And with a price tag of more than $100 million, the stakes couldn't be higher.
"I feel totally responsible to make the studio back their money," says Cruise. "I feel responsible to make the best film that I can make, and have the studio do well."
When Anchor Lesley Stahl caught up with Cruise in Los Angeles, he was taking a break from shooting yet another movie. He had been up all night, and was almost giddy with enthusiasm.
At 41, Cruise still seems young. But he's now a veteran that younger actors look up to – for his skills, his work ethic, and his good nature.
And it took all of those things, and more, to make "The Last Samurai," a movie about an American who goes to Japan to fight the Samurai – and then, decides to become one of them.
Cruise felt that if there was one guy who could bring a lost chapter of history to life, it was director Ed Zwick, whose specialty has always been big stories about little known moments from the past.
How hard was it to sell the idea of a movie about 19th century Japan to a big Hollywood studio?
"This has been the story of my life. I walk in and say, 'I wanna make a movie about an African American regiment in 1863.' I wanna walk in and make the movie about friendly fire in the Gulf War, and people give me these dull blank stares," says Zwick.
Among his many credits includes "Glory," the historical epic about the Civil War. But Zwick says that war movies don't get any easier, especially when you've signed up one of the most famous movie stars in the world: "It's as if you've poured rocket fuel on a fire. Everything rises. The enthusiasm, and the budget and it all sort of takes on this great kind of specific gravity."
Cruise kicked into his own high gear, beginning with research – boxes full of books. However, Cruise, a high school dropout who also had a learning disability, didn't always study this way for his roles.
"You'd be surprised how many top businessmen and top artists there are that have problems with reading," says Cruise. "You find different ways, different ways to get along. And it was something that I knew. It's not something that I didn't think was there. I just fought and fought and fought."
But Cruise didn't just read up to get ready for the part. He also endured eight months of strenuous training in Japanese martial arts and sword fighting, so he could do all of his own stunts.
"I thought it was important to actually show the audience that he had done the homework, that it wasn't done with sleight of hand," says Zwick.
"There is something like 70 different points of contact, sword on sword, kicking and body movements," says Cruise. "It starts and everyone has to be at the same speed."
How long did it take to shoot this movie? "We shot on three continents," says Zwick. "We shot for 117 shooting days. That's really about twice the length of a lot of movies."
There was more to get right than just the action sequences. The key moments are driven by silence. For example, the scene between Cruise and the woman he falls in love with is all about restraint.
"You have to earn a scene like that, because you don't know, is the tension in the relationship going to work? Is it too much? Is it too little," says Cruise.
The other essential on-screen chemistry in the movie was between Cruise and actor Ken Watanabe, who plays the Last Samurai.
This is Watanabe's first English-speaking role: "English is very expressive language. But Samurai are not expressive."
"I remember my direction to him at times was, 'Ken, speak English but act in Japanese," says Zwick. "And I think to Tom, I think he became a little more Japanese in his acting as well."
Cruise traveled all over the world to promote "The Last Samurai." At the London premiere, he spent three hours talking to his fans – even the ones calling on cell phones.
But in spite of all that personal commitment, the research, the training, and the money, the movie did not break through with major Academy Award nominations.
"If there was a problem with 'Last Samurai,' it's that it had the misfortune to come out in a year when it wasn't the only game in town," says Mark Harris, who is following the awards race closely for Entertainment Weekly magazine.
"Cold Mountain, Master and Commander, even Lord of The Rings, which is a fantasy, draws from the same vein of military history. There wasn't gonna be room for four of those movies in the best picture race."
The movie, however, did receive some nominations, including Ken Watanabe for Best Supporting Actor – and Best Costume, Art Direction and Sound.
For Zwick and Cruise, there is this consolation. "Samurai" has made more than $109 million in the United States and more than $296 million internationally.
So will the studio make back its money?
"Oh yeah, they'll they're gonna make back and be able to go out and go make some more movies," says Cruise, laughing. "Even with me."