Tom Cruise rocks his role in 'Rock of Ages'
Posted June 14, 2012
It was only supposed to be a script read-through in the early days of production last summer on the Miami set of Rock of Ages.
But as the cast gathered at the reading table in their street clothes, their world was suddenly rocked by the arrival of their leading man.
Tom Cruise sauntered in, fully decked out as his '80s rock-god character Stacee Jaxx, in beaver-felt cowboy hat and leather pants, and showing ample tattoos and a bare chest.
"I think my head dropped into my lap," recalls director Adam Shankman. "It was phenomenal."
"I was kind of in shock," adds co-star Malin Akerman. "He sat down beside me, and I said, 'Hi, Tom. Or is it Stacee? I don't know what to call you right now.' "
"You think of Tom as the guy from Mission: Impossible and Top Gun," Akerman says. "But this is going to be a whole new world for his audience."
Consider that a warning. For all the out-there excess of the rock musical Rock of Ages— which completes its transition from hit Broadway musical to Hollywood film when it opens today — nothing is as astonishing as the transformation of ageless Boy Scout Cruise into his Jaxx persona.
The middle-age mega-star (his half-century birthday is July 3) lit up the Internet when the first images from the movie were released this spring, showing a serious dedication to leather and even more serious abs. But Rock of Ages also makes one thing clear as soon as Cruise breaks into Def Leppard's Pour Some Sugar on Me onstage: The dude can perform.
"(Cruise) is the bastard child of Bret Michaels and Axl Rose in this," says Michaels, frontman of the '80s glam-metal band Poison. "He has the dark, intense Axl Rose thing, along with my look and stage presence."
"He took this role to 11," Michaels adds when asked to grade Cruise (who was not available for an interview). "You can only describe it in Spinal Tap terms."
The main story is framed as the tale of aspiring singer Sherrie (Julianne Hough) and aspiring rocker Drew (Diego Boneta), whose ambitions take a detour when Drew joins a silly boy band and Sherrie becomes a stripper. But it's Cruise's Jaxx who will leave jaws dropping.
Shankman saw the Broadway production of Rock, the jukebox musical that has been a success story since 2009 (it now tours nationally as well, and will open a production in Las Vegas in December). He began to consider Cruise for the role of the dangerously charismatic Jaxx, a once-brilliant rock star looking to kick-start a solo career despite heavy drinking and a fondness for groupies.
Shankman wasn't aware if Cruise had the chops, but he had noticed the actor's ability to go way out (and even dance) when he wowed as agent Les Grossman in 2008's Tropic Thunder.
"I tease Tom that his audition for this was Tropic Thunder," says Shankman. "That was a revelation. But I thought if I can get the biggest movie star in the world to play the world's biggest rock star, it would be truly extraordinary."
He proposed the idea to Cruise when he ran into him at Adam Sandler's holiday party in 2010. "He was totally game," says Shankman. Cruise went off to scale the tallest building in the world for Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and then returned to transform into the rocker.
Shankman hired vocal coach Ron Anderson, who worked with Guns N' Roses lead singer Axl Rose, to train Cruise, and the two traveled to Cruise's house for a vocal test drive.
"I had no idea what he would sound like. All I knew was that he hadn't sung before," says Anderson. "But when he hit the high G note the first time, I knew right away we had it. It was a real awakening."
"That was my 'Eureka!' moment," adds Shankman.
Cruise and Anderson worked on intense vocal exercises for nearly five months before the start of production — twice a day, every day.
"He had a lot of stuff going on. But when he was with me, he was completely focused on exactly what he needed to do," says Anderson. "We'd go until 9 or 10 at night in the second session."
The rock-star college also included guitar lessons, intensive work with his trainer to achieve his cut look and choreography with So You Think You Can Dance judge Mia Michaels to get everything down, from his swagger to his stage routines. Michaels was dubious about what she could pull out of Cruise, who is not a natural dancer.
"But no matter how sore he was from the day before, he was in his Stacee Jaxx gear ahead of schedule and would literally run into the room in his cowboy boots," says Michaels. "He did everything at every moment to dive in."
Before each day on the set, Cruise would complete the transformation into Jaxx, having his rock hair, eyeliner, chipped-black nail polish and eight temporary tattoos (most notable are the brokenhearted dragon on his chest and the revolvers inked to appear to be tucked into his leather pants) placed at the same time.
"It was kind of like he was pulling into the pit of the Indy 500," says makeup designer Michelle Burke, who designed the tattoo tapestry. "It was the complete process. Tom likes his speed."
On-screen, Cruise is introduced to viewers when he emerges from a bed covered with four scantily clad groupies while wearing nothing beneath his revealing leather chaps.
"He was going to wear jeans under the chaps at first," says costume designer Rita Ryack. "But somewhere along the line, he got rid of the jeans. He felt comfortable enough to wear (butt)-less chaps."
It was also Cruise's idea to have the rhinestone-studded devil-face codpiece made for Jaxx, which is prominently displayed with the chaps. The fitting made for a surreal moment for the veteran Ryack.
"I thought, 'Here I am in Tom Cruise's trailer, fitting him in (butt)-less chaps,' " she says with a laugh. "We were just cracking up."
The laughter helped during some of the more outrageous on-screen antics. A particularly steamy, aerobic sex scene with Akerman's Rolling Stone journalist character starts with the two kissing, as Akerman describes, "like two dogs licking."
"It got better and better," she says of the scene. "(Shankman) was like, 'Now Tom, get down on your knees and pretend like you're singing to her butt.' We knew we were walking a fine line where it's got to be sexy and funny. But we had a lot of laughs when we were in rehearsals."
Shankman says Cruise never balked at any Stacee Jaxx-ism. But there was a slight pause before shooting a scene in which he meets an anti-rock activist played by Catherine Zeta-Jones.
"I said that it would be so funny, just because he does it with everybody in the movie, to go up and grab her boob," says Shankman. "(Cruise) thought that was hilarious. So I said, 'Go tell her.' And Tom said, 'No, you go tell her. I'm not telling her.' "
"So I yelled across the street, 'Catherine, Tom's going to grab your boob.' " Shankman adds. "And she just said, 'Fine, whatever.' "
Even in potentially uncomfortable moments, Cruise was well-behaved, say his co-stars. Hough recalls that Cruise talked it out before the scene in which he gave his customary, and highly inappropriate, Jaxx grab-greeting.
"He asked if we wanted to do it in rehearsal, if it was OK," says Hough. "He was very gentleman-like. He's a human being. I'm sure my boyfriend appreciates that. I'm a dancer; I've been touched and groped in a lot worse places. But it's nice to talk about it first just to know you're not taken advantage of."
But Cruise reverted to full animal during his concert scenes. During his first number, Pour Some Sugar on Me, the entire cast hung around to watch the show along with the live audience. Cruise displayed his complete repertoire of singing and dancing — while making a rude gesture with a bottle that he later poured over fans.
"Everyone was sort of universally knocked on their (butt)," says co-star Alec Baldwin, one of the bystanders.
"He took the movement and the character and the vocals to a level so we couldn't believe what we were seeing," says choreographer Michaels. "I thought, 'That's why you're Tom Cruise.' Got it."
At the end of the shoot, Cruise requested a complete set of Stacee Jaxx apparel. "It's a good look for him," says Ryack. "And he certainly had a good time with it."
So don't expect that even though the set lights have been taken down and Cruise is back to his clean-cut look that we won't see his rock alter-ego re-emerge at some point.
"He made a good, good rock star, that's for sure," says Akerman. "I let him know that if this acting thing doesn't work out, he's definitely got a second career as a rocker."
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