Built to Last

updated 12/15/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/15/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

Like any good politician, Tom Cruise wants to keep his constituents happy. While taping a spot for The Ellen DeGeneres Show (to air Dec. 10), the actor seemed ready to take a stand on a few hot-button issues. Well, maybe not. When the host asked him to tell her his "favorite song to boogie to," he replied, "There's many, it depends on the moment." Does he like Britney or Christina? "I've never thought about it." Cats or dogs? "Both."

Risk alienating Britney-loving cat owners? Not when there are box office dollars at stake. A full two decades after Risky Business, Cruise, 41, remains focused on keeping audiences happy. His latest movie, The Last Samurai, offers him another meaty opportunity to do so yet again. The famously hard-working star plays a jaded Civil War vet who is hired to westernize the Japanese army but is captured by the samurai and warms to their code of honor, Bushido, "the way of the warrior." The ambitious role could net him his fourth Oscar nomination (he already has nods for Born on the Fourth of July, Jerry Maguire and Magnolia), "His work ethic and generosity are legendary, but I couldn't have imagined the extent of it," says Samurai director Ed Zwick. "There are scenes where I'm driving his face into the mud and people are swinging swords at him, and he was always, like, 'Okay, what do we need to do to make it better?' "

Cruise started preparing for the role in March 2002, as he mastered the elegant samurai fight moves. "In the beginning I just thought, 'How am I gonna do this?' " Cruise says. "I didn't tell anybody that. I told them, 'Oh, I can do that.' " At first, "I couldn't touch my toes," says Cruise. "I bent down, and I couldn't get my hands past my knees." He also put on 25 lbs. of muscle in order to fight while wearing 50-lb. armor. "I'd teach him something on the right and say, 'Now this is really difficult,' " says Samurai stunt coordinator Nick Powell, who trained Cruise. "I'd turn around and he'd say, 'What, like this?' and already be doing it with his left hand. That's rare."

By the time filming began that October, Cruise "was putting himself in physical danger every day," says producer Marshall Herskovitz. "It could not have been easy, but I saw a guy who just loved the challenge of it all. He would laugh after 10 hours of shooting."

Having kids Isabella, 10, and Connor, 8, on the film's New Zealand set certainly helped keep his spirits up. "He has a very easy way with them," says Zwick. "His kids are funny and warm." The family "would go off on day trips and have adventures," says Herskovitz. "He takes enormous joy in them. And yet they have chores. He gives them this balanced existence within this bubble he has to create to keep their lives sane."

In turn, the kids bring perspective to Cruise's own life. Spending their weekends together (Cruise and ex-wife Nicole Kidman share custody) watching films like Finding Nemo and Brother Bear, "they help me focus on everything that's good," Cruise told USA Today. "And they help me realize how much good there is in my life."

So does Penélope Cruz, 29, whose two-year relationship with Cruise is still going strong. "He's definitely passionate about her," says Zwick of Cruise, who frequently brings Cruz flowers, cooks her romantic pasta dinners and draws her baths. "It's always the little things I like in a relationship," he told Marie Claire. The couple also travel to Cruz's native Spain for all-night dinners and flamenco dancing with her family. Right now they have "no future plans for marriage," he told Larry King. But, he added, "I love her."

Both Cruise and Kidman say that they've become friendly since their divorce, and he has said that he's happy for her now that she's dating musician Lenny Kravitz. "I've always loved [her] and I always will," he told Dateline NBC. "We're in a great place right now." Adds Herskovitz: "He's very fond of her. They remember they are parents, and their kids come first. They both always take the high road."

Cruise also remains very close to his mother and three sisters (his father died in 1984); his younger sister, Cass, lives with him in L.A. with her three children. And despite Cruise's diplomatic answer to DeGeneres's cats-vs.-dogs question, he admitted, when pressed, that his household does include a dachshund and a beagle. Would he like to add an Oscar to the mix? "If something like that happened, it'd be wonderful," he says, "but I don't make a movie for that." In his next film, a thriller tentatively titled Collateral, he'll play the bad guy, a contract hit man. After that, he plans to make another Mission: Impossible film. "When I started out, you think you're never going to work again," says Cruise. "I'm really having a blast."

Jason Lynch. Rachel Biermann, Julie Jordan, Sean Daly and Amy Longsdorf in Los Angeles

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