No one listens like Oprah. I have always found her incredibly fascinating, but none more so than when she sits opposite a celebrity for an interview. This isn’t to say that she’s not a great interviewer of ordinary everyday humans, but there’s something about how she manages to disarms celebrities who burn just as brightly as she does. How they feel comfortable opening up to her. It’s been a minute since she’s dropped some fresh interview game on us, which is why Sunday’s interview with Harry and Meghan felt so monumentous.
I’ve written recently about my fascination with Tom Cruise and hosted a discussion thread for subscribers, so when Oprah’s latest interview dominated the media landscape in the days after (and continues to do so) my mind wandered to Oprah’s interview with Cruise on June 23, 2005. I rewatched the interview to revisit my thoughts on Cruise and whether this viral moment (the first viral video on YouTube) was truly that shocking sixteen years later and whether I could glean any new insights into Oprah as an interviewer.
I stand by my analysis that Cruise is “a soulless cipher incredibly skilled at mimicking human emotion.” But as it turns out, that kind of behavior wasn’t just for public consumption. Part of me wants to think Cruise merely had a manic breakdown on national television, but it appears to be the person he actually is. He became a mega celebrity in his late 20s and then was seduced into Scientology where he was surely lauded even more than his fans possibly could. He was not just important in the scope of Hollywood, but he was important to an entire religious cult. Is it any wonder that this man is giddy at the thought of any type of human interaction? That he’s utterly bewildered by how humans interact with one another? What we witnessed in 2005 wasn’t Tom having a breakdown, but it was an alien attempting to forge a connection with the human beings he’d just discovered.
Before Cruise sets foot on Oprah’s stage, she is commanding an audience of screaming, gasping women in near ecstasy. If you weren’t a regular Oprah watcher in its heyday and you’re only seeing it through the eyes of this clip, then you would be forgiven for mistaking the energy in the room as Cruise fandom. No, it’s Oprah fandom. And since she’s left the talk show behind and begun the “respectable elder” portion of her career, what’s gone is the literal insanity that used to surround open. It was parodied constantly before Cruise’s interview. Here was a black woman born into poverty in rural Mississippi who had become the most famous woman in media, perhaps one of the biggest celebrities in the world, and every day you could tune in to see white women screaming in adulation at her presence. If it were the holiday season and she was handing out cars? You might think you were watching a human sacrifice in Midsommar.
The energy is palpable watching a poor quality video in 2021, so imagine the energy Cruise felt backstage watching an audience enraptured by a goddess and waiting for his arrival. He lapped it up. The audience shrieked every time he smiled, every time he mentioned Katie Holmes’ name, every time he went into his pre-rehearsed spiel. One of the oddest moments to me is when he describes how he met Holmes. I know that dating for celebrities is weird, but the idea that he was a celebrity who people often came to for career advice and help (I’d like to know who any of those people are and how helpful he was, I’m assuming Will Smith was one of them) so he decided to use that position to beckon Holmes. Only he wasn’t offering her advice, he was professing his love for her. The description of ordering a celebrity wife feels like something out of 90 Day Fiancé or an ad for Grindr.
What’s also interesting is that he can barely explain why he’s interested in Holmes. He says he’d seen her work before and she was so incredibly talented that he had to meet her. Listen, I love Katie as much as the next person but I doubt this man watching Dawson’s Creek. I suppose Pieces of April and The Gift have their fans and whoever knows what extraordinary acting even means to Cruise: Lauren Bacall once said, “the word 'great' stands for something. When you talk about a great actor, you're not talking about Tom Cruise.” I disagree, but then again, he’s certainly no Humphrey Bogart, so I’ll give her that.
At one point, a man in the audience asks Cruise a question and he’s stunned that there’s a man in the audience. The idea that a man would show up at Oprah’s show to see him talking about War of the Worlds is bewildering to him, which is odd because that’s the primary audience for his films. But because he’s there to primarily talk about his relationship with Holmes, he seems to have forgotten all about the movie he’s there to promote. He can’t even pretend to care about the other Tom Cruise who shows up — a man who shares the same name as him. It’s the kind of silly thing you’d see on TV all the time back then, but Cruise is more interested in running backstage and grabbing Holmes and forcing her to face the audience.
It wasn’t until after the interview that Cruise realized he’d made a misstep, but Oprah noticed it early on. When he first leaps on the couch she asks if he’s been sleeping. It’s an innocuous question, there are a variety of answers. But it’s telling that he doesn’t blame the film shoot or anything else that could add to his strenuous schedule, he discusses being up all night eating Garrett’s popcorn and Giordano’s pizza with Holmes. All excellent choices, btw, because as I’ve said before the best pizza is from Chicago. Not a joke, just a fact.
Returning to the point I made about Tom’s erratic behavior not just being a symptom of this audience… Oprah brings up how energetic he was the previous evening at her Legends Ball. In a light way, it’s like she’s telling him, “your crazy white ass embarrassed me in front of all these black folks.” But Tina Turner beckoned him to her table, so all was forgiven. She also mentions how he’s utterly puzzled by the idea of other humans. Like when they’re at dinner, he’ll be inquiring if the man pouring the water likes his job and how his day is going. “I love people, not not that much,” Oprah says.
If anything, the interview is much more revealing about who Oprah is now in this moment. Cruise became a punchline for a moment, but it didn’t affect his career in the long run. If anything, it made him retreat into comfortable action movies and stop trying to win Oscars. That’s where those Bacall comments must have stung, by the way. Cruise did at one point consider himself an ACTOR. After this, he was resigned to becoming a movie star.
Oprah on the other hand has retreated from the circus she used to ringlead. We associate Oprah now with presidential endorsements, soft sweaters, and residing on pergolas. Like the one lent to her by a Montecito neighbor (allegedly Rob Lowe’s home, according to Deux Moi). She has recognized that her interview skills are much stronger without a breathless studio audience. She has always commanded star power in her interviews, but as the idea of mega stars fades from the public consciousness, who is left for Oprah to even have sit downs with besides royalty? After all, isn’t she royalty herself? And would she subject royalty to her adoring fans? She herself is barely even associated with the crazed white women who used to lust for vehicles from her.
The most interesting thing about this interview to me is that I cannot imagine Oprah conducting anything like it ever again. She don’t love these hoes like that. I don’t think she ever did.