A heart to heart with Cuba Gooding Jr.: The film he really wants to make and why it's not about him

Now we really want to see him make a movie about the pre-NHL league of African-Canadian ice hockey teams too

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published October 9, 2018 5:30PM (EDT)

Cuba Gooding Jr. (AP/Chris Pizzello)
Cuba Gooding Jr. (AP/Chris Pizzello)

Many film fans are probably like me — they rarely see beyond the screen. We watch actors portraying a string of different roles and imagine that their lived experience must be nothing short of glamorous. We don’t that realize that they hurt, suffer from depression, and have hardships like the rest of us. Hollywood is so non-accessible that I honestly never paid attention to the A-list perspective. A recent heart-to-heart with Cuba Gooding Jr. changed that.

My friends and I still call him Tre, from his breakout role in John Singleton’s Academy Award-nominated 1991 film "Boyz n the Hood." Tre was the good kid, with the good dad, who was headed to college along with his best friend Ricky, played by Morris Chestnut. Ricky and Tre were regular street kids who didn’t want to sell crack; they ate junk food, chased girls and dreamed of success instead. They provided hope to lots of kids like me, who didn’t want to fall victim to the drug game. That was one of the only contemporary films of that time that offered such a narrative.

Ricky had an encounter with an older gangster at a block party who eventually murders him in front of Tre — another reality my friends and I faced too often. Tre was now faced with a decision: to avenge Ricky’s death and continue the cycle, or be positive and try to change the narrative. He chose the latter. The street culture welled up in us 8-year-old kids at the time and we booed his decision, even though most of us would’ve done the same thing in real life. We didn't want to be killers. That movie changed us; Tre gave us hope.

Fast forward to 1996. Trey grew up to be Rod Tidwell, a flashy trash-talking NFL player playing opposite Tom Cruise in Cameron Crowe's "Jerry Maguire." This role seemed to be made for Gooding, and he won an Oscar for it. So, we started seeing Gooding as Tidwell, the loudmouth successful football player, and not Trey from the hood who lost his friend.

Gooding went on to appear in many films; however, that success we associated with "Jerry Maguire" stuck. What we didn't know was that Gooding’s career was on a downward spiral, as he passed up blockbuster after blockbuster — including "Amistad," "Collateral," "Hotel Rwanda" and the lead in Taylor Hackford’s Ray Charles biopic.

Gooding felt that turning down so many successful films got him blackballed, as he spent a decade appearing in a number of straight to DVD films, something that Academy Award winners normally don’t do. On top of that, he was going through a rough divorce. Another thing fans just didn’t see.

But now the 50-year-old is fighting back. After playing in Ryan Murphy's award-winning limited series "The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story," directing his own films, and staring as Billy Flynn in the Broadway production of "Chicago."

Gooding recently sat down with me in Salon's studio to talk about his new success, what he's learned in the industry, and to give us a glimpse of the real Cuba, beyond the screen.

How's [Broadway] treating you?

Great. Absolutely fantastic. Been rehearsing all week. My real rehearsal was four months on the West End stage in London. I got 158 shows under my belt already. Yeah, Saturday will be just another good time.

How do you prep?

Every day you wake up and you do your vocal warmups, because the vocal cords are just another muscle. You get them loosened up. Then you just get on stage with the company, because this is a different company. Even though it's a lot of the same choreography, you still have to get the vibe right. You have to get the staging right.

I look at Broadway like walking a tightrope. You make one mistake and the consequence is, "Oh, you ruined everything." I go to a lot of plays and I see a lot of shows and it's almost like I never see anyone mess up.

Isn't that funny? What happens for the company, the people that are on that stage, is they do this show eight times a week, six days a week. It gets monotonous until somebody messes up, and that's what we love because it keeps it fresh. You, the audience watching it, you might not get that we said the wrong line because we always try to play it off. Backstage we're laughing and high-fiving because we love to see a real good f**k-up.

Well, you can do that.

That's why I did that. See, I did that.

You feel like it's something that every actor should experience?

Oh, a hundred percent. Hundred percent. When you're doing film and television you wait sometimes up to a year before you see your work. This is a character that you really cultivated and you'e gotten the mindset of, and then you forget about it when you finally see it. When you step onstage it's that instant gratification of that connection with each and every audience, every night.

For a lot of people who were born in the '80s, when we came up, our first trip to the movies was to see "Boys n the Hood." We always looked at you as an LA guy. Then we got a little older and we saw "Coming To America" on like TNT or something: "Is that Cuba Gooding Jr.? Is Eddie Murphy shaping Cuba Gooding Jr. up?"

That's right.

You have roots New York. You were born in New York.

Yeah, born in South Bronx, in the projects. My father got a record deal with either MoTown or RCA and part of the contract was a house in Orange County. That moved us when my sister and I were young to Los Angeles. Kind of grew up there from that point on.                                                     

You wanted to get in show business as a kid, you already knew it was in you?

