In 2008, Tom Cruise needed to find a way to make people laugh. Hard. Probably at him. After two decades as a bona fide Hollywood sensation, the actor found himself in the midst of a crisis that seemed unimaginable. Over the past four years, he’d fired his publicist, who had told him to curb the Scientology talk, and made a fool of himself publicly, jumping on Oprah’s couch and lecturing Matt Lauer about psychiatry. Business had been better, too. On the heels of 2006’s Mission: Impossible III, which made nearly $150 million less than the franchise’s previous installment, Cruise’s longtime studio home, Paramount, severed ties. Company chairman Sumner Redstone delivered a public reprimand by way of a reason. “As much as we like him personally, we thought it was wrong to renew his deal,” Redstone told The Wall Street Journal. “His recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount.”
Cruise was in trouble and responded by taking a risk. Brash, bawdy, highly physical comedy wasn’t exactly the Cruisean blueprint, and nothing about that kind of role — yelling at fictional paramilitary drug lords to “literally fuck your own face!” — suggested redemption. Nobody could guarantee Tropic Thunder would help his image. There was a chance it could come off purely in bad taste. But Cruise fat-suited up, doubling down on the idea of finding his way back into public favor by channeling the villainous Hollywood mogul Les Grossman.
Grossman gave even fewer fucks than Cruise had seemingly given in the years leading up to the film — and watching Cruise mock his own industry finally felt like he was back in the know. Tropic Thunder was a sendup of filmmaking itself: A troupe of actors shooting a war movie wander into a remote jungle and end up in hostile territory. They believe the dangers mounting all around them are simply there in the service of acting. One of them, Tugg Speedman, played by Thunder’s cowriter and director, Ben Stiller, is captured and tortured. Grossman is asked to ransom the action star, but refuses. Actors can drop dead. Business is king. That’s the message. In the end, however, the film within the film — a disaster by all accounts — is ironically rewarded for its merits with Oscars. Just as unbelievably, in real life, Cruise came away from Tropic Thunder nominated for a Golden Globe and ready, Les Grossman–style, to shake his ass all the way back to the bank.
Ben Stiller (director; writer; Tugg Speedman): Justin Theroux and I had been working on the script on and off for eight years. It came out of an idea I had for a sketch about actors who come home from making a Vietnam War movie and no one cares about them. It came from auditioning for so many war movies and being in Empire of the Sun and seeing how seriously actors took the mini fake boot camp they all went on. It just seemed so funny to me that us actors took our little two weeks with a real drill sergeant so seriously when it obviously was nothing like the real experience of war.
Stuart Cornfeld (producer): We originally wanted Tom to play the lead — Tugg Speedman. Ben was going to play the agent.
Stiller: We had an outline and about half a script. I knew how it should end. Then we brought Etan on and got a full draft.
Etan Cohen (writer): I came on in about 2002. We were still figuring out why the actors would get abandoned and no one would notice that all these stars were gone. So I had written this throwaway thing at the side of the document that said: “Maybe the studio has an insurance policy on production. When the director dies they recoup all their expenses, so the studio doesn’t care about the actors.” Then we totally went away from that for years.
Stiller: I had been talking to Tom about being in the movie. He read the script and actually came up with the idea for the character.
Cornfeld: Tom read the script when there was no Les Grossman and said, “I think you need another villain other than just the 12-year-old drug king. What about some greedy pig studio executive who really represents the gross part of Hollywood?”
Stiller: His idea to show the studio head actually fixed a problem we had for a long time. We never cut back to the real world for any of the previous drafts. All the Grossman scenes totally fixed the plot holes.
Cornfeld: We did a draft that incorporated that character and Ben gave it to Tom. Then, the frequency of our discussions slowed down. Tom Cruise is a busy guy.
Cohen: The character spent a year being “Studio Head.” July 2003, he becomes Todd Berlinger. October 2003, Todd Green. This was an interesting draft, because here’s the first draft where we really see the guy who became the profane Les Grossman, screaming at Flaming Dragon that if they so much as sneeze on the craft services table, he will fuck them up. Then, a couple weeks later — Phillip Green. For the life of me, I can’t remember why.
Cornfeld: Ben decided he was going to play Speedman, and then he got a phone call from Tom, who said he just couldn’t get the script out of his mind. Tom asked, “What else is open?” And Ben said, “Well, we haven’t cast the Les Grossman role yet.” Tom was like, “I’d play that.”
Stiller: And he said he wanted to dance.
Bill Hader (studio executive Rob Slolom): I walk into the casting office for Tropic Thunder to audition and there’s pictures of the people who are in the movie next to the name of their part. They had Speedman; there was Stiller. There was Robert Downey Jr., Nick Nolte, and then under Les Grossman it was a Photoshopped picture of Tom Cruise bald with a beard and a Bluetooth thing in his ear. I’m like, “Tom Cruise is playing Les Grossman?” And Ben went, “Yeah!” That totally changed the audition. It became way more nerve-racking. Tom Cruise, you know. I did an impression of a studio assistant that Ben and I had both worked with, sort of a yes-man. Ben said, “Yeah, that’s a good energy to counteract Les Grossman’s.” Because Les Grossman is going to be so big, it’s nice to have someone who’s got a slower metabolism.
Cohen: I met Tom at the table reading. It’s not a surprise that he is who he is. A lot of actors hold back at table readings. Tom was the opposite. He worked insanely hard at making that character unique. You could tell that he’d never done anything like it before and was embracing it.
Hader: Tom Cruise didn’t know who I was and was trying to figure it out. I said, “Seth Rogen’s a friend of mine and he said he went to your house.” I did a Seth Rogen impersonation for two seconds, like “Tom Cruise is amazing! We rode motorcycles in his backyard!” And it was like I did a magic trick. Tom Cruise started clapping and going crazy and he went, “You do impressions and you’re on Saturday Night Live.” Meaning, I was briefed and I now know who you are.
