These 25 Mission: Impossible Secrets Are Yours If You Choose to Accept Them

It's been 25 years since Tom Cruise first defied gravity in the role of Ethan Hunt in the blockbuster Mission: Impossible franchise—and he's only cranked up the action since.

By Natalie Finn May 22, 2021 10:00 AMTags
Tom Cruise, Mission Impossible, 1996, Feature GraphicParamount/Kobal/Shutterstock; E! Illustration

Much like the U.S. Navy's top gun pilot known as Maverick, Ethan Hunt of the Impossible Mission Force can't be tamed. Every time you look, he's jumping off a building, scaling a mountain, riding a motorcycle through fire or otherwise hurtling through the air. 

Of course, neither of those men is real. They're the cinematic embodiments of Tom Cruise, the fearless action hero of our times, barely slowed by a broken ankle here or a heated lecture on safety protocol there.

But unlike Maverick, who took more than 30 years off between flights, Hunt has chosen to accept a slew of impossible-seeming missions—perhaps none more perilous than filming a stunt-packed action blockbuster during a pandemic. And if it sounds as if we're starting to get confused between where Cruise ends and his characters begin... well, we're pretty sure that's exactly as he intended.

It's been 25 years since the release of the first installment of the soon-to-be eight-film Mission: Impossible franchise—all starring Cruise (not even Vin Diesel has been in all the Fast-and-or-Furious movies) as Hunt, who as the years have gone by has found himself in increasingly precarious positions where imminent death is assured but always avoided. Audiences have spent $3.7 billion worldwide to see him do it six times so far, with No. 7 due in theaters May 27, 2022, to be followed by No. 8 on July 7, 2023.

61 Fascinating Facts About Tom Cruise

The franchise has been as all over the map as a spy framed for murder who's on the run to clear his name, and now that we're in a boomtime for reboots, re-imaginings and revivals, it's hard to believe that making a movie inspired by a TV show was ever a fresh idea. But in 1996—just a year after The Brady Bunch Movie came out—it was not yet an everyday occurrence.

Inspired by the classic 1960s series starring Steven Hill (yes, D.A. Adam Schiff from Law & Order) for a season and then Peter Graves of later Airplane hilarity as the super-secret government agents tasked with keeping America safe from Cold War treachery with the help of rubber masks so convincing they turned into other actors, the first Mission: Impossible film was a huge hit, a fun romp that paid homage to the TV show and created a role tailor-made for Cruise.

Incidentally, the character started off as more of a crafty spy than the full-on Evel Knievel he's become over the years. But the 1996 film is now in that rare position of being cloaked in its own sheen of nostalgia while also still spawning sequels starring its original leading man, now 58, who along with that instantly recognizable theme song has aged like a fine wine.

So in honor of the 25th anniversary of the first film, and with more on the horizon but delayed due to the pandemic (but not for a minute longer than necessary, as Cruise made damn sure of), here are some behind-the-scenes secrets about the Mission: Impossible franchise.

We made sure that they will not self-destruct after five seconds, but if you're caught, the Secretary will deny any knowledge of the operation.

1. No casting what-ifs here, at least when it came to the role of Ethan Hunt, the big gun in Impossible Mission Force's arsenal. Tom Cruise was looking to produce his first film and he admittedly wanted it to be a big hit, so he checked out what Paramount owned the rights to and came across the old Mission: Impossible series.

Which he was not encouraged to make into a movie. "People would go, like, 'I don't get it,'" Cruise recalled, putting on a confused tone, in a new interview released by Paramount for the film's 25th anniversary, included on the remastered release for Blu-ray and digital. "'You're going to do a TV series, you're doing to do this thing, this old series?'"

2. Emilio Estevez was okay with his cameo as Jack Harmon, a member of the IMF team who gets eliminated early in the first movie, remaining uncredited (as Cruise was when he popped up in Young Guns).

