Tom Cruise’s long acting career boasts many celebrated roles: “Maverick” in Top Gun, Jerry Maguire in Jerry Maguire, Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible series. Together, they tell the story of an artist extraordinarily committed to his craft, one who knows only one gear and that’s the highest. Tom Cruise is perhaps the last bona fide American movie star left.
And none of his roles exemplify his career in totality more than Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder, a film that turns 10 this month.
Grossman, for the uninitiated, is merely a supporting character in the 2008 comedy starring Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr. as actors in a Vietnam War film who get lost in the jungle, and are pursued by a real and very dangerous drug gang that controls the area. Grossman is the blustery, foul-mouthed, reprehensible studio executive in charge of the ill-fated action movie. Donning fake hair and gobs of prosthetics, Cruise’s famously handsome features are nearly unrecognizable.
Les Grossman is not one of Cruise’s biggest roles, nor surely his most impressive performance. (Cruise fans don’t agree on what is, though Frank Mackey in Magnolia and Vincent in Collateral are often cited among his best work.) Rather, Grossman offers audiences a microcosm of Cruise’s process, his intensity, his signature chutzpah. It’s all of Cruise’s most admirable traits as an actor, distilled into one fat suit.
The story of how Grossman came about is almost as Tom Cruise-y as the role itself. As Grantland’s 2015 oral history of Grossman pointed out, Grossman materialized during a low point both personally and professionally for Cruise. It was three years after the infamous Oprah couch debacle, and two years after his studio, Paramount, dropped him following some controversial comments the outspoken Scientologist had made about psychiatry. Cruise needed a role that would endear him to audiences—and the industry—once again.
Cruise came up with the idea for Grossman (who was not in the original script) himself. Besides the violent drug gang, Cruise thought, the film needed a second antagonist, but one back in Hollywood who’d exert pressure on the fictional movie with unhinged rants, rather than with guns. Etan Cohen, one of the film’s writers, remarked that Cruise was all systems go from the jump. “A lot of actors hold back at table readings. Tom was the opposite,” he told Grantland. “He worked insanely hard at making that character unique. You could tell that he’d never done anything like it before and was embracing it.”
Unlike some of his more energetic characters, Grossman did not require that Cruise climb the Burj Khalifa or do barrel rolls piloting a helicopter, but he did need to dance in a fat suit. Cruise was so committed to the character that he was at an actual risk for dehydration, Aida Caefer, who fashioned the suit for the movie, told Grantland. He choreographed his own dance moves, often practicing them out in the open on set. It took a 12-person team of makeup experts to design the silicone prosthetics that transformed the movie-star proportion of Cruise into the unkempt husk of the debased Hollywood mogul Grossman.
Viewers have long wondered if Grossman was meant as a caricature of anyone in particular—Harvey Weinstein comes to mind. The disgraced executive, who bears something of a physical resemblance to Grossman, was also notorious for his extreme outbursts as the head of Miramax, among the other, more criminal predilections that 87 women have now accused him of.
The character was so successful that Cruise appeared in costume at the MTV Movie Awards two years later, dancing in a skit that made fun of Cruise’s famous routine from Risky Business, and again live on stage with Jennifer Lopez. Rumors were floated of a Les Grossman spinoff movie in the works in 2010, but it never materialized.
Tom Cruise is an inscrutable figure off the screen, one who’s closely associated in Scientology, with its dubious philosophies, and some of its even more dubious leaders. That has made it tough for some moviegoers to separate his on-screen persona from the man.
Les Grossman was an opportunity for Cruise, for the first and perhaps only time in his career, to poke fun at himself and his compulsion to do everything as big and as bold as it can possibly be done. As silly and grotesque as the character may be, Cruise’s performance gave us a glimpse of the man beneath the tabloid headlines. And he’s a man who likes to dance.