Cuba Gooding Jr. on his new film, starring on Broadway, and loving our city
Cuba Gooding Jr. is making history in his newest film. In The Butler, out on August 16th, viewers are taken on a tumultuous journey through the civil rights movement, seen through the eyes of a White House butler, played by Forest Whitaker. Gooding, who plays a fellow butler, was surrounded by an incredible cast – see movie poster- who worked to give the poignant piece the reverence it deserved. “The biggest ego was the story,” said Gooding. The film is based on real-life butler Eugene Allen, who peaked producers’ interest when he was interviewed for The Washington Post during President Obama’s 2008 election. Director Lee Daniels, of Precious fame, got his hand on the script and the rest is, literally, history.
Gooding, 45, confesses that the creativity in New York is possibly coercing him and his family to make the city their home. So if you see him around town one day, you may get the urge – like many people he encounters – to shout out his famous catchphrase, “Show me the money!”
You were born in NY and are now back here for your Broadway run. What are your favorite places in Manhattan?
Well now it’s Soho. I’m in love with Soo, man! The cobblestone streets and hotels down there are so – I don’t know the word – cool. My wife and kids came and we hung out in Central Park; that was cool too. Stuff that I never knew of when I lived here, obviously. As I’ve been visiting back and forth, I’ve only seen certain snippets. Like I’d never been to Times Square, and I’ve been at the Steven Sondheim since February. It’s like Vegas there! I mean the West Village might even be better than Soho to me because there’s something about those streets and those buildings. Sant Ambroeus – go there a get a bottle of white wine on a Sunday and just chill. The whole vibe of Manhattan has been this thing that’s been pulling me back; every time I leave and am away from Manhattan more than a month or two, I gotta get back. It’s so many people connected. My wife, who I met at North Hollywood High School -she was born in North Hollywood – is dropping hints about moving here now. Of course, our son is going to college on the East Coast and she doesn’t want her first baby to be too far away. She’s talking about buying a brownstone.
How is living in LA different from life here?
You bump into people here. Whereas in LA, if two people bump into each other, they have to stop and have a conversation of apology. I was down at Sant Ambroeus one day and Julian Schnabel comes by and says, “Hey, come see my house,” and I’m going to see his paintings! That shit doesn’t happen in LA; it just doesn’t. You have to go to a premiere or a museum to be exposed to artwork. Here you see it; it’s around you.
This is your first experience on Broadway. What has it been like for you?
Life changing. It reminded me of the time I used to do Shakespeare Film Festivals and had to understand the material before I tried to act it. It was in-depth research and I forgot about a lot of that stuff floating through from film to film. I’m doing eight shows now and it’s my life. It’s something I’ll always look to do between films. It’s reawakened my soul. I completed my first screenplay that I just registered at the Writers Guild. I had the opportunity to write it in my dressing room, between shows. I’m telling you girl, I am in a creative place where I haven’t been in a long time.
So you’re looking to direct?
Acting was always my first love, but my second was directing. I’ve always wanted to be a director and been placated by representatives for years. And now I got a piece of material that people are sparking to and I’m gonna attach myself to it right it into the director’s chair. [Laughs] One way or another, I’m getting my black ass into that director’s chair!
The director of The Butler, Lee Daniels, is a good friends of yours.
We were friends long before he was even a producer, when he was just a manager. We study scripts and films together. He sent me The Butler five or six years ago. I did the lead in his directorial debut with Shadowboxer and sat in the editing room with him. He’s allowed me into that world and you absolutely get the bug when you make a suggestion and it’s used to better the piece.
It’s nice to hear you are so passionate about your work.
I didn’t know why I would be slipping in these bouts of depression before, but it was because my mind wanted to be working! Most of my friends are pro boxers and pro ice hockey players and these guys, when they’re not in a game, they’re working out. As an actor, you don’t get to do that unless you’re paid. You can’t go into your garage and say, “Roll camera.” It doesn’t work; you need to be on a set. What I tell my sons now is, “Stay creative. Keep your mind engaged because an idle mind is the devil’s playground.” I understand that now.
The cast of this film is incredible. What was the atmosphere on set?
It was absolutely great. Forest [Whitaker], Lenny [Kravitz], and I were the three butlers that moved through with all the different presidents. So we had to keep our schedules completely open because we’d have Robin Williams, and the next day, Liev Schreiber. Since those were small parts, we had to be accessible and available to them. It was fun because you’d come to the set and wouldn’t know who you’d be working with. I’ve done movies with a lot of big names before, and there’s such a hierarchy of who gets called out of the dressing room first so you’re not waiting around – it’s just such bullshit. With this, there was none of that. Lee doesn’t put up with any of that shit. He’ll yell and scream until everyone is focused on him. I think that helps because it allows you to just blend into the background.
Was it strange to see those actors portraying presidents?
It was at first because they were so immersed in these looks. Alan Rickman – oh my goodness – he was so Ronald Reagan! He came out of that dressing room and you were like, “Woah!” There were caricatures though – like John Cusack’s Nixon – that was just so subtly portrayed, I just thought it was beautiful.
This movie is a history lesson. Did you learn anything?
I learned more about stuff that I knew vaguely – civil rights actions and situations. But just to hear it from the point of view of servants in the White House, we see that certain viewpoints of presidents weren’t what we thought they were in the press at the time. That stuff blew me away. I grew up when a lot of this stuff was happening, so I remember it from then, but a lot of kids seeing it today won’t.
What do you want your kids to take away from the film?
An education of what we went through and what we still go through as African American males. Just to know there’s a reason for our President Barack Obama and it wasn’t a fluke or one-time thing. We have a major contribution that we’ve given as minorities in this country. It isn’t just white Caucasian males, it’s a plethora of different men and women of all races and colors who have contributed so much to the health of this country.
You’ve been married for almost 26 years. What is the key to a successful Hollywood marriage?
I’ve been on Broadway since February and I got to home. I just got to get home. The secret to our longevity is being honest and open and never taking what the other says to the other out of anger, too seriously. And that’s hard to do because sometimes you’re just like, “I can’t believe she did that or said that.” I have relatives who haven’t spoken to each other in years. I started to get that way and then they’ll call me because they’ll see a movie coming out, and I pick up the phone and have a conversation like it was never said. I try to say that to my relatives. You can’t take any of those things said between people who love each other, too seriously. At the end of the day, just let it go. Everybody says stuff they don’t mean sometimes.
Do people come up to you all the time saying, “Show me the money?”
All the time. These two girls, we drove by them on the way here. The window was rolled down and there was a red light. These two crazy crackheads were yelling, “Show me the money!!” They kept saying it over and over again.
Two girls – that’s a first! Usually it’s a drunk dude at a party.
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