Patrick Heusinger isn’t a movie star yet—but that might have changed by the time you finish reading this article.

“I wanted to join the armed services, and one of my dreams as a kid was to be a police officer. Then I thought I was going to be a baseball player,” says Heusinger, who’s about to hit Top Gun-type career altitude with his new role as The Hunter, the badass villain opposite Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

The 35-year-old has had some success on the small screen with a string of pretty boy TV appearances in Gossip Girl, Royal Pains, and Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce“Television has been kind to me,” he admits.

But Heusinger may have caught his big break when a casting director at Paramount saw him in the play Bent, as a gay Jewish concentration camp inmate. For the part, Heusinger dropped about 38 pounds.

“I normally hang around 200-205, and then I got down to 167 for the play,” he says. “I had actually just finished the play and was on vacation putting on weight, and the flight back is when I got the audition for Jack Reacher. After I got the job, [Paramount] looked at me—I had kind of gotten back up to about 185—and they were like, ‘We like this lean look. We want to keep you, we don’t want you to get too muscle-y, so let’s get you around 180ish.’”

Heusinger “worked out like crazy” to keep his quarterback-size physique in check, but shooting in New Orleans was tricky for his diet.

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“The food is really delicious but not the healthiest in the world,” he says. “You walk into a coffee shop and there are donuts with bacon and caramel on them. It was torture.” He likes to get on meal plans because they’re structured.

“I know I can only eat what arrives at my doorstep, and I can speak to the nutritionist and map out the right amount of calories, especially when I was losing weight like I was, and make sure that I’m not also putting my body or my organs at risk from malnutrition,” Heusinger says.

Part of his diet when losing weight includes more greens and vegetables, plus quinoa for protein as he “cuts out shakes.” When maintaining mass he prefers chicken, eggs, and lots of fish, instead of red meat. Heusinger keeps his physical edge with a regular regiment of intense exercise that includes planks, situps, bicycle, and mountain climbers.

“I do a CrossFit-type workout,” he says. “It’s a long series of exercises that are high-cardio, with some lifting—but at a pretty decent clip—in a one-day-on, one-day-off cycle. And then I try to take an extra day off a week but I usually slip in a five-mile run on that rest day because it’s hard for me to stay idle.”

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Prior to being cast in Reacher, Heusinger went from being “happy trying to build a nice little acting career” for himself to co-starring with “the biggest movie star in the world!” Needless to say, the Jacksonville native is also a fan of his leading man.

“I’ll watch a Tom Cruise movie any day of the week, ’cause I’ve been a massive fan of his since I was a kid. This was the first time that I’d ever worked with a bona fide movie star in my entire life.”

Meeting Cruise on his first big-budget film caused Heusinger some anxiety. “There were some nerves,” he admits, “but the first thing that happened on Day 1 was, I walked in and the director meets me, Tom meets me. They cut out a half day to sit down with me and just talk—‘let’s talk through the character, let’s talk through any questions you have, talk through what this process will be like,’ because they both knew this was the first time I was going to be going through a filming process.”

And Heusinger says his desire to impress his idol for his studio feature debut was just as intense. “This was a role where I could bring my physicality to the part,” he says. “I’m working with Tom and we’re doing a month-and-a half-of fight and gun training and stunt driving ’cause I was doing all my own stunts,” he says. “We were very up close and personal and he couldn’t have been more helpful.”

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The Mission: Impossible star was completely available on set, but a ghost when the workday was done. “Tom was great to work with, but a busy guy, so I didn’t see him much when we weren’t trying to kill each other,”Heusinger says. “Then he had all these other responsibilities, so it wasn’t like we ever really got to hang out.”

The former high school ballplayer endured many smackdowns and stunts on-screen with Cruise during filming. “There are some major fight sequences that are very physical, hand-to-hand combat. It’s that kind of old-school fighting mentality. It’s got that kind of very raw and brutal fighting style. Tom and I have a couple face-offs, and they’re intense and they’re long and we’re going at it. And those were grueling shooting days, cause I had never done a fight scene.” Heusinger seems to have also figured out how to survive in Hollywood.

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“It’s so surreal,” he says. “One day, you’re taking ground balls at high school baseball practice, and the next, you’re slipping punches from Tom Cruise.”

“It’s awesome to be an actor!”