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Friday February 6, 2009

Playing the hero in Valkyrie

The true story of German resistance against Adolf Hitler got Tom Cruise gunning for a role in the historical thriller Valkyrie.

Say what you will about Tom Cruise, one thing’s for certain: no one can deny that he is the consummate movie star. Whether he is expertly fielding questions at a press conference, talking about his new movie, or walking the red carpet surrounded by throngs of screaming fans – he does it all with ease, familiarity and a trademark megawatt smile.

That smile, however, is notably absent in his latest film Valkyrie.

Megawatt grin: Tom Cruise smiles as fans try to take photos during the premiere of his new movie Valkyrie in Seoul, South Korea.

The World War II suspense thriller sees Cruise donning a Nazi army uniform and an eyepatch to play the heroic and rather grim character of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the one-eyed, one-handed colonel who was at the heart of a real-life plot to assasinate Adolf Hitler. Admittedly, not much to smile about there!

Directed by Bryan Singer (of The Usual Suspects, X-Men, and Superman Returns fame), the film is a detailed reenactment of how Stauffenberg and the German Resistance came up with and executed a plan to dismantle the Nazi regime in Germany. As history makes clear, however, the attempt was a failure.

Speaking at the film’s Asia Pacific premiere in Seoul, South Korea last month, Cruise, who most recently played a contemptible but comical movie mogul in Tropic Thunder, seemed to have taken to his role with fervour.

“I grew up wanting to kill Hitler, and as a kid, used to wonder why no one stood up to him,” said the handsome 46-year-old actor. “When I read this story, it gave me relief to know that these people wanted to stop Hitler; that not all Germans were behind him.”

What floored Cruise was the story of what actually happened during that time.

“When I was given the script, I couldn’t stop turning the pages. It definitely worked for me as pure entertainment, and yet, I was thinking, how true is this?” he said. “Then, I found out that those scenes in the script that seemed made up for dramatic purposes, they actually occurred! That was really gripping.”

A revered character

Stauffenberg himself was a charismatic aristocrat who descended from 700 years of German nobility. He was known for his individualism, and rapidly rose in the ranks of the army due to his military genius. Increasingly disillusioned by Hitler’s brutal regime, Stauffenberg joined the Resistance with the conviction that his loyalty was to Germany and not Hitler. Cut down in his prime at the age of 36, Stauffenberg went down in history as the man who carried a suitcase bomb into Hitler’s private conference room.

Taking on the role of Stauffenberg, therefore, is no small burden; he is still revered in Germany as a national hero. Add to that the fact that he still has living descendants – some of whom had initially even spoken out against casting Cruise in the part – and the task becomes doubly difficult.

Up close and personal: Bryan Singer directing Tom Cruise and Carice Van Houten on the set of Valkyrie.

Of course, the last time Cruise took on a role based on a real person back in 1989 (playing paralysed Vietnam war veteran Ron Kovic in the biopic Born on the Fourth of July), he was nominated for an Academy Award. He, however, is the first to admit to the challenges of playing a real character, particularly one like Stauffenberg, who is held in such high regard.

“Playing a historical figure like this takes a lot of work. (For Born on the Fourth of July), I actually got to meet Ron Kovic, and he was there during the filming of the movie.

“With Stauffenberg, we had to do a huge amount of research. We spent about seven or eight months before shooting began, and also throughout the filming, just studying different books and films. From these, I had to find different clues on how to play this character,” said Cruise.

“Once I understood what the German Resistance was and who Stauffenberg was, I wanted to honour the spirit of these people.”

What helped was finding ways in which he could relate to the character. Cruise said he constantly thought about the amount of pressure Stauffenberg had been under at the time.

“I’m a father, and one of the things I could hook on to emotionally was him not being able to talk to his children about the situation around them, not being able to tell them that he didn’t believe in what was happening (in Germany at the time), because it could actually cost them their lives.”

Putting on the Nazi uniform, possibly the most reviled garb in history, proved to be difficult as well.

“I didn’t like it at all. It definitely changes your viewpoint,” said Cruise.

“Then, looking at it from Stauffenberg’s viewpoint, what it meant to him to wear that uniform and the conflict he had, it helped me very much.”

A community effort

For Cruise, the cherry on the cake was the opportunity to work with Singer, Academy-award winning screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, and an illustrious line-up of Britain’s best thespians.

Playing various key members involved in the assasination plot are Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp and Eddie Izzard.

Surely, with so many artistic temperaments on board, ego clashes were bound to ensue? Not at all, laughed Cruise.

“If you look at my films, I’ve always wanted to work with the best actors I can. Making a film is a community effort, and so I have no ego when making a movie.

“I’m not the guy who hangs out in the movie trailer; when I’m there, I like being early, and giving it my all. I set that tone on every film I make, because I feel very privileged to be able to make movies.”

Cruise also had nothing but praise for Singer and McQuarrie, both of whom he is working with for the first time.

“It’s a joy having great writing to perform, and a talented director to work with.

“I found Bryan to be a great filmmaker who understands classic ways of telling a story and yet has a very modern approach. Chris and (co-writer) Nathan (Alexander) also did an exceptional job with the screenplay; it was amazing how historically accurate the script was while (still being) very suspenseful,” he said.

For Cruise, despite being one of the biggest stars on the planet, it all ultimately boils down to his love for movies. “I’m an actor and a storyteller, and a film-lover above all.

“The advantage (of being in my position is that) I have the opportunity to make the kind of films I want to make. And I think that is a real privilege.”

Valkyrie opens in cinemas nationwide on Feb 12.

Related stories:

Making history in Valkyrie

What is Valkyrie?

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