Talking to Vanity Fair in 2021, he pointed to that job, coming off of The Mighty Ducks 3, as a wakeup call for him personally. "It was like, okay, I need to rebrand myself," recalled the Brat Pack jock turned auteur, who's now revisiting the role of Gordon Bombay in Disney+'s The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers. "I didn't get into this business to be rich or famous. I got into this business because I love moviemaking."

Also a longtime buddy of Cruise's who served as his best man when he married Mimi Rogers in 1987, Estevez still supports his Outsiders co-star to this day, giving a thumbs-up to Cruise's ultimately not-very-controversial rant about COVID-19 safety protocol while filming M:I 7 last year. Cruise was "100 percent right" to go off, Estevez told Vanity Fair. "Oh, yeah, I agreed with every word that came out of his mouth. Every expletive. And what you could hear in his voice was, I think, the fact that it was absolutely vital to adhere to the protocols. Not just in our industry, but all of the service industries that exist as a result of the film industry operating properly."

3. The magic of the movies! When Ethan blows up the fish tank to make his escape after being wrongly pegged as the IMF mole in the first film, the explosion was engineered on the Paramount lot in Hollywood...

...while Cruise running away from the gushing water was shot in Prague's Old Town Square. 

4. Shooting the most iconic scene from the first Mission: Impossible—Ethan Hunt being lowered into a vault at CIA headquarters and, when Jean Reno's Krieger loses his grip, plummeting toward the floor, only for the cord to finally hold him just inches from the ground (and all the intruder-sensor alarms)—was not a one-take situation.

"We were running out of time. I went down to the floor and I kept hitting my face," Cruise recalled, slapping his hands together, in the Paramount interview. He asked a crew member for some coins (or pounds probably, he added, since they were shooting in England) to put on the top of his hands to make sure he was holding his arms out perfectly parallel to stay balanced, and he insisted to director Brian De Palma that he get one more take. So in that final take, he nailed it. And there he was, holding himself right above the floor, the sweat dripping off his face, "and then he just keeps rolling," Cruise said of De Palma, recalling how the director started laughing before saying, "Alright…cut."

5. De Palma knew he wanted to do something aboard a train before they even had a story, Cruise recalled to filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie in the Paramount interview, basically explaining that he thought it would be really cool, whatever it was, and they'd figure it out. Cruise agreed.

6. The actor remembered having just landed in Japan and being stuck in traffic, on his way to a premiere, when he got a message on this mobile-phone-thingamajig to call Brian. "Strange technology!" he recalled, thinking about how De Palma was able to pitch him "the whole CIA scene, on a phone, when I'm in the back of a car in Japan."

7. Danny Elfman rescored the iconic Mission: Impossible TV theme music by Lalo Schifrin for the 1996 film and U2's Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen were nominated for a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance in 1997 for their dance-club-friendly rendition of the song.

"I told yesterday the producer of the record, 'Why didn't I think about that?'" the Argentinian-born Schifrin quipped to Entertainment Weekly in 1996. "I always say that things are in 2/4 or 4/4 because people dance with two legs." His original 5/4 composition, therefore, was "for people from outer space who have five legs.

8. Dougray Scott, the villainous agent-gone-bad Sean Ambrose in 2000's Mission: Impossible 2, was going to play Wolverine in X-Men—but an injury as well as conflict with his M:I 2 shooting schedule prompted him to drop out. Oops.

And he recalled Cruise, who had handpicked the Scottish actor for his film, being really, really persuasive.

"We were doing Mission: Impossible and he was like, ‘You've got to stay and finish the film' and I said 'I will, but I'll go and do that as well,'" Scott told the Telegraph in 2020. "For whatever reason he said I couldn't. He was a very powerful guy. Other people were doing everything to make it work."

Hugh Jackman, who went on to play Wolverine in nine films (twice uncredited), recalled to The Daily Beast in 2020, "I actually got the part nine months after I'd first auditioned for it. I only went back and auditioned again after Dougray got caught up on Mission: Impossible II, so I had no idea who was going for it nor did I expect to get it."

