Tom Cruise: His Most Varied Performances

Tom Cruise has been an A-list actor for many decades. From comedy to drama to action hero, his performances over the years have been quite varied, running the gamut in all categories and genres. Here are 15 types of roles we have enjoyed watching him in since he first stepped onto the scene.

The Teen Heartthrob – Risky Business

Tom Cruise: His Most Varied Performances
Image Courtesy of DFree and Shutterstock.

Cruise’s breakout role as Joel Goodsen took place in this 1983 teen comedy-drama movie featuring the satire of privileged suburban teens under the enormous pressure of perfection. Entertainment Weekly features it on the list of 50 Best High School movies. The scene of his character sliding across the floor, dancing in a pink shirt, socks, and white briefs with the song “Old Time Rock and Roll” playing is now iconic and serves as its legacy.

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The Standard “Action” Cruise – Days of Thunder (Among Many Others)

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Image Credit: Jerry Bruckheimer Films.

A mention of Cruise’s name typically elicits one response: the action Cruise, which has become his standard role. The kind of role where the hero spends the movie length showing off his skills on the race track, in the air, or jumping off buildings while battling an opposing force. And running. So. Much. Running.

Ultimately, the hero triumphs over the “enemy” or wins the contest. In Days of Thunder, race car driver Cole Trickle is forced to overcome several obstacles to win the Daytona 500. Additionally, Cruise would win the heart of co-star Nicole Kidman after meeting on set. After reviewing this movie, late film critic Roger Ebert coined the phrase “Tom Cruise Formula.”

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The Romantic – Jerry Maguire, Cocktail

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Image Credit: Sony Pictures.

Those eyes and dimples were never more on display in movies like Jerry Maguire and Cocktail. As Jerry Maguire, a hotshot sports agent who falls for his assistant and her son but still puts his career first.

In Cocktail, he plays a cocky bartender looking for a shortcut to get rich while falling for a woman he met on his island vacation, which is more than he bargained for. Of course, at the end of both, he gets the happy ending and the girl, despite missteps. It’s clear that the romantic side comes easy for him.

The Lunatic – Tropic Thunder

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Image Credit: Dreamworks SKG.

This 2008 flick had Cruise taking another supporting role in this Ben Stiller comedy. Nearly unrecognizable, he played profane, bad-tempered studio exec Les Grossman producing Tropic Thunder, as they parodied making a Vietnam war film. He garnered a second Supporting Actor nomination at the Golden Globes for this role.

The “Ethan Hunt”- Mission: Impossible Series

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Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

So how many times has Cruise played Ethan Hunt? To count, six completed films with two more in production—due out in 2023 and 2024. It began in 1996 when Cruise first took on the role in Mission: Impossible, and since then, the franchise has grown immensely. As Ethan Hunt has taken his many adventures, Cruise is famously known for doing his own stunts.

The Navy Fighter Pilot – Top Gun, Top Gun: Maverick

Image from Top Gun: Maverick
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

In what is arguably the role that rocketed him to stardom, there’s something irresistible about Cruise in that Navy uniform or flight jumpsuit as Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in Top Gun. Those dimples and that volleyball scene aside, Cruise played vulnerable as a cocky Naval aviator in the shadow of his late father and is rocked by the accident that kills his best friend. Thirty years later, he picked it up as if no time passed with ties to the original story and characters.

The Risqué Lover – Eyes Wide Shut

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Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Cruise took a turn in this erotic mystery psychological thriller by Stanley Kubrick alongside his real-life wife, Nicole Kidman, also playing his wife in the movie. He plays a repressed mild-mannered doctor exploring the sexual world, including an orgy with a secret society, and some scenes had to be altered to get an R rating in the U.S.

The Rock Star – Rock of Ages

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Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Not to be outdone is Cruise, the rock star, when he took on the role of Stacee Jaxx in the 80s rock musical based on the Broadway play. His character lives life under a fog of sex and drugs; while interacting with a music reporter, he displays his acting chops and vocal stylings.

