Does Tom Cruise Always Play The Same Character?

Let's break down every Cruise role and see how similar all these guys really are.

Paramount

Tom Cruise probably hears the "He always plays the same part!" catcalls more than anyone else. It's a product of being one of the most visible and successful stars in the world. But is it true? 

Of course it's not true... well, not really. Cruise, a veteran of 43 films since 1981, should be proud of a resume that's seen him play a Vietnam vet, an Irish immigrant, a NASCAR driver, and a freaking samurai, among many others. He's been nominated for three Oscars (Born on the Fourth of July, Jerry Maguire, Magnolia). So why do people do that? Why does everyone hate on my boy, Mapother the Fourth? 

The rest of what follows will essentially investigate that question. And that's his real name, by the way, Thomas Cruise Mapother IV. He's a real person, dammit! He's got feelings!

Cruise has obviously played many assorted characters, but what's more interesting is how those characters are played. Cruise always has that same smile, whether he's getting the girl or saving the world, so it's about how the actor disappears into a role. Does he make you forget you're watching Tom Cruise, or does he bring too much brand recognition to every role? Part of the curse of being a gigantic movie star is you can't really have both. 

Cruise has also seen a definite shift in his career trajectory. In the '90s, he seemed to be on a Paul Newman-type road. He could play character roles like Lestat the ancient vampire, like Newman could. But he was born for the extreme popcorn fare like Mission: Impossible. Since turning 40 in 2002, Cruise has essentially been a blockbuster machine, working on big budget movies with a few smaller roles thrown in here and there. That's why everyone thinks he's the same guy these days. He's played the hero in 15 movies since 2002 (starting with Minority Report). Gone are the days of conflicted characters like Charlie Babbitt and Jerry Maguire. Cruise loves being the main attraction, loves the fireworks, and the price seems to be his credibility as an actor. 

Judge for yourself. Here are all of Tom Cruise's movies, his roles, and the fundamental ingredients that define each one. He's played the hero in almost every film he's made so it's pretty easy to agree that's the one character he always is. But there's a lot more to a character than a simple label and Cruise has shown he can play villains, foreigners, and athletes with equal measure. He's also really good at wearing sunglasses.

  • The Outsiders

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • Losin' It

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • Risky Business

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • All the Right Moves

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • Legend

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • Top Gun

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • The Color of Money

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • Cocktail

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • Rain Man

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • Born on the Fourth of July

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • Days of Thunder

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • A Few Good Men

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • The Firm

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • Interview with the Vampire

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • Mission: Impossible

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • Jerry Maguire

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • Eyes Wide Shut

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • Magnolia

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • Mission: Impossible II

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • Vanilla Sky

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • Minority Report

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • The Last Samurai

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • Collateral

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • War of the Worlds

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • Tropic Thunder

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • M:I - Ghost Protocol

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • Jack Reacher

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • Oblivion

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • Edge of Tomorrow

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • M:I - Rogue Nation

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • American Made

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?
  • M:I - Fallout

    Does Tom Cruise Always Play the Same Character?

The Tom Cruise Resume:

Endless Love (1981)

Genre: Drama
Type of role: Supporting
Hero? No
Character: Billy, a schoolyard chum of the main character. 

Taps (1981)

Genre: Drama 
Type of role: Supporting
Hero? No
Character: Cadet Captain David Shawn, an unhinged young man who loves the military too much.

The Outsiders (1983)

Genre: Drama
Type of role: Supporting
Hero? No
Character: Steve Randle, a fun-loving greaser who's loyal if not especially bright.

Losin' It (1983)

Genre: Comedy
Type of role: Lead
Hero? No
Character: Woody, a normal kid looking for sex.

All the Right Moves (1983)

Genre: Drama
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Stef Djordjevic, a rebellious, working-class kid with big ambitions but also a lack of maturity.

Risky Business (1983)

Genre: Drama/Comedy
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Joel Goodsen, an average high schooler who finds confidence running a brothel for his friends out of his own house.

Legend (1985)

Genre: Fantasy
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Jack, an adventurous man driven by romance.

Top Gun (1986)

Genre: Action/Drama
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Lt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, a cocky fighter pilot who must overcome his demons to be the best.

The Color of Money (1986)

Genre: Drama
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Vincent Lauria, a cocky young billiards player eager to become the best at what he does. 

Cocktail (1988)

Genre: Drama
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Brian Flanagan, a cocky bartender who lets his ego get in the way of what's important.

Rain Man (1988)

Genre: Drama
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Charlie Babbitt, an arrogant car dealer who learns what's important through his relationship with the brother he never knew.

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Genre: Drama
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Ron Kovic, a patriotic man who comes to loathe his ideals after he's injured in Vietnam and sees the truth of war.

Days of Thunder (1990)

Genre: Action/Drama
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Cole Trickle, a cocky upstart stock car driver who wants to do things his own way.

