Nude Tom Cruise Artist: "I Spent Like a Month Sculpting That Penis"

Scientology Split - H 2015
Courtesy of Corey Allen Contemporary Arts

Scientology Split - H 2015

"I see [the image] as something mysterious, definitely not as something so clear-cut. Religion is always mysterious," the artist tells THR.

Daniel Edwards, the artist behind the "Shroud of Scientology" piece that features a nude Tom Cruise holding a cross, isn't going for the easy joke with his latest work -- despite popular assumption.

"It's not a send-up," Edwards says in a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter. "I feel it's more complicated than that."

By stripping Cruise of his clothes and having him hold a cross, Edwards says, he's not trying to mock the actor; he's trying to depict the obscure nature of religion. "I don't feel that the Shroud is something so black and white. I see it as something mysterious, definitely not as something so clear-cut," says Edwards. "Religion is always mysterious."

The Cruise piece has so far aroused suspicion across the Internet that it's really a criticism of Cruise (and Scientology at large), but Edwards insists the work is a genuine tribute to Cruise and his iconic status. "I think there will be a certain population that buys into [the work as tribute]," he says. "Tom Cruise is just fascinating to people."

Edwards is, after all, a fan. "I do like his movies," he says. "I mean, he is Tom Cruise."

As a classically trained sculptor, Edwards' works take a deadpan approach toward depicting the most overexposed celebrities of our time. His catalog includes a nude bust of Hillary Clinton (2006), a Paris Hilton autopsy sculpture (2007), and perhaps most famously, a sculpture of a naked Britney Spears on all fours, giving birth on a bearskin rug (2006). "I have an affection for ghoulish work," Edwards told The New York Times in 2005.

But Edwards doesn't want people to view the Cruise piece through the lens of his other work, which might be perceived as more sarcastic or mocking in tone. "I really prefer it if people don't know my earlier work and can come to the piece fresh," he says. Edwards wants viewers to avoid the impulse to "oversimplify it."

Unlike Edwards' past projects, the final result here will be 2-dimensional. Describing his process, Edwards says he "sculpted" the Tom Cruise image using a 3-d computer model, which he then printed in 2-d on poplin, a fabric used for religious shrouds since the 15th century. "I spent like a month sculpting that penis," Edwards says, laughing. "That requires a certain zaniness — a kind of obsession, definitely."

Corey Allen, founder of the gallery where the exhibit will open on Aug. 8th, told THR in an earlier interview that he and Edwards imagine their upcoming Scientology exhibit "as a simple pilgrimage site where visitors can come to pay respects, much like the site of the Shroud of Turin, where "thousands stream through a holy space to visit the object."

Edwards and Allen aren't jumping on the Going Clear bandwagon either. Edwards explains that despite the fresh wave of controversy surrounding the recent HBO documentary about the church, the Tom Cruise piece has actually been in the works for a while. "I've been working on the piece for two years," says Edwards.

"I was first inspired when I saw something about [Cruise's] connection to Wal-Mart at the time that a building collapsed in India," Edwards says, referring to a 2013 incident, when a Wal-Mart supplier's factory collapsed in Bangladesh, killing 1,100 workers, mostly women. Cruise was scheduled to speak at a Wal-Mart shareholder meeting a month later.

"I was wondering how he would handle it," Edwards says. When Cruise did speak, he praised the company for "improving women's lives around the world," and was widely criticized for his remarks.

After subsequently deciding to focus on Cruise for his next piece, Edwards says he grew increasingly obsessed with a portrait he was working on as part of the Cruise series: a digital rendering of the actor's face, which he used to cast a commemorative medal that includes Cruise's face in profile, with the words, "Tom Cruise" and "Scientologist." A small, separate plaque next to the medal reads, "Twenty-Five Years," a nod to Cruise's 25th anniversary of his Scientology membership (he joined in 1990).

The medal will be featured alongside the "Shroud of Scientology" at Edwards' "Pop-Up Church of Scientology" exhibit at the Corey Allen Contemporary Art gallery, conveniently located near the church's headquarters in Clearwater.

For its part, the Church of Scientology has denounced Edwards' exhibit. "The Church has nothing to do with this publicity stunt, and any claim to the contrary is false," church spokesperson Karin Pouw told THR.

In some ways, Edwards admires that Cruise "seems very committed to this religion" but says the actor should be using his influence to do more good. 

"If you're going to be the Pope of Scientology ... I like it when people use power to influence the world for good. We have a good pope now, who does a lot of good things. I'm not Catholic, but I think he does a lot of good as a religious figure," Edwards says, criticizing Scientology for its arguably narrower crusades.

"Scientology," he says, "it does have certain causes ... I remember the whole Brook Shields thing [In 2005, Cruise criticized Shields for her comments about post-partum depression and use of anti-depressants]. I just think there are other causes."