Russell Crowe also famously turned down the part of Wolverine as well, Jackman noting, "that's the second role I've gotten that Russell's turned down. He's been very good to me, Russ. The other one was Australia."

9. Limp Bizkit had a huge hit with 2000's "Take a Look Around (M:I-2 Theme)," the band's very trendy brand of hybrid rap-metal elevated by the iconic bones of Schifrin's original composition.

Hans Zimmer, who composed the Mission: Impossible II score, and soundtrack producer Mitchell Leib wanted something edgy to punctuate the John Woo-directed sequel—and Cruise insisted on an act that had never been on a soundtrack before. Leib and Zimmer reached out to Korn, Moby, Cake, the Chemical Brothers and more for sample tracks, spending around $100,000 to commission the demos. Korn was busy, but they shared a manager with Limp Bizkit, and he recommended the Fred Durst-fronted group for the task.

"When I listened to Limp Bizkit's song, it was the first time I heard anybody really make sense of the Mission: Impossible theme," Zimmer told Entertainment Weekly in 2000. "And I know that isn't easy, because a lot of people had a go at trying to make it work." All told, they spent about $4 million putting the soundtrack together, roughly $1 million alone reportedly going to Metallica for "I Disappear."

10. Mission: Impossible III marked J.J. Abrams' feature directorial debut and, while he didn't direct any more installments of this franchise, he has remained on as a producer under his Bad Robot shingle.

We hear he continued to do popular things behind the camera, such as rebooting Star Trek on the big screen (bringing M:I III-and-beyond's Simon Pegg aboard the Enterprise to play Scotty) and awakening the dormant Star Wars saga in 2015.

11. Pieces of Abrams pop up a few time in Mission: Impossible III—his hands, his voice on the phone—but that's all of him in the background when Ethan gets to the hospital (too late!) to rescue his new wife, Julia, played by Michelle Monaghan.

12. Cruise, knowing exactly how much pressure his own nose can handle and apparently not wanting to bite another person's hand, substituted his own hand for what looks like Eddie Marsan's in Mission: Impossible III. When Brownway is pressing a charge gun to Hunt's face, Cruise is biting his own hand when it's supposedly Billy Crudup's as John Musgrave holds a phone to Hunt's ear.

He also wore a chest plate for the CPR scene, presumably in preparation for when Julia starts to desperately bang on Hunt's chest.

13. Marsan was supposed to be the star of the dire-scene-setting opening of Mission: Impossible III. He had already shot it, in fact, when Abrams realized it should really be their lead villain, inimitable arms dealer Owen Davian, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, delivering the terror. "He was such a gentleman," Abrams said in the DVD commentary of Marsan's reaction when he called him up and told him about the switch.

14. Apparently there was a passing-of-the-torch rumor involving Cruise and Jeremy Renner, who signed on as intelligence analyst William Brandt, when Ghost Protocol came out in 2011—but if it was hard to believe then, it seems, well, impossible to believe now.

"You know, I don't view this movie as that," director Brad Bird told Slash Film at the time. "I view it as another Mission: Impossible movie with the addition of some really spectacular actors, one of which was in the last Mission: Impossible, Simon Pegg, but in a much more expanded role. But no, I say this is the next Mission: Impossible movie and that's it."

And installment five, 2015's Rogue Nation, was it for Renner, who had another little franchise to attend to.

"Jeremy had his commitment to Avengers, which ironically they ended up not exercising, and we didn't know what the [sixth Mission] movie was, so we couldn't provide a schedule," director Christopher McQuarrie said on the Empire Podcast in 2018, explaining Brandt's absence in Mission: Impossible—Fallout. "We needed absolute freedom. The unfortunate thing for Jeremy is that he got caught in this perfect storm of, one can't use you and one doesn't know how to, given the massive complications they had with Avengers."

