Cuba Gooding Jr. is best known for something that happened nearly two decades ago. You know what it is: that moment at the Oscars when his Best Supporting Actor acceptance speech stole the entire show.
Of course, a lot has happened to Cuba since then, both good and not-so-good -- from receiving poor critical reception in comedies like "Norbit" and "Snow Dogs" to starring in a George Lucas film about the Tuskegee Airmen to playing an energetic and erratic drug dealer in "American Gangster."
Now he's set to appear in "Lee Daniels' The Butler," which hits theaters this weekend. This is semi-familiar territory for the Oscar winner, having previously acted in films that have shed light on African American experiences -- particularly ones that have never been depicted on screen.
An animated Gooding Jr. sat down with Moviefone to talk about his role in "The Butler," why the studio system is busted, and why "Superman: The Movie" inspired him to act.
Moviefone: Hey, Cuba.
Cube Gooding Jr.: Moviefone!
Do you use Moviefone?
I go to Moviefone... oh, man, I haven't been to Moviefone since February.
So, I guess you don't get to see movies all that often then?
I do, but I've been on Broadway since February [in "The Trip to Bountiful"]. I am telling you, I just can't wait to go home and hit the Moviefone! I can't wait.
What's on your list of things to see right now?
I gotta start back and move forward. I have got to see "World War Z." Oh, I did see "Man of Steel." My kids came in for a day and right after the play I went to see that.
What did you think of it?
It was good. It was great! You know, I became an actor because of the first "Superman." My dad took me to that premiere and I got the frisbee and the poster and I saw the man fly. I was like "I gotta do what he does." So this one, it's like "Yeaaaah.... but let me show you the first one." [Laughs] I am a sucker for the first one.
It's a classic.
It's a classic!
Do you still have that "Superman" poster and the frisbee?
Ah, too bad. Well... I guess we should talk about "The Butler."
You have worked with Lee Daniels before.
Well, let me tell you about my relationship with Lee. I've known Lee a long time.
Yeah, you guys worked on "Shadowboxer."
Even before that -- I knew him when he was a manager, and we really struck up a friendly relationship. I think he is one of the most talented voices to come out of indie film in a long time, and I think he has the best taste for scripts than any director I've ever met. At one point, before he would even consider doing a movie, he'd send the script to me and we'd talk about it. At one point he sent "The Butler" and I read it and was like "There is an aspect to this story that is just brilliant." The fact that you have these eight different presidents dealing with issues that have affected us -- there were opinions in the media, with the Bay of Pigs and the Civil Rights Movement and what not, but to actually hear the truth through the eyes and ears of servants standing in the room when these decisions were made, I said "That's the movie. That's a brilliant story to be told."
You play a White House butler in the movie. Did you get to talk to any former White House butlers?
No, I didn't do any of that. I had come straight from a movie set and didn't have time to do that. On the set, we had advisers there, so all of that stuff was pretty mapped out for us; it wasn't that hard. But just that time period, the '70s and the '60s, to know the social climate of that time, I had done some research just for other projects that I had worked on so I was pretty familiar with it.
Amongst the butlers themselves, they were very open and very supportive of each other and very involved in each other's family lives. So that aspect of it really gave an interesting dynamic to the film because it allowed people access into the mindset of what was going on behind closed doors with people that they could identify with. That was what was so great about my character because he was always saying what other people were thinking but were afraid to say, so it made you identify with him.
Yeah, your character says a lot of hilarious and raunchy things in this movie. Is it tough to balance that in a film that deals with such serious issues?
Because there were so many heavy issues we were dealing with, I knew that people would look for any form of release that wasn't tears, so all of my stuff is easy to identify with because it gave them that form of release. Then when the next heavy moment happened they were ready for it -- they were open to it.
What do you hope this movie ultimately achieves in the end?
Well, we had this interview with this radio jockey, this twentysomething-year-old white kid, and he said the scene that affected him the most was when the kids were at the lunch counter [sit-ins]. He said, "Seriously, Mr. Daniels, I am a fan of that rapper Macklemore and in that song ["Same Love"] he has that line about the sit-ins. I never knew what he meant until I saw your movie." That hit me. This is why I do films and why I gravitate toward films like this. It's because we as a nation forget a lot of the atrocities that went on on American soil. If this film can reach an audience and just shed light on things we as Americans -- specifically African-Americans -- did to contribute to the cultivation of this nation, then we did, in some way, our part.
You have a pretty good track record with films like these: "Red Tails," "Men of Honor."
It's weird that a film like this -- and "Red Tails" -- had difficulty getting made, even with established directors backing them.
I think the whole studio system busted a while ago, and now its main focus at the majors is event movies. What that did is it spit out a lot of the mid-budget dramas -- black and white -- into the indie world. But the indie world doesn't have an agenda just to tell white stories. It tells stories that move people, and it opened the door to a lot of filmmakers of color. And that is why you are seeing this resurgence -- this renaissance -- of black stories, because you are having black filmmakers tell what they know about their lives, on a scale that's commercially viable.
I think that's one of the good things that happened with this whole mentality of the studios looking to do these tentpole films. I can only pray that guys like Lee Daniels and ["12 Years a Slave" director] Steve McQueen and ["Fruitvale" director] Ryan Coogler, these new directors that are coming up, they continue to want to tell stories that help inform people of times gone by.