Having a bad rap in certain sections of the press serves Tom Cruise well, says British actor Simon Pegg.
"Tom has allowed this weird thicket of speculation to surround him and I think it serves him well to a certain extent," says Pegg, who is working with Cruise for the third time in the fifth instalment in the Mission: Impossible series, Rogue Nation, which opens in Singapore tomorrow.
"I don't think there is another movie star like him and that is partly because he hasn't engaged with the gossip about him, so he is seen as less of a normal human being. He still has this mystique about him which, for better or for worse, maintains his status as an old-school movie actor, which we don't really have anymore."
Hence, adds Pegg, the rumour and gossip serve Cruise well. "He does get an unfair rap about a lot of things, but people just don't know everything about him. They think that they do and they don't. There are things I don't know about him and I am good friends with him.
"My experience of him is incredibly positive," he adds. "And I find him to be a very interesting, incredibly generous and fun person to be around. He is a goof! People don't realise that."
At the London press event, which Cruise did not attend, the 45-year-old British actor cites as an example a series of moments that arose while making Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation. He and Cruise filmed a series of stunt-driving scenes in the Moroccan capital city, Rabat, and Cruise was forever fooling around.
For a start, he kept switching on Pegg's seat-heater. Working under the sweltering Moroccan sun, this became somewhat uncomfortable.
"It became this war between me and him," says Pegg with a laugh. "One day, I got him back. I switched on his seat-heater, but I had got the tiniest sliver of black tape that I stuck it over the lights on the dashboard, so that he couldn't see that it was on.
"He came back from the bathroom and I noticed he looked hot while we were driving, but whenever he looked over at the dashboard, he couldn't see that the seat-heater light was on. Man, that was a good day. He had to give me kudos because you don't often catch Tom out. He usually wins at everything."
There is no doubting that last statement.
He carries himself like a born winner and his position as one of Hollywood's last out-and-out movie stars is no accident. Everybody who knows Cruise, to any extent, talks about his amazing drive and determination.
Much of the advance publicity for Rogue Nation has been centred on the fact that the American star, at age 53, actually clung on to the outside of an aircraft for a scene - without a stunt double or the use of computer-generated imagery.
It must stand among Cruise's craziest stunts. One wonders what the insurance demands must have been.
"It's funny, the insurance question comes up a lot and I've not got to the bottom of the mystery myself," laughs Christopher McQuarrie, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Usual Suspects (1995) who directed Cruise on Jack Reacher (2012) and who returns to helm Rogue Nation.
"Tom and I have the tendency to just go ahead and do things until somebody comes and tells us to stop. But that airplane stunt was incredibly dangerous. There were a number of variables and the concern about him falling off the plane was the least of our concerns.
"Interestingly enough, what kept him on the plane was the pilot," continues the director, who is in his 40s. "If the plane went beyond a certain threshold, nothing in the world was going to keep Tom on the plane. We could have stapled him to the plane and he was not going to stay on. That stunt was all about the pilot's hand on the throttle and the trust that Tom had in the pilot."
The other variables sound even more terrifying.
"Tom was in a great deal of danger on the runway before the plane took off because debris could have been sucked into the propellers and whatever that was, it would have become a bullet. Even if a tiny grain of sand had hit him in the face, it would have been devastating. Once we were airborne, the biggest concern was bird strikes. If a bird hit Tom at that speed, that would have been it.
"Normally, all the variables are within Tom's control," he adds. "During the stunt driving, Tom is driving and knows how far he can push it. When he is on the side of that plane, all the variables are out of his control and he's really at the mercy of chance and that was very nerve-racking. That was a scary couple of days."
In the car-driving stunts, Pegg witnessed how Cruise not only did all his own driving, but also did them well.
"Tom is an incredibly accomplished stunt driver. Our stunt coordinator said to me, 'Tom is going to do all of the driving because I don't have a driver better than him,'" he recalls.
"He lives an extraordinary life and goes to extraordinary lengths to achieve what he has achieved."
What Cruise has achieved with the four Mission: Impossible films is a total worldwide box office of US$2.09 billion (S$2.85 billion), with the last instalment, Ghost Protocol (2011), taking more than US$694 million.
The pressure is on for McQuarrie and Cruise to maintain the same level of audience interest.
Cruise, for one, believes that they are in a good position to achieve this. In notes to the press, he says: "Each time I think I've seen it all and I've been through every action challenge a film can have, the next film introduces new challenges of every kind.
"We're constantly pushing not only the action sequences, but the storytelling and characters as well. To me, the ultimate Mission movie is never just about action and suspense - though we love innovating in that area.
"It's really about the combination of action, intrigue and humour with this very specific, breathless experience we create for the audience. It's about giving audiences the greatest sense of adventure and scale, while keeping a classic sense of cinema. We do that more than ever in Rogue Nation."
The new story picks up on the fact that the deep-cover espionage agency known as the IMF, which employs Cruise's character, Ethan Hunt, has been under fire. It faces total disbandment, even as the world faces its biggest threat yet.
The Mission writers have created as the enemy a group called The Syndicate, an impenetrable group of renegade spies who have fled their countries to pursue their own agenda. They are intent on destabilising the foundations of civilisation and it is up to Hunt and his team to snuff out the danger.
The previous film in the series, Ghost Protocol, saw Hunt transform from a lone wolf to a team leader. In Rogue Nation, he must hone these newfound leadership skills while trying to save the world. "I think Rogue Nation is about finding that intimate aspect of true teamwork in the face of pure evil," says Cruise.
Whatever the storyline, McQuarrie says, it is Cruise who drives the success of this franchise. His dedication to his craft is phenomenal and that rewards the audience. He does everything we see on screen, no matter how small the moment.
"If there's a tiny little insert where it's his hand holding a telephone, it's Tom's hand," says the filmmaker. "He really wants to be there for every single thing, and that creates interesting challenges.
"We are constantly working on ways to shoot each scene with less cutting; we want to shoot the scene in a way so that we can show that it really is Tom."
Alongside series regulars Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames and Pegg (Benji), Rogue Nation introduces actress Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust, who is more than just arm candy for Hunt. She forms an integral part of the action.
"Rebecca does a lot of her own stunts," says McQuarrie. "Normally you would have two stunt performers and I would be cutting around to hide the fact that it's two stunt performers.
"Here, I have to get the camera in there and maintain the energy of the sequence. It brings a level of realism to those sequences that we otherwise wouldn't have and I think that rewards the audience. I hope we've done something special with this film."
- Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation opens in Singapore tomorrow.