Live, Write, Repeat – on EDGE OF TOMORROW’s lead connundrum

In Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway is played by Tobey Maguire.

Let’s ignore whether Maguire ‘can act’, or whether he’s a good match for DiCaprio, Mulligan, and Edgerton, and discuss actor-character fit within the broader context of his body of work. (Said actor-character fit will be how we segue into the main topic slash essay title, so don’t be confused because you clicked on something promising one ubiquitous diminutive white dude actor and found an opening paragraph about another slightly less ubiquitous diminutive white dude actor.)

Nick Carraway is an Everyman, and in fact so embodies this archetype that he is held up as The Everyman Shining Example in your average Lit 101 class. For The Great Gatsby‘s pinnacle of average, this illustrative nobody, this model of unremarkability, they cast . . . the star of two of the top box office films of all time. I don’t care if you’re Daniel Day Lewis – and Maguire is no DDL – you can’t act your way out of that particular history, especially when it’s not even a decade old.

Edge of Tomorrow‘s hero William Cage starts out as an Everyman – and proto-video-game-character, but that’s a different essay – who, eventually, over thousands and thousands of lives and failures, transforms himself into a heroic action hero figure type.

Cage doesn’t reach “confident, cool, capable” level for the first 50 minutes of the film, and even after that point has moments of regression, doubt, and defection. It’s that first fifty minutes, nearly half of the movie which makes this casting/character synchronism/compatibility a problem.

Cruise as the cheeky, brash, alien-slaughtering, holding-his-breath-for-minutes-while-expending-enormous-amounts-of-energy-swimming-and-thrashing-in-alien-infested-waters, world-saving Cage? We buy that. But the vulnerable, terrified, quasi-cadet before that? Can we suspend disbelief enough to accept Tom Cruise – Tom “break my ankle and finish the take; learn rock-climbing for a single establishing shot; insist on actually parachuting from the edge of space and make the team light a helmet’s interior so everyone knows it’s me; engage in publicity stunts on the biggest television stages the world can provide” Cruise – plays a man trying to talk himself out of a media opportunity during the world’s biggest, most crucial military mission?

Cage trying to wriggle his way out of said daring notoriety is the opening scene, the first thing we learn about his character. We cannot help but bring enormous amounts of baggage and foreknowledge to that scene; baggage which acting alone cannot overcome.

If Edge of Tomorrow had come a decade or two earlier – say between The Colour of Money and Jerry Maguire and the first Mission: Impossible or two – Cruise may’ve been able to show other facets. But through a series of personal life and project selection choices, Cruise has created a Movie Persona who overshadows, informs, and essentially rewrites all character aspects which may be on the page.

Cruise seems to have forgotten – or more accurately, intentionally cultivated a life and style which eschews – the vulnerability multi-faceted acting requires. That acting isn’t merely about technique in front of the camera; it’s about varying your choices, working with wildly different types of stories and persons and projects and character types. Cruise jettisoned that old format to better become the charismatic, all-encompassingly competent, impervious-if-not-invincible leading man.

For the last 20-odd years Cruise’s film choices have fed this alter ego. His carefully constructed cycle of choosing movies which require a sort of acting and persona, acting that persona to the max in scenes as well as on set and in life, then perpetuating that cycle in the media and the next project and the next, has made him more a Type than actor or human or even Celebrity. Having once wrapped himself in young gun youth and vampirism and risk-taking and vulnerability, he has emerged from a chrysalis of risk-taking action, intense heroism, and carefully calibrated centrism to shed all but the intensity and determinism of his former self. One of the best summations of this is his penchant for obsessively preparing for roles in part by obsessively watching movies, yet refusing to name one specifically whether to praise or denounce; if asked about his favourite he simple raves that ‘movies are great’ with verbal evasiveness rivaling Presidential candidates pressed on tax policy.

This projection encourages the public to further identify him with the personality and persona of his roles as opposed to whoever ‘Tom Cruise’ ‘is.’ Aside from raising such juicy philosophical questions as “is Ethan Hunt more Tom Cruise, or the other way around” (which could form the foundation of another Abed treatise: Nicholas Cage: Good or Bad?), this means some roles are unsuited for Cruise; not because he can’t perform them, but because he has so carefully crafted a Self who is outside their bounds.

He may fit some of their requirements of a role while being diametrically opposed to others. Still, his status as one of the last great movie stars (like or loathe, he fits the definition) means he can pull them anyways, or at the very least will continue receiving opportunities to try.

Which leads us to Edge of Tomorrow’s other lead, the one we don’t meet for the first half hour: Rita Vrataski / Emily Blunt. Here is an actor who can play action star, but whose choice of roles and personas allows her to blend various sides of Vrataski without causing brain hiccups in everyone watching. Of course, it helped at the time (2014) she wasn’t so famous . . . which is part of the reason the movie needed Cruise. And in a sort of Casting Catch-22, her still-sub-A-list status was also also a requirement of casting Cruise.

Too bad they didn’t make this now, when Blunt could front it and have a less-famous dude play the lead. Or hell, play Blunt’s part . . . but then the movie wouldn’t’ve been made.

“But, it’s easy! Just, gender-flip the roles. Cast someone besides Cruise. Cast Cruise as the already-battle-hardened hero so we don’t need the 40 minutes of him as a Cowardly Everyman.”

Would any of these solutions have worked? Follow me in imagining the producing process of attempting to recast either of these roles, in a journey which feels a bit like Hunt’s: Recast, Fail, Repeat.

1. Put Cruise in as Vrataski (who is already uber-competent because we’ve skipped her several-thousand failures) and a total unknown in as William Cage.

Cruise wouldn’t do it because the other person gets more screen time.

Crushed by a Producer. Wake up on Page 1.

