Cuba Gooding, Jr. Academy Award Winning Actor Expands his Creative Boundaries
With his mother being a singer with the Sweethearts and his father the lead vocalist of The Main Ingredient, Cuba Gooding, Jr. was introduced to the world of entertainment from a young age. Tokyo Journal Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie talked to the film star, who won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for “Jerry Maguire,” about his roles in historical civil rights films as well as his aspirations to become a screenplay writer and director.
TJ: What are you doing in New York?
GOODING: I flew in for a couple of reasons, one of which was to meet with my agents and present them with my new screenplay. I’ve been writing scripts for the past year and I’m on my next one, which I’m really excited about.
TJ: Can you tell us about that?
GOODING: Well, I think I got into writing scripts because the last eight or nine years of my career I’ve been doing a lot of independent films. A lot of the financing has been contingent on my involvement, so I wound up in a producer capacity developing these scripts - actually choosing first-time directors, working on shot lists with directors, and seeing them through the process, including the editing room and post production by putting the final product together, looking for distribution and starting relationships with distributors and financiers. I think I found that the most important part of filmmaking is the director and I think that’s now my goal - being an actor/director. I think the easiest way for me to show my capability as a director is to bring the material, so it got me to thinking…working on scripts and finally turning out a screenplay. I went to Broadway for a production of “A Trip to Bountiful” with Cicely Tyson last year for seven months. I grew so much as an actor, as a filmmaker, as an artist period. When I was in that creative headspace, it made me want to continue to create even past what I was working on then, and that was when I wrote my first screenplay. So this is just a natural progression of things. I got another idea and wrote it down and now I’m working on that second one. Eventually, I will present this to buyers and see if there is any real interest in turning it into a screenplay. But right now I’m just allowing my creative juices to dictate what I do.
TJ: Are you continuing to act while you are doing all this?
GOODING: Very, very actively. I have a film called, “Carry Me Home.” You know, I think “12 Years a Slave” and “The Butler” opened up this wave of films that explore African Americans in American history. So in “Carry Me Home” I play Samuel, who is the head of a family of runaway slaves traveling on the underground railroad. I believe that film should come out later this year or early next year. I also just wrapped a role in “Selma,” which is the story of the march on Selma led by Dr. Martin Luther King. I play Fred Gray, the attorney representing him in the hearing that protected the march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. I’m very excited about that. Ava DuVernay is directing that one and that’s an epic tale of the civil rights movement. So, I believe these two films were a direct offshoot of “12 Years a Slave,” and I think I’m very excited for people to see them.
TJ: How was it working in “The Butler”?
GOODING: “The Butler” was a very, very intricate all-encompassing experience of a year, maybe even two years. Lee Daniels and I have been friends for a long time. I was in his directorial debut, the movie “Shadowboxer,” and we sparked a friendship there. To this day when he considers certain projects he always knee-jerks me whatever script he is considering next. “The Butler” was actually given to me a few years prior to principal photography and he said to me, “Read this and tell me what you think.” I knew it was a powerful performance but then once we began to accumulate actors like Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams and all of these other wonderful actors who made up that cast, I knew it was going to be a special project, and I knew it was going to be received on the major scale that it was. I learned a lot of things about the civil rights movement from working on that project and I think Lee Daniels is truly a new voice in American cinema. I think his story telling techniques travel internationally as well and I was really changed emotionally from that project to see just how we as a community could come together and make such a powerful story.
TJ: Was there an aspect of it that was very challenging?
GOODING: You know, I’m a really impatient guy. I think that’s why when I was on Broadway I wrote a screenplay because just sitting around in my dressing room waiting to go on stage drives me crazy. Also, because “The Butler” had so many big stars in it, we had to sit around and wait a lot of the time. I think that was probably the most challenging thing - just waiting to get back in front of the camera again! Over four months I think I worked maybe 20 days the entire time.
TJ: Can you go from being into your screenplay to jumping into acting, or is that challenging for you?
GOODING: I think there are fingers that touch both professions. As an actor you have to know the background of your character. As a writer, when I write a scene I create stories of everybody’s life for every character, so I think my acting has informed my writing ability and it kind of sets the pace or the tone of my writing.
