Action hero, sex therapist, hot Hollywood mom—no matter what role Paula Patton plays, she goes all the way. Now she’s Tom Cruise’s co-star in the new Mission: Impossible movie, toting guns and kicking tons of ass. And for the first time in her life, Paula P feels free.

This feature appears in Complex's December 2011 / January 2012 issue.

Just a year ago, Paula Patton never would have slipped into a barely there outfit to straddle a pommel horse in front of a camera. The occasional innocent bra shot? Sure. But steamy sexual provocation, complete with come-hither eyes and generous amounts of skin? Not a chance.

Believe it or not, she was just too shy.

From the outside looking in, Patton’s insecurities seem ridiculous. For one thing, she’s drop-dead gorgeous. She’s also a respected actress who’s graced romantic comedies (Just Wright, Jumping the Broom) and critical darlings (Déjà Vu, Precious) alike. Off screen, she and husband Robin Thicke—the Grammy Award–winning singer and songwriter—keep on giving lovesick fools hope by maintaining one of Hollywood’s most functional celebrity marriages. (Their first child, Julian Fuego, was born April 2010.) Her unforgettable performance in Thicke’s steamy “Lost Without You” video shows she’s not exactly as shy as she claims to be.

Still, the Los Angeles native was never comfortable disrobing for anyone else’s visual pleasure. But she’s never had a lead role in a blockbuster like Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol either. Sharing screen time with Tom Cruise in the fourth installment of the mega-successful spy franchise, Patton has found her confidence skyrocketing. She’s packing heat and beating down bad guys. It’s the kind of role that very few actresses get to tackle, and Patton knows it. No wonder she’s feeling better than ever about herself. And when she feels good, we feel good, too.

It’s safe to say that Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is the biggest film of your career so far. Not every actress gets to be in a franchise that’s earned over $4 billion worldwide. Making Mission: Impossible was a dream come true. It challenged me as an actor because it’s so technical. Any time you’re challenged you get better. I learned so much from working with Tom Cruise—it was remarkable. Also, I got to do my own stunts, and that felt more freeing than anything I’ve ever done. To be able to be that physical was exciting.

 

I want to be peaceful, but I have a lot of violent rage inside of me. Mission: Impossible was great for helping me get some of that out.

 

Was that first meeting with Tom Cruise intimidating?
No, actually. He made me feel comfortable; he was so kind. At first I felt like I shouldn’t waste my time, because I just didn’t see how they’d actually cast me. I didn’t think of myself being hired to be in this. Then they kept calling, so I figured, “OK, I have nothing to lose. It would be cool to be a spy. [Laughs.] And it’d be amazing to work with Tom. If they’re calling, there has to be a reason—you have to have more faith in yourself.” So they called and said that they wanted me to do a chemistry read with Tom, and it was like no screen test I’d ever done before. I had my trailer, and the test was on a big soundstage in Paramount. It felt very “old Hollywood.” It was very exciting. I had to learn how to disarm a gun a little bit—or at least be able to fake it—that same day!

Had you ever used a gun before?
Yeah, I had, actually. Before I got married, back in 2005, I did this TV pilot that Antoine Fuqua directed and produced, starring Josh Brolin and myself as homicide detectives—but it didn’t get picked up. I got to learn how to use a gun then, so I wasn’t coming into Mission: Impossible as naïve and fresh as I would have otherwise.

Was the weapons training difficult?
There was a lot of gun training that was far more intense than what I had done previously. The guns expert on set was nicknamed “Peter Guns.”

Not the rapper, obviously.
[Laughs.] No, not him. Ours used to be the head of SWAT teams. He put me through some intense gun training. I’m embarrassed to say how much fun it was. [Laughs.] I’m not somebody who really likes guns. I don’t like the idea of being violent in that way, and yet there’s something so powerful about holding a gun. It’s weird, but it’s the truth. It was fun to feel powerful enough to know that you could protect yourself in crazy situations. He taught me how to attack a man who’s nearly twice my size, and the training actually gave me the ability to do that, if need be.

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