Adam Shankman melds worry with chutzpah in ‘Rock of Ages’

Five years ago, at Sadie Sandler’s first birthday party, at the estate of her father, Adam Sandler, filmmaker Adam Shankman was sitting in a plastic toddler’s chair when he was startled by another guest who sat down beside him.

“He said, ‘Hi, I’m Tom Cruise,’ and I freaked out,” said Shankman, whose movie “Rock of Ages,” based on the Tony-nominated musical and starring Cruise, opens June 15. “I whipped around, and in my head I was hearing just this crazy white noise, because I’m just Adam Shankman, and I couldn’t understand why he wanted to meet me.”

Cruise proceeded to compliment Shankman on his 2007 film adaptation of the musical “Hairspray,” explaining that he and his daughter, Suri, had watched it dozens of times. “I just got so weirdly spooked that I excused myself to get some food,” Shankman recalled.  And I stood up and the chair stuck to my [rear end].”

Out of that embarrassing moment came “the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Shankman said. Thereafter, every time he saw Cruise, the superstar would ask him, “So when are we doing our musical?”

“In my head, I was like, never,” Shankman said in a phone interview during New Line Cinema’s “Rock of Ages” press tour in New York. As far as he knew, Cruise could neither sing nor dance. “And what were we going to do — a remake of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’?

“But then the studio said they wanted to replicate the model of ‘Hairspray,’ which was to get big movie stars in a musical, and I said, ‘Oh my God, I think I know somebody.’ And I talked to Tom, and he was floored that this kind of weird notion was suddenly even possible.”

Cruise shows off his newly trained four-octave range in “Rock of Ages” — a heavy-metal saga set on the Sunset Strip in 1987 — as he belts out ditties by Guns N’ Roses and Def Leppard while decked out in lace-up leather pants and a vintage coyote-fur jacket over his bare torso.

Cruise plays the fading rock god Stacee Jaxx, who gets a creative boost from two young ingénues (Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta) as Christian crusaders (including Catherine Zeta-Jones) protest against the evils of heavy metal.

Adam Shankman. Photo by David James/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

It’s Cruise’s first musical ever: “I got like a bubbe; I was very protective of him,” Shankman said, adding that his own gay and Jewish sensibilities inform everything he does. For “Hairspray,” which tells the story of a zaftig teenager who just wants to dance in 1960s Baltimore, he turned John Travolta-in-drag “into a Jewish mother,” Shankman quipped. When he directed “A Walk to Remember,” starring Mandy Moore as a Christian teenager, “I thought it was hilarious that I was this big, gay Jew making this Christian movie.”

Shankman also admitted that he’s a worrier on par with Woody Allen, having viewed himself as “a bit of a hack” until co-producing the Oscars boosted his confidence in 2010. “If Hollywood was handing me the biggest night of the year, there’s got to be some good here,” he said, adding “You can’t live in that kind of self-loathing.”

Shankman, 47, traces his insecurities to “early shame about the gay stuff.” Growing up in a traditional Jewish family in Brentwood was less fraught, even though, he said, the Shankmans were one of the few Jewish families in the neighborhood in the early 1970s. Young Adam, however, made plenty of Jewish friends attending Hebrew school at University Synagogue — including his “Rock of Ages” production designer, Jon Hutman.

And his penchant for worrying didn’t prevent him from displaying a modicum of chutzpah when he auditioned for Juilliard with nary a dance lesson under his belt.

He lied his way into his first choreography gig in 1989: “I was in my roommate’s production office, bitching about how I wasn’t getting work because I wasn’t cute and blond, when suddenly a production assistant literally ran into the room and said, ‘We have an emergency — we just lost our choreographer — does anybody know one?’ ” Shankman recalled. “And without missing a beat, I said, ‘I’m a choreographer,’ which was completely untrue.”

Shankman was hired on the spot and went on to choreograph numerous videos and films before snagging his directorial debut, “The Wedding Planner,” starring Jennifer Lopez, in 2001. Even so, he said, he mostly played things rather safe with his career until “Hairspray,” his first full-scale musical, which earned him a Golden Globe nomination. Then he chanced to see the Broadway musical “Rock of Ages” several years ago and was stunned by all the straight guys rocking out in the audience. 

“I thought, ‘If I can make a movie musical for straight guys, I’d be like a rock god,’ ” Shankman said.

For inspiration, he drew on memories of visiting his father, a rock ‘n’ roll manager, at his offices at 9200 Sunset Blvd., and of an iconic Sunset Strip that included landmarks like Filthy McNasty’s, the Rainbow Bar and Grill, and the Whisky a Go Go.

Yet Shankman’s worrying took a high note when he had to figure out whether Cruise could actually carry a tune. “To be perfectly honest, we kept avoiding the ‘Can you

sing?’ conversation,” said Shankman, who was relieved when Cruise revealed untapped talent during a session with Axl Rose’s former vocal coach, Ron Anderson, and practiced five hours a day for months to prepare for the role. 

Then it was a matter of creating the Jaxx character, which Shankman did, in part, by sending Cruise an unusual screen-captured image from a costume fitting. “Tom was arched back in this slinky, weird, very un-Tom Cruise-y posture that was oddly sexual, and I e-mailed it to him and said, ‘This is who I want you to be,’ ” the director recalled. “He’s just this person who basically lives from his crotch.” It’s a debauched image that nevertheless conjures memories of the young Cruise in his underwear rocking out in that iconic scene from “Risky Business.”

There’s a melancholy to Jaxx as well as an over-the-top, sexual kind of comedy: While singing Foreigner’s wistful “I Want to Know What Love Is” with his love interest, played by Malin Akerman, the couple share the tongueiest kiss ever. “It’s not like I was going, ‘Go get her, tiger,’ ” Shankman recalled of shooting that scene. “It was more like, ‘Oh, that’s so gross, let’s move on.’ “

“Rock of Ages” opens on June 15.