TJ: Have you ever considered a career in music since you come from a musical family?
GOODING: I considered it. It’s interesting because there was this new director that came to me. He sent a script last year about a singing group from the eighties and I would be the lead singer. I actually said, “Yes, I am interested in this.” So I started some vocal coaching and whatnot. I think my voice is OK, you know? So yeah, I would consider it. I think it would have to come organically through my filmmaking aspirations. As I grow older, would I pursue a musical career? I don’t know. But I would not overrule playing a singer. Whatever that entailed with research or training, I would go full forward and do it.
TJ: Did your parents have a big influence on you and your career as an actor? Did their singing careers help?
GOODING: Oh, absolutely. It’s a very presentational performance piece being a singer. Especially my father, the lead singer of the group, The Main Ingredient, is very presentational. He is a very flamboyant character and I think that gave me the courage and the ability to be presentational for auditions and winning roles. My mother on many different levels has influenced me as an artist and as a man. So yeah, of course, a resounding yes! Both of their professions and their personalities inspired me to be who I am.
TJ: Did you take acting lessons as a kid?
GOODING: I did but it wasn’t the kind of thing where I studied and studied for years and became an actor. In high school I was in the drama department and I participated in all of the plays. Then when I graduated from high school I got a job. I got my SAG card, I was in a TV show named “Hill Street Blues” and then I continued to work. Once I started working professionally, my arrogance and ego told me I had all the tools I needed to become a successful actor and thank God I was ignorant to believe that. I believe life lessons give you the tools you need as an actor, to reflect what happens around you. And there’s luck, of course. In auditions, someone said to me luck is when opportunity meets preparation and I think that’s what happened to me and my career early on.
TJ: What age were you when you took your first acting lesson?
GOODING: My first acting lesson was probably as a junior in high school, so I was 16 or 17, and I was going outside of high school to Toni Livingston’s Acting Workshop. She credits herself for me winning the Oscar. I’m fine with that (laughs).
TJ: But by that time hadn’t you already had some training with Ms. Roseman at Tustin High?
GOODING: You’re absolutely right. That’s what you’re getting at because you and I went to high school together! You’re right! You know, that’s funny. I probably should have gone even further back because before Ms. Roseman I was at Apple Valley High School in the freshman class and then Tustin High School, Kennedy High School and then North Hollywood High School so I went to four different high schools.
TJ: Did those classes have a big impact on you? Did that teach you to get up and speak in front of people?
GOODING: Yeah! Absolutely. Every experience you have as an actor helps you with the next real life situation and that’s why we’re paid. We’re paid to reflect real life situations and imitate life. Yeah, all of my childhood did [have an impact on me], actually.
TJ: So, “Hills Street Blues” was your first real break then?
GOODING: That’s right.
TJ: And “Boyz n the Hood” came after that?
GOODING: That’s correct. I think “Hill Street Blues” was in 1986. “Boyz n the Hood” didn’t come ‘til 1990 and prior to that in the 1984 Olympics I was a professional break dancer behind Lionel Richie.
TJ: And you can still bust a move pretty well. I’ve seen you on TV!
GOODING: Every once in a while (laughs).
TJ: Didn’t you study martial arts at one point?
GOODING: I did. Traditional Japanese Shotoshinkai. I did Kyokushinkai for about five years under Jerry Bell Sensei and now I have been boxing since the late eighties or early nineties.
TJ: You’ve been boxing?
GOODING: Yes, I’ve been sparring and everything. For a while I was developing a Sugar Ray Robinson story and who knows, maybe I’ll write a script about it someday.
TJ: But you protect those ears pretty well, I see!
GOODING: I keep the mitts up! I keep the mitts up!
TJ: And you’re a big hockey guy, right?
GOODING: I am a huge hockey fan, which is another reason why I’m here - to watch the Kings compete against the New York Rangers. I was at that game yesterday, which was brutal.
TJ: And you’re from New York originally?
GOODING: I was born in the Bronx!
TJ: Oh, so you were rooting for the Rangers?
