Tom Cruise has had a long and fruitful career, spanning decades, as well as genres. While most know him as an action hero, Cruise is just as acclaimed for leading man work that doesn’t require running away from explosions. He’s at his best when given a character to really dive into and inhabit. That got us thinking about what his best characters to date would be. What sets them apart? The results may surprise you.
Below, you’ll see ten of Cruise’s best characters. Honorable Mentions go to John Anderton in “Minority Report,” Lt. Daniel Kaffee in “A Few Good Men,” and Ron Kovic in “Born on the Fourth of July,” with the trio just missing the cut. They deftly showcase his ability in action as well as drama and snappy dialogue, so keeping them off of this list was a tough call. Still, the ones to come stand out even more, which is truly saying something.
10. William Cage in “Edge of Tomorrow” (2014)
dir. Doug Liman
While Tom Cruise the action hero is known for defying death in all sorts of ways, William Cage is a huge anomaly. Not only is he a bit of a coward, he spends much of “Edge of Tomorrow” being killed. This is both a deconstruction of his hero persona and a science fiction-enhanced evolution of his heroic roles. Over the course of the film, you get to see him actually become the paragon that we’ve seen elsewhere in his career. Kudos to director Doug Liman for casting him, as well as to Cruise himself for being up to the challenge.
9. Lestat in “Interview with the Vampire” (1994)
dir. Neil Jordan
When Cruise was cast in the adaptation of Anne Rice‘s novel, reactions were mixed. Even Rice herself was initially against him, stating that the casting was “so bizarre; it’s almost impossible to imagine how it’s going to work” and “the worst crime in the name of casting since The Bonfire of the Vanities.” It would take her being forced to view his work as her signature vampire before she would see the error of her ways, apologizing to the actor. Cruise makes Lestat dangerous, fun, and sexy, all at the same time. It’s a credit to his versatility that he could take the biggest doubter and make a fan of her before all was said and done.
8. Vincent in “Collateral” (2004)
dir. Michael Mann
A cold killing machine goes against a lot of what makes Cruise such a likable actor. However, it’s just that element of playing against type that sets his work in “Collateral” apart. Michael Mann trusts him to lean in to the clinical and sociopathic nature of Vincent, devoid of charisma or the charm that we’ve come to know. It’s a gambit that pays off in a big way, as an already strong antagonist is given an extra sheen of unpredictability. Because you know what the actor has usually done, and because you have no idea what this character will do, it’s unsettling in all of the right ways.
7. Stefen Djordjevic in “All the Right Moves” (1983)
dir. Michael Chapman
One of Tom Cruise’s most underrated characters and performances is this high school athlete in “All the Right Moves.” Lost in the shuffle of his star-making turn in “Risky Business” is Cruise portraying a teen desperate to get out of his small town. Stefen Djordjevic sees football as a pathway to a better life, avoiding the working class tragedies that Bruce Springsteen made a career crooning about. As he faces down a spiteful coach, Cruise makes this character frustrating, real, and deeply relatable.
6. Les Grossman in “Tropic Thunder” (2008)
dir. Ben Stiller
A scene-stealing cameo, Cruise gives his most gonzo performance in “Tropic Thunder,” playing absurd movie mogul Les Grossman. Foul-mouthed, grotesque, and absolutely hilarious, this is the epitome of an actor being let loose and allowed to have a good time. We’ve seen the man enjoy his work throughout his career, but here, it’s as if it’s a one-man party that we’re lucky enough to bear witness to. A small character (plot-wise, though hardly in terms of size), it’s nonetheless instantly memorable.
5. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in the “Top Gun” Franchise (1986, 2020)
dir. Tony Scott, Joseph Kosinski
Truly one of Cruise’s most iconic characters, Maverick is about as cool as it gets. Mixing excellence at his craft with a dangerous and reckless style that rubs authorities the wrong way, this is the pilot everyone wishes they could be. Not only is “Top Gun” one of the actor’s most effortlessly brisk characters, the highly anticipated sequel “Top Gun: Maverick” will show us what age does to a defiant individual like him.
4. Joel Goodson in “Risky Business” (1983)
dir. Paul Brickman
As soon as Tom Cruise slid across the floor in “Risky Business,” he was an instant star. Some roles just show that an actor or an actress has that “it factor,” and this was Cruise’s showcase. No matter what behavior he’s depicting, or the shenanigans Joel gets into while his parents are away, the million watt smile makes it all seem like harmless fun. Cruise would fine tune this persona over the ensuing decades, but this was clear evidence that he was shooting straight to the top of the A-list.
Cruise reaches down deep to portray the damaged soul Frank T.J. Mackey in Paul Thomas Anderson‘s magnum opus “Magnolia.” Frank is a misogynist taking the form of a motivational speaker, peddling deeply offensive pickup methods. But beneath the vile exterior is a wounded son, which we see Cruise slowly bring to the surface. From his oily persona to his bedside breakdown with his father, Frank is always surprising. For Cruise, this Oscar-nominated role is one of his most challenging, which makes the brilliance of it all the more rewarding to witness.
2. Ethan Hunt in the “Mission: Impossible” Franchise (1996, 2000, 2006, 2011, 2015, 2018)
dir. Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird, Christopher McQuarrie
When one thinks of Cruise, it’s almost inevitable that they picture him in a scene from this franchise. Ethan Hunt has defined his career, whether it’s hanging from the ceiling in “Mission: Impossible,” climbing the Burj Khalifa in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” or hanging on to a moving plane in “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” Hunt has been the actor’s vessel for some amazing stunts. However, as much as the physical nature of the role has continually impressed, it’s in the most recent “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” where Cruise lets us in and allows us to see more of the characters personality. If the franchise is showing no signs of slowing down, it’s also making its central character more and more fascinating to follow.
1. Jerry Maguire in “Jerry Maguire” (1996)
dir. Cameron Crowe
Tom Cruise’s best performance, and most vibrant role, is the title character in “Jerry Maguire.” A combination of high-wattage star power and charismatic acting chops, Cruise is pitch-perfect. Cameron Crowe needed a star with a capital S, which we see in full force. Whether it’s nailing the dialogue or making audiences swoon during the romantic sequences, this is a performance that never makes a false move. The combination of a brilliant bit of acting, Crowe writing him an iconic role, and the actor himself being at the height of his powers, it all combines to make this his best character to date.