The last time I talked to Tom Cruise was seven years ago, when he breezed through Toronto on a publicity blitz for Vanilla Sky, a movie that flopped despite his best efforts. This week he was back in town to promote Valkyrie, another movie that needs all the help it can get. The blogosphere is already cackling over the trailer—which shows Cruise in a Nazi uniform and an eye patch declaring in a flatly American accent, “We have to kill Hitler.”
The movie, directed by Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns) is better than the trailer would suggest. It’s a fast-paced suspense thriller with a rip-roaring narrative—the true story of Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, who masterminds a high-level conspiracy among Nazi officers to assassinate Hitler in 1944. But despite the eye patch and amputated hand, it’s hard to get past the fact that you’re watching Tom Cruise. Among the cast, only those playing the most vile Nazis, such as Hitler, have German accents. Nearly all the other German officers are played by Brits—including Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy—speaking with British accents. Among the principals, only Cruise speaks American. And it’s distracting, as if Hollywood has found yet another way for America to win the war.
Interviewing Cruise is like talking to the most popular guy in school who suddenly wants to be your friend. It’s hard not to like him, no matter what you think of his religion or his movies. He has charm to burn. “Good to see you again,” he says, making me wonder if he remembers me or is just well-briefed. At 46, Cruise is still bursting with boyish energy, but his features look more gravely chiselled, almost gaunt. Dressed all in black with spotless white sneakers, he takes a seat on the couch. There will be no jumping.
Cruise talks about identifying with von Stauffenberg. “As a kid growing up, I think all of us wanted to kill Hitler—why didn’t someone just pop him?” he says. And he talks about giving his daughter, Suri, a teddy bear with an eye patch so she could get used to seeing her dad in character on the set. Finally, asked about the accent, Cruise rolls out a stock answer. “It’s a film that is not about accents. It’s a film about the story. It takes place entirely in Germany. If we made it totally authentic to that time period, everybody would be speaking German.” And there are strong precedents for having actors speak in their own accents, he adds, citing Amadeus, The Sound of Music and Paths of Glory. “That cinematic convention worked for the film.”
In fact, Valkyrie begins with Cruise speaking German in a voice-over as von Stauffenberg writes treasonous thoughts in a tent in North Africa. Gradually his words morph into English. “To take the audience in,” says Cruise, “we thought, okay we’re going to start out in German, and then we’re going to take the audience into the world of the movie.”
While we’ve come to accept actors playing foreign roles in their own tongue, accents are always tricky. In period films, Brits tend to sound less contemporary than Americans. But what’s essential is consistency. In Amadeus and Paths of Glory, American actors play German and French characters without affecting accents. But when everyone speaks American, at least they sound like they live in the same world. In the upcoming Holocaust movie Defiance, Daniel Craig erases his James Bond identity with an eastern European accent—a choice that’s uniform among the cast. But in Valkyrie, it’s hard to believe you’re in Nazi Germany when you’re watching a Yank commanding a conspiracy of Limeys.
Faking an inflection, of course, can be as dodgy as avoiding one. It’s a hallmark of virtuosity for some actors, such as Meryl Streep, who never met an accent she didn’t like. In There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis cobbles together an arcane American dialect all his own. Kevin Costner’s lame lilt in Robin Hood:Prince of Thieves fell so short it was laughable. And when Cruise attempted an Irish brogue in Far and Away, the title became a sad comment on just how close he came.
But perhaps the accent is only half the problem. Cruise seems so indelibly contemporary it’s hard to buy him in a period role, never mind as Hitler’s would-be assassin. So does being Tom Cruise get in the way of being believable as someone else? Is being a superstar an obstacle for an actor? “There are always obstacles,” he says. “You’re worrying, ‘Is the story going to work?’ You make choices, and you do the best you can.” At least no one could accuse Cruise of not trying.