These days, audiences know Tom Cruise as the guy who willingly straps himself to the outside of a moving plane or hangs outside a skyscraper, but danger wasn’t always his forte. During his first brush with movie action in 1981’s “Taps,” a 19-year-old Cruise didn’t feel confident in what he was doing.
His big scene in the military drama required him to shoot a machine gun — and be shot at.
“This was my first experience with stunts, and an expert marksman was aiming at me!” he told W magazine. “Between takes I pulled the guy aside and said, ‘Have you done this before? You’re not going to shoot me, are you?’ I was terrified that my first big part would be my last.”
Cruise didn’t get shot that day, and since then he’s managed to stay in one piece, despite his growing love for doing his own stunt work.
“There is no stunt double in this movie,” says Wade Eastwood, stunt coordinator on “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation,” the fifth film in the high-octane espionage franchise, out Friday. “The only time we used them was in rehearsal.”
Instead, it’s Cruise who handles the wham-bam fighting, high-speed driving, aforementioned unorthodox plane ride and everything else that gets thrown at his character, secret agent Ethan Hunt.
Eastwood, a longtime stunt veteran who has worked with Cruise before, says other actors often have a less cooperative attitude.
He tells The Post, “They’ll say, ‘Where’s the stunt guy? I’ll be in my trailer.’ ”
Cruise, however, appreciates the realism of not having to cut away to a stuntperson. He also likes the thrill it gives audiences when they see him do some crazy trick that he’s never done before.
The actor is often involved in crafting action scenes, as he was on “Rogue Nation,” in which he also served as a producer.
“The audience is becoming more critical, and they always want more,” Eastwood says.
Cruise has been giving that “more” since the “Mission: Impossible” franchise debuted back in 1996. Each movie has included a set piece or two that required the actor to strap on his stunt man hat — but not really, because he doesn’t bother with helmets.
Here are five of Cruise’s best stunts from the series, and how the filmmakers pulled them off.
“I was scared s - - tless,” Cruise confessed of this stunt at April’s CinemaCon in Las Vegas.
But he only has himself to blame. Eastwood says the eye-popping stunt was the actor’s idea. Cruise, a pilot himself, always wondered what it would be like to take a trip outside a plane.
Eastwood met with Airbus in hopes of securing a plane, but the French aeronautics company wasn’t eager to accept that particular “Mission.”
“If one of their planes has a little hard landing, that’s bad publicity for them,” Eastwood explains.
“If they hurt Tom Cruise, it would just be bad publicity forever.”
Cruise wouldn’t take no for answer, and Airbus finally agreed.
The stunt was shot in England. Basically, Cruise was tethered to the side of the plane, and it took off — soaring up to 5,000 feet, at 184 mph. (The camera was attached to the plane, in front of Cruise.)
Before the real thing, Eastwood and his team researched G-force and atmospheric temperatures, to make sure the actor could survive.
After the bit was tested with a dummy, Cruise was ready to go. In the end, he performed eight takes of the scene. To keep his eyes open in the face of such extreme wind shear, Cruise had to wear special contact lenses.
For safety, the plane’s door was rigged so that if something did happen to Cruise outside the plane, he could be pulled inside.
The main fear was that something would strike Cruise while he was hurtling through the air at more than a hundred miles an hour — be it a pebble, a piece of the camera rig or, worst of all, a bird.
A spotter rode in the cockpit looking for stray sparrows, and more eyeballs were positioned on the ground.
In the end, Cruise emerged cold — but unscathed.
“There’s always a risk that something will go wrong,” Eastwood says. “That’s why they call it a stunt.”
High-speed racing through Morocco
Much of the movie’s PR campaign is built around that airplane bit, but Eastwood says another stunt was actually more dangerous.
It involves a chase through Morocco — with Cruise first in a car and then on a motorcycle. “[He] said, ‘I’m doing it all,’ ” Eastwood recalls.
Before he was allowed behind the wheel, however, Cruise spent six weeks on an intensive driving course in the UK. He was taught to “drift” drive — oversteering to create a lack of friction between the tires and the road, so the vehicle seems to slide.
“We took him from being able to drift a corner one out of three times, to doing it 20 out of 20 times at great speed,” Eastwood says. “He was on the money every day.”
The car sequence was especially dangerous because it involved extras and other drivers. If Cruise made a mistake, he could have wiped out a crowd. Not to mention co-star Simon Pegg, riding shotgun. (They pranked each other by turning on the other’s seat heater in the Moroccan sun.)
The bike chase sped down Morocco’s R203 highway, a curvy road with steep drops. “That was hairy,” Eastwood says. “When you’re on a track and you run wide, it’s not a huge problem. When you’re on a mountain road and you run wide, you drop off a 2,000-foot cliff.”
Cruise was able to gun the bike to 100 mph. Eastwood swears the sequence in the film uses no camera tricks to make it seem faster than it is.
Holding his breath underwater for six minutes
The filmmakers wanted to make this scene, in which Cruise swims through a water-filled room, excruciating for the audience.
“We wanted a water sequence where it’s like . . . The audience is holding its breath with him,” Eastwood says. “Tom said, ‘We’re not going to get this with trickery.’ ”
The choice not to use deception led Cruise to train with free divers to learn breath-holding techniques. On film, he stayed underwater for a lung-burning six minutes.
“Typically in movies, an underwater sequence might involve someone holding their breath for 10, 15 seconds max,” Cruise has said.
‘Mission: Impossible II’ (2000): Dangling 2,000 feet over a rushing river
This opening-credits sequence that finds Hunt hanging from the side of Utah’s Dead Horse Point was also Cruise’s idea.
“I’ve always wanted to climb.” the actor says in behind-the-scenes footage. “[Director John Woo] was so nervous that I might plumhttp://www.cnnyaw.com/wp-admin/post-new.phpmet to my death and he’d be held responsible.”
Cruise trained with pro rock climber Ron Kauk and was wearing a harness, in case he slipped while ascending 2,000 feet.
“When we were on the wall and it was just us two, he was saying, “Isn’t this great? Look at the view,’ ” Kauk says. “You’d think he’d be more nervous.”
‘Ghost Protocol’ (2011): Scaling the world’s tallest building
Cruise had no problem climbing the Burj Khalifa in Dubai — in his view, if you fall 50 feet or 1,717 feet, the results are the same.
The actor trained on a four-story practice set that attempted to replicate the Burj, right down to the bright sunlight and hot glass.
When it came time for the real thing, shooting took four days.
“It was toward the end of the day when he first went out, and he was kind of messing around out there in a casual way, and I was talking with someone, and I kind of forgot about him,” director Brad Bird told The Post. “All of a sudden we heard — ‘Woooooo!’ — and we see this body go arcing by one of the windows, then hitting a rough landing and a crash. All of our hearts stopped, but then we heard Tom’s laugh from outside the building. He was having a blast out there.”