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.”
The jump worked: Last Christmas, MI4 was an enormous hit, making $693 million and putting Cruise back on top. “We were finishing Mission,” he recalls. “I’d go down the front of the building and then get on the phone with Adam Shankman and say, ‘What’s the voice of Stacee Jaxx?’ This movie was, for me, like training for anything: You have to learn how to use your muscles. And then you start thinking, What story do I want to tell?”
When W photographed Cruise in the penthouse of the Raleigh Hotel in Miami Beach several months before our meeting in Los Angeles, he was completely immersed in Stacee’s story. Rock of Ages was filming in Miami, and Cruise was sporting long hair extensions and tattoos. Playing the character took some courage: If he didn’t approach the role with sincerity and intensity, Cruise could easily look like a joke. “Stacee Jaxx had to be real,” he said during the shoot. “I didn’t want to imitate all these other rock stars. He had to be unique. If the audience doesn’t immediately buy into his absolute greatness, there’s no movie journey. Without that, you have nothing.”
Back in the studio, Cruise lets out a pitch-perfect scream. “My throat is gone,” he says, sounding hoarse. “That’s all I’ve got.” Cruise says his goodbyes to the Rock of Ages crew and leaves the room. I follow him into another recording studio to talk. “After four hours of singing,” Cruise begins, “I sound like Donald Duck. No more rock star.”
As a kid, did you sing around the house?
You know what? I did the scene from Risky Business around the house. I would sing Bob Seger—my mother worked, my sisters were out, and I’d turn the music up. I learned how to dance watching Soul Train. I noticed that if a guy could dance, he’d get a lot of attention and girls would want to dance with him. I worked very hard at imitating those moves.
Were you ever in a school musical?
In my senior year I was in Guys and Dolls. I was Nathan Detroit—the Sinatra part. I wish I’d had Ron Anderson back then. He would have made a big difference.
Why did you want to do a musical now?
Kate [Holmes, Cruise’s wife] loves musicals. She sings and dances, and we kind of went through the history of musicals together. And Suri loved Hairspray. With kids, you watch everything over and over; I watched Hairspray 15 times with Suri. I thought Adam Shankman did a great job directing the movie, so I arranged to meet him and said, “Where’s our musical?” He came back and said, “Rock of Ages.” We went and saw it in L.A., and for me…I didn’t know how to play the character like that. I had to find my own Stacee Jaxx.
You began training.
I needed to find out if I could really sing! Ron came in and worked with me. And then I had to learn how to play guitar. I’m very good at air guitar—and air drums—but I had never played an actual guitar. After working for weeks on Stacee’s technical skills, I was thinking about the character, and I said, “You know what? I need a monkey.” Adam said, “What the fuck are you talking about?” And I said, “I’m serious—I need a monkey” [laughs]. When Stacee’s not onstage, he’s kind of sad. And I thought, This guy has to have a monkey that’s his best friend. Adam found this baboon. He sent me the baboon’s audition tape, and I said, “The baboon’s name has to be Hey Man” [laughs]. Stacee Jaxx doesn’t work without Hey Man.
There are a lot of sexy scenes in this movie: At one point you’re climbing a stripper pole; in another scene, you’re grinding up against a Rolling Stone reporter, played by Malin Akerman.
I knew we had to push the sexuality because of the nature of the character and the songs. He’s singing, “I Want to Know What Love Is.” Adam has a sweetness with this stuff, so you can push things pretty hard. With Malin, I thought of Susan Sarandon in The Rocky Horror Picture Show—incredibly sexy and very sweet.
It’s hard to get that balance.
When you read a lot of rock biographies, you find that when these musicians are doing their work and it’s going well, that’s when they’re really alive. It’s all the other stuff—the noise and complications—that gets them into devilish behavior. Stacee is kind of floating until he comes onstage. That’s where he’s at home. Everything else is kind of a mess.
Was your goal to show something intimate?
Yes. It’s a little uncomfortable at times. But funny. Uncomfortable and funny: That was the goal.
Cruise: Hair by Michael White; makeup and tattoo design: Michele Burke. Models: Hair by Recine; makeup by Aaron de Mey at Art Partner; manicures by Champagne Satayakul. Models: Abbey Lee Kershaw at Next; Edita Vilkeviciute at DNA New York. Production by Select Services. Special thanks to the Raleigh Hotel. Digital technician: Xanny Handfield. Photography assistants: Lars Beaulieu, Johnny Vicari, Javier Villegas. Fashion assistants: Katy Younger-Hadwiger, Megan Kelley.