2. Have an unknown play Cruise’s role, let Blunt carry the bulk of the film.

Blunt’s name isn’t yet big enough to pull the ridiculous OODLES of money they had to spend on the CGI.

Zapped by a Producer. Wake up on Page 1.

3. Have an unknown play Cruise’s role, and a SUPER FAMOUS A-LIST woman carry the bulk.

This was 2014, and we were still 7 (seven) years away from getting a SUPER FAMOUS A-LIST WOMAN to carry the funding of a film where she’s been a character in that universe for half a decade and would be in the first 50 minutes of the movie.

Plus, Charlize Theron was otherwise occupied.

Blindsided by a Producer who threatens to give your credit to another writer. Wake up on Page 1.

4. Have Not-Tom-Cruise-,-But-Super-Famous-Man play opposite Emily Blunt.

OK while Cruise isn’t selling the shaky parts, very few others can sell the Succeeding-At-An-Impossible-Mission nature of the rest as well as he. Partly because of, well, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE.

Shot in the face by a Producer. Wake up at the start of Act 2.

5. Straight-up gender swap the characters; at least makes things different and potentially more interesting!

Cruise would have to play a bisexual man, since Vraraski’s former battle partner [and implied love interest] is a man. Cruise would not even stand for implied bisexuality which wasn’t a joke.

Endure 10 minute rant from Producer who breaks into your office as you’re eating cold takeaway for dinner. Wake up somewhere in the middle of Act 3.

6. OK but really this could work, straight-up gender swap them!

Look while it’s true all humans have traits from both sides of what we have arbitrarily decided to make binary and assign ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, the fact is when you only have one woman, giving her all the ‘negative’ traits we often project onto women in the fact of combat and aliens or dinosaurs or whatever, is just bad faith.

The problem isn’t “if you switch them, suddenly Blunt’s character has more stereotypically ‘feminine’ traits like “being emotionally vulnerable to save the day,” or a potentially pejorative “always running away from combat while the man plays more of the ‘I’m a soldier and signed up for this so I will sacrifice every time'” role. The problem is that is so noticeable particularly, specifically because Blunt is the only woman in it. [OK, there are three. One’s literally a high-heeled-wearing, perfectly coiffed, perfectly-calculated-balance-between-demure-and-sexy secretary. The other is a J-Squad soldier I’d bet money you can’t name. You’re telling me even in a military where super-suit-body-armour erases any potential differntial of ‘body mass etc. etc., the ratio of men and women is still the same, and in a movie where we can imagine an alien consciousness which embeds itself in its soldiers, projects false visions directly into someone’s brain, and literally fucks with the VERY CONCEPT OF LINEAR TIME, you can’t believe women would be in the military at even the same rate they are now, let alone greater, let alone hold a ranking position? GTFOH.]

Ugh it’d also mean the scene where Vraraski and Call convince J-Squad to follow them into the fray revolves around a woman saying “you won’t follow me? how about THIS GUY!” and them getting hero-worship eyes.

Producer gives you a co-writer credit which includes an ampersand. Wake up in Act 3.

No, Act 2. Because you didn’t save the lesson you learned from point 5.

7. Have a more-famous person than Blunt . . .

Cruise doesn’t want anyone whose celebrity could be considered to upstage his; just look at the new MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE second fiddle players they get. Fun. Famous. Fancy. Beautiful, because we can’t have otherwise. But it’s a carefully calibrated level of celebrity allowed in that co-star orbit. Just ask Jeremy Renner.

Producer gives you eight pages of notes which directly contradict the notes from last week. Wake up in Act 2.

8. No but seriously what if a more-famous person than . . .

At the time Blunt was “Anne Hathaway’s frenemy from The Devil Wears Prada, that mom in Looper, and *checks notes* Gnomeo & Juliet”

Not “Emily Motherfucking Blunt, of Sicario, A Quiet Place parts 1 and 2, and the third-best Lip Sync Battle ever.”

That’s exactly what Cruise wanted, and they need Cruise to be happy . . . see attempt 2 and 4.

Producer tells you they’ve decided to bring in a script doctor the star wants.

Wake up in Act 1.

Realise that the producer will either cast Tom Cruise, or put your script in a dark desk drawer never to see the light of day, accept it, and get paid.

I’m not arguing Bill Paxton should be William Cage; there was a guy who can fade perfectly into a role, and has the skills to helm plenty of types of stories, but not one like this. Edge of Tomorrow does call not only for a Movie Star, but one who can do stunts and action and unabashed world conqueristaing to boot.

Which is to say half the role is almost the only sort of film Cruise has done since the turn of the millennium. Some are sci-fi-action, others heist-action, others period-drama-quasi-hilstorical-action. Even his films which are psychological thriller are still marketed as the sort of action Cruise courts; the trailer for Collateral is clearly hunting the same audience who saw The Last Samurai and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. The lead of this film needs to harness earlier works, the sort of spectacle of Cruise’s alien fighting in War of the Worlds and a half dozen you can pick at random from a hat full of his IMDB entries. Even if War of the Worlds is underrated (and Spielberg possibly the last director to truly manage to wring out parental instinct and human vulnerability from Cruise, both in this and Minority Report), its content, marketing, and cultural cache make it a brick in the very specific wall producers of Edge of Tomorrow demand.

A few others could do the job, perhaps. Will Smith. Brad Pitt. The list, it dwindles. But both are chasing quite different things in their lives and careers at the moment. No, the centre of the Venn of those who the Establishment is willing to cast, and those who will take this script and insist they can carry it, is small.

And then carry it they do because – whether or not they fit all the rest of the criteria – MOVIE ACTION STAR POWER! mostly boils down to what Cruise has built. Which is why his face is on half the non-MCU blockbusters we’ve gotten in the last 20 years, including most of the very damn good ones.

So it goes.

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