By Linda Barnard
Jerome LeBlanc’s braces came off, et voila! Tom Cruise.
Not Tom Cruise exactly. But an uncannily realistic Cruise imitator, a persona carefully nurtured by the 33-year-old French-Canadian actor to be a Tom Cat copycat.
Life is sure to get even better for LeBlanc with this week’s opening of Top Gun: Maverick, starring Cruise, Miles Teller and Val Kilmer. Much of it was filmed in San Diego.
Dressed in a circa-1986 Top Gun-style flight suit, or wearing a tight white T-shirt and leather jacket with colorful aviator patches, dark hair shiny with pomade and jaw like a chunk of granite, people can’t seem to resist LeBlanc’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell.
I watched LeBlanc work a crowd at a 2019 event in Anaheim, CA. Excited women rushed towards him. Men crowded in to pose for thumbs-up selfies. It was hard to find somewhere to sit down for a quiet corner for a chat. People can’t seem to resist him and LeBlanc is eager to meet everyone.
“It’s like being an illusionist and it’s mixed with nostalgia, which is a very powerful feeling,” he says. “I bring back the feeling of such an impactful movie in the ’80s. Top Gun was a huge hit and Cruise was a huge crush for many women. I use that to bring back that lovin’ feeling.”
Yes, just like Maverick in Top Gun, LeBlanc serenades his fans with the Righteous Brothers hit.
Playing Cruise is LeBlanc’s full-time job, one that grew from street busking as the movie star’s twin while he was studying architecture at UCLA.
While it’s taken him as far as Australia, most of his work is around southern California, at promotional events, conventions and in advertising. He’s also teamed to do promotional work with San Diego Sky Tours.
With the blessing of the retired naval aviator docents on the decommissioned aircraft carrier USS Midway in San Diego, LeBlanc plays Midway Maverick at the USS Midway Museum, posing outside the museum for photos with kids and families.
USS Midway Museum travel industry sales manager Joseph Wagstaff says LeBlanc approaches his duties with respect for military personnel, making him a good fit for the job.
I’ve met Cruise and sat down with him for an interview in a Toronto hotel in 2008. Hand on heart, LeBlanc could be his Top Gun twin, right down to the slightly manic laugh, bursts of enthusiasm and wide, perfect smile.
Like Cruise, he’s slightly built. But when LeBlanc takes off his ever-present aviator shades, he’s less of a ringer. I’d wager he’s actually better looking than the young Cruise.
It goes a bit askew when we talked. The soft-spoken LeBlanc still has a noticeable Quebecois accent, although he’s worked hard on his American-Cruise voice. He’s been coached by his wife, Nicole — yes, that’s her name — a Jersey native he met while mimicking Cruise five years ago on Hollywood Blvd. She handed him her phone number.
The couple has a young daughter.
Nicole and her Brooklynite dad gave him better voice lessons than his 18 months of dialect coaching, LaBlanc says.
But the language difference did help him play a better Cruise. “French being my first language, it was hard for me to understand Americans, so I became very focused on listening and how is Tom Cruise? Very focused.”
Born in Quebec City, LeBlanc was studying architecture in Montreal when he decided to transfer to UCLA.
“I was a very shy person. I had gaps between my teeth. It was hard to be confident. The (new) smile helped and brought a different personality to me,” he says.
The braces came off, he got to UCLA and, “I would hear it every single day. You look like Tom Cruise in Risky Business,” LeBlanc says. “I never heard it in Canada because I had braces. I wasn’t smiling.”
(He pauses for a shout-out to his Montreal-area orthodontist Dr. Yuray Benko for kick-starting his Cruise career.)
Unable to work because he was in the U.S. on a student visa, LeBlanc decided to play the Cruise card, posing for photos as Maverick on tourist-clogged streets.
“I’d say, ‘I pose for donations. Is that OK with you?’ And being very polite, it worked very well,” says LeBlanc, who worked every Thursday to Sunday, pocketing $200-$400 a day.
Before long, architecture took a backseat. He switched to acting classes, completing a certificate in TV and film acting, then taking classes at The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, The Groundlings Theatre & School and the Beverly Hills Playhouse.
LeBlanc says it was “a blessing and a curse” to be a Cruise look-alike when he was trying to get work as an actor. He’d drive to L.A. weekly for auditions but couldn’t get call backs for anything other than Cruise-related jobs.
Once he committed to being a Cruise impersonator, things changed.
Although he watched all of Cruise’s films to help nail the actor’s mannerisms, his street audiences were his biggest teachers. Comments about what clicked and what didn’t taught LeBlanc how to smile, react and do that signature Cruise chuckle.
LeBlanc says people usually ask how he got started as an impersonator and how he makes a living playing Cruise.
“I respect Tom Cruise so much,” says LeBlanc. “He’s brought me tons of work.”
Although he still has a passion for architecture and shares photos on his phone of a small, stylish cabin he’s built, Cruise is his living for now. Is playing Tom Cruise a good career?
“I think we all have a niche and to know our talents is something to discover over the years and to go fill speed in that direction,” LeBlanc says. “Anybody can succeed in that way.”
He’s always looking for new clients, especially in Germany, France and Italy where people are “Top Gun fanatics.”
He’s never met Cruise. If he did, he’d have just one thing to say to the actor: “Thank you.”
For more on LeBlanc go to californiatomcruise.com