Oh, a hundred percent. I was a cornball. Every time somebody come over I'd do the robot and show people, you know what I'm saying?                                                     

But you were a B-boy too.

I was a B-boy, yep. Was in a break dancing crew. Wound up participating in the closing ceremony of the 1984 Olympics behind Lionel Richie. That was, I think, my first real taste of global entertainment.

It's like, when it's in you, it's in you.  You'll always be doing something in every part of your life, even if you don't make it to the big stage. What I really want to know, because you made it to the big stage — you have an amazing body of work, you played in so many different films that we all know and remember and love — I want to know, as an artist is it difficult choosing what role is best for you when you have to think about commerce, when you have to think about business and making the right decisions and making the wrong decisions?

Yeah, you can get caught up in that. I tell a lot of actors today, don't worry so much about the role, but try to work with good directors. You think about it as an actor, you come to a set and you surrender your performance to the director. Then you hope that he interprets it the right way when you see the piece. The real brilliant ones can make your performance rise to another level. I think that's another reason why I became a director, because now I have an opportunity, not just going to the editing and choosing my best takes, but I get to tell the story through the takes of all my costars and then work with a composer and get the right composition for the emotion. It's just so intoxicating.

What's a good director to you? Other than yourself.

No, no, no. I mean, I've worked from Cameron Crowe to Ridley Scott to Wolfgang Peterson, Lee Daniels, John Singleton. These guys are real visionaries to me.

Is it just like the way in which they tell stories, or the way they communicate on set?

What it is, is they have a vision of the story to tell. A lot of times as a director you come on the set, everybody has questions for you. From the hair people, the makeup people, the director of photography. They really don't care what your answer is as long as you have one. A director who is indecisive creates insecurity with people around them and then you can lose your vision. The real directors see the movie in their head and then when they get in that editing room, then they can really play.

Looking at your career, you can't be put in a box. You've played a little bit of everything. You went from Tre to O.J. to Freddie and Radio, back and forth. You had all of these different roles. What do you feel most comfortable playing? Who are you, as far as the stories you want to tell or the roles that you want to play?

I think that the one through line of all my roles that really made an impact to people are ones that have that emotional truth to them. I mean if you think of Carl Brashear in "Men of Honor," Dorean Miller in "Pearl Harbor," or Robert Kennedy in "Radio," and even Rod Tidwell, there's this energy, excitement. There's this vulnerability in their emotionality. I think that's the one through line that kind of connects them all.

I played football when I was young and got a chance to spend some time down south in some different places. I've met Rod Tidwell, so I think that's why so many people resonated with that character, because he has to carry his family, he has to be successful, he has to make it and he has to be happy about making it.

Yeah, self-promoting, self-energizing and dynamic on the field.

Not just do what he had to do on the field, but he had to see things in Jerry that Jerry didn't see in himself.

Not only did he have to see it in Jerry, but he had to motivate him for him to see it in himself. Yeah, exactly.

Yeah. I think that's why those types of characters, they resonate with so many people.

I think so.

There's no formula for picking that, it just has to come to you?

Yeah, I think that's right.

It's almost like if you think of the roles that have made the biggest impact on my career, from "Boyz n the Hood" to "Men of Honor" to "The People Vs. O.J. Simpson," . . .  I was always in the position to be that character in real life. The line of reality and fantasy were blurred so much because I was Tre back then, going from [being] a break dancer to being a lead in a movie. Tre going from the ghetto, going to college and making it out of this violent society. Or Rod Tidwell, once being a star and then kind of falling off and then finally getting the big contract. Me having played Tre in "Boyz n the Hood" and being a star, and then going down and then all of a sudden winning the Oscar and being like Rod getting the contract.

Then even with O.J. Simpson, him going through the separation with his wife, having a young daughter. I had a young daughter with a separation with my wife. All of these characters always seem to touch on something personal in my life.

I know it takes so much research to play a role ... I know you want to learn them well and you want to be them. Do you carry a piece of them after the project ends?

Oh, a hundred percent. I think each role kind of leaves a little imprint on your soul. The fun ones, the honorable ones, leave a good imprint. The dark ones leave a dark one.

What do you do with that dark energy?

In this instance it took me a while to shake it, but now I'm singing and dancing eight times a week, six times a week, baby. Billy Flynn.

That sounds like a workout.

Yeah. Oh, I've been playing ice hockey 25 years. I box in gyms all across America. Nothing is as hard as singing and dancing eight times a week, six days a week. I think it's because as athletes, your coaches always teach you to breathe when you're doing the activity. When you're singing, your breath is reserved for the vocals. Then your body is still in motion, so it's a double workout.

I think about a lot of movies that you played in, a lot of stuff is coming out in general and I always wonder about social impact that some of these roles play. Do you think that — we're living in these toxic political times — that the artist should respond by making movies to deconstruct the narrative that we see in the media over and over again?

Not just actors and musicians, but painters and architects. Just any person who gets blessed enough to find his passion through the arts, yeah, should use that platform of artistry to expose people to ideas and beliefs that they might not all be exposed to in their average, everyday life.

