During the media blitz for Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation over the past two weeks, Tom Cruise has seemingly been everywhere. In London, he participated in a live interview at the British Film Institute with the presenter Alex Zane, the movie’s director, Christopher McQuarrie, and a handful of his fellow cast members. In New York, he faced off with Jimmy Fallon in a lip-sync battle on The Tonight Show and attended the Monday night premiere in Times Square. And, on Tuesday afternoon, the actor recorded an appearance on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, where he discussed his exercise regimen, the importance of a healthy diet, and how he still has all his own hair at 53.
Stewart, who during his career has won two Peabody Awards for public service and the Orwell Award for “distinguished contribution to honesty and clarity in public language,” represented the most challenging interviewer Cruise has faced on the tour, during a challenging year for the actor. In April, HBO broadcast Alex Gibney’s documentary Going Clear, a film based on the book of the same title by Lawrence Wright exploring the Church of Scientology, of which Cruise is a high-profile member. The movie alleges, among other things, that the actor personally profited from slave labor (church members who were paid 40 cents an hour to outfit the star’s airplane hangar and motorcycle), and that his former girlfriend, the actress Nazanin Boniadi, was punished by the Church by being forced to do menial work after telling a friend about her relationship troubles with Cruise. For Cruise “not to address the allegations of abuse,” Gibney said in January, “seems to me palpably irresponsible.” But in The Daily Show interview, as with all of Cruise’s other appearances, Scientology wasn’t mentioned.
Cruise has still made no official response to Going Clear, which was recently nominated for seven Emmy Awards. During the media tour for Rogue Nation, not a single interviewer has asked him a question that in any way deviates from the approved topics regarding the film. At the BFI event, questions were selected from thousands submitted via a Twitter hashtag, #AskMissionImpossible, and carefully curated. On The Tonight Show, Cruise mimed along to The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” and Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” before being tasked by Fallon to take part in an impromptu duet of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” in which the pair serenaded an audience member. On The Daily Show, Stewart simply asked Cruise how many hours a day he should put in at the gym to achieve action-hero level fitness, and expressed his admiration for Cruise’s movies. “Edge of Tomorrow, that’s such a good film,” he said. “I’ve seen that film like 10 times. It’s my son’s favorite.”
Most promotional media tours are tightly regimented—actors typically prefer to discuss their current projects over past works, and dislike being asked personal questions. But the release of Rogue Nation represents the first time Cruise has granted interviews or made public appearances since the premiere of Going Clear at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The allegations about Scientology in the movie are numerous, but the most serious of them charge that the church operates a prison camp of sorts called the Rehabilitation Project Force, keeps blackmail files based on auditing records from its high-profile congregants, and isolates members from their friends and family, often forcing them to “disconnect” from people who disapprove of the Church or leave it. (The organization has repeatedly denied that any of this is true.)
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. If Wright and Gibney’s 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.
Part of the problem is the byzantine structure of the entertainment industry. The Daily Show is broadcast on Comedy Central, which is owned by Viacom. Viacom also owns Paramount Pictures, the studio behind the Mission Impossible franchise. In 2005, Comedy Central felt Paramount’s wrath after airing an episode of South Park titled “Trapped in the Closet,” which parodied Cruise and Scientology. The episode was scheduled to air again in 2006, but was reportedly yanked after Cruise threatened to pull out of the publicity tour for Mission Impossible III (Cruise’s representative denied he did any such thing). Coincidentally, the only Daily Show mention of Scientology that can be found online is from 2005, when then-correspondent Stephen Colbert briefly detailed its rumored theology in a skit referring to Cruise’s appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. (Colbert went on to criticize the Church several times on The Colbert Report, which was also broadcast on Comedy Central, and even interviewed Lawrence Wright about Going Clear in 2013.)
The question for Jon Stewart, then, is why bother giving a huge movie star a meaningless six-minute spot to promote a movie at all? Stewart leaves The Daily Show next week after 16 years hosting the show, during which time he’s been lauded for his incisive interviews with everyone from President Obama to Pervez Musharraf to Angelina Jolie. In 2008, The New York Times asked if he was the most trusted man in America, writing that The Daily Show offers insight that often eludes mainstream news, “speaking truth to power in blunt, sometimes profane language.” In his interviews over the years, Stewart has lambasted Senator John McCain for agreeing to speak at Liberty University, criticized Al Gore for selling his television station to a network funded by oil money, and accused Judith Miller of deliberately favoring the Bush administration in her reporting leading up to the Iraq War. Why devote precious time in one of his final episodes to helping a controversial actor promote a movie that doesn’t need the boost?
A representative for The Daily Show hasn’t responded to questions about whether Stewart was limited in the subjects he was allowed to address regarding the Cruise interview. But the interview by itself is telling. In May, USA Today asked if Going Clear might have the potential to “ruin Tom Cruise’s summer.” Apparently not: 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. The fact that reporters and television entertainers also buy into this deal is disappointing, even if it isn’t ultimately so surprising.