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The Last Samurai

Tom Cruise Lives by the Sword in the 19th-Century Japan-Set Epic "The Last Samurai"

"The Last Samurai." Starring Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Billy Connolly, Timothy Spall and Tony Goldwyn. Directed by Edward Zwick. Written by John Logan and Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz. Produced by Scott Kroopf, Tom Engelman, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner. A Warner Bros. release. Period action/drama. Opens December 5.

"This is Tom Cruise," says the iconically familiar but cellphone-compromised voice on the phone. This information is met with silence. "Hello?" he queries to determine the continued presence of the call's recipient.

"I'm writing down the message," a BOXOFFICE editor explains of the pause, omitting a spectrum of reactions such as thrill and incredulity that have also contributed to the delay in response.

Cruise laughs and makes small-talk: "What's this 626 area code?" (Pasadena, California) before relaying that he'll try to reach his interviewer (who had not been aware of the possibility of this unscheduled call) the next day.

This subsequently arranged appointment, which is a window of three hours, is preceded by more than half a dozen situation-apprising calls from no less than three of Cruise's representatives, all of whom try to narrow down the exact time the call will take place, in one of Hollywood's most shocking displays of consideration. Rehearsals and production confabs keep running over, and by the evening his handlers say that we'll have to try again the next day and that "Tom apologizes profusely." Yeah, right--Tom Cruise apologizes profusely. But, when Mr. Cruise ("Call me Tom") is once again on the other end of the receiver (another round of extended meetings and status-report calls later), what does he do but apologize profusely? "I'm sure you have better things to do with your time," he suggests generously. Than wait around for Tom Cruise to call? If you say so. This reporter did have a "Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star" review to write up and satirical fake news stories on theonion.com to catch up on....

The minute-by-minute breakdown of what was postponing the interview offered a glimpse into the very not sipping-tropical-drinks-poolside existence of Hollywood's biggest star. Two decades of blockbusters and critical successes should be cause for some five-star luxuriating, but Cruise is taking an I'll-rest-when-I'm dead approach, packing two mega-careers into his brimming schedule as one of the world's highest-profile actors and a hyper-driven producer. Besides having "Mission: Impossible III" in the pipeline, Cruise is currently starring in and producing the Michael Mann-directed "Collateral," in which he'll play a hit man who kidnaps a cabdriver and forces him to chauffeur him to his targets, and will follow that up with the lead role in Steven Spielberg's adaptation of H.G. Wells' sci-fi classic "War of the Worlds," and a portrayal of the heroic World War II fighter pilot Billy Fiske in "The Few." Meanwhile, he'll be producing the based-on-true events "War Magician," with Russell Crowe toplining as an illusionist who uses his tricks to thwart the Nazis; "Elizabethtown," a Cameron Crowe-helmed film in which romance blooms at a flamboyant memorial for a Southern patriarch; director E. Elias Merhige's "Suspect Zero," about a serial killer who hunts other serial killers; and a remake of the 1942 comedy "I Married a Witch." At the moment, of course, he is doing press for "The Last Samurai."

No, Cruise is not pulling a David Carradine in "Kung Fu." In this 1870s-set period action epic, he's playing the fictional flawed Civil War veteran Captain Nathan Algren, whom Cruise describes as "a guy who is living in perdition and doesn't see the way out. He's a thoughtful man who really doesn't even realize how far he's gone, and the kind of trouble that he's in. And he's a searcher.

"He's a very complex guy who is looking at life and wondering, 'Is this it? How can this be it?' He's a man who fought for the right side with the North and still carries the scars of that battle and existence, and then goes onto the next phase of his life and has made a terrible error. It's the accumulation of the things that he has done that has taken him into this dwindling spiral. He doesn't even realize who he is until he sees the other side of the coin."

Algren's fate is altered when he is recruited by Japan's emperor to help build and train a modern-day army to replace the nation's traditional defenders, the samurai. This elite caste of noble warriors, however, does not plan to be forced into obsolescence without a fight. As part of their retaliation, they capture Algren and school him in the samurai code, called bushido.

