For his latest film, American Made, Tom Cruise goes from hanging off the outside of airplanes to flying them. The actor has been a licensed pilot since the early ’90s and put that experience to use for his role as Barry Seal, a real-life flyboy who stumbled into a career as a CIA shutterbug and Colombian cartel drug runner in the 1980s. Director Doug Liman, who previously collaborated with Cruise on the 2014 sci-fi favorite Edge of Tomorrow, turns Seal’s life story into a rollicking Goodfellas-esque account of an accidental criminal punctuated by high-flying sequences that his star, rather than a stunt pilot, participated in. “There is no stunt double for Tom Cruise,” Liman tells Yahoo Entertainment. “He literally doesn’t have one! For American Made, I wanted to get the experience of what it would it be like to be in a car chase in an airplane. So having Tom as the pilot meant I could actually block those scenes and do them for real.”
So yes, that really is Cruise in the cockpit in an early scene where Seal tries to get a small passenger plane to achieve lift-off despite while being weighed down by a stash of drugs and racing along a too-short runway in the middle of a jungle. “I wanted the audience to feel the limitation of the airplane, because that makes the sequence more exciting,” Liman explains. “There were almost no visual effects, which enabled us to focus our resources on character and story. I don’t think we would have gotten the same level of reality [with visual effects] than when it’s actually Tom.” There are perils that come with this approach, though. Two pilots died and one was injured in a plane crash that occurred during the production of American Made, and in a lawsuit filed in 2016, the families of those men alleged that Cruise and Liman’s negligence partly contributed to the crash. (In an interview with Vulture, Liman said the accident did not happen during filming.)
Liman’s understanding of how to employ his leading man’s specific talents extends beyond flying airplanes. As in Edge of Tomorrow, the director tailors American Made to fit Cruise’s screen persona, while also subverting that persona at the same time. In Edge of Tomorrow, for example, Cruise played a more cowardly version of his traditional action hero, with time-traveling alien fighter Bill Cage spending the first half of the film running away (and dying) in battle, before finally facing his enemy head-on. With American Made, Liman gets a lot of comic and dramatic mileage out of Cruise’s tirelessness in the face of new challenges, not to mention his eagerness to please. “The real Barry Seal didn’t really care what was in the back of his airplane,” the director says. “He cared about how heavy it was, but he didn’t care if he was flying for the CIA or the drug cartels. He loved it, because he was a cowboy. He didn’t grasp the gravity of the situation he was in.”
The CIA is represented in American Made by Domhnall Gleeson’s bearded man of mystery, Monty Schafer, whose allegiances are as sketchy as his identity. “He’s just working for himself, basically,” the actor says, adding that “Monty” isn’t based on any one specific person in real life. “It’s certainly more than one person. In doing research, I picked a guy to base it on who didn’t deal with Barry, but had very similar tendencies in terms of just wanting to climb the ladder in the CIA and having a huge ego. My guy is a bad apple for sure; he’s all about himself.” While Gleeson didn’t get to fly with Cruise in any of the movie’s in-air sequences, he says that his co-star did take him up in the air for off-camera adventures, including a brief time in zero gravity. “That was one of the most amazing things ever,” raves Gleeson, who has visited the further reaches of space as General Hux in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and its upcoming sequel, The Last Jedi.
Since completing American Made, Cruise got out of the plane and back to more physical stunt work for the latest Mission: Impossible movie, which re-teams him with his Rogue Nation and Jack Reacher director, Christopher McQuarrie. But this past summer, the impossible appeared to happen: the 55-year-old star was captured on camera injuring himself in a stunt, resulting in a production delay. It was a rare moment where Cruise the Action Hero was revealed to be Cruise the Human Being. “Every stunt person has the scars to prove it,” Gleeson says of the on-set accident. “The fact that Tom has gone this long and it hasn’t happened is amazing.”
For his part, Liman emphasizes that the M:I 6 stunt wasn’t the first time Cruise has been injured — it’s just the first time everyone saw Cruise injured. “The reality is that Tom gets hurt all the time! He’s like a professional athlete; he trains hard, gets hurt frequently and recovers frequently. He’ll be back on Mission in no time, and people won’t even remember this. You don’t always get a stunt right and you don’t always get a scene right, but Tom keeps on going until he gets it.”
Liman points to one particular scene in American Made as an example of where he and his star felt as though they were consistently falling short. “We were shooting the scene where Barry finally comes clean to his wife [played by Sarah Wright], and it wasn’t working. We were going at it for hours and hours; Tom and I hadn’t admitted it to each other, but the scene was a turkey. We just had to face the music and go, ‘We should just wrap and come back and get this right.’ We did, and now that’s my favorite scene in the movie! That’s what’s amazing about our partnership; we can each tell the other one when something they’re doing is terrible, and it comes from respect and great affection.”
American Made is in theaters now.
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