Tom Cruise's principal brand is being the charismatic big screen hero -- but in recent years he has taken interesting steps to challenge that image. In the last ten years he's played a fat, sociopathic studio chief in Tropic Thunder; a spineless propagandist in Edge of Tomorrow; and most recently real-life drug smuggler Barry Seal in American Made. Some of his choices make it seem like he's been actively drawn towards legitimately hateful characters, and that seems to be confirmed by the fact that he was overjoyed by negative reactions to his latest role. American Made director Doug Liman recently told me,
[Tom Cruise] is the most courageous actor I've ever worked with, and I'm not talking about stunts. He's willing to dive into roles like Barry Seal and Cage from Live.Die.Repeat. that are so outside his brand. And he loves it! He's not scared at all about it. When you look at the survey cards when we previewed American Made and asked people to describe Barry Seal, they used the most derogatory words possible. They talked about how much they loved him, but when you say, 'What words would you use to describe [Barry]?'... And he just beams! The more negative the words to describe Barry, the more Tom smiles. And that's a courageous actor.
As noted by the filmmaker, American Made marks the second time that he has worked with Tom Cruise after Edge of Tomorrow/Live.Die.Repeat., and Liman had nothing but effusive comments about the star. I spoke with the director over the phone for a one-on-one interview, and while his collaboration with Cruise came up many times during the conversation, it was towards the end that the subject of test screenings came up. Apparently the actor was very interested in what people thought of Barry Seal, but rather than being upset when people downright hated him, he was instead elated.
Knowing what American Made is about, it's easy to understand why test audiences weren't a fan of Barry Seal -- who back in the late 1970s and early 1980s established himself as one of the most successful drug smugglers in United States history. A former TWA airline pilot, he took advantage of a deal with the CIA to transport Colombian cocaine for the Medellín Cartel, and not only made more money than he knew what to do with, but also totally skated by thanks to his government connections. His story makes for an incredible tale, which is basically why it was turned into a Hollywood film, but Seal was also a rather terrible person, and much to Tom Cruise's delight test audiences recognized that through his performance.
It's not as though Tom Cruise has totally stopped playing immensely likable characters (his sixth adventure as Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible franchise is around the corner), but it is always fantastic to see an actor work outside of their comfort zone. There are decades-worth of films that show that Cruise can be effortlessly likable, and it's easy to appreciate his ambition to try and shatter that image with new roles -- even when he's still playing the protagonist.
Audiences will soon be able to see Tom Cruise at his purposefully most hate-able very soon, as American Made is set to hit theaters this Friday, September 29th. As for my interview with Doug Liman, I have some more great stories from our conversation set to post this week, so stay tuned here on CinemaBlend.