Far and Away (1992)

Genre: Drama
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Joseph Donnelly, an ambitious Irish immigrant looking to put his stamp on America.

A Few Good Men (1992)

Genre: Drama
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: 
Lt. Daniel Kaffee, a brilliant, but cocky J.A.G. lawyer who learns he's not as smart as he thinks.

The Firm (1993)

Genre: Drama
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Mitch McDeere, an ambitious young lawyer who gets in way over his head.

Interview with the Vampire (1994)

Genre: Drama
Type of role: Supporting
Hero? No
Character: Lestat de Lioncourt, a sadistic vampire who has nothing but contempt for humankind.

Mission: Impossible (1996)

Genre: Action
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Ethan Hunt, a brilliant secret agent whose moral compass guides him through a sea of corruption and intrigue.

Jerry Maguire (1996)

Genre: Drama/Comedy/Romance
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Jerry Maguire, a cocky sports agent who's humbled publicly and learns what's really important in life.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Genre: Drama/Mystery
Type of role: Lead
Hero? No
Character: Dr. Bill Harford, a successful man who strays from the nest into a world he doesn't belong.

Magnolia (1999)

Genre: Drama
Type of role: Supporting
Hero? No
Character: Frank T.J. Mackey, a cocky, misogynistic inspirational speaker hiding his past and the truth about himself.

Mission: Impossible II (2000)

Genre: Action/Adventure
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Ethan Hunt, a secret agent hellbent on saving everyone and everything.

Vanilla Sky (2001)

Genre: Drama
Type of role: Lead
Hero? No
Character: David Aames, a cocky, fun-loving magazine publisher who would rather live in a fantasy than face reality.

Minority Report (2002)

Genre: Sci-fi/Action
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: John Anderton, a PreCrime officer haunted by his past who battles insurmountable odds to do the right thing.

The Last Samurai (2003)

Genre: Drama/Action
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Nathan Algren, a drunken, disgraced Civil War soldier who finds redemption living with the enemy.

Collateral (2004)

Genre: Action/Drama
Type of role: Supporting
Hero? No
Character: Vincent, a ruthless hit man.

War of the Worlds (2005)

Genre: Action
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Ray Ferrier, an everyday guy and father trying to keep his family safe during an alien invasion.

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Genre: Action
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Ethan Hunt, a secret agent who will do anything to complete the mission at hand.

Lions for Lambs (2007)

Genre: Drama
Type of role: Supporting
Hero? No
Character: Senator Jasper Irving, an ambitious snake in the grass politician who puts his own goals before the country's.

Valkyrie (2008)

Genre: Action/Drama
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Claus von Stauffenberg, a Nazi turncoat who embarks on a plan to kill Hitler.

Tropic Thunder (2008)

Genre: Comedy
Type of role: Supporting
Hero? No
Character: Les Grossman, a blowhard Hollywood executive .

Knight and Day (2010)

Genre: Action
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Roy Miller, a cocky secret agent on the run from his former cohorts.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)

Genre: Action
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Ethan Hunt, a fearless secret agent.

Rock of Ages (2012)

Genre: Musical Comedy
Type of role: Supporting
Hero? No
Character: Stacee Jaxx, a hedonistic aging rock star who still believes in love.

Jack Reacher (2012)

Genre: Action
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Jack Reacher, an unkillable hero who sets out to discover the truth behind a murder spree.

Oblivion (2013)

Genre: Sci-fi/Action
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Jack Harper, a futuristic worker bee who learns his very existence is a lie.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Genre: Sci-fi/Action
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: William Cage, a normal guy who becomes a hero when he gains special powers while fighting an alien invasion.

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)

Genre: Action
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Ethan Hunt, the American James Bond.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)

Genre: Action
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Jack Reacher, a loner sucked back into the world he left when a girl who could be his daughter needs protection.

The Mummy (2017)

Genre: Action
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Nick Morton, a sergeant who unleashes a killer Mummy, gets cursed by it, and then has to defeat it.

American Made (2017)

Genre: Drama/Adventure
Type of role: Lead
Hero? No
Character: Barry Seal, a slacker pilot recruited by the CIA who makes side deals with cartels. It gets him killed.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)

Genre: Action
Type of role: Lead
Hero? Yes
Character: Ethan Hunt, back again and making HALO jumps out of airplanes while saving everyone.

The Stats:

Types of Cruise roles:

Lead roles: 33
Supporting roles: 9
Hero roles: 29
Villains: 1
Secret agents: 8 (including six Mission: Impossible movies)
Sports agents: 1

Film genres Cruise has appeared in:

Drama: 24
Action: 20
Sci-fi: 3
Comedy: 5
Musicals: 1

Times I used the word “cocky” to describe a Cruise character: 9

Editor's note: This article originally ran on June 8, 2014. It was updated July 31, 2018.

Senior Editor at Zimbio. I'll take Johnny Clay, the Rev. Harry Powell, and Annie Savoy. You can have the rest.
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