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My Impossible Mission to Find Tom Cruise

Credit...Illustration by Kelsey Dake

In an interview with Playboy in 2012, Tom Cruise described Katie Holmes as “an extraordinary person” with a “wonderful” clothing line, and someone for whom he was fond of “doing things like creating romantic dinners” — behavior that, he confided, “she enjoys.” It would prove to be his last major interview with a reporter to date. Despite what may be recalled through the penumbra of memory, this sudden silence was not directly preceded by either of Cruise’s infamous appearances on television: not by his NBC’s “Today” show interview (in which he labeled host Matt Lauer both “glib” and “Matt — MattMattMattMatt”), nor even by his appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” (in which he reverse-catapulted himself onto Winfrey’s fawn-colored couch multiple times in a demonstration of his enthusiasm for Holmes). Those incidents occurred seven years earlier, in 2005; Cruise emerged from the hex of public bewilderment unscathed. In fact, Cruise gave no indication that the interview, pegged to the musical-comedy bomb “Rock of Ages,” was intended to serve as a farewell address to journalists. At the time he sat for it, another life milestone was hurtling toward him: The month after the article was published, Holmes filed for divorce.

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In the decade since, the amount of verified information we have gleaned about Cruise’s real life could fit on a single flashcard, though it’s unclear why anyone would need to memorize it, since the details mainly consist of anecdotal trifles shared by other celebrities in interviews of their own: From James Corden, we know Cruise once asked to land a helicopter in James Corden’s yard. From Brooke Shields, we know Brooke Shields no longer receives the (by all accounts delectable) white chocolate coconut Bundt cake that Cruise famously sends to many beloved stars each holiday season. From Kyra Sedgwick, we know that there was a panic button under a fireplace mantle in one of Cruise’s homes. (She pressed it out of curiosity, summoning the police.) From Matt Damon, we know that during production of the fourth “Mission: Impossible” movie, Cruise had “a safety guy” replaced because he deemed a proposed stunt (in which Cruise scampers over the Burj Khalifa) “too dangerous.” Tom Cruise, Kate Hudson informs us, loves skydiving.

These facts sketch a portrait of a daredevil with a finite budget for cakes, but hardly a recluse. Cruise’s spurning of interviews makes him unique among his cohort — A-list, pathologically charismatic, wrest-butts-into-seats-type movie stars — whose success, it has long been assumed, derives from their ability to appear likable to mortals. They demonstrate this skill, traditionally, by exhibiting their personality in interviews. Every time Cruise turns down an interview request (through his representative, Cruise declined to be interviewed for this article), he makes a bet that just his being Tom Cruise, offering no further details about what that might entail, is enticement enough for people to watch his movies. Lately, more often than not, he has been right.

To see this clearly, perhaps it’s helpful to contrast Cruise’s career with that of Brad Pitt, his co-star in “Interview With the Vampire” (1994) and fellow member of a declining species: Hollywood leading men. Pitt has continued appearing in the kind of films (thrillers, comedies, romances, psychodramas, historical epics, etc.) that he and Cruise starred in throughout the 1990s and 2000s. In the past decade, audiences could find Pitt endeavoring to disappear into roles ranging from abolitionist to astronaut. In the same period, Cruise has starred solely in action films, which have depicted him fighting aliens, terrorists, fellow spies, a mummy and sundry other enemies of the United States. Rather than vanishing into roles, Cruise remakes them in his image. So fully has he melded his offscreen persona with that of the skydiving, cliff-jumping, motorcycle-parachuting pilots he portrays, these characters become mere receptacles of Tom Cruiseness. Cruise’s films tend to perform better than Pitt’s at the box office; his most recent endeavor, “Top Gun: Maverick,” outearned Pitt’s latest by about $1.4 billion. This summer, Tom Cruise will run, drive and jump at top speeds in “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One,” and Brad Pitt will star in nothing.

Cruise still takes part in promotional junkets and convivial late-night-talk-show chats, but his refusal to participate in the sort of in-depth journalistic interviews that (in theory, anyway) reveal some aspect of his true self has coincided, somewhat paradoxically, with an incredible surge in his commitment to infusing cinematic fantasies with reality. For unknown reasons it could be interesting to explore in an interview, reality has become very important to Cruise, who reveres it as a force more powerful than magic. It is vital to Cruise that the audience of “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One” have the opportunity to witness not a C.G.I. production of a feat, or even a seasoned stunt performer executing a dangerous act, but real footage of him, Tom Cruise, the 61-year-old father of three from Syracuse, N.Y., riding a motorcycle off a cliff.

