I listen to a lot of Nerdist podcasts, and whether you like host Chris Hardwick or not, there’s one thing most people can agree upon: He brings out the actual personality of his guests (this is true, also, of other podcasters, but few have the access that Hardwick gets). I don’t listen to all of the Nerdist podcasts, but whenever he has on someone I like, or who I’m interested in knowing better, there’s nothing else like it for gaining insights. Some guests confirm everything you know about them (Tom Hanks is just like “Tom Hanks” only funnier), some will surprise you with how self aware and funny they are about themselves (Daniel Radcliffe), some are so good that you never want their shows to end (Jon Hamm, Lauren Graham), while others give a two-dimensional Hollywood personality its wonderful, hilarious third dimension (Katee Sackhoff).
I am rarely disappointed in a Nerdist podcast because I almost always learn something about the guest, even if its Topher Grace and all I learn is that Topher Grace really doesn’t seem to care for the politics of the industry (this is a common and recurring theme among Hardwick’s guests, who almost always rail against Hollywood fakery).
Not all of his guests are good (Harrison Ford), but they all eventually give in and reveal their true personalities, except for one: Tom Cruise. Cruise, it turns out, has no personality. He is the same guy in an hour-long interview as he is in 30-second soundbites: A grinning, vacuous robot who speaks only in platitudes.
This is not to say that I don’t like Cruise the actor: I do. A lot. And like many people, I thought Edge of Tomorrow was one of the best sci-fi films in years. But the man himself is nothing but a big, toothy pitch-man for his own products, a commercial jingle in human form, a very handsome animatronic mannequin.
I sat down to listen to Cruise’s podcast with the intention, as always, to take notes, because if there’s one thing an hour-long podcast is good for, it’s for finding out things about certain celebrities you never knew (Amy Poehler hates cats! Lauren Graham used to have a wildly competitive game night, which is where he and Peter Krause became friends; Katee Sackhoff is obsessed with dogs and an honest-to-God fan of MMA fighting!). But after 60 minutes with Cruise, the only insight I had was that he apparently included in his contract for Top Gun a stipulation that he be filmed in the Tomcat, which might have been a fun story if anyone else had told it, but Cruise couldn’t even make that interesting.
For one hour, Cruise spoke without saying anything. He must have mentioned that he “loves movies, all kinds of movies” at least 15 times throughout the podcast, but when pressed to name one, he demured. He couldn’t identify any television shows he liked. He’s worked with countless actors and directors over the years, but had stories to tell about only three, and they weren’t even good: A long, pointless story we’ve heard countless times about how Paul Newman used to call him “kid” (a story he called back to at least three times in the podcast); a story about how Dustin Hoffman recognized him in a restaurant in 1983 (a story he called back to twice); and a story about how he and Sean Penn used to park in front of Brando and Hoffman’s house and wonder what they were doing inside.
Enlightening. Thirty years in the industry, and this is all he could bring to the table.
He showed almost no self-awareness. He never spoke once to a personal relationship in his life (he didn’t even mention his kids, and what father can go an hour without mentioning his damn kids once?). He also seems to have very little understanding of the world outside of his bubble, as demonstrated when he suggested that he was a workaholic who put in countless hours a day, while Hardwick, “what, worked two hours a day, from 12-2?” All I know about Tom Cruise after spending an hour listening to him is that he likes to work, and that he thinks it’s “fun” (a word he must have repeated 50 times in the podcast).
Again, none of this affects my enjoyment of Tom Cruise films, but it may help to explain why a terrific movie like Edge of Tomorrow was such a huge box-office disappointment. For better or worse, we live in an era in which success is often tied to a celebrity’s personality, which is why someone like Jennifer Lawrence or Shailene Woodley or even Paul Rudd or Seth Rogen can be so successful: We feel like we know those people. We’re interested in them as much or more as we’re interested in their movies. They’re authentic, genuine people with whom some of us can relate.
Cruise, on the other hand, is not a person. He’s a brand. He’s like a guy who got his Ph.D in empty self promotion. He’s the Hollywood equivalent of the star athlete who only speaks in cliches — “we gotta play it one day at a time” — and the truth is, after listening to him for an hour on the Nerdist podcast, I am not so sure there’s anything under those cliches. He’s a hollow man of little substance who makes good movies but can’t relate to anyone but himself. I like Tom Cruise films. I want to like Tom Cruise, but he’s doesn’t give us anything with which we can connect.