CHICAGO (AP) _ Tom Cruise went back to where his run of negative publicity began: On a couch, next to Oprah Winfrey. But unlike his couch-jumping appearance on Winfrey's show three years ago, this time Cruise was serious, thoughtful and tried to defend his personal beliefs without seeming overbearing during an hourlong interview broadcast Friday.
Several entertainment-focused public relations experts said that's a smart approach.
"I think Tom learned his lesson. The lesson was that sometimes your personal beliefs can get in the way of the projects," said Howard Bragman, founder of Los Angeles PR firm Fifteen Minutes. "And you don't want people to be turned off to you so that they're turned off to your projects."
Winfrey's interview with Cruise, 45, was taped at his Telluride, Colo., home. Another show, billed as a celebration of Cruise's 25-year career in movies, was taped before an audience at Winfrey's Chicago studio and is being aired Monday.
The back-to-back interviews appear to be part of an effort to put the bad patch of PR behind him and get people talking about his career again, instead of his personal life.
Answering a question about whether he feels he comes under attack unnecessarily because of his belief in the Church of Scientology, Cruise said he understood the interest in "a minority religion."
But from now one, he said, "when I'm dealing with my humanitarian issues, I'll talk about my humanitarian issues, and when I'm promoting a film, I'm just going to promote the film. And that's just the way it's going to be."
Hollywood media expert Michael Levine said Cruise would "do well to cool the Scientology stuff. That's grown very wearisome for a lot of Americans. ... There's certainly no problem with him stating his religious choice is different from the majority, but when he gets aggressive and starts pushing it, there is some blowback."
Cruise's handling of the Winfrey interview was a good step, Levine said, but it's just part of a process during which Cruise will have to avoid doing things that compel the media to write negatively about him.
"When you're in a hole, quit digging," said Levine, founder of Los Angeles-based Levine Communications Office.
Cruise is in talks to star in a fourth "Mission: Impossible" film, which would represent a reunion between the actor and Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone, who severed a 14-year relationship with Cruise and his producing partner, Paula Wagner, in August 2006
Redstone booted the pair from the Paramount lot and ended their lucrative deal to develop projects for the studio, citing Cruise's "recent conduct" for the split, which came after the couch-hopping incident and his tussle with "Today" show host Matt Lauer over antidepressant drugs.
At the time, Redstone called Cruise "someone who effectuates creative suicide," but the Viacom chief and Cruise were spotted dining together in Beverly Hills in March.
Cruise's last movie, "Lions for Lambs," was the first release from MGM's United Artists banner since Cruise and Wagner took it over in late 2006. Also starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, it was box-office dud. But that's been the fate of most movies concerning the Middle East and the war on terror in recent years.
His next starring role is as a World War II German officer in "Valkyrie." Its release was recently pushed back from Oct. 3 until President's Day weekend starting Feb. 13, 2009.
But first, Cruise is gathering great buzz for a cameo in the upcoming Ben Stiller comedy "Tropic Thunder," as a mostly bald, fat studio chief.
Comedy might be a good avenue for Cruise to explore, Levine said. "Nothing mitigates tension like humor," he said.
Winfrey and a subdued, jeans-wearing Cruise conducted the interview on an overstuffed couch in the family's living room before ending the show with Cruise taking Winfrey snowmobiling.
Cruise said his couch-jumping was an authentic way of expressing his feelings for Katie Holmes _ and a moment he's not sure he would take back.
Holmes, now his wife, welcomed Winfrey to the couple's home at the top of the show. She then left Cruise to conduct a tour, which included a peek at daughter Suri's playrooms, the home's kitchen, Cruise's collection of bound film scripts, and stunning views of snow-topped mountains.
About a month after his last appearance on Winfrey's show, Cruise criticized Brooke Shields for taking anti-depression drugs after the birth of her child. He also berated Lauer for suggesting that psychiatric treatment might help some patients.
Cruise said he regretted his views "came out wrong."
"I personally don't (believe in antidepressants). ... But I think that people have the, it's their decision. When you look at something, it's an individual's right to make a decision on what they're going to do with their life," he said.
Regarding Scientology, he said when he refuses to answer questions on the topic, he's accused of being evasive. When he does answer questions, he's accused of preaching.
One of Scientology's central codes is to "respect the religious beliefs of others," Cruise said. "That's part of being a Scientologist, and that's who I am as a person."
Much of the rest of the interview involved Cruise shooting down various rumors and reports.
He said ex-wife Nicole Kidman still has a relationship with the two children they adopted during their marriage and stressed that the two share custody. He said he loves Holmes' family, calling them "amazing people."
Asked about skeptics who believe his marriage to Holmes is a public relations stunt, Cruise said, "That's laughable to me. I don't know what to say."
Winfrey asked about a book that she said "implied" Suri was not Cruise's child.
"I've had a lot of books written about me. When someone compares your daughter to Rosemary's baby _ it's one thing to come after me. Say stuff about me," he said. "But when it comes to my family, my children, that's when I went, `This is off the chart.'"
Before the interview, Bragman had expected Cruise to try to make fun of himself. On Friday, Bragman said Cruise tried another valid tact _ "he defended himself without being defensive."
He said Cruise is still a mogul with a lot of power in Hollywood and an actor who will continue to take chances.
"But I think he recognizes that on a personal front, he's going to tone down his personal life, play a little more straight and narrow, and put a little more separation between his personal and his public life," Bragman said.
Public relations executive David Brokaw said Cruise's approach on Winfrey's show "might be a bit boring" but was a successful PR move.
He said it's hard to overestimate what a huge star Cruise has been, and for so long; even his toddler daughter Suri has become a media darling.
Still, the best step Cruise could take next would be to do what he originally became famous for _ making great films, said Brokaw, of the Los Angeles-based Brokaw Co.
"If he makes a great movie that we all feel compelled to go to, then it just makes us more interested in what Suri is going to be doing when she's 4," he said with a laugh.
AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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