I wasn’t exceptional in college by any means. I studied English literature because I knew that charm and charisma could influence my overall grade in a way they couldn’t in math and sciences. I sang a cappella in a group whose repertoire was stuck in the 1940s and was a bottom-rung substitute on the squash team.
My crowning achievement was being chosen by my peers to deliver my class’ graduation day address, known as the Harvard oration. It was a genuine honor. Little did I know it would foreshadow my role in creating the world’s most popular deepfake. As it would turn out, giving that speech really screwed with my head.
I was supposed to deliver an original speech from memory not only to my classmates but also to members of the governing boards, honorary degree recipients, the entire faculty, proud parents and throngs of alumni. The attendance clocked in at about 32,000.
I wrote and prepped and rehearsed endlessly for the big day. Seemingly everyone in the world who mattered to me would be in attendance. And just as I was summoned to come up and take my place among the three centuries of Harvard commencement orators before me, I heard a different name than mine being introduced. “He wears many hats on campus, but you probably know him best as the Tom Cruise guy, please welcome to the podium …”
Wait, hold up — what? Was I chosen for laughs? This was supposed to be my big moment. They couldn’t have phrased it, “with movie-star good looks,” or even, “with a resemblance to Mr. Mission Impossible,” but straight up “the Tom Cruise guy” as though I intentionally tried to work that angle? Are they expecting me to slide up to the podium in tighty-whities and Ray-Bans? Am I just … a joke?
I blanked. The entire speech vanished from my memory and in an instant I felt my identity flipped inside out for all the world to see. There I stood behind the podium, feeling laughed at, not with. Pure panic.
That was the day I graduated from college and entered the real world. And by the real world, I mean Los Angeles.
“Has anyone ever said you look just like a young Tom Cruise?”
Yes, yes they have. Every day someone says this to me. The vast majority of people who notice my resemblance to Tom Cruise feel good for having made the connection (ha) and give little consideration to what a strange burden and liability it’s been for me both personally and professionally. For my entire adult life, I’ve lived in a quasi Groundhog Day state, with people stopping me daily to compare me to the most famous actor alive. I’m constantly reminded that to everyone else, I’m that guy. And it always comes off feeling like a punch in a face.
Still, when enough strangers tell you that you look and sound like a movie star, you begin to think maybe you should try your hand at becoming a movie star. At least I did. As my luck would have it, however, I moved to L.A. right around the time movie stars began their decline. This was back in 2006, when an upstart service called YouTube was acquired by Google. The iPhone did not yet exist. Facebook, which had been created my freshman year by a classmate of mine named Zuckerberg, was still just the domain of fancy college kids.
How was I going to break in? Most aspiring actors new to Hollywood focus on getting an agent. I chose to focus on casting directors or, rather, how to sidestep them. What could help me bypass these gatekeepers altogether? In the earliest days of YouTube, the thing I remember sticking out the most was the number on the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. Your eye was immediately drawn to it, a number that told you in an instant if what you were about to see might be worth watching. If someone emailed you a video that only had 430 views? Meh, pass. Something with 680,000 views? This might be worth 20 seconds of your time — better press play and see why. Nothing builds a crowd like a crowd. Build one digitally, I reasoned, and skip the casting director’s door entirely.
The strategy worked, to a degree. I started making videos on YouTube, they started racking up views, and slowly but surely I started getting cast in movies and TV shows. I had small roles on shows like Mad Men, Psych, 2 Broke Girls. I led an ensemble in Final Destination V (in 3D!) and played the heartthrob in a Christmas-themed Lifetime movie. I was the lead in six pilots that never saw the light of day. Yet no matter how many credits I racked up, it was my original viral videos that people responded to.
My YouTube videos were usually spoofs that doubled as music videos. I spoofed American Psycho and Saved By the Bell. I spoofed Hollywood agencies and, of course, Tom Cruise. I loved seeing that view count cross the million mark. I felt it was proof of concept that there was an audience who enjoyed watching me. But was it really me they were watching?
The Tom Cruise resemblance was becoming a real hindrance professionally. It seemed that no matter how well I spoofed others, I was simply too good at spoofing him. Once you saw me do that, you couldn’t unsee him, and there was little I could do to shake it off. Believe me, I tried.
At first I tried to change my voice, testing out weeks with a low-register Southern twang or a clipped New England variation. I changed up my style of dress, doing all I could to look more like a striving artist than a guy who once worked at a haberdashery in Cambridge called The Andover Shop. Such efforts were condemned by casting directors and agents alike as “forced” and “inauthentic.” Instead, they suggested I try some new haircuts (how genuine!).
What I couldn’t do was alter my face, and as I got closer and closer to landing lead roles, auditions would get whittled down to just me and another actor. That is, the role would either be offered to a promising up-and-comer or … the “Tom Cruise guy.” The latter seldom won out.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed a decent run acting opposite some extraordinary people. I got to work with Leonardo DiCaprio, Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie. I improvised with Vince Vaughn, Laurence Fishburne and Keegan-Michael Key. I played serious with Elisabeth Moss, Courtney Vance and Owen Wilson. You know what they all had in common? Every one of them thought it was crazy how much I looked like Tom Cruise.
