Tom Cruise and a Monkey Walk Into a Movie: The Profound Weirdness of One of Our Last A-List Stars

“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.’ 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.’ Stacee Jaxx doesn’t work without Hey Man.” — Tom Cruise in W Magazine

So sayeth Tom Cruise in the June 2012 issue of W, for a story about his role in the upcoming film adaptation of jukebox musical Rock of Ages, wherein Cruise plays volatile ’80s Sunset Strip hair-metal front man Stacee Jaxx. He appears in character on the magazine’s cover with long extensions, draped in models and covered in tattoos. Tom Cruise has become one of those actors we admire for his extremity. He’s been unabashedly great at times, starting with the career-making Risky Business. He can commit entirely to performances in a way that makes even a terrible movie like Vanilla Sky fairly interesting to watch. He is an A-list actor and one of the last of the breed of ’80s megastars who could command any price and demand any perk while remaining fortified behind a publicist-veiled wall of privacy. Casting Cruise as a snakeskin-pant-and-black-polish-wearing mess is smart. He excels at intensity.

In the portfolio shot by Italian fashion photographer Mario Sorrenti, Cruise as Jaxx is perennially shirtless and implicitly wasted. He looks like Johnny Depp during his recent “I’m gonna play guitar with Marilyn Manson onstage” mid-life star-crisis. Indeed, Cruise has never had a bad-boy image, just a weird good-boy image. Rumors of drug use have never plagued him, while other rumors regarding his religion and sexuality always have. He looks generally wholesome as milk, but has a steely dark side that made him a decently twisted Lestat in Interview With the Vampire, a creepy assassin in Collateral, and a terrifyingly unhinged couch-jumper on Oprah in 2006. Unlike the manic exhilaration of a Nicolas Cage performance, Cruise’s freak flag unfurls with strange ripples. He is a showman, but at the center there is a kind of perfect blankness.

W interviewer Lynn Hirschberg asks Cruise, “Was your goal to show something intimate?” to which he replies, “Yes. It’s a little uncomfortable at times. But funny. Uncomfortable and funny: that was the goal.” It depends whether your idea of uncomfortable and funny is Tom Cruise swaddled in models posing as groupies, his overblown abs adorned with gun holster hip tattoos, strands of rocker dude necklaces hanging down. Tom Cruise has never made me feel more uncomfortable or laugh harder than he did as professional pickup artist Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia. Paul Thomas Anderson employed Cruise’s qualities, his quicksilver slickness and puppy-dog-eyed earnestness, to magnetic effect. It taught me to respect Tom Cruise’s talent as an actor. I’ll admit I used to call the promotional “Seduce & Destroy” free hotline constantly just to hear the mesmerizing Cruise as Mackey spouting sexist platitudes.

Cruise has some kind of genuine star power that can’t be faked or bought. Demanding a monkey named Hey Man is totally the kind of thing a spracked-out, power-tripping rock star might do. It sounds like something from Penelope Spheeris’s amazing hair metal documentary Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. Van Halen’s famous brown M&Ms stunt was just a way of checking to make sure promoters were reading their rider. Who knows if Rock of Ages will be any good (jukebox musicals rarely are), but something about a cowboy-hatted and kohled Cruise unwinkingly channeling Bret Michaels by way of Criss Angel works for me. Isn’t the most ridiculous part of Cruise’s quote the fact that the baboon had to make an audition tape? Hollywood!

Filed Under: Monkeys, Tom Cruise

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ mollylambert