Tom Cruise, stark naked except for a strategically placed chamber pot, had a surprise in store for his new wife, Nicole Kidman. The cast and crew of Far and Away, director Ron Howard's epic romantic drama of Irish immigration, had completed several takes of a scene in which Kidman's upper-crust character brazenly peeks under the pot while Cruise, as a wounded stranger, lies unconscious in bed. ''Nic was off in the corner working on her character,'' recalls Cruise of that hot day in Dingle, Ireland, ''and Ron came up to me and said, 'What do you think of taking off the cloth (which covered him under the pot) for this one?' And I said, 'Yeah! Great idea!' So I took off the cloth, and when she looked under the pot you know,'' says Cruise, recalling Kidman's long, silent look of curious delight. ''And that was the take! Ron said, 'Print! That's it! Onto the next!'''
Although Cruise keeps his knickers on for the rest of Far and Away, a panoramic adventure that sweeps the couple from Ireland to America, the 29- year-old actor could be feeling a bit exposed at the moment. One of America's biggest box office draws, he is taking several gambles in the $50 million saga, due in theaters May 22. It's his first period piece (a genre not much beloved by moviegoers lately), his first attempt at a foreign accent (he pulls it off), and riskiest of all, his first all-out love story (imagine the critical drubbing if he couldn't be convincing with his own wife). ''It's a kind of leap of faith on Tom's part,'' says Howard (Parenthood, Backdraft). ''He's one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and he's playing a character where in the first sequence you see him, he's being pounded by his brothers; the next sequence he's riding a donkey like Don Quixote.''
To Hollywood insiders or those who like to think they are the equal billing given to Cruise's talented but less-famous wife has seemed a concession to the all-powerful star. Actually, though, the filmmakers had first approached the Australian actress, known in this country for her parts in Days of Thunder and Billy Bathgate, after producer Brian Grazer was impressed by her chilling performance in the Aussie thriller Dead Calm. While working on Billy Bathgate in Saratoga, N.Y., in 1990, Kidman mentioned the project to Cruise, then her boyfriend, during a midnight stroll. ''It was pitch black and the whole walk was just consumed by her telling the story,'' he recalls. The tale of young Shannon Christie and Joseph Donelly who immigrate to America in the 1890s, struggle to survive in the Irish ghettos of Boston, and finally make their way to the Oklahoma frontier seemed a challenging change of pace to both.
Cruise contacted Howard as soon as he finished reading the script. ''I was filming Backdraft and he got me on the cellular,'' recalls the director, who tried to convey his own passion for the project. Howard had been working on the script loosely based on experiences of his own ancestors with screenwriter Bob Dolman (WKRP in Cincinnati, SCTV) for eight years. He felt the movie shouldn't be a history lesson but ''kind of an adventure. It's not intended to be a serious look at the experience.''
Almost every director has stories about stars who couldn't stand each other. Howard had the opposite problem. ''I had to learn how to give direction while Tom and Nicole were kissing,'' he says. ''And they'd disappear off in the trailer, and who knows what was going on in the old Winnebago.''
A real romance for the '90s, Far and Away is chaste enough to have been made in the '30s, quite an accomplishment for a film set partly in a Boston whorehouse. ''When we were rehearsing, we didn't know where to put the sex scene,'' says Cruise. They considered having it evolve out of the couple's sole kiss, midway through, ''but then we wouldn't have had a third act,'' Cruise says, so the sex-scene idea was dropped. ''The movie is foreplay,'' Cruise says. ''To make it sexy but still hold that tension was the challenge.''
No such restraint was called for in the bare-fisted boxing scenes. ''The stunt guys didn't want to hurt me, but after a while you just go, 'Hey, if you don't lay it in there, it's not going to go in the movie,''' says Cruise, who sounds as though he'd have been disappointed to escape unbruised. That attitude also served him well in the riding scenes.
''Let me put it this way,'' says Cruise of his four horsemanship lessons. ''They put Super Glue on my trousers, put me in that saddle in the morning, and unhooked me in the evening.'' During a spectacular land-rush scene in which 800 extras bolt across the prairie, the actor took a nasty spill when his horse suddenly came upon a drop-off. ''The horse went forward, and I slipped off his back into a rock pile going about 35 miles per hour,'' says Cruise, who was not seriously hurt. ''More pissed than anything else,'' he says.
There were challenges of a different sort in achieving the working-class Irish accent. Cruise enlisted veteran accent coach Tim Monich and hired an Irish couple to stay with him and Kidman. ''Whether or not I could be the male version of Meryl (Streep), I don't know,'' he says, ''but it was a lot of fun, and I feel it really helped the movie.''
Far and Away has been pulling in top scores from sneak-preview audiences, and, a few days before the scheduled opening, Cruise sounds sanguine. ''You want the movie to make their money back,'' he says, ''but I just feel proud to have Joseph Donelly on my résumé.'' And Howard is convinced his casting instincts about the two stars will pay off. ''My hat is off to them. Which, as you know,'' adds the balding director, ''is a big thing for me.''