This fetish for reality has become a keystone of Cruise’s persona, to the extent that many of his public appearances now take place in flying vehicles. Rather than accept an MTV Movie & TV Award in person in May, Cruise filmed his acceptance speech from the cockpit of a fighter jet as he piloted it through clouds, politely shouting, “I love entertaining you!” over the engine’s roar. Delivering “a special message from the set of @MissionImpossible” to his followers on Instagram, Cruise screamed while dangling backward off the side of an aircraft, “It truly is the honor of a lifetime!”

But reality does not exist only in movies. What is missing from Cruise’s fervid documentation of ultrarisky, inconceivably expensive, meticulously planned real-life events are any details about the parts of his real life that do not involve, for example, filming stunts for “Mission: Impossible” movies. My own mission, then, was simple: I was to travel to the ends of the Earth to see if it was possible to locate the terrestrial Cruise, out of context — to catch a glimpse, to politely shout one question at him, or at least to ascertain one new piece of intelligence about his current existence — in order to reintegrate him into our shared reality.

Having lately made an effort to scrutinize any article that cast Tom Cruise as its subject, one of the few things that I can say for certain he has done since 2021, besides film two “Mission: Impossible” movies, is order chicken tikka masala from a restaurant in Birmingham, England, and then “as soon as he had finished” (per a tweet from the restaurant) order the exact same chicken tikka masala “all over again.”

These days, Tom Cruise is hardly ever photographed in any situation other than shooting and promoting his films. (He was filming in Birmingham.) The paucity of paparazzi photos of the apparently chicken-loving actor can be at least partly attributed to his spending much time removed from America’s twin celebrity-entertainment control rooms: New York (where his ex-wife, Holmes, lives with their daughter) and Los Angeles (where, in 2015 and 2016, he reportedly sold multiple homes for a combined total just over $50 million). Years of speculation that Cruise lives or was planning to live in a penthouse apartment a five-minute walk from the “spiritual headquarters” of the Church of Scientology, of which he is a big fan, in Clearwater, Fla., appear never to have been realized, apart from an unsourced assertion published in The Hollywood Reporter in 2018, which mentioned that the audition process for co-stars in Cruise’s “Top Gun: Maverick” “involved flying down to Cruise’s home in Clearwater.

To learn more about the possible activities of Tom Cruise, I turned to the person who, after Cruise himself, his family, his friends, his employees, his co-workers and anyone who has ever met — or, at least, interacted with — him, knows him best: a Brazilian woman who is quite possibly his most dedicated fan in the world. She spoke to me on two conditions: first, that I grant her anonymity; second, that I not identify by name, or characterize too specifically, the publicly available online repository of Cruise-related information she has maintained for over 20 years. Her concerns are both practical and legal: Practically, she isn’t sure if the operation, which may or may not play host to more than 132,000 images of Cruise, could withstand a large influx of traffic; legally, she did not wish to invite the scrutiny and possible copyright claims the attention might draw.

She started the operation when she was 18. Today she is in her early 40s and works as a librarian. More than two decades into the endeavor, a nostalgic melancholy permeates the fan’s reflections. Ten years ago, she said, she was often the first to widely disseminate the latest images of Cruise. Now, because of the superabundance of photo-sharing social media accounts, she must settle for merely having the most complete repository. New additions trickle in sporadically. She’s partial to the theory that paparazzi rarely capture photographs of Cruise in part because he is a real-life “master of disguise,” whom people fail to recognize on the street. Despite years of remote observation, of scrutinizing nearly every single image captured of the man, even she could not say definitively where Cruise lives. She did observe, however, that he appears to spend “most of the time” in Britain.

In fact, there is a strange rumor that Cruise bought a home in a tiny town called Biggin Hill, on the farthest fringes of London — the site of a small private airport that he has been known to use when filming in the region. The legend appears to trace back to an article published in the British tabloid The Sun in July 2021 about the actor’s 59th-birthday celebration. An anonymous source declared that Cruise had “only recently moved to” a house in Biggin Hill (average home price: £590,000), “which feels like it’s practically in the countryside.” The claim would accrue scant new details as it was repeated in British papers numerous times over the following year, apart from one: that Cruise’s residence “is set in 140 acres of stunning rural parkland,” inside a posh gated community near the airport.

