Mission: Impossible Stunt Coordinator on Tom Cruise’s Feats

Tom Cruise is famous for his tenacity when it comes to performing his own stunts, but now that he’s in his fifties he would be forgiven for taking things a little bit easier. But that just isn’t Cruise’s style. If anything, he’s pushing himself harder than ever. Take the opening scene of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. During the four minute, 10-second sequence, Cruise- as secret agent Ethan Hunt- hangs off the side of an Airbus A400M during its steep vertical takeoff. It’s a stunt more death-defying than anything audiences have seen before. The Credits talks to the fifth Mission Impossible’s stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood, who also worked with Cruise on Edge of Tomorrow, about pulling off arguably Cruise’s most impressive stunt to date.

Can you talk me through how the nail-biting opening scene came about?

Tom is always trying to create something different and something to wow the audiences. The hardest part of my job is to do something different.

You have to keep outdoing yourself.

Exactly, and the audience is getting more critical. It’s got to be real action, too. Because we could have done amazing things using green screen, but it’s not the way Tom works and it’s generally not the way I work, unless it’s to complement the action. The physical part of it has to be real. So, he wanted to do something with a plane and the guys managed to come up with Airbus and this new A400, which is still in the testing phases. We had to get through all the red tape on that and try and get it to work. Originally, we were sort of limited by what we could do on the plane and it wasn’t really working, so I went back to France and met with Airbus and tried to convince them that we weren’t going to damage their aircraft and that we weren’t going to give them a bad name. You can imagine the liability and everything with those companies, as well as the film company, but they were convinced, so we got the plane, and we did the stunt, and that was it.

Given Cruise’s reputation for pushing himself to his limits, what’s the conversation you have with him about how far he can go? Does he have to convince you to let him go further? How does that play out?

Tom always pushes us, but he’s a pilot, he’s very knowledgeable, he’s very technical, and he understands stunts and he understands the action. He’s not one of those guys that is driven by ego, or driven by the power that he has as Tom Cruise, or as a producer on the film. He does it from very much a character base and a personal one, he’s like, ‘Oh wait, I’m able to this and I’m able to that.’ And, if he’s not, he will train at it and I will start a training program to make sure he can do it. Like with the driving, and the riding, and stuff like that. So, he’s always open; it’s never ego driven, it always comes from a very technical place and a very safe place.

It was reported that Cruise wanted to do the Airbus stunt with only one harness on so that the fear that you see on his face is real- so part of challenging himself is so that you can get a real reaction on screen?

Exactly, that’s what he does. And some actors would hate that, even if they would [dangle from the side of a plane] as a stunt, which most wouldn’t, they’d want to be feeling that something’s got a hold of them every step of the way. He doesn’t, he trusts that what we have in place will save him, but he wants to be able to act it and bring the performance to the character. He feels that sometimes when you’re like a puppet, you just can’t bring the right performance to the character, and the audience will read that. He wants to feel it himself, he wants to be scared to death himself, so that that will translate to the audience. But he does trust myself and the team, and as a result it’s a good working relationship.

At 53, Cruise is hardly slowing down. Courtesy Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions

Is it true that one of the bigger risks was if a flock of birds came along while he was hanging off the side of the plane?

Yeah, totally. That or something breaking off, a fragment of something breaking off the plane, something breaking off the camera rig that we had, which was a custom camera rig, you know, a projectile travelling at speed. If it was a bird or a piece of metal or something, it could do serious damage or worse to somebody. Those were concerns of mine that were outside of the risk assessment that I could do.

There’s only so much you can control?

Exactly. And that’s the same risk assessment that Airbus would have or any aircraft would have with flying bird projectiles and things like that.

Cruise is obviously getting on a bit these days- does that have any effect on what he can do or does he just train harder to get there?

Yeah, he’s a machine, that guy, he really is. Most people have an entourage; Tom has a team. That’s the difference. His team is there for a reason, because he is in his fifties and he is still jumping around like a 19-year-old. So, he needs to eat right; he needs to train a certain amount of time; he needs to exercise and stretch a certain amount of time a day- otherwise your body can not physically do that stuff at that age. That’s what he does and his team are great, he’s got a fantastic team. He’s a well-oiled machine.

Apart from the big opening sequence, there were plenty of great car and motorbike chases and fight scenes. Do any of the other stunts stand out for you as particularly challenging or fun to do? Rebecca Ferguson [who plays the mysterious Ilsa] has some great fight scenes where she’s jumping around and wrapping her legs around people’s heads- was that fun to coordinate?

The fights are great. I work on people’s strengths and weaknesses rather than pick a style and say ‘you have to do this’. Rebecca, she has a very good flowy, dancey style- that’s her background- so, rather than try and teach her to be a martial artist or some sort of style that she’s going to have to be stunt doubled, or look awkward, or it’s not going to suit her, I went with her base and just developed it. And it paid off. And then with Tom’s character with Ethan, he’s done four other missions, so he already has a style that the audiences know. He can’t suddenly change it, so all we did was try and sculpt it, sculpt the groundwork on it, so his style is perfect. And it’s evolved slightly, that’s all.

What's your background? How did you get into the stunt coordinating game?

I started when I was 19, so twenty three odd years ago. I was a stuntman, a performer. I still perform stunts. I do a lot of driving in the Bond movies and all sorts of films. I still love performing. It’s where I come from and I’m very much a performer at heart. That was my background. I grew up in South Africa and we didn’t have the big shows and movies, where you go on set and you do one big stunt and then you go to your trailer. We go on a movie and you better be able to ride a horse, and drive a car, and ride a bike, and hold your breath, and swim underwater, because you’re going to have to double for everyone and do everything. They’re not going bring in a world champ for this and that. So, I grew up in an industry and a country where you had to be versatile or you didn’t work. And I think that’s been the biggest contributing factor in my career. When I went overseas and did the bigger films that versatility not only helped me as a performer but when I became a coordinator, I understood it a lot more when I would set up the action because I’d done it myself as a performer.

Do you have a favorite stunt that you’ve either been in or coordinated?

The plane sequence. That whole sequence was just magical. We went to this average hotel up in the north of England. We all stayed there together- Tom as well. We all sort of clubbed in and we went there for four days to get a job done and it was a really cool environment. Airbus was amazing. The military gave us the base and I’m standing on the wing talking to Tom while the plane taxis down the runway past air traffic control and they’re waving at us. Many times we would look at each other and he would go, ‘This is crazy’. And I’m like, ‘I know- we’re standing on top of an Airbus A400 taxiing down the runway in a military base and the air traffic control is waving at us.’ It was amazing.

How are you going to outdo yourself next time? It sounds like it’s getting more and more difficult?

It’s always difficult but there’s always something. Someone is always going to invent something in life and you’re going to go, 'Why didn’t I do that?' If I give up on that then I might as well just go and do a regular movie or TV show. The hard ones are when we’re challenged to reinvent it. And it helps when you’ve got the support of Tom. He’s going to put in the work to make it happen.


Alice Wasley

Alice Wasley is a freelance writer based in Sydney. When she’s not watching as many movies as she can get away with, she writes for a range of publications including GQ Australia and Marie Claire Australia. You can follow her on Instagram: @alicewasley or visit her website: www.alicewasley.com.