"Want to meet my mom?" Tom Cruise asks as we walk through the halls of the Celebrity Centre, ground zero for Scientology in Los Angeles.
We round a corner and enter the president's office, where Mary Lee (a.k.a. Mom) has just ordered a salad. In town from Florida, she is leaning against a door frame near Lee Anne DeVette, Cruise's sister and publicist, and Tommy, who manages Cruise's philanthropy work. Mom is thin and tan, and she beams an even toothier smile than her son when she is introduced.
Considering that she is a practicing Catholic, it is somewhat surprising to see her in the Celebrity Centre. "I just finished taking the Way to Happiness course," she says. "I learned so much."
She pauses for a moment and reflects on the day's lesson: "And I thought I was happy before."
Cruise joined Scientology, the controversial church of religion and life philosophy started by L. Ron Hubbard, after church courses helped him overcome his dyslexia in the Eighties; he was followed, one by one, by his three sisters. His mother was the lone holdout in the clan. A year ago, however, after going through what she describes as "some things," she relented.
But doesn't Scientology conflict with her Catholicism? Not at all, she says: "I think Jesus wants me to be here right now. My church may not agree, but I personally know that."
We sit down on the couch, and Lee Anne puts in a video. It is a tape of Tom Cruise speaking at her daughter's graduation from the Delphian School, which uses L. Ron Hubbard's learning principles. It is a passionate speech, in which Cruise sings the praises of Hubbard's "Study Tech" and rails against psychiatry and psychiatric medication. After graduating, Lee Anne's daughter will work in Cruise's office. They're a tight little family.
On the surface, Cruise seems to be at a turning point in his life and career. Romantically, he is alone, having divorced Nicole Kidman after ten years and broken up with Penelope Cruz after three. And he recently left his longtime -- and notoriously overprotective -- publicist, Pat Kingsley, preferring representation by his family. Meanwhile, in his movies, he is taking steps to shed his old persona of headstrong-young-hotshot-with-a-good-heart-underneath-it-all in favor of progressively more evil characters -- from Lestat in Interview With the Vampire to Frank "T.J." Mackey in Magnolia to Vincent in his latest film, Collateral. An older character with salt-and-pepper hair, Vincent is not a nice guy: He is a cold-blooded killer and an unredeemable sociopath who leaves a trail of bodies in his wake.
But the most surprising change is that the famously press-phobic Cruise seems more open than ever about his commitment to Scientology, having provided funds for a detoxification clinic to help New York firefighters who became sick after 9/11.
Since Scientology, in the popular imagination, is such a loaded word -- often associated with heavy-handed recruitment tactics, strong-arm-lawyer assaults and steep membership and course fees -- one would think that Cruise wouldn't be so willing to take a journalist through that world.
"Who are those people that say those things?" Cruise asks when I bring it up over lunch one day. "Because I promise you, it isn't everybody. But I look at those people and I say, 'Bring it. I'm a Scientologist, man. What do you want to know?' I don't mind answering questions."
He lists some of Scientology's selling points: its drug-abuse, prison-rehabilitation and education programs. "Some people, well, if they don't like Scientology, well, then, fuck you." He rises from the table. "Really." He points an angry finger at the imaginary enemy. "Fuck you." His face reddens. "Period."
It is a beautiful exhibition, and I don't believe that he's acting. Before meeting Cruise, I had been warned roundly by my colleagues. They told of restrictions set in interviews, documents that I would have to sign, unprintably generic answers I would receive. They said that he smiles and listens and talks and looks you in the eye, but afterward, when you walk away, you realize that you've really been given nothing but a command performance.
Frankly, none of that turned out to be true. My afternoon in the Scientology Celebrity Centre, a church (featuring a restaurant, a hotel, a spa and classrooms) that caters to Scientology's Hollywood dignitaries, was the cap to a fascinating and unusual week in the world of Cruise that began in the blistering heat of the Mojave Desert.
I'm training to jump a trailer," Cruise says when I arrive at a Willow Springs International Raceway wheelie school in Rosamond, California. He is in black bike leathers, with a matching black helmet tucked under his left arm and two days of stubble on his chin. He points out a trailer sitting just off the track. "It'll be bigger than that one," he continues. "But it's not that hard."
He narrows his eyes and squints at the trailer for a moment, visualizing the feat. "Well, the jumping's not that hard," he says. "It's the landing that's difficult."
He cocks his right hand and slugs me in the shoulder. Cruise has spent the day training to be an action hero. The trailer jump is part of his warm-up for Mission: Impossible 3. Earlier in the day, he took his Cessna plane out to practice loops, prepping for his role as a World War II fighter pilot in his next collaboration with Collateral director Michael Mann, The Few. I have been summoned to the desert to learn to do wheelies with Cruise. There is only one flaw in the plan: I've never ridden a motorcycle in my life.