Cruise, who has filmed parts of the three most recent installments of “Mission: Impossible” in Britain, has never publicly commented on the rumors. He did, however, confirm that he spends “a lot of time in Britain” in an exceedingly rare interview that appeared, inexplicably, in the September 2022 issue of Derbyshire Life magazine. “I guess I am an Anglophile,” Cruise told Derbyshire Life. “I love being in Britain because everyone is pleasant and will give you a nod or say hello without crowding you too much.” Elsewhere in the interview, Cruise expressed additional enthusiasm for auxiliary British topics, including politeness (“Being friendly doesn’t cost a bean, and I enjoy it”) and Derbyshire, which is, for the record, actually a considerable distance from Biggin Hill (“Wow! Derbyshire — what a fantastic place!”).

To determine if anyone who did not work in the British newspaper or chicken-tikka-masala industries had ever encountered Cruise on English soil, I sifted through Facebook posts, typing any permutation of “saw Tom Cruise” I could think of into the search bars of neighborhood groups for all of the Hobbit-ily named localities surrounding Biggin Hill (“Orpington”; “West Wickham”). I joined groups like “Westerham and Biggin Hill News friends Community fun views gossip” and pored over hundreds of responses to posts like “Think I just saw Tom Cruise driving down jail lane that’s impossible.” The flashes of Cruise that winked from the replies were tantalizing — “I’ve seen him blue Ferrari…jail lane…”; “Lives up Cudham drives blue Ferrari” — but there was no way to tell who was reporting accurate details about the comings and goings of Tom Cruise, who was mistaken and who was merely lying for fun. The only way to find out was to do what Cruise himself would do: grab onto the nearest plane and go, for real.

Next to the Biggin Hill Airport, there is a pocket-size hotel built to serve the crews and engineers of the private planes that fly in and out. The hotel, its website boasts, offers “great views towards London” — something just about any place on Earth could offer with the right window arrangement, assuming it was not already in London. The description of the property’s sleek teal-and-toffee-colored restaurant turned out to be even more specifically accurate: The view of the runway at Biggin Hill Airport was without parallel. At the bar, I pulled up a leather stool and ordered (not in these exact words) the worst Shirley Temple of my life, which cost $11. My fellow patrons had long since familiarized themselves with the contours of the small dinner menu; they had been stranded at Biggin Hill for some time, because the private jet of the billionaire for whom they were working had received — you hate to hear this — an estimated $10 million worth of hail damage. I asked a maintenance technician if he thought Tom Cruise really did have a house in Biggin Hill. He replied with unflinching confidence: “I know he does.”

In the same venue, a man so young he might have been a teenager, who at one time worked inside the airport, revealed to me that Cruise had a parking spot there, though it was unclear if he meant for a car or a helicopter. Most of the good people of Biggin Hill, when grilled about Cruise’s living arrangements, seemed genuinely to have no idea what I was talking about. These were the two camps into which, without fail, every respondent fell: Either they had never so much as heard the rumor that Cruise walked among them, or they were 100 percent certain that he did.

Upon reaching Keston Park, the only gated community in the area matching The Sun’s description, I discovered two things: first, that there appeared to be an illegally locked gate obstructing public access to the footpath that cuts through the neighborhood — whether the gate is impenetrable is a matter of ongoing dispute among the Bromley borough council, myself and many other aspiring path-takers who have submitted complaints about the locked gate to the borough website — and, second, that the biggest movie star in the world did not live there. That was evident through holes that carpenter bees had bored into the barbed-wire-topped fences protecting Keston Park from the wider world. The stately houses faced one another too directly. Their trees could drop acorns into another’s gardens. There was nowhere to conveniently land a helicopter.

Oh, well. These were Keston Park’s problems — not mine and probably not Tom Cruise’s. Tom Cruise, as he and I both now knew, was most likely secretly living at another estate I had turned up in my research — one that was even closer to the airport.

