and the movie stars

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and the movie stars

I've long felt that it must be hard to be Tom Cruise. For instance, think of all that toothpaste he must buy.

I've recently learned that it's even harder to be the promotional person for one of Tom Cruise's movies.

The news arrived on my desk the first week in December: Tom Cruise was coming to Korea. Whatever for? I asked my colleague, Yong-hee. To eat pig intestines? To rendezvous with Nicole Kidman? No and no, Yong-hee said. Cruise was coming to Korea to promote his new movie "Vanilla Sky."

I asked Yong-hee to contact the promotion company that was representing the movie in Korea. She reported that there was one person handling the media, but that person was not taking phone calls. Too busy. We left a number anyway, asking the woman - I'll call her "Madam X" - to call back. A week passed and no call. Still too busy, said Madam X's assistant. Must be stocking up on toothpaste for Tom, I figured.

Three days before the Cruise press conference was to take place, I tried Madam X again. Far, far too busy, was the response. "And you'll need to speak to her to participate in the press conference," the assistant added.

"But how can I speak to her if she's too busy?" I asked.

No one seemed to know.

Two days before the press conference, Yong-hee handed me the telephone. "Madam X," she whispered. My heart did a quick skip. I introduced myself as this newspaper's cultural editor and politely asked if I might be able to attend the Cruise press function.

"What's your paper's readership?" Madam X nearly snapped.

"We try to reach all the foreign communities in Seoul," I said. "As well as the entire English-speaking population of Korea."

"That's not our target!" Madam X replied, this time with a definite snap.

I was stunned. I wanted to ask Madam X, Doesn't Tom Cruise speak English? But I didn't. Instead, I resisted the urge to say anything snippy. Taking a deep breath, I tried another approach, saying my newspaper's readership included lots of Koreans, who could be her target. Reluctantly, she asked my name, my position, my company. Then, as if talking to a small child, she slowly gave me what I came to think of as The Rules:

1. Only one reporter and one photographer from the same organization will be allowed at the press conference.

2. No one will be allowed to speak English at the press conference.

3. No one will be admitted to the conference without first attending a screening of the movie, the following day at 10 a.m.

"Can I bring my staff to the screening?" I asked hesitantly.

"Absolutely not." Snap. "Not possible." Snap. "Only the reporter who is to cover the press conference can attend the screening. No one else." Snap, snap.

Trembling slightly, I explained, "But I haven't decided who's going to cover it."

A long pause followed, then, "You can bring one more. But just one." Click.

My staff, who had overheard the phone conversation, shook their heads. Then I thought, well, maybe Madam X was having a bad hair day. Maybe she was having a bad hair week. Maybe in person Madam X would turn out be completely different, someone kind and courteous. Maybe I might like her.

The next day, at 9:45 a.m, Yong-hee and I sat in my car outside the building that houses the Seoul promotion company. Steeling myself, determined to make a good impression, I finally walked inside wearing the warmest smile - a Tom Cruise smile! - I could possibly muster on a cold, winter morning. I found Madam X behind a big empty desk. When she glanced up, her eyebrows arched and a frown crossed her face. I gulped: Uh-oh. More bad hair.

Mixing Korean and English, I introduced Yong-hee to Madam X, making sure to mention that Yong-hee was from Chicago.

Unimpressed, Madam X sniffed, "Let me repeat: You must not speak English at the press conference."

"But neither of us speaks Korean that well," I pleaded.

Signaling that she had work to do, Madam X said, "Whoever speaks better Korean must do the talking!"

Feeling a bit like naughty youngsters, Yong-hee and I were led into the private screening room. I looked at my watch: Where was everyone? The theater was empty, save for one other reporter. So much for Madam X's Rule No. 3.

Finally, the press conference, at the Grand Hyatt hotel. Yong-hee and I arrived at 2 p.m., two hours before the start of the event. When we checked in, I noticed that Madam X had put my name down as "Irene," even though I had told her my name three times. "Well, at least she got my initial right," I joked to the receptionist.

