Whether it’s riding a motorcycle in Dead Reckoning, scaling the exterior of the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Ghost Protocol, or hanging from a helicopter in Fallout, Tom Cruise is famous for his visually breathtaking stunts in the Mission: Impossible films.
He is one Hollywood star who has always made it clear that he believes that audiences would rather watch the actors themselves than the computerized digital jiggery-pokery when it comes to action sequences.
And it was his passion for authenticity that saw Cruise intervene last week in a dispute between actors and film producers over new artificial intelligence (AI) technology that, in theory, would mean he’d never have to do stunts again and the audience would never know the difference.
Entertainment industry bible, The Hollywood Reporter, said that in the run-up to the Hollywood actors’ and writers’ strike, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) hired him to help voice their fears about the use of AI by studios and streaming.
Such was his passion for authenticity that saw Cruise (pictured with Hayley Atwell) intervene in a dispute between actors and film producers last week over new artificial intelligence (AI) technology that, in theory, would mean he’d never have to do another stunt and the audience would never know the difference.
In the run-up to the Hollywood actors’ and writers’ strike, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) hired him to help voice their fears about the use of AI by studios and streaming giants, The Hollywood Reporter said. Photo: Olivia Wilde
AI is at the center of a strike that has brought Hollywood to a standstill. Battles over pay and healthcare are certainly part of the dispute but unions claim that ‘productive’ AI actually poses an existential threat to film and TV as we know it.
They say it can be used by studios to replace actors and professional stuntmen and women to look like actors when they’re not acting. It can be used to ‘bring back’ long-dead stars to play roles in modern films. And, surprisingly, it’s widely predicted that AI programs will one day be able to digitally create the entire cast for a movie. It’s all much cheaper than using real people.
Fran Drescher, president of the 160,000-member SAG-AFTRA union, bluntly warned: ‘We’re all going to be at risk of being replaced by machines.’
Is this all Tinseltown hyperbole? Experts say no. AI could indeed render a large number of screen actors obsolete – which explains why Tom Cruise isn’t the only celebrity involved in this fight.
Among many others are his co-star in Dead Reckoning, Hayley Atwell, and Legacy star Brian Cox, who last week attended a British actors’ union equity protest in London.
Hollywood writers, who were the first to strike, also fear that AI will replace them – that digital firms may soon be delivering polished computer-generated scripts. Popular AI programs like ChatGPT don’t seem capable of producing a believable film script — but experts say that’s about to change.
And in the meantime, the technology is churning out film plots and ideas, while some screenwriters complain that they’re being offered insultingly cheap rates to clear sub-par AI-generated scripts instead of creating originals themselves.
But if the threat to film writers seems obvious to those who have tinkered with ChatGPT for five minutes, industry experts say the AI revolution ultimately poses far more serious dangers to those who appear on screen. And especially the huge ranks of actors whose names you’ll never recognize.
The main issue surrounding AI for unions is that it has potentially disastrous implications for the vast majority of rank-and-file ‘extras’ (known as background actors in the US) in the Hollywood profession. They are not famous and eke out a living, working modest day rates and never knowing if they will have work from one week to the next.
These are the people who have created crowd scenes and even armies in epic productions — actors we’ve all taken for granted for decades. Their jobs are under threat like never before.
AI can create and manipulate digital images of these actors so that they can be replicated over and over in film after film.
In other words, you could be hired to appear in crowd scenes in a new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in a Star Wars movie, a Game of Thrones sequel and perhaps – if you’re photogenic enough – a new Barbie film.
AI took 40 years off Harrison Ford for a flashback scene in the new Indiana Jones film, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joins picket line as SAG-AFTRA actors union strike continues July 24 in front of Netflix
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) – which represents major film studios, major US TV networks and streaming giants – claims it has made ‘groundbreaking’ guarantees to actors in AI that will protect performers’ digital images and include requiring their consent to ‘make and use’ digital performances.
The actors’ union counters that these guarantees are worthless and the Hollywood giants actually propose that extras receive a day’s pay in exchange for having their photos taken and scanned by a studio. The latter will then be able to use that image in every movie or program of their choice ‘for the rest of eternity’.
But as Tom Cruise’s involvement in the strike shows, it’s not just working actors who suffer. Top stars also feel threatened, although to date, some of the most obvious on-screen applications of AI have involved them, such as Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci having decades knocked off their age in the 2019 Martin Scorsese gangster film The Irishman.
Critics complained that the technology used in The Irishman was far from perfect and that the stars looked strange. However, AI continues to improve rapidly and on-screen results become more convincing.
