When Tom Cruise makes his entrance in Rock of Ages, disentangling himself from a ménage à quatre in a drunken stupor—and he’s wearing leather chaps (butt exposed), black fingernail polish, and a codpiece embellished with an enormous gargoyle, two pistol tattoos straddling his navel and aimed directly at his crotch—we know we’re not in Mission: Impossible anymore, Dorothy.
Cruise gives a phenomenal performance as an Axl Rose-meets-Jim Morrison superstar named Stacee Jaxx, oozing sex, Wild Turkey, and bacchanalia from every pore. Cruise spent months perfecting his vocal chops, but it’s his acting that electrifies. His boozy, badass performance is a mash-up of world-weariness and red-eyed intensity, marinated in decades of dissolute living. He’s Dionysus in furs.
Based on the Tony-nominated Broadway musical, Rock of Ages is the story of an aspiring singer (Julianne Hough) and her musician boyfriend (Mexican singer/cutie Diego Boneta) working at the fictional Bourbon Room (think Johnny Depp’s Viper Room-meets-Whisky a Go Go) on LA’s Sunset Strip in 1987. The soundtrack is a greatest hits compendium of ’80s metal and rock, including Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, Guns ‘N Roses, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Foreigner, and Journey, and director Adam Shankman, who also helmed Hairspray, brings a touch of camp.
The idea of having Shankman direct the musical came to Cruise after being a captive audience to daughter Suri’s repeated viewings of the Hairspray DVD. Hough told us that Suri and Katie Holmes visited the Rock of Ages set, but “unfortunately, not when I was there. They came quite often, actually.”
Of acting with Cruise, Hough said, “His work ethic and discipline is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I take pride in working very hard, but he takes it to a whole other level! He’s brilliant at what he does. The reason why he’s the biggest movie star today is because he not only is super-talented but he’s also able to lose himself and be vulnerable in creating his characters.”
His performance is daring, even audacious, for any worldwide movie star not named Johnny Depp. Hough told us that one of their steamy scenes was edited out. “I was bummed that the actual performance was cut. People would have been even more blown away. He got to dance in the scene and was doing more pole dancing than I was! And he was amazing at it. People will probably see it on the DVD.”
Hough, who grew up in a suburb of Salt Lake City, moved from Utah by herself at age 18. “I told my Dad I had $5,000; I only had $2,000. I lived with a bunch of beautiful models who were paid like ten grand for one job every week! I was miserable and could not pay rent and worked my butt off every single day. Eventually it all worked out in the end.” Hough notes that she and her character, Sherrie, are alike in that way: “[We're] both dreamers and we both had ambitions to go to Hollywood. We had some struggles and conflicts along the way but the thing we share is that we believed in ourselves and pushed through.”
All four of Hough’s grandparents were dancers, and her parents met on a college ballroom dancing team. With years of formal dance training and having won numerous ballroom and Latin dance awards, Hough was a natural for Dancing with the Stars. She won the fourth season with her partner, eight-time Olympic medalist speed skater, Apolo Ohno.
“There’s nothing like your first!” Hough said about her win with Ohno. “We got to experience the same things. He’s amazing. I love hard-working people, but when he’s relaxed, he likes to hang out and play games and talk about food as well. We’re big foodies!” They hung out after rehearsals: “While we were doing the show, it was tough, but now we’re older and we’ll text or go to a dinner here and there. He’s a really great guy.”
Hough wrapped her last season with the show in 2009, after releasing a self-titled country album the previous year. Since Hough is a country singer—and she was born in 1988—we wondered how familiar she was with the metal songs she performs in Rock of Ages. “I didn’t realize I knew as many 80s songs as I did when I started research, because they’re timeless classics. I’d sing karaoke or my dad and I were usually the only ones awake on road trips in our car, jamming out to these songs.”
“I wish I could sound like” Benatar, Jett, or Chrissie Hynde, Housy says, but her character was not based on those rock goddesses. “Sherrie was a unique creation between a Broadway singer and a rock star,” she explained. “I watched Sunset Strip documentaries, which showed how wild and crazy the rock stars and fans were. The consequences weren’t as big back then, so people just let loose more and didn’t think about consequences as much as we do today. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing.”
In 2010, Hough made the leap to the big screen in Burlesque, which starred Cher. Hough was awestruck. “Cher is a legend because, one, she’s amazing at what she does and, two, because she’s so down to earth and everybody wants to her friend. And you become her friend, you know? She’s pretty fantastic.”
With back-to-back lead roles in 2011’s Footloose and now Rock of Ages, Hough doesn’t have much free time these days. The triple-threat singer, dancer, and actress met her match in American Idol host/radio DJ/Kardashians executive producer Ryan Seacrest, whom she’s been dating since 2010. When they have down time, Hough said, “We play ping pong, we cook, and we play with our dogs, who are like our kids.”
She’s about to get even busier: Hough is set to start shooting Safe Haven, the Nicholas Sparks adaptation, with Salmon Fishing in the Yemen director Lasse Hallström, opposite Josh Duhamel. “And I just finished a movie that Diablo Cody wrote and directed with Russell Brand, Octavia Spencer and Holly Hunter. It’s untitled but it was originally called Lamb of God. It’s going to go to film festivals this year,” Hough explained.
The untitled film will be Cody’s directorial debut. Hough, who was raised as a Mormon, plays a character who has a crisis of faith after a plane crash and goes to Vegas to act out. Interestingly, as in Rock of Ages, it is Russell Brand who helps Hough find herself.
Rock of Ages opens today.