Danika Yarosh: 'The second I met him he was so warm I forgot he was Tom Cruise, the biggest action star in the world'
Actress Danika Yarosh talks to James Mottram about flying, motorbike riding and working alongside her mega co-star in the latest Jack Reacher blockbuster.
Teenager Danika Yarosh is keen to talk about co-star Tom Cruise: "We just clicked in a way that's so unusual," she says.
"We have all the same interests in real life."
The pair appeared together in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back - the second film to come from the Lee Child series of books.
Cruise is back as Reacher, the taciturn ex-military police major turned maverick dispenser of justice. The 18-year-old Yarosh plays Sam, a foster-care teenager who may or may not be Reacher's daughter.
Yarosh, who made her breakthrough in the US version of the TV show Shameless, is blonde, fresh-faced and, when we meet, sporting a slinky striped dress and silver heels. But away from designer finery, rather like Cruise, she's all action.
"I'm getting my pilot's licence right now," she enthuses, explaining she flies the "super-safe" Cirrus SR20 monoplane. Already the proud owner of a motorcycle licence, she also loves boxing and archery (taught by Khatuna Lorig, who coached Jennifer Lawrence for The Hunger Games).
Little wonder she and Cruise clicked. While they were shooting in New Orleans, the actor set her up with the stunt co-ordinator to learn how to "drift" - a specific technique for racing cars. While her own father "never wanted me to get into racing because he knew how dangerous it was", he could hardly complain.
A former member of the US Air Force, like Cruise, Yarosh senior has raced for pleasure. "It turns out they raced at the same time, at the same competitions and at the same tracks. My dad raced against Paul Newman and Tom was trained by him," she says.
Given their shared interests, it's no surprise to learn Yarosh's father is a huge Cruise fan - right back to when he was making Top Gun, racetrack drama Days of Thunder and The Color of Money with Newman.
"I probably watched Top Gun millions of times growing up," Yarosh laughs. "Whenever one of his movies would be in theatres, my dad would take all of us and go see it."
While it's no shock to hear he was psyched to see his daughter work with his hero, Cruise was apparently just as "stoked" to meet her father.
She recounts the moment he arrived on set on Thanksgiving last year. "The second we were finished filming, Tom ran over to my dad and my dad was so confused ... and Tom just jumped on him and gave him a huge hug, and my dad was like, 'What's happening?'"
It's a sweet story, typical of the admiration Yarosh has for her hugely famous co-star. "The second I met him, he was so warm, open and engaging, I just forgot he was Tom Cruise and probably the biggest action star in the world. Just a regular old pal."
If the fiery Yarosh and Cruise are alike, then so are their characters.
"Sam is basically Reacher in teenage girl form, even down to the thought process," says the actress. "Sam is so strong and independent, she doesn't need some guy to save her. She's so complex and there are so many different layers to her, which you never find with teenage girls." It's one of the reasons, she says, why she loves the movie - which sees Reacher and Sam go on the run in an intriguing story involving military espionage and corrupt private contractors.
Curiously, Yarosh's first acting experience was as a four-year-old extra on 'The Stepford Wives', the 2004 remake starring Cruise's ex-wife Nicole Kidman.
Shot in her New Jersey hometown, she loved the experience and pestered her mother to let her take acting classes. She soon veered towards competitive dance - ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop, pointe, modern - which ultimately led her to audition for the Broadway production of Billy Elliot when she was 10. Winning the role of Karen, one of the ballet girls, she spent seven months on the show.
After a fracture to her growth plate meant she had to take an enforced break, Yarosh was determined to continue performing, and she and her mother (and her dog) moved to Los Angeles when she was 12.
The middle child of three - older sister Mani also acts, younger brother Peter doesn't - Yarosh was initially supposed to be in town for just three months. But when she kept booking "little projects here and there", she and her mother kept extending their stay, until LA became a permanent home.
"So it wasn't a huge jump, more of a gradual move."
Winning bit-parts in shows like 30 Rock and Law & Order, Yarosh also secured recurring roles in See Dad Run and Shameless, playing Debbie Gallagher's pal Holly.
But even then she was considering putting her acting career on hold to study medicine.
"School has always been a priority for me. And for my family - they thought it was extremely important for me to get an education, which it is," she says.
Yet when Yarosh was cast in Heroes Reborn, the short-lived reboot of the popular sci-fi show, she abandoned her ideas of study. "Right now, I'm working and putting college off for a little bit," she says. "I'm still taking part-time classes, because I still want to study biology. And I would want to do that full-time."
Somehow you suspect Yarosh may find that difficult if her career continues to blossom in the way it's doing so far. Acting clearly drives her.
"I love playing people that are different to me. That's what I love about acting - getting to be someone that's not me. Step into someone else's shoes and live their life, instead of mine."
When we meet, she's in the middle of shooting sports drama Live Like Line. "It's a true story about a group of girls and their volleyball team in Iowa back in 2011," she says. Yarosh plays Line, the most beloved member of the team, while Helen Hunt co-stars as the coach.
Currently adding volleyball to her already impressive skills set, it explains the bruise on her leg. "I was doing some drills and I ran into a little bench ... where there's never been a bench before."
Well, even Tom Cruise trips up occasionally.
- Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is in cinemas now