Harrison Ford took 40 years off for flashback scenes in the new Indiana Jones film, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.
Ford, 81, said he was delighted with his digital facelift. ‘My real self at that age,’ she explained on a US chatshow. ‘They have this artificial intelligence program. It can go through every foot of film that Lucasfilm owns because I’ve done a bunch of movies for them and they have all this footage that hasn’t been printed – stock.
‘Wherever the light is coming from, the expression is from there they can mine it. But this is my real face. Then I put a little dot on my face and I say the words and they make it. It’s normal.’
AI magic gave Val Kilmer his voice back for the 2022 blockbuster Top Gun: Maverick after he was diagnosed with throat cancer in his 50s, robbing him of his natural speaking voice.
The technology was also used to recreate actor Josh Brolin’s facial expressions on the ugly mug features Marvel supervillain Thanos.
Managers are encouraged to be more ambitious with AI development.
The upcoming drama Here, opening next year and starring Tom Hanks and Robin Wright as younger versions of themselves, uses a new AI program called Metaphysics Live to de-age and ‘face-swap’ actors in real time as they perform in post-production.
The film’s director, Robert Zemeckis, boasted that the technology allowed the film to do things that were ‘previously impossible’. All these actors mentioned above, however, have given their permission to AI engineers to do their work.
This was not the case when Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves were individually the unwitting subjects of cleverly crafted and highly believable ‘deepfake’ videos that went viral on social media and were generated by AI algorithms. Bruce Willis was also ‘deep-faced’ in Russian Telecom ads. Reeves, who ironically fought against an AI world created by a malevolent super-computer in the Matrix films, described the deepfake experience as ‘terrifying’ and worried about its impact on Hollywood.
SAG-AFTRA and WGA members go on strike at Netflix, Sunset Gower and Paramount Studios on July 21
He revealed that a clause was placed in his contract to prevent digital manipulation of any of his performances. Insiders suspect other stars have done the same.
Before he died in 2014, Robin Williams made a legal stipulation that his image could not be used in any future films for 25 years after his death.
Keanu Reeves identifies the huge financial appeal the technology has to employers – as well as its threat to actors and how creativity is sacrificed for profit.
‘The people who are paying you for your art are not going to pay you,’ he said in an interview a few months ago.
‘They are actively looking for a way around you.’
Susan Sarandon, star of Thelma & Louise and currently joining the pickets of Hollywood strikers, is another actor who has voiced concerns about AI, saying it can ‘tell and do things I have no choice about’.
And there are other ethical issues with using AI to reconstruct dead actors.
In 2021, a documentary about the late chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain came in for criticism after its makers recreated his voice but failed to say whether they had permission to do so before he died unexpectedly.
Disney used AI to keep Carrie Fisher aka Princess Leia in the 2019 Star Wars spinoff The Rise of Skywalker even though she died three years ago.
The inclusion, adapted from unused footage from an earlier film, reportedly had the blessing of his daughter, actress Billie Lourd, but who can be sure Fisher herself would agree?
At least asking his permission was an option, which was never the case with the 2022 Netflix TV series The Andy Warhol Diaries that recreated the voice of the artist who died in 1987.
The National Association of Voice Actors of America has called for stronger AI controls, saying it’s becoming harder to detect when synthesized voices are replacing real ones.
AI has greatly exposed the moral issue — including celebrities — of what rights individuals have after death.
Actors may dream of cinematic immortality, but critics question whether Hollywood stars would be nearly as keen if it meant returning as digital clones. Film-makers are now making their second attempt to resurrect James Dean, who died in a car accident in 1955 aged just 24 after appearing in just three films.
A 2019 feature film, Finding Jack, was canceled but he has since been ‘cast’ in the upcoming movie Back to Eden, a sci-fi film in which his walking, talking digital character will interact on screen with real actors on screen.
As Tom Hanks noted, ‘I might get hit by a bus tomorrow and that’s it, but my performance can go on and on.’
Some in Hollywood fear that all this AI-enabled nostalgia and virtual resurgence will stop producers from bothering to find new talent.
One only has to look at this summer’s blockbusters in movies and streaming — starring the likes of Ford, Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Denzel Washington and Pierce Brosnan — to see the continuing appeal of older stars.
A recent survey of people of all ages found that 19 of the top 20 movie stars are over 40. How interesting would a 60-something actor be if he could be 30-something again?
And if 61-year-old Tom Cruise can still ‘speed fly’ — running headlong off a Lake District cliff wearing only a parachute for his latest film — what can we expect to see him at 21 again in the future?
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