Mission accomplishable: Tom Cruise draws a crowd

Entertain me: Patton, Toda, Cruise, Bird at Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol press conference, Ritz Carlton Hotel, Tokyo, Dec. 1, 2011 (photo Lucian Capellaro/Paramount Pictures Int'l)

Who’s the biggest movie star today? If you say Tom Cruise or Will Smith, it’s not because they’re the biggest box office draws, but rather because they act like movie stars, and that’s because they love being movie stars. It’s what they always wanted to be and now that they are they’ll do whatever it takes to remain movie stars. It’s why they throw themselves so fully into promotion, why they answer every dumb interviewer’s question as if it were a matter of life or death, why they spend that extra few minutes with fans and give photographers whatever they ask for. Julia Roberts looks upon reporters the way the rest of see tax auditors, and while Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp do the press conferences, photo sessions are like dentists’ appointments, necessary but highly unpleasant. One assumes that they like being movie stars but would prefer the old-fashioned protocols, when personal appearances were purposely limited to preserve the mystery of personality. That model went out with the studio system and the subsequent stars of the 60s and 70s were born too early for the press junket. Tom Cruise was practically born into it. Except for the occasional European who somehow thinks that drilling him about his status as an alpha dog Scientologist counts as serious journalism, the press treats Cruise like a king because he treats them like old pals. Most Hollywood actors as seasoned as Cruise would cringe at the idea of the current whirlwind world press tour to promote Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol — 9 cities in 14 days, and Tokyo was the first. To Cruise, such a schedule is a challenge, something, he’ll be quick to tell you, that he thrives on.

Locals may grumble that Tokyo is the only one of these cities that isn’t getting a premiere, but actually Cruise did even better: He set up a fan meeting/screening at Roppongi Hills on Dec. 1, probably because he knows more about Japanese fans than most American movie stars. Whenever he’s in town to promote a movie, Cruise not only does the press conference, the interviews, and the premiere, all with that huge, sparkly smile and the sincerest form of flattery, but also a few TV shows where he invariably rubs shoulders with local celebrities and not-so-celebrities, happily making just as much of a fool of himself as they do.

Because he, as star and producer, along with director Brad Bird and costar Paula Patton, had to be in Seoul the next day, he didn’t have time for the variety shows this trip, so that’s why the fan meeting trumped a premiere. I didn’t make it to the fan meeting, and not because I’m not a fan, but because I saw the movie that morning and then went to the press conference, and there’s only so much Tom Cruise you can take in one day.

His exuberance is legendary, and you feel bad when his attempts at being gracious make no sense. After a describing what an “honor” it was to be in Tokyo during his opening remarks at the press conference, he said how much he and his team had been “looking forward to it,” “it” presumably meaning being in Japan. “We often talked while making the movie about this moment, coming here.” Though I have no reason to disbelieve Cruise, it seems unlikely that the press junket to Japan became a topic of discussion over coffee with cast and crew. But it got weirder. “Even in the sandstorm, thinking about this moment was very exciting, and we appreciate the warm welcome.”

There is a big action set piece in the movie where Cruise’s character, Ethan Hunt, chases some bad guy into a sandstorm in Dubai, but that seems even less of a likely place to be dreaming about going to Tokyo. The illogic even threw off Cruise’s interpreter, the estimable but nearing-her-sell-by-date Natsuko Toda, who asked for clarification. “You remember, the sandstorm in the movie,” Cruise ribbed her good-naturedly. “Well, of course, I remember,” she said, trying to seem amused but looking more like she was being tested. “I did the…” and her voice trailed off as she finished the translation. What she wanted to say was that she did the subtitles, but she certainly wouldn’t have wanted to give the impression that she wasn’t paying attention (though sometimes her subtitles give exactly that impression).

Director Brad Bird, for some reason picking up on this ludicrous running joke that was so inside only Cruise seemed to get it, added, “I, too, remember the sandstorm. I think it’s the first time Tom hasn’t had it blown in his face and his eyes. So thank you for not blowing sand in Tom’s eyes.” Cruise was practically rolling on the floor, which distracted the assembled press from the fact that none of them understood what the hell he was talking about. Patton, who was so thrilled to be sitting with these two powerful Hollywood figures and obviously couldn’t stop thinking about what her career might look like in a year, lacked the presence of mind to join in the frivolity and simply pointed out that she wasn’t in the scene with the sandstorm.

