It’s one of the risks of being a celebrity: something controversial is going on in your personal life, but it’s right around when your new film premieres. So you are contractually obligated to be interviewed on television.
Tom Cruise isn’t the first star to find himself in this situation, as he’s making the press rounds for Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation several months after the Scientology documentary Going Clear accused the church (and by extension Cruise, its most famous member) of some horrific behaviour. The church denied everything, yet Cruise hasn’t been able to answer or dodge any questions about the film – because he hasn’t been asked about it at all.
It’s the extremely obvious elephant in the room and it’s impossible to overlook. Last week, The Wrap entertainment site in the US revealed that reporters are banned from asking Cruise about his dating life or Scientology.
“At the very least, Cruise is the highest-profile advocate for an institution that’s been repeatedly charged with human-rights abuses over the past few decades,” wrote one commentator, Sophie Gilbert of The Atlantic. “If [accounts] are accurate, he’s the second most-powerful person in Scientology, and he’s completely insulated from even the most irreverent television personalities in the country asking him questions about it.”
Gilbert points out the strangeness of The Daily Show host Jon Stewart, a master at calling out hypocrisy, interviewing Cruise last week and completely gliding over the topic, instead bantering about workout routines.
That puzzle, of course, is quickly solved by the fact that Comedy Central (which broadcasts The Daily Show) and Paramount Pictures (which produces Mission: Impossible) are both owned by Viacom. It’s the same reason why embattled NBC Universal stars want to stick to the NBC’s Today show – shared corporate overlords make these situations much easier.
However, as weird as it is to see Stewart (of all people) avoid tough questions, or Cruise pretend that the Scientology stories aren’t happening, none of this should be that shocking, as it’s common practice in every aspect of the entertainment industry.
When it comes to big stars, some publicists are militant in keeping a list of banned subjects you absolutely cannot ask about. There’s a tacit – and sometimes explicit – agreement between celebrities and infotainment programmes not to upset the delicate balance of everyone needing publicity and viewers.
It happens constantly: That’s why you see Ben Affleck at the Comic-Con comic convention mere days after his high-profile divorce, knowing that he wouldn’t have to do anything except talk about Batman v Superman.
Jennifer Lawrence appeared on the Late Show With David Letterman to promote the latest Hunger Games movie just a couple months after the celebrity nude photo hack that took over the internet – and the subject didn’t come up at all. 50 Cent stopped by Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show and never had to answer any questions about his recent $5m judgment for releasing a couple’s sex tape.
Sometimes, people try to rage against this behind-the-scenes system, but it generally backfires for everyone. Like when ex-MTV host Carson Daly exposed the comically strict restrictions that Britney Spears’s team has in place for every interview, and people called him out for being “unprofessional”. Or the time hip-hop star Chris Brown shattered a window in the Good Morning America dressing-room after the show’s anchor, Robin Roberts apparently broke an agreement and asked about his domestic violence against Rihanna.
“When I do shows or when I do interviews, we always send out... a talking points sheet,” Brown later explained, apologising for his outburst. “And if the network or whoever isn’t complying with what we want to do – so we can equally accomplish a goal – we usually kind of back out and wait until it’s a better situation.”
That “goal” (the star promoting a project and the news show getting viewers) is generally what comes first; and “a better situation” is code for “until the show backs down and agrees not to ask any tough questions”. So unless TV shows are willing to sacrifice a Cruise appearance, don’t count him breaking his silence anytime soon.
Gilbert sums it up succinctly: “Tom Cruise as an institution depends on a degree of complicity between the people who profit from his movies and the people who pay to see them. With everyone involved agreeing not to ask too many tough questions and ruin the fun.”
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