McQuarrie said he did offer Renner a role in the film, but it involved killing Brandt off, and the actor turned it down.

"So I said to Renner, 'Hey listen, I have this idea for an opening sequence where you sacrifice yourself to save the team, and that the mission-gone-wrong not only involves losing the plutonium, but involves the death of a team member,'" the director revealed. "And Jeremy was like, 'Thanks, but no thanks'...He was smart not to take the short paycheck for three days of work and getting blown up."

15. Signing up to make the first Mission: Impossible in the mid-1990s, Cruise had no idea it would turn into such an enduring franchise. "I was hoping, maybe," he admitted to McQuarrie in the Paramount interview. "You know, I hadn't done sequels, and I kinda had a rule not to do sequels. Everyone was all over me about doing Top Gun, Top Gun. I was like, 'Where do I take it?'"

It did take about 33 years to figure out where to take that story. But "with Mission," Cruise continued, "it's a challenge for me, it's a logistical challenge, it's an artistic challenge. We're working…on the highest level, actually, because you have practical action and how do we develop these stories? How do we develop these characters? What is the dialogue going to be with an audience?...And then I came up with the idea of different directors for each one."

16. And that was initially what he did, bringing on De Palma, followed by John Woo, Abrams and Bird, so that each movie in the series would have its own style.

But McQuarrie has since directed Rogue Nation and Fallout and is still on the job for the upcoming M:I 7 and M:I 8, so apparently Cruise is all in on his vision.

"We now have the collective experience of three movies," McQuarrie told Empire in 2018. "You can now look at three Mission: Impossibles and go, 'Here's where we were in our own way. Here's where we were making things harder than they needed to be, more complicated than they needed to be, bigger than they needed to be.' And you're able to streamline it and you're able to look at a handful of movies now and go, 'Boy, we thought it needed to be big and spectacular and really what it needed was story and character and storytelling.' That's king."

Prior to teaming up here, though, McQuarrie—who won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for The Usual Suspects in 1996—directed Cruise in 2012's Jack Reacher and penned that screenplay as well the scripts for Valkyrie, Edge of Tomorrow, 2017's The Mummy, Top Gun: Maverick and the seventh and eighth M:I films. So Cruise, storied loyalist that he is, has found a creative collaborator who really gets him.

17. "McQ"—as Cruise called him on the Q&A With Jeff Goldsmith podcast in 2015—actually "came on to Ghost Christmas, and really saved our bacon with story and structure," so he considers that to be their first M:I film together. 

Ghost Protocol director Bird, making quite the splashy live-action feature debut, shot all in IMAX, after helming animated classics like The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, did say that they changed courses midway through production, having been filming as if Monaghan's Julia hadn't ultimately survived after her badass turn in Mission: Impossible III.

"Well, we were well into the film thinking that she had been killed," Bird told Crave Online in 2012, "and filmed quite a bit of the film thinking that she wasn't around, and we just kept thinking that that kind of cast the previous movie in a negative light, because it's kind of like all that stuff that he went through to keep her alive in the last one didn't ultimately amount to anything."

In the end, Julia and Ethan have a bittersweet goodbye from afar because, you know, he's really married to his work.

18. Cruise also has a devoted friend and fan in Simon Pegg, who admitted to E! News at the Ghost Protocol premiere in 2015, "I've got a bit of a man crush on Tom, to be honest."

"He's kind of amazing. He sort of inspires you 'cause he gives 100 percent the whole time and you kind of want to do the same thing," the English actor explained. "When you work with him you're kinda, 'Huh, I want to do that, I want to be that committed.' And he never demands it of you either. So I like that about him.… He's a very cool guy. You get to know him as a person, which is hard among all the craziness that surrounds him and the things people say and stuff. And he's just a really solid, sweet guy, very funny and entertaining, and great to work with."

