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Looking sharp in fighter role.

Hollywood heart-throb Tom Cruise is back on the big screen from today in the blockbuster The Last Samurai

Tom Cruise almost lost his head, quite literally, while making his epic action-adventure The Last Samurai - but the superstar is still determined to carry on doing his own stunts.

Being a $20m-a-role A-list star means you can easily have others take the on-set physical risks for you. In fact, nervous studio bosses encourage it.

But Cruise, 41, likes the adrenaline rush of doing his own stunts, and on The Last Samurai he almost pushed his luck too far.

The movie is set in the 1870s. Cruise plays a haunted American Civil War veteran recruited by the Emperor of Japan to help put down a rebellion by samurai warriors, but his conflicted loyalties are tested as he's drawn into the samurai way.

The near-tragic accident happened when an animatronic horse apparently malfunctioned and didn't pull the actor's head back as co-star Hiroyuki Sanada swung his sword. Sanada's stopped his blade an inch from Cruise's neck as the film crew screamed.

The Japanese swordsman was reportedly stunned by how close he came to hitting Cruise.

"You know I was so scared," he said. "I was drenched in sweat, but Tom never blinked."

Doubtless a few studio executives still wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat thinking about the incident.

However, Cruise has dismissed it as part of the job and said he trusted in Sanada's swordsmanship.

He also calmly points out that the aluminium swords weren't razor-sharp.

However he adds: "They could still cut your finger off. I was more concerned about not hurting someone else."

Sword fighting trainer Nick Powell (who trained Russell Crowe for Gladiator) put Cruise through his paces as he made the movie - and the hard physical exertion had a noticeable impact on the actor's physique.

"Using those swords really builds up your forearms," Cruise says. "I knew something was working when I tried putting on one of my suits and couldn't get my arm in the sleeve."

Doing his own stunts and sword fighting was only part of Cruise's dedication to the epic project, filmed in New Zealand and Japan and directed by Ed Zwick.

Finding backing to make this sprawling adventure took Zwick almost a decade, and it wasn't until Cruise signed up for the project that he secured the $100m-plus budget.

Cruise immersed himself in the ancient samurai code, which espoused absolute loyalty and honour.

"I wouldn't have made this without exploring the samurai code. The purity of that is stronger than any battle scene we could have dreamed up," he maintains. Cruise, an avowed Scientologist, admits he is fascinated with Japanese culture and intensely researched the world of the samurais. He also wanted to look the part, and thus grew his hair long, beefed himself up and even managed to learn some passable Japanese.

"If I do something it's going to be all the way. But this was different in that it took me almost a year to be able to make this picture physically," he says. "I honestly didn't know if I could find that kind of physical elegance and movement the samurai have."

In fact, he credits his often-criticised religion for giving him the inner peace he projects in the film, which is about deeply religious warriors.

"It's well known that I'm a Scientologist and that has helped me to find the inner peace in my life and has given me great stability and the tools that I use," he says.

With all the attention his private life - particularly his relationship with Penelope Cruz - attracts, the all-American star loved going back to a different time and place with the film.

"It's authentic, even thought the story is fiction. The time in which it takes place and the humanity of the picture is real.

"It's an adventure but it has content," Cruise adds.

"One of the great things about being an actor is I get to go to all these places and I get to learn about the people and that's the most enjoyable thing for me."

Having backed out of doing the Civil War drama Cold Mountain (which starred his ex-wife Nicole Kidman and Jude Law) to do The Last Samurai, Cruise is currently keeping up the physical action by playing a contract killer who goes on a killing spree in a forthcoming thriller by Michael Mann.

There are also plans for a Mission Impossible III. "The Mission Impossible films are always tough to do but that's the challenge of it," says Cruise. "If I don't feel I can do it then I won't. I won't do a three if it's not right."
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jan 9, 2004
Words:784
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