release.
From the outside, it might look like things have never been this good for Cruise, at least professionally speaking. But this is a position that he has had to claw his way towards. It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Cruise, but thanks to a carefully crafted last decade–both professionally and personally–the actor has managed to hit greater heights than probably any 60-year-old star ever.
On his birthday today, here’s looking back at the exact moment thing started turning around for him. In the mid-2000s, Cruise experienced the worst PR crisis of his life. His antics on Oprah’s couch made him the butt of all jokes before social media was even a thing. It was around the same time that Cruise said publicly that Brooke Shields’ use of antidepressants to battle postpartum depression was ‘irresponsible’. And then there was the leaked video in which he spoke passionately (and to regular folks, rather menacingly) about Scientology. His affliation with the Church of Scientology seemed to be the bedrock for virtually every controversy he found himself involved in, and certainly, this is something that has always proven to be a thorn in his side.
In desperate need of a career reinvention and after two full years without a proper hit–the third Mission: Impossible underperformed–Cruise bounced back with a role that would not only recontextualise him in popular culture as someone who was willing to poke fun at himself, but also an actor first and a star second. In 2008, Cruise appeared in a surprise extended cameo in director Ben Stiller’s war/film industry satire Tropic Thunder. He played the fat, balding studio head Les Grossman (a character that may or may not have been modelled after Harvey Weinstein) and earned himself a place in the audience’s good books, and also a nomination at the Golden Globes.
The idea of Grossman, who pops in regularly to scream obscenities at people on the phone and dance to pop music while sipping soda, was entirely Cruise’s, Stiller told Esquire some years ago. “That part did not exist. He said, ‘Well, there’s no studio executive and that would be really fun to be that guy. And he had this whole idea of what the guy should look like. It was his idea to dance. And I remember when we did a makeup test, someone handed him a Diet Coke and then he just started moving,” he said.
Cruise had said something similar a couple of years before that. “I read the script, and he had all of the characters, but the studio wasn’t there,” he told BBC Radio 1 in 2017. “There was a structural compression missing down on those characters, you know, that keeps the pressure on these guys that really drives the story. I was like, ‘You need the studio.’ So he came back, like a few weeks later, and I started reading. I read this character and I went, ‘Okay.’ I said, ‘This is fun,’ I said, ‘Do you mind Ben? I want to play this character. I said, ‘I want to have fat hands, and I’m gonna dance.’ And he looked at me, he was like, ‘What?’ …”
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Cruise continued, “He said, ‘Look, are you sure you can’t just be you? Like, look like you and do it?’ I said, ‘No, no, no man, I’m sorry, I don’t know how else to play this character.’ So then I did the makeup test, we’ve tested the fat hands, you know, and the whole look, and so we’re doing the wardrobe and there was no music playing … I said, ‘Look, let me just—I wanna do some moves for you…’ He just called me, and it was—he was laughing… He picked the music out, he edited this thing together, he was just pissing himself.”
Of course, it’s unlikely that Grossman could exist in a movie today. The character hasn’t aged particularly well. And neither has the movie. Even then, Tropic Thunder (despite being a hit that made nearly $200 million worldwide and scored Robert Downey Jr an Oscar nod, further his own career comeback) had attracted criticism for its treatment of mental illness and its use of Blackface. But despite everything, there still seems to be an appetite for the character–something that mirrors Cruise’s own career, which has thrived in spite of his connections with Scientology, and his famously demanding nature on set.