Congratulations to the cast of Endless Love. By now, you may know that the film isn't very good. But at least its mediocrity isn't your fault. The 1981 original film is only remembered for two things: One, for the Lionel Richie/Diana Ross theme song, now being murdered at a karaoke bar near you. And two, as the big screen debut of Tom Cruise.
Cruise was just 19 when director Franco Zeffirelli cast him in the 18th-billed role of Billy the arsonist, who's onscreen for a grand total of 47 seconds. That year, Cruise had graduated from high school, moved to New York, and promised his mother and stepfather that if he didn't make it big in a decade, he'd get a real job. Five years later, he was the biggest movie star in the world.
So maybe you're not the lead in the new Endless Love. No worries. Who can name the male star in the original? (Martin Hewitt, last seen in a 2003 ER cameo.) It's telling that Billy the arsonist has been written out of the remake – who could stand the pressure? But whether you were cast as Dancing Party Boy, Dancing Party Girl, TSA Agent, Hospital Receptionist, Maserati Driver, or even the uncredited roles of Goth, Hipster or Girl on Trampoline, a bit part in the 2014 Endless Love is an auspicious debut. Here's how Tom Cruise made it happen.
1. Work Harder than Everyone Else
Young Tom Cruise never played it cool. In his Endless Love debut, he's a giggling psychopath. His dialogue is already insane, but look at the flourishes he adds: the shirtless posturing, the high-pitched cackle, the bravura crotch shot that proves he's comfortable in front of the camera. In under a minute, he made himself memorable enough to earn a part into his next film, the military school drama Taps. We remember him as crazy cadet David Shawn, fifth-billed after then-bigger stars Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn. But that wasn't his initial role. Originally, he was supposed to play the even smaller role of David Shawn's sidekick. During boot camp training, director Harold Becker noticed that this nobody Cruise kid was passionately invested in his practically invisible role. “He was out-marching the other cadets on the parade field,” said Becker. Impressed, he promoted him to the bigger, splashier character.
2. Form an Alliance
Tom Cruise and Sean Penn became close friends. “I think he was the first person I ever said, 'Calm down!' to,” said Penn, who joked that his fellow young obsessive treated Taps “like he was training for the fucking Olympics.” Penn was a good person to impress. Just two years older than Cruise, he was already connected in Hollywood thanks to his father Leo, a director. When Cruise made the move from New York to Los Angeles, Penn picked him up at the airport, let him crash at his house in Malibu, inspired him to sign with CAA, and introduced him to his bro Emilio Estevez. Through his ties and his drive – Cruise got his next break in Francis Ford Coppola's The Outsiders, playing an Oklahoma hoodlum alongside Estevez, Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze and Diane Lane. It was another nothing part, but he was meeting the right people (even if Lowe walked away thinking that Cruise was “open, friendly, funny, and has an almost robotic, bloodless focus and an intensity that I've never encountered before”).
3. But Know When to Break Away
The early '80s saw the rise of the Brat Pack, the dude posse that captured the attention of Hollywood and then had to fight each other for dominance. Tom Cruise was a natural fit – he was young, good-looking, and friends with the gang – but he wasn't having any of it. “I want no part of that or this Brat Pack,” he groaned to Cameron Crowe in his first major interview. “Putting me in there is absolutely absurd and it pisses me off because I work hard and then some guy just slaps me together with everybody else.” After The Outsiders, Coppola and the crew wanted him to follow along and work on their next movie, Rumble Fish. Cruise was in no position to say no. But he said no anyway. It was time to split apart from the pack. “It was a hard moment,” recalled Cruise. “Here's the director of Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, and The Godfather, and I'm going, 'Oh, man. Here I am turning him down to do this movie about hookers.'”
4. Don't Get Typecast
Cruise had played an arsonist, a gun-nut, and a country-boy greaser. He'd made an impression on Hollywood alright – as a psychopath. “After Taps came out I was offered every horror film, every killer-murderer part,” said Cruise. He'd read the script for a smarter-than-average teen dramedy named Risky Business and wanted the lead part of Joel Goodsen, but writer-director Paul Brickman wouldn't even give him an audition. Admitted Cruise, “Paul had seen Taps and said, 'This guy for Joel? This guy is a killer! Let him do Amityville III!'” He had to change his image immediately. His new agent Paula Wagner arranged a ruse that brought Cruise by Brickman's office unannounced. He smiled, scored an audition, and with a shirtless skid across a living room floor, re-introduced himself to America as Tom Cruise: Suburban Sweetheart.
5. And Don't Date Your Co-stars Until the Publicity Campaign
Rebecca De Mornay, his Risky Business co-star, wasn't impressed. She first met Cruise during casting when Brickman threw them together for a chemistry test. Cruise, who trusted in a touch of method acting, was still shooting The Outsiders and he looked like it: un-showered, stringy-haired, and brazenly flashing a broken front tooth he usually covered with a cap. On and off-screen, De Mornay and Cruise had an uncomfortable, yet combustible tension that fit their parts as a shrewd prostitute and an eager-to-please innocent. They barely spoke during filming, but after Risky Business wrapped, they became a couple and moved in together months after their movie became a surprise summer hit. Cruise and De Mornay kept their two-year romance under the tabloid radar, which may have been an extra plus – it protected him from both the over-exposure of the Sean Penn and Madonna marriage, and from looking like a caddish jerkwad like Emilio Estevez.
6. Learn From Your Screw-ups
Tom Cruise didn't do everything right. Under pressure from his first agent, after Taps he signed up to star in the cash-in sex comedy Losin' It as a kid who loses his virginity to Shelley Long. It was terrible. (It was also, funnily enough, directed by L.A. Confidential's Curtis Hanson.) But instead of shrugging it off as a misstep, Cruise went on the career offensive: He fired that agent, refused to do press, skipped the premiere, and immediately dubbed it “a gross mistake I won't make again.” He swore that he'd never again do a film just for attention or money. He wanted to hold out for future classics. “I learned a great lesson in doing that movie. I realized that not everybody is capable of making good films,” said Cruise. “I decided after Losin' It, I only wanted to work with the best people.” He did. Here's who he worked with next: Coppola, Brickman, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott and Martin Scorsese. Even his only other snooze, the fine but forgotten football drama All the Right Moves, was directed by Martin Scorsese's cinematographer. Remember: as a young actor building a resume, you don't have your choice of dream roles, but you have the choice to make the little ones count. And you always have the choice to say no.
Bonus Tip: If all of this works and you become the world's next superstar, enjoy it. But don't screw up in 20 years by going on a talk show and questioning the emotional stability of an Endless Love co-star, as Tom Cruise did to Brooke Shields. Not worth it.
Amy Nicholson on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter: