What Tom Cruise’s COVID-19 Rant Really Means

The incident on location for Mission: Impossible 7 is indicative of how film sets have become pressure cookers during the pandemic.

Tom Cruise wearing a mask
As a crew member on a film shoot said in September, “You need a baseline of anxiety to do this job well.” (Getty / The Atlantic)

In the 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder, Tom Cruise stole scenes by mocking Hollywood’s entitlement. As the cocksure, foulmouthed studio exec Les Grossman, Cruise put on a fat suit, wore heavy prosthetics, and peppered his lines with profanity. When a gang holding his cast hostage demands ransom, he doesn’t bother to listen to the specifics. Instead, he threatens the kidnappers by promising to “rain down an ungodly fucking firestorm.”

Cruise’s outburst on the U.K. set of Mission: Impossible 7, leaked online early this week, isn’t quite as colorful as Grossman’s in language, but it certainly matches its tone. Upon finding crew members violating COVID-19 social-distancing guidelines, Cruise became upset and yelled at the staffers, insisting they follow protocols or leave. “They’re back there in Hollywood making movies right now because of us … I’m on the phone with every fucking studio at night, insurance companies, producers, and they’re looking at us and using us to make their movies!” he shouted. “We are creating thousands of jobs, you motherfuckers.”

Given the recent surges in coronavirus cases, the dire state of the film industry, and the fact that filming for Mission: Impossible 7 shut down once already, in October, after 12 crew members tested positive for the virus, it’s easy to see why Cruise would be riled up. It’s even easier to cheer him on: He’s expressing the inner thoughts of many Americans who have tried to persuade people flouting coronavirus precautions to protect themselves and others. Cruise is a familiar face, a familiar voice; he’s the megastar who’s embodied heroes on-screen for decades, the guy entrusted with reassuring America after a crisis. So it’s cathartic, even comforting, to hear him assert that safety is paramount.

Yet Cruise’s outburst is also indicative of how film sets have become pressure cookers during the pandemic. Mounting a production that follows health and safety guidelines could add about $1 million to the average movie shoot, making it even more important that the process go smoothly to be worth the cost. Industry unions took four months to reach an agreement over sick leave and quarantine pay—and still the guidelines can be hard to navigate and even harder to fulfill, with the necessity of frequent testing, stocks of personal protective equipment, and a complex zone-based system to limit contact. Plus, projects that result in positive cases have to pause production. As a crew member on a film shoot told Variety in September, “You need a baseline of anxiety to do this job well.”

These hurdles and high stakes have left the industry’s fate in the hands of Hollywood’s most powerful players—those people and studios that can afford the costs of such legal and logistical headaches. According to The Sun, the British tabloid that leaked the audio, Cruise paid $676,000 for a cruise ship that would allow the cast and crew to isolate. The über-producer Tyler Perry turned his Atlanta-based studios into a compound to quarantine his casts and crews, flying people in from various parts of the country on private planes. Universal spent $6 million to $8 million on safety protocols to film the next Jurassic World sequel, commissioning a private medical facility to handle tests, and quarantining the entire cast and crew for months. In the short term, this means more projects in the pipeline to keep Tinseltown busy. In the long term, though, the shift only widens Hollywood’s power imbalance, creating an industry dependent on the wealthiest studios and celebrities.

Cruise has clearly been frustrated by the turmoil of 2020, and he has good reason to be. But his angry tirade harms more than it heals, and praising his remarks, as many people have on social media, overlooks how little control crew members have amid the pandemic. Their need for employment makes them vulnerable to the industry’s deep-rooted problem of workplace abuse, desperate to meet the demands of movie stars and producers who can justify their risky business decisions as efforts to save the industry. Cruise can afford to position himself as Hollywood’s hero—to yell without consequence, to keep aiming for that “gold standard”—even if it means further tension and stress for his staffers. Behind-the-scenes workers don’t have that luxury. All they can do—as five crew members have reportedly done on the set of Mission: Impossible 7 after a second rant from the star—is quit.

In images released of Cruise on set in Europe, he’s masked. The mask he wears in many pictures, however, appears to use valves—the kind the CDC dissuades people from using, because the valves release particles from the wearer, endangering those around him. Hollywood’s approach to the pandemic—the reams of protocols, the ballooning budgets—has the same problem: protecting only a few while putting on a show of safety for the rest.