Just as Tom Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell saves the world and his fellow fighter pilots from the aggressions of an evil nation in this summer’s “Top Gun” sequel, the actor is credited with saving the film industry by spearheading a critically acclaimed action blockbuster that has earned more than $1 billion at the global box office.
But to accomplish this feat, Cruise didn’t just line up the right director, insist on the use of “practical effects” for the thrilling aerial sequences or demand that the film only open in theaters. Cruise also had to downplay what a new report says has long been the actor’s “driving force” to be a Hollywood hero: His devotion to the controversial Church of Scientology.
The organization, founded by the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1953, “appeals to the sort of worldview Cruise embodies,” Vox said. “The world is under attack from evil forces, Scientology teaches, and all that stops them is one good man who’s not going to let petty rules get in his way.”
As Vox and other outlets have reported, being associated with Scientology has become a P.R. liability for stars such as Cruise and John Travolta, who used to talk openly about their dedication to the celebrity-friendly organization. Scientology has been accused of being “a pyramid scheme at best and at worst, alleged to be an abusive cult profiting from forced labor and human trafficking,” Vox said, citing lawsuits and reports from former members.
Over the years, the church has repeatedly and strongly denied accusations that it has financially exploited its members or engaged in other forms of abuse. It says these allegations have been concocted by disgruntled former members and that its critics are engaging in a form of religious bigotry.
Nonetheless, Cruise’s popularity plummeted in the mid-2000s after he indulged in some high-profile oversharing about Scientology and his personal life, according to Vox and other outlets. He jumped on Oprah Winfrey’s couch to declare his love for third wife Katie Holmes and publicly railed against Brooke Shield’s use of anti-depressants to alleviate her postpartum depression. In 2008, Cruise appeared manic and laughing in a leaked Scientology recruitment video, talking about how the church inspired him to become a savior figure in everyday situations.
By 2011, Wired declared that Scientology is one reason “no one takes Tom Cruise seriously anymore.” More negative publicity for Cruise and Scientology came the following year after Holmes suddenly filed for divorce. Stories emerged about how Holmes was eager to retain full custody of their daughter, Suri, and save her from Scientology’s influence. It’s also been reported that Cruise has since had little contact with his daughter because she and her mother didn’t become Scientologists.
Scientology is trending… It’s a REMINDER that Tom Cruise chose this religion over his daughterpic.twitter.com/63CXhWeTDf
— Neo Jane (@NeoJane8) July 22, 2022
The divorce opened up the floodgates for more “damning” reporting on Cruise’s connections to Scientology and his close friendship with leader David Miscavige, Vox said. A 2012 Vanity Fair exposé looked at the way Cruise allegedly relied on the church to find his next girlfriend after his split from Nicole Kidman, while Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book, “Going Clear,” reported that Cruise benefitted from Scientology ordering its members to fix up his homes or vehicles.”
In the 10 years since his split from Holmes, Cruise has worked “hard to change the narrative,” Vox writer Constance O’Grady has said. He has stopped his oversharing and almost turned himself into “a blank,” IndieWire reported. He rarely gives interviews and only talks to journalists if they agree to not ask him questions about his religion and family, Vox said.
One notable exception was in 2016 when a reporter for ITV managed to catch Cruise at the premiere of his film, “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” and ask him about Scientology, The Guardian reported.
Cruise replied in general terms, saying, “It’s something that has helped me incredibly in my life. I’ve been a Scientologist for over 30 years. It’s something that is, you know … without it, I wouldn’t be where I am. So, it’s a beautiful religion. I’m incredibly proud.”
As more information about the organization’s alleged abuses has become public, through such vehicles as Leah Remini’s A&E show, “Scientology and the Aftermath,” “no Scientologist wants to be put in a position having to respond to questions about it,” Remini’s co-host, Mike Rinder, said to the Bay Area News Group in May.
Indeed, it’s hard to see Cruise these days letting himself be put in the same position as Elisabeth Moss. The star of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was pressed to explain her dedication to Scientology while sitting for an otherwise glowing New Yorker profile that was published in April.
For the publicity blitz for “Top Gun,” Cruise has avoided these kinds of one-on-one situations with reporters, while still generating enthusiastic headlines by landing a helicopter on an aircraft carrier at the film’s San Diego premiere, or gallantly escorting Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, into a theater in London.
Cruise’s effort to change the narrative has mostly been successful. He’s enjoying a late-career renaissance, with “Top Gun: Maverick” raking in both money and accolades. Writers also have hailed Cruise as the “biggest movie star in the world,” while serious talk has emerged that his performance in “Top Gun” could put him in contention for an Academy Award for the first time in more than 20 years, according to Vanity Fair.
“Maverick is not Cruise’s best performance, sure,” said Vanity Fair’s Katey Rich. “But as a distillation of everything that has made Cruise a generation-defining star, Maverick is pretty much perfect. If the Academy wants to finally award Cruise a statue, it’s not likely there will be a better opportunity to do so.”
Then again, Rich points out why a modern Oscars campaign could be challenging for an actor who has long “been protected by his tower of mega-fame and Scientology.” He’d need to “to embark on some kind of authenticity tour,” Rich said.
For megastars, that usually means addressing past scandals and personal demons in at least one major interview that’s guaranteed to go viral and shape the conversation about them. When Brad Pitt was in contention for a best supporting actor Oscar for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” he generated a lot of public good will by opening up to the New York Times and other outlets about his struggles to overcome alcohol abuse, toxic masculinity and his painful divorce from Angelina Jolie.
It probably wouldn’t be so easy for Cruise to let go of his tightly controlled public image. “It’s one thing for Cruise to fly onto an aircraft carrier or hold court in front of a crowd in Cannes, and another entirely to open up for the kind of profiles or roundtable conversations that are ever-present in modern Oscar campaigns,” Rich said.