Maybe what Cruise wanted to say was that, even in a sandstorm, he was enjoying himself immensely. And that’s probably the most salient feature of a Tom Cruise press conference, the feeling you get at the end that no one loves his life more than Cruise does. There doesn’t seem to be a moment that goes by that Cruise doesn’t say to himself, “Boy, I’m having fun being a movie star and I really pity people who aren’t me.” But fun means hard work, not to mention being creative. These were themes that Cruise would return to again and again. In fact, repetition is Tom Cruise’s middle name.

“We had a great cast,” he said to a journalist who asked about something so vague Cruise could answer just as vaguely. “I mean, Paula, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg. We had so much fun every day. We were working had, very long hours, every day, and they were like: What can we do? They were there every second and they trained very hard. Paula trained for…how many months?”

“A couple of months,” she answered, overflowing with bubbliness.

“So it was team work,” Cruise continued, and suddenly thought of something he could get over with right then and there. “And I’d like to say, working with Brad Bird, someone who I have so much admiration for that it’s going to embarrass him. I love his movies — Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille — they’re just magnificent films. He’s a master storyteller and filmmaker and for this to be his first live-action movie, for me I felt very honored and excited about it because he’s someone I admire so much as a filmmaker and storyteller–and as a person. He carried his spirit of filmmaking into this movie, into his first live-action film, and I think when you see the sequences and the tone of the film, you’ll think: That’s Brad Bird. So now he’s going to say a few words to you”

What could Bird say after such a mind-spinning introduction? Though obviously a witty man who likes to demonstrate his wit, he was first obligated to return the compliment, and said something about how he had been “looking forward to working with Tom for a long time, and I never knew if it would happen or not.” When a reporter asked him specifically what the difference was between making animated films and live action films he said, “I think the language of film is the same whether you’re doing animation or live action. The major difference is that in live action you can have real spontaneity. You can come up with an idea on take 3 and radically change it by take 4. You’re recording these moments where you’re hoping you can catch lightning in a bottle. You can imitate spontaneity in animation and you can get it on the soundtrack a little, but animation is more about making tiny steps towards a goal, and in live action it’s about trying things, and this was a fantastic cast. They were always willing to roll with the changes. The script was changing a lot while we were making the film and nobody got flustered, even though it got frustrating sometimes, because they all came to play. It was really fun.”

Cruise injected another non sequitur, pointing out that he bough Bird a pair of sneakers before the shoot started. “Very comfortable sneakers,” Bird acknowledged, nodding, but since it was obvious the press didn’t get the significance of this gesture Cruise had to clarify. “It’s because I said to him…”

“…you will not be sitting down,” Bird said, finishing the sentence, which still didn’t make any sense, but people seemed to understand that sneakers are “fun,” and thus gave Cruise another excuse to expound on the same theme when somebody asked about his “inspiration”: “I just love what I do, and I do it because I want to entertain audiences and love being part of a team and telling a story. I get very interested in something and that’s what drives me. I train for different things for different movies, and there’s a certain point at which the work has to get done. So it just happens. But I think it’s my appreciation. It’s something I wanted to do my whole life, entertain audiences and make movies, and I feel very fortunate about it. That excitement, being part of something, has never gone away. Just my interest and excitement for it. I think that’s what it is.” After a pause for interpretation he continued: “There’s something that happens in creating. There are moments, you feel a tremendous amount of energy when you see something new. Working with Brad on the story and seeing what he’s creating, and we’re working together with Paula and the actors, no matter how many days we haven’t slept…there were some days when I had to work 36 hours straight because we were working on two different crews or three different crews at once. So there’s something where you inspire each other because you’re working, and it’s just the most amazing feeling. Like when we were working on the prison sequence and he sent me the Dean Martin song, and I went, this is…It just…you know, I get very excited. I can’t sleep. It inspired the choreography of the scene. There’s just so many moments like that. That’s what does it.”

In the opening sequence, several members of the Impossible Mission Force have to break Ethan Hunt out of a Russian prison and during the melee that ensues once all the cell doors are opened the tech guy, played by Simon Pegg, blasts Dean Martin over the P.A. system. It truly is one of the more inspired moments in a film that becomes increasingly formula-driven and predictable, and certainly illustrated Bird’s feeling about the potential spontaneity of film, though it just as easily could have been put in an animated movie; in fact, the Dean Martin added a welcome touch of cartoony looniness to the film.

“So the short answer to your question,” Bird interjected, “is ‘Dean Martin’,” though at this point most people in the audience had forgotten what the question was — except for Cruise, who was again laughing his head off.

“Classic,” he said.

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