Bushido is a centuries-old philosophy comprised of seven principles: Gi (justice and morality), Rei (polite courtesy), Yu (heroic courage), Meiyo (honor), Jin (compassion), Makoto (complete sincerity) and Chu (duty and loyalty). "They're values that are actually very applicable today, and a good thing to aspire to," Cruise muses. "When you talk about loyalty, you talk about honor, you talk about compassion--those things are very near and dear to me, and important in my life. And I think it transcends that time period in history."

But the ethos is not necessarily always as benevolent as it sounds, Cruise adds. "[Traditionally,] the violation of [bushido] was sepuku: immediate disembowelment. It's a bit extreme. That's when you've got to go, 'Okay, how about being able to make up the damage.'"

Aside from the risk of evisceration, bushido is an admirable set of precepts Cruise has fully embraced in his own life, quoting chapter and verse, literally and figuratively: He entwines his explanation of the concept with passages from his copy of a handbook on the subject. "'It's through intense training that samurai become quick and strong, and he's not as other men. He develops a power that must be used for the good of all. So he has compassion. He helps his fellow men at every opportunity. And if an opportunity does not arise, he goes out of his way to find one,'" he recites, then transitions to another favorite excerpt, this one about the tenet Yu--heroic courage. "'You rise above the masses of people who are afraid to act: Hiding like a turtle in a shell is not living at all. The samurai must have heroic courage. It is absolutely risky, it is dangerous, it is living life completely, fully, wonderfully. Heroic courage is not blind; it is intelligent and strong." Cruise stops reading and reflects. "It's just all these things that you [contemplate] and go, 'Ah, these are wonderful ways to live a life.'"

Cruise's character, Captain Algren, eventually experiences a similar revelation. "He [comes to] recognize the beauty of the samurai," says Cruise. "You see that spiritual transition." It was that arc that appealed to Cruise when helmer/scripter Edward Zwick ("The Siege") presented the idea to him--that, and Zwick's infectious enthusiasm. "Ed brought it to me and he was dancing around my house," Cruise recalls with a laugh. "He was so engaging. I looked at him and I said, 'You're acting like you're 16 years old!' It was just contagious, his excitement. And the story--it is a personal journey, [the sort of theme] I always look for, that I connect with when I read a script, when I see a movie. So we got together and we just started working it out, working it out, working it out. We spent months and months and months and months prepping for this."

While "The Last Samurai" is based on actual events, they are more of a narrative propellant than true-to-textbook. "This is not an historical drama," Cruise explains. "We use historical referencing in the same way as 'The Three Musketeers.' It's an adventure, and it's a romantic picture, in the classical and best sense of the word. We took movements that occurred at that time period in history, but it's not, 'On this date, this happened.'"

Advance buzz based on the plot synopsis and the trailer has deemed "The Last Samurai" a hybrid of "Shogun" and "Dances With Wolves." Certainly worthy comparisons, but Cruise politely eschews such pitch-meeting distillations. "Well, I think that...okay, listen, I love 'Dances With Wolves.' And I'm not good at comparing. It is what it is, you know what I mean?" he laughs. "['The Last Samurai'] definitely takes you into another world, and a world that is represented, I feel, accurately. We've already shown it to the [film's] Japanese actors and, for them, it had to represent that [culture and time] properly and well. We took a lot of pains to ensure that as best we could. But, above that, there is the storytelling. It is adventurous. It's compelling. So I think it's a unique film in that regard."

Months before the film's release, the Internet was awash with raves about the authenticity of the costumes and weapons. "There was a tremendous amount of detail at every step, with the sets, the costumes, the weapons," Cruise says. "We were even training horses six to nine months beforehand." Cruise himself worked with stunt coordinator Nick Powell for eight months to get in shape for the fight scenes. "There's a sequence in the movie where there are a lot of moves, and we shot it from the first move all the way to the end. And he built me up to a point where I could do that. And when you're talking about five swords swinging at full force, very close to the face and sometimes hitting the body--people won't really realize how significant that is. They'll take your finger off. They'll take your nose off. They'll take your hand off," he laughs, his joviality presumably indicating that nothing of the sort actually happened.