I don't think we can have films like Anita Hill's story being told if we weren't in this climate. Can you think of anything else that's coming out or anything else that you saw that's helping?

Ava DuVernay's entire career makes statements, and Lee Daniels has some powerful statements he makes through his films as well.

You thinking about making some of those films? Does that ever come across your mind?

You know, I wrote three original screenplays prior to doing "Bayou Caviar." Each one I hope helps people to connect with the material in a way where they see themselves in the characters that I write, and in turn helps them heal in some way, or at least find a solution to some of their problems in life. I think that's the statement I make as a filmmaker.

You know what would be a great film? Your story.

Yeah, maybe. That's what my father said.

I mean, your story's amazing. You came from a family of artists, both of your parents were singers, passed it down to you, and then had this amazing Hollywood career. You think about that, or?

That's true. I don't think about that specifically to make it into a screenplay, but maybe one day.

You feel like you're too young?

I think I'm too young to reflect on my life because I feel like I have so much more to say.

I think I reflect on my own, but some parts it's so dark for me that it's kind of hard for me to put it into a project. I think I need to be removed a little more from it. Do you think that about your own story?

Of my own?

Do you feel like you want to be more removed from situations before you actually start to — 

Yeah, I think there's a little bit of that. There's also probably a part of my life that I didn't even realize I was going to experience that might be more, truth to tell, about what the grand scheme of the picture is that is Cuba Gooding Jr.

But you get the phone calls like, "Hey, you should write a book. You should make a memoir."

Oh yeah, all the time. But I think like you, I'm a little hesitant on reflecting on it in that way. I know people tell me and ask me all the time, "You have an Oscar, what do you do? Do you stare at it, where do you keep it?" and all this stuff. Or, "You've seen this movie. Do you watch your work, do you study?" I make it, I set it back, and then at one point I will look back and say, wow, look what I accomplished. Right now I'm still accomplishing, do you know what I mean?

Right. You're still working and you have a lot to do.

I don't ever want to get lazy.

What's the last one of your movies that you watched?

Oh. That's a good question. Maybe "As Good As It Gets." Yeah, it was on TV and I forgot I was in it until I came on screen.

You feel like you just want to go back and change things?

Sometimes you do. Sometimes you do, but I think each film is an experience of a time period in your life. You learn lessons from every experience, so to stop some of those experiences would stop some of those lessons, and I would never want to do that.

Sometimes as a writer, I see my books in stores and I know this . . . I just want to take them off the shelf and just rip sections out. Like, I feel different now, I've grown. You're right, you take those experiences and you decide to grow from them.

That's exactly right.

What's next for you?

We started pre-production on my next directorial debut that we're prepping to start filming here pretty soon.

Yeah. Are you allowed to talk about what that film is about?

Not yet. It's a thriller though. I think I'm attracted to these stories of ordinary people, good people who get caught up in a bad incident and how they find ways out of it, and in turn find hope and redemption for their lives. This is another one of those stories.

They're the type of stories I'm talking about. Sometimes I just feel like they do a lot to help people work their way out of their own situations, because great films are powerful like that.

I think so. I think if you've blessed me with two hours of your time, I don't want you to feel at the end of it like you've wasted your time. I want you to feel like you got something out of it.

Do you feel like you're going to continue to do plays on Broadway after "Chicago" ends?

Yeah, I'm hooked. It was the reason why I'm here, is because I finished my run in London and was sad. Barry said, "Well you want to come to Broadway with us?" I was like, "Yes, yeah." I'll be back.

Yeah. What about "Othello"?

Yeah, Othello would be great. A great film, too, I think.

It would be a great film. Has that been done? I think they did like a version of it that's like-

Oh, I'm sure it has. Laurence Fishburne was going to play it, do a film about it. or maybe it was on stage.

If you could have unlimited budget to create your dream film, what would it be about or what film would you make and would you play in it? You pick the director, you get the budget, you pick everything.

I would want to direct it, just because I'm still in that frame of mind. Have you ever heard of the Negro Leagues of the Maritime [provinces], ice hockey leagues?

No, I never knew about black ice hockey. There was an ice hockey Negro League?

Runaway slaves went up through the East Coast into Nova Scotia, and met up with the Canadians in 1843 to the early 1900s and formed an all Black hockey league prior to the NHL. There's a book about it, but there's a lot of history on it. I think that story will be a powerful one.

The stuff you come across is just great. I read in a book called "The People's History in Sports" about a guy named Moses Fleetwood Walker who was actually the first African American in major league baseball — before Jackie Robinson. He left because he couldn't deal with the racism, but he went ahead and created the machine which actually became the video camera or something like that. The dude had an amazing life.

Wow. Wow.

Yeah, that would be good. I think everyone would go see that. Take some time and tell everyone why they should go see "Chicago"?

You've got to come see Chicago because it's been on Broadway for 22 years and now we have a Billy Flynn with a little more soul.


By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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