The Vampire – Interview With a Vampire

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Image Credit: Warner Bros.

The image of Cruise as Vampire Lestat in the film adaptation of Anne Rice’s novel was definitively darker than any romantic, comedic, or action-turn by Cruise. His performance is more stoic and callous but fitting for playing a vampire living through various decades and time warps—not to mention drinking blood to survive. How many actors can say they have been a vampire on screen?

The Science Fiction Action Star – (Minority Report, Vanilla Sky)

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Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

In roles in science fiction flicks Minority Report and Vanilla Sky, Cruise proves he can take on the world of sci-fi. They also teamed Cruise with Steven Spielberg for two of their four movies together. And more running.

In Minority Report, he plays a cop turned fugitive, showing his vulnerability as he hides the doubt behind determination. Vanilla Sky, described as “an odd mixture of science fiction, romance and reality warp,” has Cruise playing a pompous executive whose life is torn apart after an accident.

The Athlete – All the Right Moves

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Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

In another early role of a very young Cruise (1981), he plays a small-town high school football star who clashes with a domineering coach, is desperate to leave his life behind, and needs football to do it. Critics found Cruise believable as an athlete, and it is really one of the only films having him portray an athlete (besides showing off volleyball moves in Top Gun and playing pool in The Color of Money.)

The Sympathetic/Reluctant Brother – Rain Man

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Image Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

Cruise plays a selfish, manipulative brother to Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance as Ray Babbit, an autistic savant—a now iconic role in pop culture. It shows off his acting depth in a heartwarming way. His character Charlies starts by pretending to get to know his long-lost brother under the guise of taking complete control of their father’s estate, which is left entirely to Ray. Inevitably, he learns that family bonds mean more than money.

The Anti-War Hero – Born on The Fourth of July

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Image Credit: Universal Studios.

As Ron Kovic, in this Oliver Stone adaptation of Kovic’s autobiography, it led him to his first Best Actor nomination for the Oscars and the Golden Globes (winning the globe) in 1990. It is also probably his greatest varied performance as he takes viewers on a riveting journey from a young wrestling star to a wounded war vet and, finally, a steadfast activist. It is arguably his most nuanced performance as a leading man.

The Promising Young Lawyer – The Firm (and A Few Good Men)

The Firm tomcruise
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

As Mitch McDeere in the film adaptation of John Grisham’s novel, Cruise plays a young law grad recruited at a prestigious firm secretly run by the mob. Although some critics didn’t like Cruise’s performance, others, including Grisham himself, felt he was convincing as the innocent young lawyer unaware of what his firm was up to.

In A Few Good Men, Cruise plays a bold Navy lawyer, defending two soldiers against a murder charge. The exchange with Jack Nicholson’s character who tells Cruise, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” is probably one of the best acting scenes by Cruise.

The Loathsome Drama Character – Magnolia

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Image Credit: New Line Cinema.

Misogynistic, loathsome, and troubled—three words that describe Frank T.J. Mackey, the self-help and motivational speaker played by Cruise in 1999’s Magnolia. Mackey was portrayed as objectifying women and preaching male empowerment. Behind these horrible traits, Cruise makes one feel his vulnerability and how broken the man really is.

Honorable Mention: Cruise the Advocate

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Image Credit: Shutterstock.

One could argue that one of Cruise’s most significant roles is himself—as one of Scientology’s most prominent advocates. Additionally, in May 2021, Cruise returned all three of his Golden Globes to the Hollywood Foreign Press due to their “controversies,” including a lack of diversity and financial benefits to some members.

Whether you love or hate him, Tom Cruise still reigns as one of Hollywood’s greatest actors, actively making movies since 1981. His varied roles have kept people headed to theatres for decades, often on the edge of their seats.

This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.


Kelley Dukat is a freelance writer, photographer, and event planner currently based in the United States. She has spent the last year as a nomad traveling and house-sitting. She holds a Journalism degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder and previously served as a trade magazine editor. Her favorites include dog-friendly travel, road trips, and nomad life. She is currently working on a memoir and a series of personal essays.