How Tom Cruise — and other Hollywood actors — have become heroes in real life

If you’re in trouble, you might just want an action film actor nearby. Seriously.

By Albert Nerenberg, Host/Director, You Are What You Act

In 1998, Rita Simmonds was violently attacked by two men as she sat in her car on a London street. She screamed as they ripped jewellery from her fingers and ears. Tom Cruise, who just happened to be down the street with his bodyguards, ran over. The muggers took off when they heard the actor’s footsteps. “Tom was brilliant,” Simmonds later told the press.

This wasn’t the first time Cruise was a real-life hero. He’s sprung into action many times before; he came to the aid of a Santa Monica woman after a hit and run, he helped rescue a family from a burning boat in the south of France and he even rescued a man who had fallen down and was being crushed by his own paparazzi.

I can’t say I’m a Tom Cruise fan. But it’s hard not to be impressed by his involvement in many heroic rescues since he starred in the action-based Mission Impossible series.

Tom Cruise isn’t the only Hollywood star to become a hero in real life.

Harrison Ford came to the rescue of a stranded hiker in his helicopter — twice. Clint Eastwood saved a golfer from choking on a piece of cheese. Kate Winslet helped drag Richard Branson’s mother out of a burning building after it was hit by lightning. Jamie Foxx smashed a window and pulled a man out of a burning overturned truck when it caught fire in front of his home. Ryan Gosling saved a British tourist from being run over by a cab in New York City. 

If you’re in trouble, you might just want an actor nearby.

Of course, regular people perform rescues too. They just don’t have publicists to broadcast it to the world. Newspaper accounts suggest that off-duty firemen, cops and paramedics rescue a disproportionate number of people. And the reason why is simple: because they practice. In their jobs, they move towards danger, where most of us might go the other way.

Could the same principle apply to actors? And, if so, can anyone become more heroic through practice?

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During my research for the documentary You Are What You Act, I learned that while many movie stars play heroes, only some perform heroic acts in public. It turns out that actors, like Cruise, Ford, Winslet and Gosling, who perform real-life rescues do their own stunts on the set.

There’s an emerging field of science, called embodied cognition, that might explain why. The theory suggests that acting can prime the body for certain behaviours. Acting brave might cause someone to be more likely to become brave in real life.

American psychologist Philip Zimbardo recently coined the term “heroic imagination.” People who have an image of what they can do in a crisis are more likely to take action when a situation demands it.

There’s another factor that may separate these actors from the rest of us — they are “embodied”. They work by day with their bodies: They run.  They work out. They emote. It might be that just the act of using their bodies is empowering.

So, if courage can come with practice, what about other states like confidence, happiness and even love? You Are What You Act explores all of these possibilities.

One night last January in Montreal, I left the edit suite with my mind swimming with scenes from the documentary. The sky was black and just as rush hour hit, rain began to pour.

I arrived at an intersection when I saw two women struggling to cross the street against rain through chaotic traffic. Suddenly a white SUV veered around the corner and rammed into them. The car threw them across the pavement onto their backs.

Suddenly I found myself out of the car and standing in the rain. I was the first to arrive. One lady, in her 70s, was lying in the middle lane of the boulevard and as I looked down the road I could see bus barreling towards us.

“Are you ok?” I yelled over the angry honking of cars. 
“I think so,” she said.

You can’t stay here,” I heard myself say. In the darkness, the visibility was poor.

She nodded. “Are you ok to get up?” I asked watching the bus get closer.

“Yes,” she said. Another person arrived and within seconds we had carried her to the sidewalk. Her companion bundled her up just as the ambulance was arriving.

I’m not sure why I acted. I could have stayed in my car like most people at that intersection that night. But it might have had something to do with the pictures in my head.

Learn more, watch You Are What You Act.



Available on CBC Gem

You Are What You Act

documentary Channel