The distance between any two points within the general environs of Biggin Hill is insignificant by car, which is probably why I was unable to persuade any taxi driver to transport me between them. It is less insignificant by foot, and even longer, though much more scenic, if one attempts to traverse it by way of the aforementioned footpaths. These meandering trails tended to be spectacularly beautiful, bursting with a vernal lushness that was nearly pornographic. House-high frozen fountains of eensy white hawthorn blossoms shaded dusty walkways. Wild roses as pink as Country Time lemonade exploded from leafy hedges. Fragile sapphire speedwells, fat purple clover tops and buttercups strewn like gold confetti — these were merely the things it was impossible not to step on. The fluorescent green of the meadows recalled the grasses of another royal province — Super Mario’s Mushroom Kingdom. Poppies and toadflax sprang out obscenely from stone walls. Tom Cruise would be crazy not to live here, I thought as I stroked the soft, sun-warmed mane of a little white donkey. Let’s all live here.

Except, upon my arrival at the end of an idyllic woodland stroll, I discovered that Cruise did not live there either. There was, in the front yard of this residence, a garden gnome lugging buckets on a yoke, which didn’t seem like Cruise’s style, and the gnome was overturned, lying on its side — definitely not his style. I righted the gnome and ambled on, in search of another public footpath that would, I hoped, lead me to where Cruise actually lived. Instead, I accidentally wandered into what (I learned through being yelled this information) was not a public right of way but a field privately owned by a woman who berated me until I ran into traffic on a nearby road.

That night, with half my allotted exploratory mission time used up, I lay awake in the hotel built for the flight attendants of billionaires’ jets, miserable and panicked at my failure to do anything but incur thousands of dollars in expenses for airfare and one Shirley Temple. Surely this wasn’t all for naught; surely some meaning could possibly be derived from an interaction between a movie star and a magazine journalist — even a brief one, even one in which the movie star had already said (through his publicist) he did not wish to participate, even one in which the star was not present, since some understanding of some dimension of his life could doubtless be gleaned through a study of his surroundings. But what if Cruise has been so successful in removing himself from our world that I would never find any trace of him? What if Cruise had evanesced into a high-octane mist of pure entertainment? Did I have time to just go to every single house in England and check if Cruise was home? How big was this nation? Why was the sun rising now, in the middle of the night? What time was it?! Had I accidentally not gone to sleep all night?

I had one more idea.

On my first day in town, I had stopped at a pub for lunch. I was told that there was a funeral going on and that there was an hour wait for food, but that if I ordered something simple like a sandwich, the wait would be less, so I ordered a sandwich, which actually took 90 minutes to arrive and was so, no offense, disgusting-tasting that I turned around and asked a middle-aged man sitting at the picnic table behind mine if he would like half a sandwich (no) and if it always took so long to receive a sandwich at this pub (unclear) and if it was true that Tom Cruise really lived nearby. “He’s here,” the man said to me.

“Do you know?” I asked. “Or are you guessing?”

“He’s definitely around here, that’s for sure,” he said. “I know where he is.”

At first, with the cagey pride of one who knows the favored hovering spot of an actual ghost, who acts as self-appointed doorman of the thin place between worlds, the man made a show of not telling me where. But then, on his way out, he materialized at my elbow and proffered three “clues” (his word).

“It’s within two miles of the airport,” he said. “Look for the biggest house. And I mean — ” his voice dropped to a whisper, “ — the biggest.”

“It’s a very famous house,” he said. “The anti-establishment of slavery started there.”

I was aware of this property from my earlier research. It was a colossal butter-colored manor once owned by a prime minister, William Pitt the Younger. I had eliminated it from contention as a possible Cruise residence because it was sold in 2018 (£8.5 million) to a used-car magnate who, at least judging by an article from 2020 that I read in Car Dealer magazine, appeared to be quite comfortably ensconced in it. But it was only a few miles away. On foot, the journey could be completed in just over an hour.

How, exactly, I ended up on the edge of that woman’s privately owned field again, I have no idea. The expedition to that point had seemed to take me through brand-new areas. All of a sudden, I noticed that the path had dissipated into dense forest. This is just like what happened yesterday, when I trespassed in that woman’s field, I thought, then looked up and spotted her house in the distance.

