Cuba Gooding Jr Shares acting advice
Cuba Gooding Jr.’s voice is messed up. He went to an ENT doctor to see if there was any serious damage, but he checks out okay: No polyps, just a little red. Still, you can hear it in his timbre: He sounds hoarse, and his voice rasps when he tries to go up an octave, like he’s been screaming all day. Gooding Jr. says it’s just one of the after-effects of playing O.J. Simpson in FX’s mini-series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. In more ways than this, he's just different now.
Gooding Jr., now 48, sounded pleased by all the renewed attention on him when he dropped by the New York offices, but also slightly wary. Playing O.J. is one of the buzziest roles he’s had in years, and reminds him of his Academy Award–winning portrayal of the bombastic wide receiver Rod Tidwell from Jerry Maguire. That role messed him up in a different way: It set his expectations too high as he searched for his next “statement” role. We sat down with Gooding Jr. over coffee — black, lots of sugar — to talk about the emotional toll of playing O.J. Simpson, the ten years he spent acting for billionaire producers with no artistic vision, and why those days are over.
My understanding is that when your agents told you about American Crime Story, you jumped at the role. I did this ten-year stint of direct-to-video movies. One I did is out now, called Freedom, and it was a slave musical. This billionaire guy had money, and he could push the movie through. A lot of times when you have guys like that who don't really know how to make films, but they're controlling it because they have the finances, you really get their agenda. You're not seeing a piece of work where I would say, “Wow, this is a great statement of a film.”
So when my agents called me, they said, “There's this guy. He's got a bunch of money. He's Australian. He's going to do a movie about O.J. Simpson's innocence.” I was like, “All right, send me the script.” I read it, and it was 160-something pages of all factual stuff, no real structure. I said to my agents, “Who's directing this thing? Who's the filmmaker?” “They don't have one. They're going to attach you and then look for one.” I go, “Pass.” I'd been down that road a thousand times. I worked with every crackhead director that got financing.
So my agents call me a couple weeks after this episode. They say, “Ryan Murphy wants to meet you.” I said, “Whatever he wants, I'm in!” They go, “It's funny you said that, because he wants to do O.J. Simpson.” I told them, “I don't care what it is. I'll play Marcia Clark. As long as it's a real filmmaker, I'm in.”
You've been doing more TV lately. Is that because more interesting roles are there? I don't choose parts. I choose filmmakers. I'm done trying to make a statement with a character. What happens is, I craft a performance from the beginning to the end of the character. Then I release it to the director, and he interprets what I gave him. I won't give a percentage, but I can watch that performance and go, “He fucking didn't get it.” You'll watch the performance and go, “Cuba was okay in that.” And I'm going, “That wasn't what I signed to do.” Instead of worrying about the character, now I choose roles based on who my director's going to be. If there's a connection there, I don't care what the role is.
Cuba Gooding Jr. in episode one of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FX
When did you make that shift? I was in the wilderness of Hollywood for almost ten years. I was off the studio lists. I wasn't getting the roles offered to actors that hadn't done a third of the roles I had done, or had the popularity I had. I didn't have “Steven Soderbergh is looking to work with me” anymore. I was hooked up with a couple of low-budget producers who had foreign financing money and were doing a formula where they would sell the foreign presales coupled with personal, private investors who had a billion dollars, and they green-lit the movies for under $5 million as long as I was in it. [It got to the point] where, if I was with another action star like Dolph Lundgren, they green-lit the movie and I'd have a job. The freedom of that — the great part of that — was I could edit, I could direct, I could write. It was like going back to film school. It was then I was exposed to the fact that the director is the main fucking voice. Nothing else matters. If the director doesn't get it, you're dead. I'll never forget the most frustrating arguments I would have with director[s]. I would say, “This studio doesn't get it. They changed this scene and it doesn't work for the story.” He goes, “I know, but I had to compromise.” He didn't care to make a statement — he just wanted to keep the studio happy. And then, of course, the movie would bomb. It would disappear.
Did you have any trepidation taking on the role of O.J.? It's so funny — I box. One time I was at the Wild Card gym in Los Angeles. Some of these professional African-American boxers, they come from hard upbringings. A couple of them came up to me and said, “Man, you're playing O.J., huh? Are you ready for the backlash of playing somebody so dark?” I had never thought about it that way. He was like, “They love you, and you're going to play this dark guy?” I said, “But I'm not coming from a place of darkness. I'm coming from a blank slate.” It's the director's vision that will mold the takes. No, I never had reservations. I never even thought about it until this kid said that.
