here's a lot we know, or think we know, about the world's most recognizable movie star - who he's seeing (PenÚlope Cruz), to whom he's been married (Mimi Rogers, Nicole Kidman), his religion of choice (Scientology), the status of his dental work (now braces free). But here's one more thing to know about Tom Cruise. He's ambidextrous.
This talent, that may have been useful only for entertaining friends at parties, took on a whole new level of relevance during the filming of The Last Samurai, the epic tale of an American soldier who rediscovers his warrior spirit when he's captured and befriended by Japan's Samurai. Equal skill with both hands gave him a head start towards mastering the two-handed daisho blade Samurai
| fighting style.
"Samurai swords are the sharpest blades in history," he says. "The samurai would test their blades on cadavers."
Cruise spent eight months learning bladework, associated martial arts, spoken-Japanese and horseback riding. "I put on 20 pounds for the character, but also for the muscle to carry the swords and wear the 40-pounds of armor," he says.
Cruise told The New York Times "Bushido (the samurai code) is really the reason I wanted to make this film." The centuries-old philosophy is based on seven principles: Gi (the right attitude, the truth), Yu (bravery tinged with heroism), Jin (compassion), Rei (courtesy), Makoto (sincerity, truthfulness), Meiyo (honor) and Chugi (devotion, loyalty).
"I strongly identify with those values of honor, loyalty and passion," he says. "It's a very powerful code. Those are wonderful things to aspire to in life. Your honor is more important than your body."
The Last Samurai has been called Tom Cruise's Gladiator, and not just because it's a period film tailor-made for Academy voters, but because it is carried by it's brooding star's physicality. Stunt coordinator Nick Powell, who also taught Russell Crowe how to wield a sword in Gladiator, trained Cruise.
As well, Gladiator scriptwriter John Logan - with Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz - co-wrote the script for The Last Samurai, based on the tale of a real "last samurai" named Saigo Takamori who led a stand of feudal warriors against the Japanese government in 1877.
Directed and co-written by Zwick (Glory), The Last Samurai carries on the filmmaker's penchant for big storytelling and war-as-allegory. Cruise plays Captain Nathan Algren, a hero of the American Civil War, who is recruited to go to Japan and help the Western-minded Emperor turn a ragtag imperial army into a modern fighting machine, and along the way, crush the remnants of the feudal warrior society known as Samurai.
Algren - whose hero role is tainted by his own feelings of failure on the battlefield - is ambivalent about his mission. These doubts are brought to the fore when his troops lose an early battle to some Samurai and a wounded Algren is taken prisoner in the hills. There he falls under the spell of a Samurai leader named Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) and finds himself becoming an admirer of the Samurai. Their powerful convictions remind him of the man he once was. Now he finds himself at the center of a violent struggle between two eras and two worlds.
Timothy Spall (Cruise's co-star in Vanilla Sky) plays Simon Graham, Algren's British interpreter; Billy Connolly (White Oleander) stars as Sergeant Gant, a close friend of Algren's; and Tony Goldwyn (Kiss The Girls) plays Colonel Bagley, a Civil War veteran seeking his fortune in Japan.
Early shooting on The Last Samurai began in Hemeji, west of Tokyo, at
the 900-year-old Engyoji Temple. From there it moved to a remote valley in New
Zealand, on land sacred to the Maori people, and finally to the Warner's
backlot in L.A., where a painstaking recreation of Tokyo's original Ginza
district was assembled. The New Zealand location was particularly appealing
because of the easy access it gave his children, Connor and Isabella, to their
mother Nicole Kidman in Australia.
Of course, wherever Tom Cruise goes, he affects things on a scale of his own. In Japan, he spent time with the Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi (according to press reports, they "sang Elvis Presley songs" together). In New Zealand, Cruise, his children and his girlfriend PenÚlope Cruz, spent a day with Prime Minister Helen Clark - who described him to the press as "a very attractive young man."
Even his tendency to commit good deeds followed him. At one point between shoots, Cruise made the papers when, on a drive with Cruz and the kids, he encountered a couple with a flat tire and helped them put on the spare.
But then, the Samurai code does sound an awful lot as if it was written by the Boy Scouts with its virtues of courage, honesty, courtesy, honor, compassion, loyalty. "The Samurai mythology has been widely imitated, from The Matrix to Star Wars, so authenticity is important to me," Cruise says. "For myself," he told Time magazine, "I've always thought, 'Can I do this? Is this going to work?' I try to set the bar for myself so it's interesting to me."
Says Herskovitz: "I think Tom has learned from people he considers to be masters, Scorsese or Spielberg or Kubrick. And now he has a vision that's informed by what these people taught him. What I get from him is 'I want to do what hasn't been done. I want to be challenged.'"
- Jim Slotek