But I'm willing to learn -- it's part of the job when you're writing stories about sports and other skills. "That's great," Cruise says. He reaches his right hand out to shake mine as a gesture of approval. When his hand grips mine, his elbow comes flying out of nowhere and slams into my chest, knocking me off balance. He has a habit of making great bonding alpha-male gestures of body contact. When you've said something that earns his agreement or respect, you get a firm handshake. Respect mixed with encouragement earns you a spine-collapsing clap on both shoulders. And if he feels a little healthy surprise, you get the flying elbow to the chest. He is the ultimate high school jock, but not the mean, arrogant one. He's the one who's so guileless and friendly that even the nerds don't resent him.
Cruise shows me the powerful Triumph bike I will be riding -- the brake, the clutch, the gearshift and the wheelie bar added to the back of the bike. If a line could be drawn between comfortable personal space and invasive personal space, Cruise would always be just a centimeter over the line. His behavior is not meant to be rude, only sincere and attentive. "Look at this," he says, rapping on the wheelie bar, which trails behind the bike and stabilizes it when the front wheel lifts off the ground. "It's gauged to make sure you don't go too high."
Cruise is a dedicated student of the action-hero disciplines: He wants to gain competence, he says, at rock-climbing and flying; he is loath to use a stunt double, preferring instead to spend months training in swordplay, Nascar racing and bike-riding for films. As he talks about his adventuring skills, one gets the feeling that in the event of an apocalypse, an action hero would have a more likely chance of survival than most ordinary folk.
Cruise considers the idea. In fact, there's nothing that you can say that he won't seriously consider. He pays attention, almost to a fault. "I can live out in the woods," he begins. "I would eat bugs. I can use a sword and a pistol and stuff."
Cruise, ultimately, is a survivor. "There's a confidence that comes from knowing you can work, no matter what," he says. "I can deliver papers. I can take care of myself."
Cruise's dogged work ethic is one reason directors love him. He has worked with some of the best: Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick. And he rarely limits his involvement in a film to just acting -- he has helped produce, write, even scout locations. Even rarer for an actor, he is a team player. In movie after movie, he has played the straight man in order to enable great performances by his co-stars, whether it be Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire, Paul Newman in The Color of Money or Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men.
When we return to the riding lesson, there are two words that seem to recur over and over in Cruise's stories and instructions: competence -- his goal in learning anything new -- and gradient, which is a step in the process of learning. Days later, when he supplies me with materials written by L. Ron Hubbard, I will learn that they are concepts that come from his pamphlet The Way to Happiness (Step 17: Be Competent) and his Study Tech manuals (Barrier 2 to Study: Too Steep a Gradient).
We drink some water and pop a couple of salt tablets to prevent dehydration, then get on our bikes. While Cruise races around the track on his back wheel, I inch along at 10 mph on his 955cc Triumph. Afterward, we adjourn to his trailer for lunch. Nearly every available inch of wall space is filled with photos and montages of Cruise and his family: his mother, his children, his sisters and his nieces and nephews. Even the dashboard is covered with framed photos of the younger generation of Cruises. Cruise currently lives in Los Angeles with his sister Cass, her three children and, when they are with him, the two children he adopted with Nicole Kidman, Isabella, 12, and Connor, 9.
Cruise removes his bike gloves, pulls off his motorcycle helmet and runs a hand through the perfectly shaved black stubble on his head. "That's my daughter," he says, pointing to a girl in his arms on the wall of images. "Look at that. So cute. And that's my son doing his first oral presentation, on Ulysses S. Grant. And that's us in New Zealand."
He pauses, then reflects, "I would live with all of my sisters if I could. We've always been very close, my sisters and me. And we always dreamed of making sure that when we grew up, our kids were together and had their cousins and family."
I ask him how often he sees his kids. "A lot," he replies, unzipping his bodysuit to reveal his trademark immaculately white T-shirt. "Nic and I don't talk publicly about custody, but, definitely, both of us share the kids back and forth. They're amazing kids." He pauses and his eyes narrow, as they usually do when he's speaking about a serious topic. His left eye tends to close a little more than the right one, giving the appearance of deep focus. He nods his head and repeats the thought with more emphasis. "They're amazing kids."
There are few questions that Cruise won't answer, but there are many that he won't give a direct answer to. The general rule is that the more difficult the question, the longer the silence before he answers. These periods of silent contemplation tend to mean that the answer will be a deflection to another topic. And the last line will be a firm and resolute statement, so that it seems as if a meaningful answer has been given. For example:
I ask, "Since your parents' divorce affected you to some degree, were you worried that your breakup would affect your kids?"
One second, two seconds, three seconds. "When it comes to divorce, it's . . ." Four seconds, five seconds, six seconds, seven seconds, eight seconds, nine seconds. "The important thing with a child is that you love them, you protect them and you help them to grow and find out who they are. And as a parent, it's my responsibility to help them to become independent and get all the knowledge and a broad view of the world and life. I know that Nic absolutely agrees with that. And that's what's important: being there."