19. True story about being inspired by his pal: Pegg trained with Cruise and carved himself a six-pack doing Mission: Impossible—Fallout (so now we know why it turned out to be the highest-grossing, best-reviewed film in the franchise to date).

"We train together a lot of the time," Pegg told the Daily Mail's Event Magazine in 2018. "And yes, Tom called me 'Six-Pack Pegg.' He thought it was funny. I didn't mind. At 48, I was quite pleased that I was able to locate my abs again."

And that affection is mutual. "He likes me because I make him laugh," the actor, who remains on the job as IMF tech Benji Dunn, continued. "I'll pull him up on stuff and I can be frank with him. But he's still Tom Cruise. When you're on set, he's the boss. I've never seen him just be a p**** [as formatted by the publication]. If he's in a darker mood, there's usually a reason for it. When his ankle was hurting and he was running on it a lot, he was quieter and a little bit more spiky, but normally we're laughing a lot."

20. Like Kobe Bryant shooting game-clinching free-throws on a ruptured Achilles, Cruise broke his ankle when he landed awkwardly jumping between buildings during shooting for Fallout in 2017—and still finished the scene.

"Knowing how much the break was going to cost the movie, he carried on," Pegg told Event. "Tom limped out of shot on, essentially, a liquid ankle." After that, Cruise had no choice but to take a little break from filming, but naturally he was back in action as soon as was humanly possible. "We thought we'd have to shut down for six months because it was such a profound break, but he recovered in three," Pegg recalled. "He was sprinting around London again within 12 weeks."

21. Treating the Fallout cast and crew to a night of go-karting in Dubai, where he rented out a track, Cruise went by "Cole Trickle"—the name of the race car driver he played in Days of Thunder—on the scoreboard, Pegg shared. "Who was I?" he added. "Simon Pegg."

22. Ving Rhames first met Cruise at the Pulp Fiction premiere in 1994. After the screening, "he runs up to me, and he hugs me like we really knew each other. But really, I'd only met him two hours earlier, in the men's room!" Rhames recalled to Spotlight Report in 2018. Soon afterward, Rhames got a call from De Palma, who had previously directed him in Casualties of War.

Fast-forward 25 years and the 62-year-old actor, who plays cool-and-collected hacker Luther Strickell, "disavowed" no more, is the only other actor aside from Cruise to have been in the whole series, including Nos. 7 and 8—although it turns out he was supposed to be one and done.

"I feel very blessed to have been involved for so long," Rhames said. "Especially because originally my character died in the first 10 or 12 pages of Mission: Impossible. I said to Tom and Brian De Palma, 'Why does the Black man have to die in the first 10 pages of most movies? You know, normally there's only one Black guy in each of these huge-budget films. There aren't too many—quote-unquote—African-American films that are going to be over $100 million. And when there are some, I can't even say it's a Denzel… It's a Will Smith, basically. You'll have Will Smith, and he'll be damn near the only Black guy in the film. He's the star, but it's not a Black storyline, he may not even have a family in it…'

"So, Tom and Brian obviously thought about that, because then I noticed that my character didn't die. A lot of things happen and I'm always appreciative, you know?"

It didn't go unnoticed, however, that his appearance in Ghost Protocol was Marvel-post-credits-level brief.

"I may be doing something very small in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, but I will just say that the budget changed dramatically and I'll leave it at that," Rhames told Movieweb in 2010. "Cha-ching could create [a part] but it's up to them." They eventually realized it would behoove them to pay up and keep Luther's streak alive.

And Rhames was indeed back for meatier parts in Rogue Nation and Fallout, the latter featuring his favorite moment to date. "Chris McQuarrie wrote a scene where I really get to show how Luther feels about Ethan," he told Spotlight Report. "It takes into account all the time the two of them have been together. And it's pretty emotional and powerful."

