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Tropic Thunder: How Tom Cruise revived his career as Less Grossman in Ben Stiller’s movie

Fifteen years ago, Tom Cruise took on a role that has since been credited for reviving his career. Now, with the latest Mission: Impossible film just released and Cruise enjoying his time as one of the top 10 highest-grossing lead actors of all time, it’s hard to imagine. But back then, he was falling out of favour due to a spate of controversial public behaviour.

In 2006, Cruise was a PR nightmare dominating headlines for all the wrong reasons. The previous year, he’d caused uproar with his notorious couch-jumping stunt during an interview with Oprah. He was supposed to be promoting Steven Spielberg’s movie War of the Worlds, but instead decided to declare his love for fellow actor Katie Holmes, in the most over-enthusiastic manner possible.

The clip was viewed millions of times around the world thanks to a new website called YouTube, sparking a reported feud with Spielberg, who apparently believed that Cruise’s behaviour had damaged War of the Worlds’ success at the box office. (Cruise would later tell Oprah in a 2015 interview that the moment was “real” for him and he was unsure if he’d take it back.)

That same year, Cruise was heavily criticised for his remarks about Brooke Shields, where he accused her of spreading “irresponsible misinformation” about antidepressants. Shields, who struggled with conception, revealed in her book Down Came the Rain: My Journey Through Postpartum Depression, that she’d taken medication to help treat her condition.

In a heated discussion on The Today Show, Cruise told then-host Matt Lauer that Shields “didn’t understand the history of psychiatry”, and went so far as to brand her “dangerous”. Shields then wrote a New York Times op-ed, in which she suggested Cruise “stick to fighting aliens”. He was also criticised by medical experts who warned that he risked increasing the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Shields said that Cruise apologised for his remarks in person, and that she’d been impressed by his apology, during an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. “He apologised for bringing me into the whole thing and for everything that happened,” she said.

“And through it all, I was so impressed with how heartfelt it was. And I didn’t feel at any time that I had to defend myself, nor did I feel that he was trying to convince me of anything other than the fact that he was deeply sorry. And I accepted it.”

By 2006, Cruise was rapidly falling out of favour with Hollywood, even as he was ranked as the world’s most powerful celebrity by Forbes. His influence and box-office success were indisputable, of course, but industry figures – and the public – appeared to be growing tired of his highly publicised antics.

Evidence of this emerged when Paramount Studios cut ties with Cruise after a 14-year relationship, and Sumner Redstone, then-chairman of the studio’s parent company, Viacom, cited the actor’s public behaviour as one of the reasons behind the decision.

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“It’s nothing to do with his acting ability, he’s a terrific actor,” Redstone said at the time. “But we don’t think that someone who effectuates creative suicide and costs the company revenue should be on the lot.”

This shocking upset, which landed after years of success since Cruise first starred in Top Gun in 1986, caused many Hollywood critics to wonder if this was the end of his career. That was, until 2008, when Cruise showed up in a cameo role in his friend Ben Stiller’s box office hit,Tropic Thunder – about a cast of prima donna actors shooting a movie in Vietnam – as the balding, Diet Coke-guzzling, expletive-uttering movie executive Les Grossman.

Tom Cruise and Matthew McConaughey in ‘Tropic Thunder’

(Dreamworks Llc/Kobal/Shutterstock)

Opening up about Cruise’s role in an Esquire interview, director Stiller revealed that it was actually his friend’s idea to play Les. “Tom Cruise had the idea to play Les Grossman in the movie,” Stiller says. “That part did not exist. He said, ‘Well, there’s no studio executive and that would be really fun to be that guy.’ And he had this whole idea of what the guy should look like. It was his idea to dance. And I remember when we did a makeup test, someone handed him a Diet Coke and then he just started moving.”

Cruise certainly committed to the role. In a 2019 interview with Conan O’Brien, he recalled that his two stipulations for the role were that he wanted “fat hands”, and he wanted to dance. Wearing a fat suit, prosthetic hands and a bald cap, he was virtually unrecognisable as the suave Hollywood star the world knew, dancing to Ludacris’s “Get Back” one moment, screaming at a film crew the next (OK, the latter sounds more familiar after his notorious Mission Impossible diatribe in 2020). For many watching Tropic Thunder at the cinema, it wasn’t apparent that Cruise was behind the character until the end credits began to roll.

The film itself was controversial, not least for Robert Downey Jr’s performance, which involved wearing blackface to play method-loving Australian actor, Kirk Lazarus. Cruise’s character was also scrutinised: theNew York Times noted how Grossman was “heavily and heavy-handedly coded as Jewish…the character is murderous, repellent and fascinating, a grotesque from his swollen fingers to the heavy gold dollar sign nestled on his yeti-furred chest”.

Yet audiences adored Cruise in the movie, and in the years since, his performance in Tropic Thunder has been widely credited for “resurrecting” his career, along with proving he could do comedy, as well as action. Since then, fans have been begging Cruise to reprise the role, and it seems they might actually get their wish. Last year, in a Deadline report about him and his regular collaborator Christopher McQuarrie, it was claimed that the duo are “fixated” on the character of Les Grossman, and are working out how best to bring him back.

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