I had pursued acting to prove that I wasn’t just the Tom Cruise guy. I failed.
What if, instead of trying to hide my resemblance, I masked myself so perfectly that no one could even tell the difference? What if I just straight up owned it?
I’ll never forget the moment I first saw one of my videos deepfaked with my face replaced by Cruise’s. The lighting wasn’t uniform and there was a minor glitch behind the eyes, but the effect was still astonishing.
The video was made by a Belgian VFX artist named Chris Umé, who was living in Thailand. He pioneered a technology that used artificial intelligence “deep learning” to transpose Tom’s face onto mine in seemingly real time. I was able to get in touch with Chris, a shy and technologically brilliant wunderkind, to ask him just what the hell I was looking at. The science fascinated me, and over several conversations we developed a pen pal relationship via the internet.
One day, he casually mentioned that if I ever wanted another Tom Cruise deepfake (or hyperreal immersive footage, as Chris calls it), it would be easy to create. Apparently, the massive data set had not only been established and mapped to my face but was getting smarter and more realistic by the day. If I ever wanted to “play around,” I could just send him a clip and he could turn it around rather quickly. Um … sure, OK.
I took a 15-second selfie video in my backyard and texted it to him. Two days later, I had a video of the most famous global movie star performing in my backyard. It looked insanely real. So hyperreal my brain broke a little — I knew that was me talking, but cognitively my psyche wouldn’t accept it. This was bonkers.
I couldn’t make sense of what I was watching but figured maybe the algorithms could. I had never used TikTok before, but all the “youngs” seemed to be obsessed, so in 2021 I downloaded the app, created a parodic account called @DeepTomCruise and uploaded the video. That’s when things started to get really bananas.
I had never made a number get that big that fast. From zero to 4 million views in less than two days. Tens of thousands of comments, virtually all of them convinced this was actually Tom Cruise just sharing his life on the internet. People weren’t comparing me to him; they insisted I was him.
When doing an impersonation of anyone, I’ll always try to distill someone’s essence down to two succinct words that help inform their mannerisms and drive. With Tom, I had locked in on “intense pleading.” He’s a guy who will do whatever it takes to get you to trust him. No one brims over with confidence like he does, but behind those eyes I’ve always sensed a desperation to get your vote. Or in TikTok’s case, your upvote.
The notion of Tom Cruise on TikTok is inherently absurd. This is a man for whom even TV is too small. He is the last Hollywood icon standing. Famous for never being truly accessible, he has masterly maintained that void into which the audience projects its desire. The idea of seeing him doing everyday, mundane things struck me as such a fun content space. Stars, they’re just like us, right?
Unlike YouTube or Instagram, TikTok took some getting used to. It’s the ultimate selfie platform. With my past impressions of Tom, I was used to going big — that loud laugh, intense jutting of the arms, megawatt confidence, etc. But with the camera now so close to my face, and with the deepfake technology layering on the subtlest microexpressions, it came off as overacting. I needed to dial it back, become more nuanced, more quotidian. And it needed a touch of something we almost never see from Tom Cruise: silliness.
I began making a series of videos according to a few simple rules. No cheap shots at Tom — nothing personal about him, his family or his religion. Not only is that none of my business, but I knew it would be a creative trap. Rather, every sketch was rooted in the simple joy of everyday experiences. Like discovering someone put gum inside a lollipop!
The sketches were limitless. My bruised ego, having endured 20 years of reductive comparisons, harbored an endless reservoir of ideas: Yeah, sure he’s A-list, but can Tom Cruise flush a golf ball or play guitar or speak Spanish or Japanese or perform magic?
Tom Cruise turned 60 this July and shows no signs of slowing down. I’ve never met the legend. At this point, nothing would make me happier. The creative joy behind DeepTom has proved contagious, resonating with the next generation of teenagers who loiter at the global algorithm malls. Between TikTok and Instagram Reels, my character has been viewed nearly a billion times.
Of course, I can’t take any credit for the overwhelming success of Top Gun: Maverick, but I’d like to think that I’ve contributed favorably to the contemporary awareness and likability of Mr. Cruise, especially among the 30-and-under set. After all, I’ve garnered him positive virality that money can’t buy. And I won’t profit one cent from any of this unless Mr. Cruise reaches out with his official approval to use his likeness. Until then, it’s only good-natured parody.
I believe my DeepTom meme has done much to raise global awareness of this powerful new technology. It’s undeniable that AI is going to revolutionize traditional computer graphics, bidirectional gaming, visual consumer communications and the entertainment industry at large. As the potential of the tech continues to grow, so too does its vulnerability to malicious uses. This is a challenge that must be addressed judiciously, especially by its pioneers. AI-generated content will become increasingly accessible to the public on the internet, and as such, I believe it’s essential that we build cohesive best practices to address these ethical issues with urgency and empathy.
For my part, it’s been a creative boon. It took me a very long time to no longer feel laughed at but laughed with. I still get stopped by strangers on the street, but these days people tend to ask me if I’m the DeepTomCruise guy. With the relief of finally waking up to the day after Groundhog Day, I’m happy to finally own up to it. Yep, that’s me. I’m Miles, what’s your name?
This story first appeared in the July 20 issue of The Outne Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.