A LINE FROM TOM CRUISE'S NEW MOVIE, COLLATERAL? NOPE. IT'S A QUOTE FROM ONE OF OUR HARDEST-TO-GET INTERVIEWS EVER, IN WHICH THE HOLLYWOOD HEAVYWEIGHT REVEALS HE REALLY IS JUST A REGULAR GUY.


"It was at night, and I remember driving," Tom Cruise says of his first day in Los Angeles.

He'd carried visions of the legendary coast as he bounced with his family across America, from Syracuse to Louisville and beyond. By 14, he had attended 15 different schools, always the new kid. Desperate to find his place, he tried every sport and extracurricular activity. After he hurt his knee wrestling, someone suggested acting, and the moment Cruise stepped on stage, in a high school production of Guys and Dolls, he knew he'd found his home. At 18, he moved to New York, where he lived on hot dogs and worked multiple jobs to support evening acting classes. When the casting calls came, the kid was ready, and in 1981 he turned what was originally a one-line part in the teenage military school movie Taps into a breakout role that sent him straight to L.A., where his buddy Sean Penn picked him up at the airport.

"We drove down to the beach, and then we went and parked outside of Nicholson's house," Cruise remembers. "I think we even looked for Brando's house. And we went out to Hoffman's house out at the beach. We sat outside for quite a while, and we said, 'Maybe we should just go knock on the door.' We didn't. But I remember that night."

Now the kid is the most famous actor in the world - a three-time Oscar nominee - debuting his 27th film, Collateral, this month at the ripe old age of 42.

"I have Tom Cruise calling for you," says the assistant. And then the voice, as familiar as family, booms across the telephone line.

"Hey, man, how you doing?" he asks.

"So, we're going to talk about L.A.," I say, getting straight to the central question. Because where else could a peripatetic movie star like Tom Cruise call home? His last four films alone have flung him to locations around the globe, from Tokyo (The Last Samurai) to Virginia (Minority Report) to Sydney (Mission: Impossible 2) to Manhattan (Vanilla Sky), but this month he's back in the City of Angels, in both his new movie and the car from which he's calling me, surely with the top down and sunglasses on.

"So, do you consider Los Angeles home?" I ask him.

"Well, you know, it's interesting, because I've traveled so much," he says. "Where my family is, is where my home is. Even now, I spend a lot of time out on locations. But L.A. is a part of my home. I have my offices here. I feel comfortable here. I remember that night, when I arrived with Sean Penn, I felt comfortable here."

Cruise has had many homes in L.A., from bachelor apartments to married mansions. But one stands out above all others: the Hotel Bel-Air, a sanctuary on 12 wooded acres in the fabled hamlet of Bel-Air. "A few times I've lived at the Bel-Air," says Cruise. "I've stayed there a lot over the years. It's a beautiful hotel. Kind of tucked away, in a very nice area. I always feel very comfortable there. I like walking around in that area. Sometimes, when I've come home from the editing room, I like to go for a walk, clear my head. That whole area, I'll just go walking around and look at the houses. It's very beautiful."

"Where else do you hang out when you're in town?" I ask.

"I like going to the mountains for the bike riding," he answers. "I like going to the beach. We'll go to Santa Monica Beach and rollerblade all the way past the pier and back, and go play volleyball. We go hiking or mountain biking. There are just trails all over that we take. That's the great thing about California: You can go mountain biking, and then you can go rollerblading at the beach."

"You're talking about the sidewalk that runs all along the beaches, from Venice through Santa Monica, right?"

"Yeah. The thing I like about it is … [he pauses, searching for the right words], I like talking to people. You meet people there from all walks of life. Down there, I rarely meet someone who was born and raised in California."

It's a difficult scene to imagine: Tom Cruise amid the great unwashed masses on the public beaches of Los Angeles.

"And are people surprised to see you on the beach, rollerblading?"

"Sometimes," he says.