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Q&A – Knight and Day’s James Mangold on Insecure Action Directors, Tom Cruise’s Humor, and Cameron Diaz’s Stunts

Tom Cruise is an action-movie veteran. Cameron Diaz has starred in plenty of comedies. You expect them to collaborate on a summer thrill ride like Knight and Day. But James Mangold seems like an offbeat choice to pilot these megastars through the requisite blockbuster hoops. The Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma director called AMC FilmCritic to discuss Cruise’s comedic chops, Diaz’s exhausting stuntwork, and his adoration for Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

Q: So what did Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz bring to the table on this flick?

A: First of all, they are both incredibly gifted, incredibly handsome, and incredibly talented at both comedy and straight acting. When you have a movie like this, it exists in four boxes at the same time. It’s a suspense movie, a comedic adventure, it’s got action, and it’s a romance. So you really need actors who are capable of playing Twister. It really is that kind of a game.

Q: Cruise isn’t known as a comedic actor, and yet you tap into a side of him that is very charismatic and surprisingly funny.

A: It’s true. I don’t know if you can point to a film where he is
known for being funny in it. But I would say that he is really gifted at
finding the right comedic beats in films like Risky Business, Jerry
Maguire
, and Rain Man. Remember all of those Judge
Wapner sequences, where he’s just losing it with Dustin Hoffman? I do
think that when you call a movie a straight-up comedy, it makes it seem
like Tom is just going to be silly for two hours. That’s part of what
the term “comedy” has become in our modern age: “comedy” has come to
mean a movie populated by Saturday Night Live actors who are making an
elongated, big-budget skit. But when actors make a comedic picture,
it doesn’t mean that they have to be silly any more than Jack Lemmon or
Tony Curtis were silly all of the time in Some Like It Hot, or
Lemmon and Fred MacMurray and Shirley MacLaine were silly in The
Apartment
. Is Dustin Hoffman always silly in Tootsie?

Q: Was it difficult for Diaz to play a vulnerable damsel in distress?

A: I don’t think so. I mean, I think it’s true that the role can be
exhausting. Screaming your head off in panic for an entire day’s
production, and then doing it again the next day, is exhausting. When we were
shooting our highway sequences, that is a lot of physical work, and it
can be extremely draining.

Q: Knight and Day is the first film you’ve helmed
that relies heavily on action and comedic elements if it’s going to
work. Which terrified you more, the action or the
comedy?

A: I don’t think it was either one in isolation but the very same
thing that you allude to, which is trying to find a balance — and one that
also isn’t old-fashioned. Meaning, it would be easy to try and make a
movie that was like Charade or North by Northwest that
evoked an old-time sense of style. And it would be even easier,
probably, to make a modern, slam-bang, cut-every-one-second action
sequence. But I prefer taking the energies of those older pictures,
which I really love, and taking that sense of journey with real
characters who are in these actual predicaments. They are not just
trapped in a video game, lost in a chase.

Q: You seem to avoid CGI
whenever possible. How did you decide when, and when not, to use
computer effects?

A: For a lot of summer movies, the biggest and most important stars
are the special effects. I felt like our biggest and most important
stars were our stars. I didn’t want their performances to get
overshadowed by the pyrotechnics. I also knew that we were making a
romantic film, a movie that women might like to go and see because it
had comedic aspects and warmth. So I didn’t want to make a movie where
you got your head hit by a hammer for two hours. That strikes me as a
kind of insecure action. It’s like, “We’re so nervous because we have no
characters you care about, so we’re just going to keep it moving so
fast so that you feel like you are caught in a blender for 90 minutes.”
After a certain point, it just feels to me like diminishing returns on
that front.

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