You’ve said you didn't want to play O.J. the way he is now, in jail. You wanted to play the charismatic O.J., which is how he was at the time. What was your process like? You've got to get into the mind-set, the truth, the emotional core of a character. I watched a lot of interviews and footage of him during the court case. I wanted his gait to be a certain way, how he held himself. I say this is my second stab at Rod Tidwell from Jerry Maguire, because both of these personalities are born from this thing that happens with athletes. At a young age they see an ability they have, more than any other person around them, and they get thrown into this social bubble. They have handlers and people that make millions of dollars off [them]. Socially, it stunts their growth. When they pass through their career, they throw them into society without the skills to cope with people. You look at Mike Tyson. These guys come out unable to express themselves without using their physicality and talking about themselves in the third person. Like I said, this was my second stab at that character. One had a positive outcome and this one had a negative [one].
[Gooding Jr. gestures at the cell phone that is taping this conversation, which has an image of a tape winding on the screen.]
Now, that’s funny. That’s really cute. People laugh at me because I have the same small phone. I never could read books, especially as a grown-up, because it was my job to read scripts. But I blow through books on that little phone because of this theory I came up with: Let's say you eat Kentucky Fried Chicken, and you have mashed potatoes. And you always finish them because you have the right amount. But if you were eating KFC and you had a mound of mashed potatoes this big [gestures wide], you would eat a couple bites, but then you'd be turned off. It's too insurmountable. With that little phone, I blow through pages. I'm so proud I just did 200 pages in an hour. Before you know it, I go from page 200 to 2,350, and the book's over.
Have you read anything recently that you liked? I get so insecure talking about my books because it's really personal. You know what I do? I'm reading a lot of books on behavior. There's one called Sperm Wars. Another one is The Secret Female Hormone. When you read about women's behavior and men's behavior, whatever the book is geared towards, it always talks about the other sex. If you're reading a book for women, you hear what it says about men, and vice versa. There's another called Sex at Dawn —dawn like the beginning of time, and how we evolved as a society. It's so telling. Especially as an actor, behaviorally, it's so informative.
I just got out of actor jail of doing ten years of direct-to-video movies … I’m starving. I’m hungry again.
When you were preparing to play O.J., how did you decide which mannerisms or tics to build off of and what to leave behind? I hate to shit on other people’s work. I really like this new series Narcos, but I had a problem [with it]: Every time they cut to the real Pablo Escobar, I had to convince myself again. It pulled me out of that actor's performance, and he was a very good actor. When you see my performances, even people that you might have known, like Nicky Barnes in American Gangster, you have to get over the fact that I look like Cuba Gooding Jr. But once you find truth in the performance, if I'm doing my job right, you believe everything. You want to get mannerisms, hair, voice. But then you have to rely on the fact that there's enough truth there for them to ignore everything else. It's how to fall in love with people.
During your research, did anything surprise you? Everything, every day. I came into this with a blank slate, and whenever I would do my research, read some article, watch some documentary, if it was too one-sided, I would pull away. I wanted to stay in the middle of it. I remember where I was when the Bronco was going down the freeway, but I didn't watch the trial at all. So all of that information — inadmissible and admissible — was shocking to me. That whole shit with Mark Fuhrman and the things he said. I was shaking, I was so angry reading that episode. It will be interesting to see how people react to it, viscerally.
Where were you during the Bronco chase? At a buddy's, watching the [NBA] finals, the Knicks game. I remember at some point, the game was on the radio and we were watching the chase on television. It started as us watching on TV, and then we switched to the radio. We were sure we were going to watch that muzzle blast, or a sniper take him out in the back of the Bronco, and the car would swerve into oncoming traffic.
What was it like to shoot the chase and be on the other side? Emotionally exhausting. Two days of crying with a gun in your mouth was brutal. Brutal.
How did you work with American Crime Story producer/director Ryan Murphy on this scene? Ryan and I had such a shorthand communication. “This take, I need you emotional because you might have done it.” Or, “This take, I want you frustrated because you think your son did it.” It would send me into an emotional state. I was ready to go anywhere he wanted me or needed me to go at any time. It was one of the things where, as I walked towards the Bronco, I almost started to shake. I think of it now and it puts me in a frame of mind. When I see the backseat, that leather.
Where does it take you? To that dark place. If you think he was innocent or guilty, he was still [fleeing] to kill himself. I used to look at actors and laugh at them, like Heath Ledger playing the Joker. It was too dark, and it took me a while to shake the character. I was like, That's bullshit, guys, come on. Now, doing this, I get it, man. I get it. When you're watching a movie and find yourself getting emotional, it's because you're bringing something personal to the images. It's the same thing with acting. You're bringing the essence of your core emotional being to that moment. Your brain can clock that there's a camera, but your body's believing the reality of what you're going through. Sometimes in my trailer I would say, “I'm having a nervous breakdown.” I had to walk down the street, look at people and cars passing by, to get myself to calm down.
Did it take you a while to bounce back? Oh, yeah. My voice is still messed up, and that was October of last year! I went to see an ENT, and he checked for polyps. He said, “No, you're fine. It's a little red.”
Wow. It's still ...? Yeah. I must have broken something. As the day goes on it gets a little stronger, but it still has this weird echo I've never had in my entire life. I fucked myself up.