Here's one of Hollywood's best kept secrets: In early 1994, while he was still married to Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise spent an intimate five...

Share story

LOS ANGELES — Here’s one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets: In early 1994, while he was still married to Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise spent an intimate five weeks with a woman named Margie Balter. He spent several uninterrupted hours every day with her at his home in Los Angeles. When he wasn’t with her, he was calling her on the phone.

Why didn’t the tabloids pick up on it?

Because Balter herself is one of Hollywood’s hidden treasures: the University of Washington grad, who still considers Seattle a second home, is the most acclaimed piano coach in showbiz. She was preparing Cruise for his role in “Interview with a Vampire,” in which he not only had to play complicated pieces on the piano, but the harpsichord. Balter trained him on both instruments, despite the fact Cruise had never played either before, and Balter had just taught herself harpsichord in the preceding month.

“Tom was great,” recalls Balter, who lives in the Century City neighborhood. “He was amazingly dedicated.” He was so committed, she says, that he’d frequently call her to play his exercises over the phone and ask her if he was doing it right.

Cruise had heard of Balter on the set of 1993’s “The Firm,” from his co-star Holly Hunter, who had spent many months training with Balter for “The Piano.”

Listen to clips from Balter’s CD

Whisper in the Dark (:39, MP3)

Dream Doors (:39, MP3)

M & M (:41, MP3)

For information on ordering Balter’s CD, visit www.margiebalter.com.

Balter, a Pittsburgh native, began playing piano at 4, composing at 9. In the fourth grade, she started her own theater group, putting on productions for her family and friends, actually doing paid gigs for birthday parties. She arranged and composed music, acted and directed. “My mother always said that if one of the actors became sick, I’d just fill in for an additional role.”

She spent a year studying theater at Northwestern University, before she headed to Seattle with a new major: music.

“Seattle was the one city where I didn’t know anyone,” says Balter, though the gregarious young woman wouldn’t be lonely for long. In the eight formative years Balter spent in Seattle, she played with her Zimbabwe-born professor and mentor’s African band, Dumi and the Minanzi Marimba Ensemble.

“I was completely — and still am — mad for African music.” She jokes, “I played rattle and I think he hired me because I had a station wagon and they needed a way to transport those marimbas!” With her take-charge personality, she quickly doubled as band manager.

They performed every night, six days a week to sold-out audiences and toured. “We played everywhere,” she recalls. “At the Bombay Bicycle Club; we opened for Taj Majal; we opened the Kennedy Center’s Children’s Festival.” (The band reunited a couple of years ago at Folklife, and Balter flew up to join them onstage.)

DANNY MOLOSHOK

Balter gives 12-year-old Hurd hands-on instruction.

Before she left Seattle, she’d played in nine other African bands, advancing to drums. She headed to Los Angeles to try to break into Hollywood in the early ’80s and began working as a television production assistant. Six months after arriving, she took on her first piano student, who introduced her to Jane Fonda, who was looking for a piano teacher for her son, Troy Garity. She spent several years teaching Garity and grew close to the family.

“I was there for the weddings, births, I was there when they were nominated for ‘On Golden Pond,’ when Henry [Fonda, Jane’s father] died and when Tom [Hayden, Fonda’s ex and Garity’s father] was elected to the California state Senate.”

Fonda introduced her to “L.A. Law” star Jill Eikenberry, who became another high-profile student, and her reputation grew. Meanwhile, she continued to act when jobs arose.

Having fun as fill-in

Finally, she was asked to fill in for an actor in 1991’s “Captain America,” and told to “play Chopin.” The actor, Scott Paulin, “was supposed to play [the piece] drunk, as a little boy, as a person ready to commit suicide and someone really angry. I got to play it and it was an acting role, through my music. It felt like a real synthesis and was so much fun.”

In the early ’90s, Eikenberry introduced Balter to Hunter, paving the way for “The Piano” and its haunting Oscar-caliber performance, film and soundtrack.

“When I first read the script, I couldn’t imagine how it was going to be done,” and yet, “it was as though magic dust was sprinkled on it.” She rehearsed with Hunter, who was already a competent pianist — though not quite ready for her close-up — from August 1991 through March 1992, when shooting began. Balter didn’t travel to New Zealand for the shoot, but during the year of post-production, in which Hunter recorded her own playing, Balter was by her side.

“Piano” director Jane Campion then hired Balter to coach Barbara Hershey for “Portrait of a Lady.” Hershey, who learned to play several complicated pieces in less than two weeks, was nominated for an Oscar for her role.

To train an actor for an on-screen piano-playing role is considerably different than actually teaching piano. “You have to teach the basics, how to count,” she says, but then most of the time is given to making them look like they’re pros.

One of her quickest learners was Sandra Bullock, whom she worked with for “The Net.” Bullock knew “a teeny bit” about piano, “but she was just great, and got it so quickly.” Kevin Spacey “had very good aptitude.” Eikenberry and Hunter eventually evolved into extremely accomplished piano players. Balter also coached Scarlett Johanssen for the Coen brothers’ film “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” “She did really well,” says Balter. “They all end up doing great — I force it out of them.”

But Balter doesn’t always get the part. She lost out on “The Pianist,” “Ray” (star Jamie Foxx played all of his own music), and “De Lovely” (Juilliard-trained Kevin Kline “didn’t want lessons”). Fortunately, there are many more clamoring to work with her.

Young phenom

She’s also impressed with 12-year-old Paige Hurd, who plays Queen Latifah’s daughter in “Beauty Shop.” A natural, Hurd is “super talented,” says Balter, who continues to teach her.

Hurd says, “Margie makes things fun and easy, but likes to get her job done at the same time. She and I are really close now. If I asked her to play a song, she would stay with me until I learned it.”

Balter says that the pieces Hurd had to learn for the film were complicated, including one Balter wrote herself. In fact, “Beauty Shop” offers Balter her first quadruple credit: composing, arranging, playing and teaching credits.

As she’s taken on more students over the years, Balter’s confident of her ability. “I could teach a monkey to play piano, I really could,” she says. “I can teach anyone, as long as they’ll listen to me.”

N.F. Mendoza is a regular contributor to The Seattle Times from Los Angeles: NFMP@yahoo.com