I panicked. I frightened a badger — likewise, babe! — and bolted through the forest as quickly as I could in a new, randomly chosen direction. This deposited me into a vast, previously unencountered field. On all previous paths, vigorously growing cow parsley had stood on slender stems, about shin high. Here, upright hordes of it grazed my shoulders, while fallen comrades entangled my ankles. Needles of true panic pricked my nape under sweaty hair. Statistically speaking, I assured myself, it was unlikely I would be trapped in this field so long that I would die there.

Although — wouldn’t it serve that woman right if I did die in this field, so close to her own, where I was not allowed? “That would teach her a lesson,” I said into the audio recorder I had brought in case I encountered Tom Cruise. Have to “find some way to notify her,” I explained. (Of my death.) Hopefully she would see my picture in a — newspaper! That would be another good thing about dying out here, I told the recorder. It would “serve” the editor who recklessly assigned me this article — who had irresponsibly approved my travel budget — “right.” It would probably ruin his life, or at least his work life. God, would he be fired? Certainly, at the very least, he would get in trouble. You should never have sent her to a small English town. Would our boss tell him not to blame himself? Hopefully not — I am dead because of him! I didn’t want to die, of course — but if it did happen, at least I would die doing what I loved: making people feel bad and be in trouble deservedly. I had yet to clearly develop a mental image of my widowed husband’s second wife when I realized that I had stumbled, midfield, upon a dirt path leading into a neighborhood. I ran down it — in, I was shocked to discover, the exact direction of the used-car dealer’s palatial estate.

The public footpath alongside the property — which, if a man drinking outside a pub at 2 p.m. is to be believed, is inhabited by Tom Cruise — looked like the aisle down which a fairy princess would glide at her wedding. Actually, no, even nicer: It was like the flower-strewn tunnel of light she would pass through following her death (from being viciously yelled at for walking in a private field BY ACCIDENT) on her journey to eternity. It wound beneath protective arches of graceful branches trailing heaps of white and pink blossoms. A gentle, constant wind rippled the flowers just enough to allow dappled sunlight to illuminate a trail through their lovely shade. So vast were the grounds, so lush the foliage, that the home itself was not visible from any vantage point. I listened for the distant throaty cry of a blue Ferrari, but heard only bird song.

The recorded owner of the estate made no response to my later attempts to contact him, to ask if, perchance, Tom Cruise (possibly in elaborate disguise) could be living in his house. Even if Cruise has no connection to the residence, this absolute lack of response serves to further obscure his existence. Not only is it impossible to determine where he lives — it isn’t even possible to determine where he does not live. The distance between Cruise and the average human remains unshrinkable. At a time when social media renders movie stars ever-present in the public field of vision — accessible to some extent through whatever scrupulously vetted personal information they share, but also broadly trackable via webs of celebrity-watching accounts that widely disseminate photos and rumors — Cruise has distinguished himself by becoming a comet. When, between protracted absences, his inscrutable orbit brings him back into Earth’s visible realm, he briefly commands the simultaneous attention of all its peoples: “Thank you to the people of Abu Dhabi,” read a June post on his Instagram account, alongside a photo of him greeting a crowd at a “Dead Reckoning Part One” premiere. (Also appreciated and acknowledged by their servant-sovereign for their attendance at other “Dead Reckoning Part One” premieres: “the people” of Rome; “everyone” in Seoul.)

At the conclusion of this promotional cycle, after Cruise has thanked everyone for allowing him to create world-class summer cinema, he will almost certainly disappear, not to be heard from again until next year, at which point his re-emergence will proclaim the arrival of “Dead Reckoning Part Two.” This vanishing, while perhaps rooted in avoidance of a press corps that asks questions he doesn’t want to answer, is massaged into something like a sacrificial duty to audiences. In disappearing the moment his work is through — always, like Santa Claus, with the promise of return — Cruise retains the mystique that so many Hollywood stars have lost this century. He goes away so that audiences may experience the thrill of his reappearance, and delight in the promise of movie magic he heralds.

Of course, it is possible that Tom Cruise does not even know that the gargantuan house in the quiet English village exists. But if we assume, perhaps foolishly, that he does live there, I did ascertain one new detail about his reality: He was in the process of having the long private driveway that weaves through the woods and stretches to the unseen manor beyond redone. It looks awesome.

Caity Weaver is a staff writer for the magazine. She last wrote about going on a package trip for youngish people.

Posted on 18 Jul 2023 00:19 link