We looked around. Where was the Associated Press? Nowhere in sight. In fact, there was only one other member of the foreign press.

For the next two hours, Yong-hee and I went over our questions in Korean several times, questions that we wanted to ask Tom Cruise, his co-star in the movie, Penelope Cruz, who is also his new girlfriend, and the movie's director, Cameron Crowe. Tension among the 200 or so press people was building; I could smell it. At 4 p.m., when Madam X marched in, the room turned into a crypt.

Taking the podium, she suddenly looked more than a little like television's "Judge Judy." Once again, Madam X carefully went over The Rules, putting special emphasis on the "No English whatsoever" provision. Apparently, the last time Tom Cruise came to Korea to plug a movie, his press conference, held in English, went badly. The Q&A became, I had heard, a carnival of Konglish. No one - actors, producers, translators, bodyguards, flunkies, flacks, or Cruise himself could understand a word that was said. So this time, Korean would be used.

Flanked by minions, Cruz and Crowe appeared, then Cruise. Seventy flashbulbs ignited.

"Annyeonhaseyo!" said Cruise, his wall-of-white smile a flashbulb itself.

Cruz, from Spain, bore the elegant demeanor of a bored princess. She said nothing. Can she speak English? I wondered. Can she speak Korean? Spanish? Crowe, a tall man, seemed rumply, relaxed, genuine.

Flashbulbs continued to blaze. What Korean photographers wanted most was a picture of Cruise with Cruz, the Hot Couple. Madam X announced a time limit, which made the paparazzi more frantic. They yelled - in Korean, of course - "We want Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz together! Please have the director step aside!" Puzzled, Cruise, Cruz and Crowe looked over at Madam X. In response, she turned to the press and stiff-lipped the word: "Gamsahamnida." In other words, put your toy cameras down, children.

Finally came the in-Korean-only-please questions.

Q: (to Penelope Cruz) What kind of person did you want to be on the screen?

A: The kind of person Cameron Crowe wanted me to be.

Q: (to Cruise) What's the meaning in the movie of the phrase "open your eyes?"

A: What do YOU think it means? What is your reality?

A nervous wave swept over the conference room.

Cruise's earnest but too-philosophical response nearly reduced to tears the young female reporter who had been curious about the words. In a halting voice, she apologized for asking the question.

Now disbelief filled the room. Suddenly, Cruise, in his best you-just-gotta love-me manner, apologized for turning a question into a question.

"C'mon," cried out several reporters in unison.

Move on to another question.

Q: (to Cruise) What part of Penelope Cruz's body do you find the prettiest?

A: Her spirit, her soul!

Finally! several reporters shouted. Finally we're getting some news about these two movie stars and their romantic relationship.

I had some questions, too - about glamour for Cruz, about producing a movie for Cruise. I kept raising my hand, like a schoolgirl, hoping to draw the attention of Madam X, the scary teacher. In this teacher's eyes, however, I did not exist. In her eyes, I was of little use in this world. I was a button on a hat, a bicycle without wheels, a body without a brain. Instead, Madam X picked other reporters, some of whom she evidently knew. Thirty-five minutes flew by, and then Cruise and his friends had to leave. As I left the room, I heard one reporter say to another, "What can we write about Tom Cruise?"

Standing in hotel lobby, exhausted by the ordeal, I considered writing a letter of complaint. But to whom? To write to Madam X would be to write to the wind. Tom Cruise? He might ask me, What is YOUR reality? Penelope Cruz? Could she speak English? What about Cameron Crowe? Hmmm. I liked that idea; he seemed human, sincere, approachable. I scribbled a note and handed it to the hotel's concierge, hoping it would reach Crowe before he left Korea.

The next day, when I turned on my computer, I found an e-mail reply from Crowe. Sorry for the trouble you had, he wrote. ... Next time I'm in town I'll let you know well in advance.

Wow! See you down the road, Mr. Crowe. As for the others, well, thanks for the entertainment.

by Inēs Cho

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