— by Larry Carroll with additional reporting by Alistair Conelly
Maybe you haven't heard, but Tom Cruise has a new movie coming out.
But if you're one of the series' fans who, for the last six years, have been excitedly awaiting the "M:I" franchise's third installment, the star wants you to know that you're not the only one constantly pondering the "Impossible."
"I'm always thinking about 'Mission: Impossible' everywhere I travel," Cruise admitted during an interview just days after becoming a new father. "When I go to different places, I'll look at a building and think, 'What would it be like to jump off that building?' 'What would that scene be like?' 'Mission Impossible' is that fantasy for me — whether it's time I spent in Asia or Rome, it always takes me back to a sequence or a scene of 'What would that story be?' "
A decade ago, those thoughts sparked a big-screen adaptation of the classic spies-and-gadgets TV show from the 1960s and '70s. The film starred Cruise as agent Ethan Hunt and was directed by Brian De Palma ("Scarface," "The Untouchables"). Four years later, new director John Woo ("Face/Off," "Broken Arrow") revealed Hunt version 2.0, a mountain-climbing, motorcycle-riding hero for the new millennium. For this year's third chapter, producer Cruise once again mixed things up by hiring one of Hollywood's top creative talents — a man he felt could provide equal parts substance and style.
"I met J.J. Abrams, and he just had such an easy understanding of this genre and this franchise," Cruise said of the 39-year-old behind the television mega-hits "Lost" and "Alias." Together, they agreed that a third film had to be about more than spectacularly tall objects from which Ethan Hunt might hurl himself. "It was about finding out who Ethan is as a man."
"The initial call I got was from my agent," Abrams laughed, remembering the genesis of his feature-film directorial debut. "He said, 'Tom Cruise wants you to direct 'Mission: Impossible III.' 'I was like, 'What?' It made no sense at all. It felt like a joke, like a prank or something. When I saw him, he had that Tom Cruise smile, and it still seemed like a joke. Tom Cruise coming at you with a smile: 'Want to do it?' "
The two men got to work making sure that "M:i:III" was as much about characters and empathy as about car crashes and explosions. They also discovered that exploring both sides of the coin left plenty of room for creativity.
"It was never boring," Cruise insisted. "Sometimes, J.J. was writing it and he's going, 'Oh, he's gonna want to do this, isn't he?' I love that about 'Mission: Impossible.' Here we are in this world of adventure, and yet it really comes down to these very personal moments of character. So, a day might be, 'OK, I'll be getting blasted into a car, and then we'll have a romantic scene on a roof.' "
An equally dependable "Mission: Impossible" institution is veteran character actor Ving Rhames, once again returning to the franchise as Hunt's surly right-hand man, Luther Stickell. The actor proudly recalled the days when skeptics predicted that the series would self-destruct after 10 seconds, and pondered the series' transformation into an exploration of two equally mythic characters: Ethan Hunt and Tom Cruise.
" 'M:i:III' deals with Tom's personal love interest," Rhames said of the higher emotional stakes in the third film. "Because of that relationship, when he's in a dangerous situation it's not only affecting him — women can relate to it affecting his significant other. I think it's going to get a bigger female audience, due to that relationship. You add that element to all the high action and what have you, and you have a good human story with action, as opposed to an action film just for action's sake."
"The love story is the story of 'Mission: Impossible,' " Cruise stressed. "Of course we have the 'missions.' But the underpinning is love."
"It's his baby," the object of Hunt's affection, actress Michelle Monaghan ("Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang"), said of Cruise's series. "Of course I had my preconceptions. 'Oh my God, he's not going to talk to me, he's going to spend all his time in the trailer.' I couldn't have been further from the truth."
Referring to the director and star as "two peas in a pod," Monaghan added that Abrams is every bit as energetic as his leading man, a big help for actors shooting at odd hours, all over the world. "They are really enthusiastic, and they just infused the whole set with their energy."
No "Mission: Impossible" film would be complete without a huge cast of recognizable faces, all eager to yank (symbolic) rubber masks off at any moment and reveal their true, other selves. Thus Cruise and Abrams set out to stock the supporting roles with the likes of Laurence Fishburne, Billy Crudup, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Keri Russell and a newly crowned Oscar winner.
"He's a great villain, a great actor and a great character," Cruise said of "Capote" star Philip Seymour Hoffman, cast as the evil arms dealer out to get Hunt and Monaghan's Julia in the film. "His presence gave us these great scenes. Here we are in a cargo plane scene that J.J. wrote, and before we shot it, when I read it, I couldn't wait to see Philip play this character. I worked with Philip in 'Magnolia,' and I couldn't wait to work with him again. You have this actor who goes from 'Capote' to (the 'M:i:III' character Owen) Davian, and as a filmgoer, I wanted to see him play that character."
Yes, the world is most definitely aware that Tom Cruise has a new movie on the way. Only two questions remain for this "Mission": Will there be another Ethan Hunt adventure, and who will direct it?
Cruise admits that the franchise, like his character, is hard to kill — and don't be surprised if the next person at the helm also happens to be the star.
"Maybe, one day, I will direct," Cruise confessed, admitting he'd like to step behind the camera for either an "Impossible" film or for some other project. "I'm one of those guys who loves making movies. It's what I do."