23. Dermot Mulroney isn't just the one who got away in My Best Friend's Wedding, nor did he only act like he played the cello on Mozart in the Jungle. The actor is actually a classically trained cellist who sat 11th chair on the scores of Mission: Impossible III and Ghost Protocol, as well as a number of the other films also scored by his pal Michael Giacchino, including Star Trek Into Darkness and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

"Obviously, I knew about orchestras, I knew how to play in one," Mulroney told the Los Angeles Times in 2016. "But then when I started doing it, it really became a different perspective for me and such a source of pride—but pride related to the fact that I'm included in an exclusive group of musicians…really just towering talent. I'm more of a journeyman player."

24. You've heard by now that that's really Cruise hanging onto the side of a plane as it takes off in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation ("I was joking," McQuarrie quipped to Jeff Goldsmith when Cruise recalled the director suggesting the Airbus 400 scene), but there's a reason why he's doing it in a gray suit.

In not the first time North by Northwest has come up (Bird also said it was very much on his mind shooting the sandstorm scene in Dubai in Ghost Protocol), Cruise purposely donned his dapper flight outfit—"a really well-cut suit," he told Goldsmith—in homage to Cary Grant, who's similarly clad when he outruns a diving crop-duster in the Alfred Hitchcock classic. "We talked about it being a suit," McQuarrie added, "but he shows up...I'm looking at that suit, thinking, 'Where have I seen that suit?!'"

(A windblown Cruise atop the train in the original is also very reminiscent of Grant's headlong run toward the camera. As for the assassination attempt scene at the opera in Rogue Nation, McQuarrie swears he had not seen The Man Who Knew Too Much before filming that sequence, so now he proudly looks at it as an accidental tribute to Hitch.)

Meanwhile, Cruise, who is an aerobatic pilot in real life, also wore specially designed contact lenses to protect his eyes from any debris in the air. But as for the exhaust coming out of the engine, "that took awhile to get out of my system," he said.

25. "Why do the stunts look real?" the Rogue Nation production posed the question in a 2015 featurette. "Because they are real." 

As cinematographer Robert Elswit told The Hollywood Reporter, "There's no digital Tom, and there's no fake plane. He's really strapped to an Airbus." 

Not that it doesn't take a village to pull it all off, lately overseen by stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood, who's been with the franchise since Rogue Nation. Visual effects supervisor David Vickery, who makes sure there are no traces of the harness or the many wires and cables involved when Cruise is strapped onto things, noted that they did eight takes with the plane. 

But Cruise used to share the burden a bit more. For instance, that was really him (on wires) scaling Utah's Dead Horse Point at the beginning of M:I 2, but he had a climbing double, Ron Kauk, and Keith Campbell, his stunt double for the first two films, did the slip off the overhang.

"[Ron] and Tom got to be quite good friends during the week of shooting," Campbell recalled to UK Climbing in 2000. "Tom has a strong interest in climbing and is really fun to work with: tough, athletic, coordinated and aggressive. Ron worked with him to get him comfortable on the rock and so far off the deck—we were working at the top of the cliff, which is about 600 feet to the talus slope and another 2,000 feet to the river."

Cruise indeed take to climbing, and in 2018's Fallout that's just him saving the day on Norway's Preikestolen, 2,000 feet above a rushing fjord. The shoot lasted three days and supplies had to be flown up by helicopter, "but there are no stunt doubles in any of those shots," McQuarrie told USA Today.

And yet somehow, it's the upcoming Mission: Impossible 7 that features Cruise doing what's been called the most dangerous stunt he's ever executed—riding a motorcycle off the edge of a cliff.

"If the wind was too strong, it would blow me off the ramp," he told Empire in a recent interview. "The helicopter [filming from above] was a problem, because I didn't want to be hammering down that ramp at top speed and get hit by a stone. Or if I departed in a weird way, we didn't know what was going to happen with the bike. I had about six seconds once I departed the ramp to pull the chute and I don't want to get tangled in the bike. If I do, that's not going to end well."

But there's going to be a Mission: Impossible 8, so it ended alright.