Published May 23, 1992|Updated Oct. 11, 2005

When Ron Howard cast Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in his lavish 19th-century romance, Far and Away, he broke the First Commandment of Filmmaking:

Never, ever, hire spouses to work on the same project.

"One of the roughest times in my own marriage was when my wife and I tried to write a script together," director Howard recounts. "It took a huge toll because we always wound up talking about the project, sorting out little disagreements and taking challenges personally."

But when Kidman and Cruise arrived in Ireland last May, they had a healthy 5-month-old newlywed glow.

"Being a kind of hopeless romantic, I got a big bang out of their relationship," Howard admits. "There was a fair amount of silliness on the set; playing around between takes, kissing, trips to the Winnebago."

Today, Howard says, Cruise and Kidman's honeymoon spirit contributed to the sense of yearning their characters were supposed to project in his sprawling, $60-million immigrant epic, filmed along Ireland's emerald southwestern coast and the dusty plains of Montana.

Far and Away, which opened Friday, is both a coming-of-age adventure and a romance. It's a story of a wealthy Irish Protestant lass who runs away to America with a poor Catholic tenant farmer as her reluctant traveling companion. The couple pose as brother and sister while struggling to raise enough cash in Boston to migrate west to stake a claim in the Oklahoma territories. (Montana doubles for Oklahoma.)

The movie was inspired partly by three of Howard's great-grandfathers who rode in the 1893 Cherokee Strip Land Race. None won any land.

Like Howard, Cruise and Kidman also boast Irish ancestry, and that contributed to their interest in screenwriter Bob Dolman's tale encompassing the Irish peasant uprisings, political corruption in industrialized America and the lawlessness of the Old West.

When an outwardly confident, forever smiling Cruise arrives at the Four Seasons hotel for a recent interview, he considers what drew him to Far and Away and says, "The story was enchanting. My character had a lot of dimensions I had never before explored."

Cruise passes on coffee for a bottle of Canadian Glacier spring water. Then, settling into an overstuffed couch, he says Far and Away demanded he master horseback riding and bare-knuckle boxing, an Irish accent and the balance of comedy and drama in intimate situations. He says it was more challenging than it looks.

Cruise started in movies a decade ago with a beefcake cameo in Endless Love. He has spent the rest of his career redefining and honing his image. Hindered, as much as helped, by chiseled features, Cruise consistently pushes the envelope.

As the bitter veteran in a wheelchair in Born on the Fourth of July, the rube pool hustler of The Color of Money, the hot-tempered race car driver in Days of Thunder and the cocky jet fighter pilot of Top Gun, Cruise has strived to live roles instead of play them. For $10- to $12-million a picture, he reinvents himself, much like mentors Dustin Hoffman and Paul Newman.

He spent weeks with Howard and screenwriter Dolman, reworking Far and Away so that his illiterate farmer, Joseph Donelly, had more texture and was better suited to match the independent spirit of Kidman's Shannon Christie.

He mastered the Irish brogue so it wouldn't falter like Kevin Costner's English-by-way-of-Malibu accent in Robin Hood: The Prince of Thieves. He drank Guinness in County Kerry pubs so he could mimic the locals' posture.

"I am really meticulous. I want to be absolutely accurate. This isn't your old Lucky Charms accent," says Cruise, wearing buckskin boots, black jeans and a white T-shirt under an embroidered black shirt.

Cruise, who turns 30 on the third of July, credits Kidman with prodding him to study with a dialogue coach five weeks before rehearsals began. Kidman is Australian, so American dialects were a hurdle for her on the gangster opus Billy Bathgate and the rubber burner Days of Thunder. It was during the filming of 1990's Days of Thunder that she met Cruise, who would soon divorce actress Mimi Rogers.

"I advised him if we can just work our asses off prior, by the time it comes to filming (the accent's) second nature, and we don't even think about it," says Kidman, 24, with characteristic candidness.

Kidman and Cruise complement one another. They are yin and yang. He's serious, focused, cautious. She's more outspoken and playful, yet equally determined to be judged on her ability.

Howard, who lives in Connecticut, is so removed from the Hollywood gossip mill that he didn't know Cruise and Kidman were an item when, two years ago, he suggested their casting to Imagine Films co-founder Brian Grazer. Howard had seen Kidman in the Australian movie Dead Calm, in which she plays a woman terrorized by a psychotic on a drifting sailboat.

Reed-thin 5-foot-10 Kidman, who towers over her husband even without heels, says she was drawn to Far and Away because of the relationship, the strength of her character and the conventional sense of the story.

"It is old-fashioned," she exclaims. "I love the genre, the feeling of tension throughout the movie where they don't even kiss until a certain stage."

She and Cruise were together 24 hours a day for five months.

"Sure, there are ups and downs. But we didn't let anything conjugal come in once we were working on the set," Kidman says. "Coming up with ideas on how to do tomorrow's scenewe'd awaken each other at 3 a.m. At least we had some sort of shared reality."

Cruise says they'd discuss scenes, but always with the intention of telling Howard the next morning.

"There is etiquette on the set, and I personally feel I'm the actor and not the director. I want direction. I want help from him," Cruise says. "If I had an idea about Nic (Kidman), I would go through Ron Howard."

With trademark sincerity, Cruise details the importance of collaboration on a set: Working as a team. Building confidence. Being responsible.

"I am not one of those guys who shows up five minutes late on the set. I'm there 15 minutes early," he says.

Cruise doesn't whine. He fell from his horse in the Oklahoma land race scene, the climactic sequence involving 800 extras, 200 wagons and hundreds of horses.

Howard and Kidman thought Cruise was a dead man. But when he climbed from the gully that had shaken his balance, he remounted his horse without a word.

The barroom brawls were equally brutal. Fights were Joseph's living when he and Shannon reached Boston, so there's a succession of them.

"I didn't realize how tough it would be. When you take off the gloves and get down to bare-knuckle stuff, it's bone on bone, or bone on muscle," Cruise notes.

The bouts get rougher as they progress. Howard kept moving his camera in tighter, so the punches had to land or they'd look fake.

"I took a few shots, but I wasn't going to let anyone know I was hurt," says Cruise. "Not being macho or anything, but I'm not much of a complainer. You do your job. That's what it's about."

Insurance companies have learned to take the horseback riding, skydiving and car racing in stride. Car racing, however, is pretty much in the past. Cruise says he gave it up to spend more time with Kidman.

"I don't race cars. I can't even drive a stick . . . much to his dismay," Kidman relates. "He thinks it would be very sexy for me to be driving around in a Porsche."

Her most humorous scene with Cruise takes place in Ireland, after Joseph has been wounded attempting to kill Shannon's father to avenge his own dad's death. Joseph is laid atop a bed, unconscious and naked, save the chamber pot covering his privates. Shannon decides to take a peek, having never seen a man before, and her expression says all that's necessary.

Howard recounts that he had filmed the scene a few times with Cruise's genitals covered.

"Nicole was off getting her makeup fixed, and I said, "Tom, why don't you just get rid of that cloth and see what happens?'," Howard says.

The next take, capturing Kidman's surprise, is the one Howard uses in Far and Away.

"It worked," she says, uncharacteristically mum.