GOODING: Well... (laughs). My first love was the Los Angeles Kings and because I’m from New York, the Rangers are my second favorite team, so it’s like watching your two sons fight for the championship title.
TJ: Do you still play hockey?
GOODING: Twice a week! Every Saturday and Sunday for the past 22 years!
TJ: Have you ever acted in a foreign movie?
GOODING: I did a film in Bucharest, Romania and in Sofia, Bulgaria; I’ve done a couple of films that were shot in Australia, but they were all mainly United States productions so technically I’ve never been in a foreign film but I’ve shot in a lot of foreign locations.
TJ: Were they shot there to reduce cost?
GOODING: Some of them were to reduce costs. Some of them were for the allure of the location and the cities that were reflected in the script.
TJ: Have you ever been to Japan?
GOODING: I’ve never been to Japan. I was invited to go to promote “Pearl Harbor,” but I couldn’t get out of a film I was working on. It’s on my list though.
TJ: Have you worked with any Japanese actors?
GOODING: Yeah, of course. I was on a TV series “MacGyver” and they had some famous Japanese actors on an episode I did. Throughout my career I’ve worked with several.
TJ: Have you seen any Akira Kurosawa movies?
GOODING: Kurosawa is one of my favorite filmmakers. I literally just watched “Seven Samurai.” It’s so interesting how his storytelling techniques are still inspiring so many of the techniques used in today’s cinema. The character development… and even though it was a little village protected by those samurai running off those rival gang factions, we still use that technique to tell stories today. I think that’s why he was a filmmaker who was so inspirational to so many filmmakers today. Man, he was giant!
TJ: Do you have comments about Maya Angelou’s passing?
GOODING: Maya Angelou was such a sweet spirit and soul… and so inspirational, not only to women across the world but as a man you’ve got an insight into what women go through, especially women in pain, and I think not only her passing but her life had such a profound effect on me. I have two sons who are 17 and 19 and a daughter who is eight, and I think my children’s lives were enriched by her writing. Whenever I hear her name, it makes me want to call my daughter and have a conversation with her and make sure she’s in a good mental space, and I think that’s just because of the spirit that Maya Angelou has embodied and what effect she has on people. It was a tremendous loss.
TJ: Have you met President Obama in person?
GOODING: I’ve been to the White House on several occasions for movies I’ve done. I’ve done not just “The Butler” but “Tuskegee Airmen,” “Red Tails,” “Pearl Harbor” and a few other historical films. I even met him as a senator at a rally he was speaking at, so yeah. We’re friends.
TJ: Did you hear the statement that President Obama made saying that his favorite scenes in “The Butler” were yours?
GOODING: (Laughs) I know! I thought that was very funny. He has a wonderful sense of humor, that president of ours (laughs)!
TJ: Have you faced a lot of racism in Hollywood? Has that been a big issue for you?
GOODING: I think my entire career has been a struggle for identity. I think once I had been put on that stage or platform with “Boyz n the Hood” I was offered a lot of similar roles that I had to turn down so that people could see me not just in one way or to stereotype myself. I think that mindset has propelled me to conduct myself at a professional level as an artist and as a businessman and in both those aspects I’ve seen barriers come down slowly but surely.
TJ: And what’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in your career?
GOODING: I think to not recognize the contribution that directors have for storytelling. I think I took for granted opportunities with established directors and went with a lot of first-time directors who made a lot of mistakes. So I think if there were anything I’d do differently, it would to be more open with directors who are established.
TJ: Didn’t you turn down Steven Spielberg once?
GOODING: I did! I did for “Amistad,” but I have always respected him as a filmmaker and I cherish our friendship.
TJ: What does it take to become a successful actor?
GOODING: Determination and the ability to never take “no” for an answer because you’re going to hear “no” a lot. Repeatedly. Never be influenced by the word “no.” Never let “no” dictate your feelings or your impressions about your ability as an artist. Never let it influence you in regards to how you see yourself and your ability. Never let it put you in a place of discouragement. Always see it as inspiration to turn that “no” into a “yes” in whatever your endeavors are. tj
The complete article can be found in Issue #275 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.