Tom Cruise adopts way of the samurai

Thursday, December 4, 2003

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Special to the Journal-World

Tom Cruise practices his sword "kata" in a scene from "The Last Samurai." The actor spent two years preparing for and filming the role.

— "When I was growing up, I remember vividly being at a drive-in," says Tom Cruise. "I was, I guess, about 6 or 7 years old, and I was on the roof of my family station wagon. And across the screen was the Sahara Desert. I was like: I always wanted to see other places and learn about how other people lived."

Cruise obviously picked the right career path to follow, as his work has afforded him many such opportunities. Now with "The Last Samurai," he's landed a particularly plum role for witnessing how another culture lives and breathes.

"(Japan) was enigmatic to me ... I wanted to know more about them, more about their history, how they live, how they got to where they are today," says the actor, interviewed Nov. 15 at a packed press conference in Los Angeles' Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

Aside from his occasional digressions regarding Scientology -- the New Age "religion" that counts Cruise as its most famous member -- the star keeps the focus of this media gathering on his movie of the moment. He manages to be courteous and forthcoming, even when answering the often inane questions from the Hollywood Foreign Press, whose core is stationed to the left half of the room like the bride's side of a wedding.

In "The Last Samurai," Cruise plays an 1870s-era American military captain who is recruited by the Emperor of Japan to help modernize the nation's army. But he is seduced by the lifestyle of the samurai class, which is on the verge of becoming extinct as the country shifts to an industrial society.

"This film is different in that it took me almost a year to physically be able to make this picture," he says. "I love what I do. I take great pride in what I do, and I can't do something halfway, three-quarter, 9/10ths. If I'm going to do something, I go all the way. And I didn't know if I could do it, honestly -- if I could find that kind of physical elegance or movement that the samurai have."

Cuts like a knife
"I started working with Tom a year ago (last) January," says director Ed Zwick, interviewed at a press roundtable earlier that afternoon. "That's two years. He could have made five movies at whatever amount of money he wanted to. Instead he chose to devote himself to this. And he refused to do it unless he could be at a certain level. So he was willing to sacrifice what that took."

Aside from the time commitment and obligation of learning a large chunk of his dialogue in Japanese, the 41-year-old actor was faced with numerous physical challenges.

"I couldn't even touch my toes when I started working out," Cruise divulges. "I bent down (and) I couldn't get my hands past my knees."

First he was given a regimen that increased his flexibility. Then he added 25 pounds of muscle to help him prepare for the action sequences that often required wearing 50 pounds of armor. He also spent months on sword work that built up his forearms to Popeye-like proportions to allow him to approximate the speed and power of his fellow combatants.

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Special to the Journal-World

Tom Cruise, left, receives advice from director Ed Zwick while on location shooting "The Last Samurai."

"There's a sunset shot in the movie where I do the 'kata,'" Cruise says of the orchestrated sword routine. "It looks so easy that you're going, 'Oh, yeah. I could do that. Yeah. That's easy.' ... I spent a year being able to do THAT."

Zwick adds, "He had to work every day to not get hurt and not hurt anybody else."

Even so, Cruise faced a near-lethal experience while shooting one of the scenes -- an incident that other members of the cast and crew interviewed were noticeably hesitant to comment about.

Apparently, upon his character's first confrontation with the band of samurai, a warrior played by martial arts expert Hiroyuki Sanada was supposed to charge at him while both were mounted on horses. (Cruise had previously logged many hours on horseback, so that was at least one skill he brought to the table.)

For the close-up, the sequence was done with Cruise atop an animatronic device. The shot called for Sanada to strike with his sword while his opponent's steed would rear back at the last second, dismounting the rider but causing the blade to narrowly miss.

During retakes in the rainy, wooded environment, a malfunction caused the mechanical beast to not retract at the moment the sword was coming full force at the star's neck.

Fortunately, the nimble reflexes of Sanada allowed him to stop the live blade right before it found its target.

Movie

Last Samurai ***

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Tom Cruise stars in an absorbing, poetic tale about the war between Eastern and Western values for the soul of Japan. He's not always convincing as an alcoholic military expert-turned-swordsman, but at least he shines in the superior action scenes. Even though the film rambles on too long, it's definitely worthy of the term "epic."

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"Did they say that I almost got my head cut off?" Cruise downplays the topic with a smirk.

Upon further prodding, he confirms the story.

"Yeah," he admits. "But I trusted (Sanada). It was an inch. It wasn't in my neck."

Taking the role home
Cruise is back on his native shore at least for the next few months as he finishes wrapping up the Michael Mann thriller, "Collateral," in Los Angeles. So how has the actor changed over the course of the two years he spent on "The Last Samurai?"

"I was a stiffer, inflexible-body guy. And now, I have greater flexibility," he says, half joking. "You know, I change every day. Who I was beforehand to where I am now? ... I enjoy the research and, yeah, it lives with you and you carry it."

Although Cruise doesn't believe viewers particularly care what personal journeys -- either emotionally or physically -- actors go through when investing so much of themselves in a movie, he does hope the final product elicits one key reaction.

He says, "I'd like them to have that feeling that they're going to go see a different world in the same way that I did as a kid."