Michèle Burke (makeup designer): I was Tom’s go-to makeup person from Interview With the Vampire on. I did a lot of big, iconic looks for him. I got a text saying, “Tom wants to have hairy arms.” And I was thinking, Oh, OK, we can get hairy arms. Then they were like, “We want him to have a hairy chest.” Then suddenly it was like he’s going to have big hands, and I’m sitting there thinking, This is getting bigger than I expected. Then they started sending me pictures of other people who looked a bit like this. You know, with the gold jewelry, the hairy chest. I thought, OK, now I’m beginning to get the picture, this is full-on.
Barney Burman (makeup designer): I had about a dozen people making the silicone prosthetics for his head, neck, chest, and hands. We made him special gloves. I did the sculpting, someone else did the molds, someone else was casting them. I had six different people punching hairs into the scalp piece, so his entire head was one-at-a-time, hand-punched hairs; his arms were hand-punched one at a time; his chest was hand-punched.
Connie Grayson Criswell (lead hair-puncher): It was kind of a pain in the butt because we were punching with very curly human hair. Curly hair is very hard to punch because it has a mind of its own.
Burman: When we needed a point of reference — I didn’t even see this happening at first — people would come to me, because I may be a few pounds over what I should be and I’m sort of bald on top and at the time had a sort of scruff going. And people kept looking at me to see how my hair grows and what the weight is like and how things sit on me. At one point I thought they were trying to turn Tom into me.
Cornfeld: Some magazine said the character was based on me because I’m like, you know, fat and bald, and I thought that was hysterical. The character was an amalgam of a lot of traits. Les isn’t really based on anybody.1
Aida Caefer (body suit construction): I made the fat suits for Tom Cruise. He was all for the more ridiculous, the better. The suit went from his neck all the way down to the ankles. It’s a cotton jumpsuit that goes right on the skin and then we start attaching layers and layers of muscles and fat and custom pads made out of foam and wiggly-jiggly beading from the inside of a pillow to mimic the fat movement. On top of it is another layer that ties everything together, and when you put it on, it looks like skin. We had to make three [suits]. The character moved around a lot and he was so soaked in sweat that we had rotating suits for him — one in the morning and one after lunch.2
Criswell: I didn’t know what the hair was for initially. I’m not fazed by actors. It’s all about the hair work.
Cornfeld: We’re doing the makeup test and it’s the first time Tom’s in the Les Grossman outfit. He stops and says, “Maybe I should dance in this. You know, I haven’t danced in a movie in a long time.”
Stiller: Tom choreographed all his own moves. I remember watching him do this stuff and thinking this is so frigging funny.
Hader: I remember him standing off in a corner just working on his moves.
Cornfeld: Most directors, if an actor in that situation said, “Maybe I should dance,” suddenly, the script has additions to it. All of a sudden the secretary is saying, “Oh, Mr. Grossman, you’ve got to practice your dance routine for your daughter’s bat mitzvah,” or something like that. But Ben was like, “Yeah, that’s good. This guy does what he wants and when he’s happy, he dances.” He didn’t need any explanation beyond that.
Hader: I had a hard time keeping a straight face when he said, “A nutless monkey could do your job.” You notice when he says that I’m not looking at him. Every time I looked at him I’d start laughing.
Burke: One day we were in the makeup room and Tom was rehearsing his lines and they were so vulgar and crass. I was taken aback and I thought something had happened to him. He’s swearing and saying these horrible things like, “Fuck you, I’m gonna fuck you!” Oh my goodness. It was not his normal thing.
Hader: When I was like 5, my dad took me out to these rain towers in northern Tulsa, where I grew up. And he had me on his shoulders and he said, “They’re shooting a movie over there called The Outsiders.” They were shooting the rumble scene in the rain and I was like, “Oh my god! They’re shooting a movie over there!” I told Tom that and he goes, “I was there. You were there. And now we’re here. How awesome is that?”
Caefer: With such a heavy makeup and the heavy workout he was getting, we really had to tend to the actor all the time because there are risks involved — dehydration — so we had to have water for him all the time.
Hader: Justin Theroux deserves a ton of credit for the Les Grossman character. Theroux was the one when I was around who was coming up with all these Grossman lines. “You shit the money bed” was just so good.
Stiller: We shot all Tom’s stuff in like three days.
Hader: They didn’t put him on any of the posters. And when I did press I didn’t want to talk about it because I just wanted it to be a surprise.3
Caefer: At the end of the movie, people were seeing his name on the screen, and questioning, Who the heck was Tom Cruise? Which one was Tom Cruise?
Cohen: Les Grossman was so beloved that he appeared at the MTV Movie Awards.4
Burke: Dancing with Jennifer Lopez.
Hader: I remember even getting phone calls, saying, “Hey, we’re maybe going to do a Les Grossman movie.” And I said, “Hey, that sounds great.” I think one was written, but I don’t know.5
Cornfeld: So much of it is about availability. Hopefully something will happen because he’s such a great character.
Hader: At the premiere, Tom Cruise was like, “Hey, Bill, how’s it going, man?” And I got a little starstruck. Like, I’d never hung out with Tom Cruise before. I’d just been with Les.
Cornfeld: The whole thing was just a gift. Seeing it come together had this weird cosmic layer. Tom comes up with the idea of the character — the dance, having big hands — and he ends up playing the character. It’s just rare that these sorts of surprises end up working. But think about Tom Cruise’s body of work. Coppola, Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Paul Thomas Anderson. You know Tom Cruise doesn’t do things by accident.