'WHEN you meet Tom Cruise,' said an executive from another studio who claims to know the 32-year-old actor, 'he'll be everything you hoped for. He'll bound across the room, shake your hand firmly, fix you with those hazel eyes, and happily answer all your questions. You'll be impressed.' But - and there's always a 'but' when people talk about him - 'that's not the real Tom Cruise. He's a total control freak.' It seems that when people look for the dirt on the biggest star working in Hollywood today, they have to resort two specific charges. He's supposedly paranoid about being in control, and he's a Scientologist, the most famous follower of a religion started by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in the 60s (although John Travolta and Kirstie Alley are also members). Poor Tom Cruise; you almost feel sorry for him (until you remember he commands a minumum of US$8 million (HK$61.8 million) per picture). He's patently not a womaniser - absolutely adores his wife Nicole Kidman and adopted daughter Isabella - has never been linked with anything shady in his personal life and maintains a reputation for being charming. So it's down to religion, which, after all, he steadfastly keeps to himself, and this mystical control problem which seems to stem from the fact that he employs a tough publicist. It would seem like Cruise has bigger problems which arouse people's ire: he's never had a flop film (even Far and Away, perceived as being a low performer, grossed US$150 million worldwide); he's handsome, young and talented; he seems terribly happy. Couldn't you just hate him? And mightn't you just want to pin that down to Scientology and control rather than admit envy? But Tom Cruise could charm the birds from the trees. He's got a killer cold ('I never get sick,' he says, 'it has to be an allergy'), yet still looks great in mid-snuffle. He does bound enthusiastically into the room, boasting shoulder-length hair, a goatee beard and a drastically slimmed down physique. He lost 8.2 kilos for the role of Lestat De Lioncourt, the central character in Interview with the Vampire, and has only gained back 4.1kg since filming wrapped this spring. If he looks aquiline now, he must have seemed malnourished then. 'I was very thin,' he says, 'it was very unpleasant. 'It was important to get that gaunt look, but I didn't know how to do it, just dieting wasn't enough. So I started training for triathlons. To get that effect, I had to run every day before shooting. That was just an element of the preparation, though; it wasn't the most difficult part of getting this character together.' You could write a book on the difficulties of putting Interview with the Vampire together; and that's before the Neil Jordan-directed film even started shooting in New Orleans, Paris, San Francisco and Pinewood Studios in London late last year. Ann Rice's cult novel took almost 18 years to get to the screen, and she virtually sabotaged it herself. Cruise was offered the pivotal role of Lestat by Jordan and producer David Geffen without Rice's knowledge - she had imagined Daniel Day-Lewis, Jeremy Irons or Rutger Hauer as the irrepressible vampire - and when the author found out, she lashed out. Rice showed a talent for creating a controversy - first, when she protested the casting of 'clean-cut' Cruise, and again when she publicly retracted her statements after seeing the film in a full-page advert in the New York Times (which the author paid for). 'Tom Cruise is Lestat,' she enthused. 'I didn't think he could do it. And I was wrong.' In the event, Cruise didn't need Rice's support. The film took US$38.8 million in its first weekend in America - the biggest non-holiday opening of all time. 'I think it was more relief than feeling vindication because . . . well, I was overjoyed,' he says. Lestat De Lioncourt is the mainstay of a series of novels written by Rice which started with Interview with the Vampire; however, the devilish, egomaniac bloodsucker does not become a fully-fledged character until the second book, The Vampire Lestat, which was the only Rice novel Cruise had read before accepting the role. 'I wanted the part, yes, but the first time I came in contact with Interview was the screenplay, which had been sent to me by Neil (Jordan). 'There were certain things I wasn't happy with, and we worked on them, scene-by-scene, for more than five months before filming,' says Cruise. 'The references I had were in the books, but finding the humour - it couldn't be camp, it had to come from an emotional grounding. It wasn't easy. There were certain key sentences which acted as a guide, which we kept in the film.' Lestat is the pivot of the movie; an immortal, he entices an 18th century Louisiana plantation owner Louis De Pointe Du Lac (Brad Pitt) to become a vampire - to drink 'the dark gift'. The tortured Louis and blood-happy Lestat 'make' a six-year-old vampire child Claudia (Kirstin Dunst) to complete their damned family. Cruise's performance is exceptional, although the film sags slightly when he is temporarily retired and Louis and Claudia travel to the Theatre Des Vampires in Paris to encounter aged bloodsuckers Santiago (Stephen Rea) and Armand (Antonio Banderas). Interview is dedicated to River Phoenix, who had started work as the reporter who interviews Louis, but tragically died of a drug overdose last October (he was replaced by Christian Slater). You couldn't imagine the same thing happening to Cruise, although he must have faced all the same temptations as the young Phoenix. His first major role was in Taps in 1981 - he was a mere 19-years-old - and he broke through in Risky Business shortly after. 'I was very young when I started out, I really didn't know anything,' he says. Did he quickly learn about image? 'I don't really know how to control image now; movies are what they are. Image is a by-product, it's not something I built my career on. 'I've been up against it,' he says. 'Ann Rice is not the only one. It was the same with Rainman and Born on the Fourth of July and even Colour of Money. When I started out, it was teen idol; they said you're always going to be a teen idol and you're not going to do this. So it's always something that's been there and it's not anything I can control or even choose to take the time to try to control. 'I just have to do what I want to do. I'm fortunate enough to be in this position and I love what I do, I love acting, I love the unpredictability and the mystery of making movies and working with other actors and directors. I realise that people are going to say what they want to. What am I going to do, stamp my foot and say this isn't the way it is? It's not something I really have any control over.' Next up for Cruise is the feature-length version of Mission Impossible which he will produce for his own company CW Productions, with Brian De Palma directing. It starts rolling in March for a summer-1996 release. begging the question: if it's Cruise's own production, then why not direct himself? 'Well, if you can get De Palma to direct it, then why should you? But it's something I'd like to do at some point.' Cruise pauses, to finally verbalise something we all know to be true: 'The only person who can stop me in terms of what I want to achieve is myself at this point.'