Now starring in Mission: Impossible—Fallout, Tom Cruise looks back on his first major role at 19: 'I couldn't believe I was making a movie'

By Mary Green
July 26, 2018 10:00 AM

Tom Cruise was just 19 when he started living his dream.

In PEOPLE’s new cover story, the star of Mission: Impossible—Fallout looks back on how he got his start.

“I’ve wanted to make movies since I was 4 years old,” says Cruise, now 56. “I used to cut grass and had all kinds of odd jobs to give money to my family, but also to save money so I could go to the movies. You didn’t have YouTube and we didn’t have film school. That was my film school.”

Tom Cruise in Taps
Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett

After growing up in New York, Ottawa, Ohio and New Jersey, he headed to New York City to start auditioning, and quickly landed his first major role in Taps, which hit theaters when he was just 19.

“I couldn’t believe I was making a movie,” he says.”I’m laying in bed and I’m so excited and so tense. I remember talking to myself going, ‘Just relax.’ I didn’t want this to ever end.”

RELATED VIDEO: Tom Cruise Shares Photo To Tease Start of Production on ‘Top Gun 2’

Cruise, fellow newcomer Sean Penn, and Timothy Hutton starred as cadets who take over a military school to save it from developers. (At the time, The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the supporting cast demonstrated a “potential for future assignments” — something of an understatement.)

For much more on Tom Cruise’s life now, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE.

Hoping to learn more about filmmaking, “I went to every single department and asked questions,” says Cruise. “I drove everyone crazy. The director Harold Becker was so lovely to me because he knew I was so passionate. He let me go see rushes. Actors didn’t really go to rushes back then, where you see what’s shot the day before. So he set it up so I could see it. He’d say, ‘These takes are going to be in the movie.’ He was very generous.”

“I remember even back then, saying, ‘Just do the best I can,'” Cruise recalls. “That was my mantra for myself. All I can do every day is do the best I can. And learn.”

Two years later, Cruise’s career took off with his role in Risky Business — and 1986’s Top Gun made him a superstar at 24. “To be able to entertain an audience, that was my dream,” he says. “And here I am.”