It’s a Thursday afternoon in a studio in Los Angeles, and Tom Cruise, dressed in jeans and an untucked white button-down shirt, is belting out “Paradise City.” He’s performing the Guns N’ Roses song—which he sings during the opening credits of his new movie, Rock of Ages—in character, as Stacee Jaxx, a fading rock god from the eighties. Sitting in front of the glass-enclosed recording booth are Cruise’s music advisers, including Ron Anderson, formerly a vocal coach for Axl Rose, whose trademark screech Cruise has perfected. When Cruise started this project more than a year ago, he didn’t know whether he could really sing. “Adam Shankman, the director, asked me if I could carry a tune,” Cruise tells me later. “I said, ‘We’ll see, won’t we? This is either going to work or it’s going to be dreadful.’ ”
Throughout his career, Cruise has assessed roles by their degree of difficulty. He loves a challenge—especially if it involves mastering some new skill. Cruise has tossed bottles (Cocktail), flown fighter jets (Top Gun), hustled pool (The Color of Money), learned to live life as a Nazi with one arm and an eye patch (Valkyrie), raced cars (Days of Thunder), and, most recently, rappelled down the face of the tallest building in the world (Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol). He always works from the outside in: Even in his serious, Academy Award–nominated roles for Born on the Fourth of July (in which he was wheelchair-bound) and Magnolia (where he played a sex guru), his way into a character is through the physical. With Stacee Jaxx, he began with the mundane rock-star requirements—honing his newly discovered four-octave range and learning to play the guitar—but the physical soon gave way to the emotional. While everyone else in Rock of Ages is either ridiculous or playing their part with a wink (Alec Baldwin in a wig!), Cruise seems to actually be living in Stacee’s leather pants. He is alone inside another, much more interesting movie; there is a melancholic undertow to Stacee Jaxx—he’s only truly alive when he’s onstage, and he knows that his time there is nearly over.
Cruise’s personal sense of character complication may have something to do with timing: Though the actor looks easily 15 years younger, he will be 50 in July. When he signed on to Rock of Ages, he was at a career crossroads—the rambling, not-fun Knight and Day, a big action movie, had not scored at the box office, and negative rumors had plagued MI4. True to his nature, Cruise concentrated on the work—specifically, the jump off the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai. “I look at cities and architecture and I’m always thinking, I want to jump off that building,” Cruise says. “I’m inspired by Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. I think, We’re going to get this on camera, and it’s going to be in IMAX—that will be something for an audience.”