SEATTLE - When the door opens and Tom Cruise enters the suite of Seattle's Hotel 1000, it is with that distinctive whirl of charisma and seductive confidence that has made him the world's biggest movie star of the past 25 years: killer smile, eyes that bore into you, the firmest of firm handshakes held for a few flattering seconds.
His hair is moussed back, and he's dressed with casual elegance: jeans, Italian boots, a knit shirt with sleeves pushed up to his elbows. At 46, a few lines crinkle the corners of his famous face as he smiles, but he still looks so boyish he probably could get away with playing the lead in "Risky Business II."
It's the first week of November, and he has come to town to publicize his new movie, "Valkyrie" (which opened Thursday). He plays a German officer who tried to assassinate Hitler.
He acknowledges that he "could use a new beginning." Despite his marriage and "a lot of joy" in his personal life, the past few years "have been a rough period in many ways."
Rough, indeed. After two decades of unparalleled popularity, the world seems to have turned on Cruise over the past few years. Think of that uproar over his couch-jumping on Oprah Winfrey's talk show. Or his being fired from his special relationship with Paramount because of "his behavior" and the poor box office of "Mission Impossible III."
He's been constantly under attack for his Scientology beliefs, and his stance against psychiatric drugs made him the bad guy in a public conflict with friend Brooke Shields.
Still, he doesn't see himself as any kind of victim.
"I made some mistakes, and I didn't handle some situations very well. I've learned some valuable lessons from all these experiences. Has it made me cynical? Absolutely not. But, yes, it's made me more cautious . . . In the age of the Internet, you have to be more careful."
Cruise seems willing to discuss these unpleasant matters, but he's also noticeably uncomfortable with the subject. What he really wants to talk about is "Valkyrie." He admits he's nervous about the film and, since I'm one of the first critics to see it, he wants to know what I thought of it.
When I tell him I thought it was pretty terrific - the most nail-bitingly suspenseful movie I've seen all year - he makes a fist, shakes it in the air and gives out an enthusiastic "Yessss!" that startles me. For a moment, I think he might jump on the couch, but instead he just beams and says, "Well, that's music to my ears."
"Valkyrie" tells the story of Col. Claus Von Stauffenberg, the aristocratic German Army officer who tried to rid his country of the Nazi leadership in a complex plot that included a July 20, 1944, assassination attempt on Hitler by planting a bomb in one of his high-level strategy sessions.
The film is the second Cruise has produced under the United Artists banner since he took over the moribund movie company in 2005. The first, the 2007 anti-Iraq war drama "Lions for Lambs," bombed badly, but Cruise says its failure didn't "deter his commitment" to make the new UA synonymous with important, prestige movies.
He admits that when the script of "Valkyrie" came to him, he'd never heard of Von Stauffenberg and didn't know there had been a significant anti-Nazi German resistance in World War II.
"But I love history, and I've read a lot about the Third Reich and the drama of the man's quest just really appealed to me from the start.
"It hit me that Von Stauffenberg was an authentic hero . . . and that his special kind of heroism was worth examining. Movies, of course, are full of heroes and I've played a few of them myself. But, while this action-movie [bravado] is fun, it's not real. It doesn't give us an honest portrait of a genuinely heroic life."
Cruise says he tried to play the character with "no phony courage," as a man dedicated to "his task . . . risking everything - including the fate of his wife and children, and the certainty of being branded a traitor to his country - because he knew it was the right thing to do."
As he elaborates, it's apparent that he identifies with Von Stauffenberg on some personal level that he can't quite verbalize. And it strikes me that what he's saying about the man's character is very similar to what he wrote in his eulogy for his friend Paul Newman in People magazine shortly after the actor's death.
When I point this out and the conversation shifts to Newman, something comes over Cruise: His manner relaxes, his face brightens and his eyes tear up. He says, "Paul lived with such dignity and left such a legacy - as an actor and a philanthropist - that words can't do justice to his accomplishment."
Growing up, Cruise suffered from dyslexia, felt abused in several ways and later told at least one interviewer his own father was a "bully." And it's clear that Newman ("He used to call me 'Cruiser' ") was a cherished father figure for him, to the point where he'd be happy to sit here all day and talk about him.
Stardom, he says, is an "unnatural" thing to happen to a human being. Most stars "haven't handled it well," and plenty "have been destroyed by it." But "think of Paul's life. He had a successful marriage, he did great work and he made the most of the responsibility his [superstar status] gave him to do good things for the world."
As his publicist enters the room to signal my time is up, Tom Cruise seems to have a small epiphany.
"Now that I think about it," he says with a smile, "this idea is probably one of the reasons that made me want to make 'Valkyrie.' Like Paul, Von Stauffenberg is a good role model. So I guess you could say that both men have been a gift to me."