Cruise has lost 19 of the 20 pounds of brawn he gained for the role. "I needed that extra muscle to be able to carry the weight of the downward force, the gravity, as you're in those various positions. You've got to have the muscle there to be able to sustain that kind of punishment. And those are long days."

Cruise calls "The Last Samurai" "the most complex film that I've ever produced. It was a big movie. A big movie! Three continents [the film shot in Japan, New Zealand and the U.S.], a lot of historical references, complex characters--really, a different kind of character for me. Plus all of the physical action. That was quite demanding. When you're doing something like that, you can't afford to lose a day, so you can't afford to get injured. You have to be very smart about how you pace that stuff out. And how you shoot it. We would shoot interiors in the morning and exteriors in the afternoon, for the light. So we would shoot half a scene one day and then go out and shoot half a scene in the afternoon and then go back and finish the [first] scene [from] the day before, and then go out and clean up the other scene as you're going along. So you had to be very prepared."

Did he have any idea what he was getting himself into when he first came on board? "Yeah, I had an inkling," he chuckles wryly. "But I'll tell you, I didn't quite see the mountain until later on."

Undoubtedly helping matters was a blessing bestowed by Maori tribesmen while the film was shooting in New Zealand. "They blessed the picture and the village that we were shooting in and the land, and that was wonderful. The ceremonies are really powerful. It was a very cool experience."

Cruise seems to have an infallible instinct for film projects: Either they're blockbusters or they're critically acclaimed, or both. "I just do what I like, and what I'm interested in seeing. And it's really as simple as that." When pressed, he admits to supernatural powers of divination: "I have a Spidey Sense! I just feel it. I can feel it, and I just think, 'Oh, this is interesting, and man, I'm excited about this.' It just takes off from there. When I become interested in something, I become very interested in it. I explore every aspect of it. And that's a lot of fun."

And a lot of work. What drives him to take on so much when he's already so successful?

"I enjoy it," he says simply. "I honestly feel privileged to do what I do. I know I'm only going to make so many movies in my life, and every opportunity is an opportunity for me. I'm not that guy who likes to go lay on a beach somewhere. Even time with family is activities, you know. I like doing things. And I like learning. And so that's what it is when you're making a movie. You never know everything. You can never anticipate what's going to happen. No matter how hard you work on a script, no matter how well you know the story--you start discovering the characters. And then you have to let it live, and adjust. So I've never gotten to a point where I think, 'Oh, I know it. I know everything about that,'" he laughs. "And I never will!"

It might surprise some to learn that the actor who exploded onto the A-list back in 1983 with "Risky Business," only to gain more and more respect and credibility--not to mention global superstardom--with each new, bold foray, doesn't know everything. The difference between Cruise and all the other people in the world who don't know everything is undauntable perseverance.

"There's always that time [while making a] picture where you're going, 'I just don't understand.' And you have to figure it out. And it just comes down to, you've got to sit down and you've got to work it out and you've got to keep going over it until you understand it. And there could be times when you're banging your head against the wall, wondering, 'How am I going to figure it out? Is this going to work?' I'm not cavalier in my approach to life. But I also know that--you're just gonna do it. You just do it. I just jump off and--you have to match the level of effort that is needed for a project."

Cruise says there isn't any role he's wanted but missed out on. "I've never felt that way. When I see other actors give great performances I'm inspired by it. And anything that I've decided not to do, it's been for good reason for myself. So I've never had any regrets on that."

With a pantheon of roles that includes showboating fighter pilots, paralyzed war veterans, gutsy military lawyers, gothic vampires, superspies, sports agents and thought-crime police, one wonders with which of his characters Cruise most identifies. During the pause while he considers that query, he's urged, "Don't say the 'Magnolia' guy."

"That's a good reading!" he laughs heartily. 'Don't say "Magnolia"!' I'm definitely not Mackey," he assures. "Definitely not Mackey. As an actor, you bring certain moments that you personally understand [to the character]. So there are personal elements in all the different characters that I play. To say that that's me...I don't know. I mean, right now, I look at Algren and his journey is one that means a lot to me. But it's not me. But there is a portion of me, certainly, in that."

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