Acting is the art of disappearing into a role, but if you’re a movie star, sometimes no amount of camouflage can do the job. In successive period thrillers based on true stories, Tom Cruise and Daniel Craig star as foreign heroes fighting Nazis during the Second World War. In Valkyrie, Cruise plays a high-ranking German officer who masterminds a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. Now in Defiance, Daniel Craig plays Tuvia Bielski, a Belarusian who rescued 1,200 Jews from the Holocaust by sheltering them in the forests of Nazi-occupied Poland. What a difference. Cruise, who retains his American accent, is indelibly Tom Cruise, even with an eye patch. His stardom is a tattoo that won’t wash off. But Craig, who’s an actor first and a movie star second, sheds his James Bond skin with ease. Most of the time he speaks English with a seamless east European accent (when his character is supposed to be speaking Yiddish), slipping into Russian, translated in subtitles, when the occasion demands.
Edward Zwick, who directed Craig in Defiance, has also worked with Cruise. Although he made his name as co-creator of TV’s Thirtysomething, Zwick has specialized in casting charismatic men in action spectacles—Denzel Washington (Glory), Brad Pitt (Legends of the Fall), Leonardo DiCaprio (Blood Diamond) and Cruise (The Last Samurai). And he’s come to appreciate the difference between an actor who lets you forget he’s a star and one who doesn’t. Interviewed in Toronto recently, he was tactful about Cruise, but it was easy to read between the lines:
“When you’ve been a movie star for 25 years,” he said, “there grows around you a certain protective nucleus. And that’s not necessarily of your own devising. The studio does it, the press does it, the production does it. The fact of Tom Cruise is, when he’s there to work, he’s every bit as supple and willing as any other actor, but there’s a lot that surrounds it, in the before and the after, and that makes a difference.” Translation: Cruise comes onto the set with a freight train of Hollywood baggage.
Craig is another story. His stardom is more recent, and it resides in a specific character, 007. “I met Daniel before he became James Bond,” says Zwick. “And I’d been an admirer of his before that. He’s possessed of two things that were often used to describe Tuvia. He’s at once a man of action and someone of some thoughtfulness. I would add one more. With his background as an ensemble actor, trained in the theatre, knocking around the West End, he had a real understanding of being part of an ensemble and not putting himself out in front of the movie, which allowed other people in the cast to shine.”
Zwick shot Defiance in the forests of Lithuania, not far from where the real events took place. Shooting mostly outdoors in sub-zero temperatures, this was a far cry from a cushy Hollywood set. “It was cold and wet and nasty,” says the director, adding that Craig “insisted he not be treated specially in any way. That filtered down, and marbled into the rest of the group. He led by example.” Craig worked for a fraction of his usual fee, as did everyone else, making a sacrifice for a story that needed to be told. Defiance reveals a side of the Holocaust that’s virtually untouched, says Zwick. “There has been very little attention paid to the resistance. And there was resistance everywhere.” The movie was made for just US$30 million, a pittance for a period epic with a major star. The budget was cobbled together from five different European countries before a Hollywood distributor came on board. “That’s the way the more interesting movies are going to have to get made,” says Zwick, “now that the major studios in America are interested only in superheroes or sequels.”
If superhero movies are made for the box office, a cynic might say Holocaust movies are made for awards. Yet Defiance has been shut out of the major awards so far, perhaps because its abiding sense of mission is too onerous. The movie tells a fascinating story, and Craig is a forceful presence. But he’s submerged in a drama that’s so stoically sombre it becomes a bit of an ordeal. With Tuvia and his angry brother (Liev Schreiber) cast as rivals in a dire showdown between pacifism and vengeance, nuances of character suffer. As Tuvia gives a heroic speech on a white horse, or wades into battle, Zwick reverts to the romantic style of his earlier epics in brief, jarring bursts. It’s as if he has escaped the baggage of stardom only to be weighed down by the burden of history.