Cuba Gooding Jr has been keeping a low profile since his Oscar-winning performance in Jerry Maguire, but is back on the big screen in World War II drama Red Tails, which opens in cinemas on Wednesday, June 6. The star talks about playing roles that matter, teaching his three children about black history and how life has changed since his Oscar.
By Shereen Low.
Winning an Oscar does not guarantee a fast-track ride to your preferred roles, as Cuba Gooding Jr found out.
The US actor, who bagged a gold statuette from the Academy for his performance in 1996's Jerry Maguire, had to plead his case to filmmaker Anthony Hemingway for a role in his directorial debut, Red Tails.
Hemingway wanted a cast of new faces to portray heroic black fighter pilots in the World War Two action drama, and Gooding Jr's previous portrayal in 1995 HBO TV movie The Tuskegee Airmen instantly put him at such a disadvantage that he had to beg friends to organise a meeting with the director.
"Everybody involved in this project said, 'Do we start afresh, and do we take this film where there is no resemblance to the previous film?' That meant no actors previously involved would want to be involved with this one," Gooding Jr recalls in his soft, raspy voice.
"But I said to Anthony when we had dinner, 'They're not really telling many of these stories in Hollywood. I've got a lot of films, and I am laser-focused to make sure that the portrayal on this movie is true. Why wouldn't you utilise that, no matter what my association to The Tuskegee Airmen is?'
"This is such an important story to tell that I wanted to be a part of it, no matter what."
Fortunately for Gooding Jr, the "stalking" paid off and he was cast - without an audition - in the role of Major Emmanuel Stance alongside Terrence Howard as Colonel AJ Bullard in Red Tails, based on the true story of World War Two's first African-American fighter squadron, also known as the Tuskegee airmen.
Sitting in a London hotel on one of the hottest days of the year, the Bronx-born star is dressed for winter with several layers, including a waistcoat, checked trousers and white leather jacket.
"I'm sweating behind my knees. I've never had that feeling with my trousers before. Sorry, that's TMI (too much information), isn't it?" he says, chuckling.
The 44-year-old - who still has a baby-faced look - understands Hemingway's reluctance to "recycle" actors.
"There is a sense that people get when they see me on screen, a familiarity. Not just because of Jerry Maguire, but all the other military roles that I've done like Pearl Harbor and Men Of Honor," he says.
"But this makes audiences comfortable, like when Michael Jackson's music is sampled in hip-hop. That's the idea behind using established actors and then you get these new directors with these new voices and their interpretations of the performances, and you have a new voice."
Gooding Jr admits he was embarrassed that he initially knew so little about the Tuskegee airmen.
"I didn't go to college but I graduated from high school and knew nothing about blacks in World War One and Two. I didn't know that there were blacks that fought in World War Two at all," he says.
"There's been African-Americans involved in every major American conflict, and the fact that I didn't know any of that p..... me off. I sure didn't know they did heroic things, so whenever I hear about one of these tales, I jump all over it."
He now strives to educate his three children (with high school sweetheart and wife Sara Kapfer) about black history.
"Now I have an opportunity to teach my kids through cinema our contribution, and that President Barack Obama wasn't a mistake: it is a natural progression of things," he says.
"I try to instil a sense of self-respect and worth in them, and to let them know that it isn't just slavery we came from. It's funny because there are a couple of slave movies like Django Unchained and Twelve Years A Slave coming out now and that's fine and dandy, but there are other stories to be told."
Some of the original airmen were on set as consultants, and Gooding Jr found it quite emotional as they recounted their wartime experiences.
"They were there every day. It was just magical, you know. They would just sit and talk to us," he says. "As you hear them tell their story, you see the pride swell up and the love of what they did.
"Dr Roscoe Brown said he'd rather die over the skies of Berlin because their legacy would be intact and they would be seen as heroes. If they went back to the States, they would still be second-class citizens, because the Jim Crow discrimination laws still apply to us. You can't help but tear up when he said this."
Having portrayed a Tuskegee airman before, he has learnt to stay clear of the cockpit this time around, letting his younger co-stars like David Oyelowo, Ne-Yo and Nate Parker take the controls.
"I wouldn't go up in a plane again. I've done that!" he says. "These pilots love to impress the actors by having them throw up. The first time, I was like, 'Are you proud of yourself?' So when they went up with these kids for this film, I was like, 'No, no, no. I know exactly what you're looking to do'."
George Lucas, whom Hemingway had worked with before, came on board as executive producer on this film with his LucasFilms production company.
"Just him walking on the set, everybody would sit up straighter, you know? His presence and his immense knowledge of filmmaking... is just insane," he recalls.
"When he breaks into a story, the whole set just stops. You don't realise how much power this man has. He is a film icon."
Gooding Jr, who made his big-screen debut in 1988 with a cameo in Coming To America, got his first major role in Boyz N The Hood in 1991, with following parts in Gladiator and A Few Good Men.
But it was his Oscar-winning performance as arrogant American football player Rod Tidwell opposite Tom Cruise in Cameron Crowe's Jerry Maguire that propelled him to greater success, and led to roles in box office hits like As Good As It Gets, Pearl Harbor and American Gangster.
"The Oscar has put that title in front of my name so it makes it easier for people to consider me for stuff. I'm still proud about it - it's a sense of accomplishment," he says.
Following a string of direct-to-DVD movies, he's flying back into the mainstream with a forthcoming role in Lee Daniels's The Butler. Although he's keeping tight-lipped about his character, he admits he's thrilled about collaborating with the Oscar-winning Precious director.
"I'm excited about that. We'll start work on that later this year," he says.
He's satisfied with how his career has gone, adding: "I'm exactly where I need to be. Maybe a few more years of downtime, but I'm exactly where I need to be."
Yet there's one phrase he just can't get away from - the famous line from Jerry Maguire, "Show me the money!"
"It doesn't happen as often as you'd think, but there it is. I've been waiting for that," he quips.
"You're the first one. Congratulations! Now, get out!" he grins.
Extra time - Cuba Gooding Jr :: Cuba Gooding Jr was born to musical parents Shirley and Cuba Gooding Sr in the Bronx, New York, on January 2, 1968, and the family moved to Los Angeles four years later.
:: Before pursuing an acting career, he was a breakdancer - he performed in the 1984 closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and was a back-up dancer for Paula Abdul.
:: His younger brother Omar is also an actor and rapper, having starred in TV series Hangin' With Mr Cooper and Smart Guy.
:: He has reportedly banned his father from visiting his film sets after he asked Tom Cruise if he was gay during the filming of Jerry Maguire.
:: Red Tails opens in cinemas on Wednesday, June 6