Cuba Gooding Jr. on George Lucas, Post-Oscar Career Advice, and Why 'Red Tails' is 'The Black Answer' to 'Indiana Jones'
While the World War II adventure "Red Tails" boasts a cast of young, breakout actors taking center stage as the historic Tuskegee Airmen, the flyboys find themselves backed by a now-veteran screen star: Academy Award-winning Cuba Gooding Jr. He may always be connected with his iconic "Show me the money!" performance in "Jerry Maguire," but "Red Tails" offered Gooding a chance to make a new type of movie for young black audiences -- and the once-and-forever Rod Tidwell jumped at the chance to be a part of film history.
Moviefone spoke with Gooding about the importance of "Red Tails," the lessons he has learned in his post-Oscar career and the unique comparison that James Earl Jones made about his new movie.
Can I call you Cuba, or do you prefer Mr. Gooding?
My mama calls me Cuba, you can call me Cuba.
Well as long as it's OK with your mom. This is actually the second time you've done a story regarding the Tuskegee Airmen. What excited you about returning to this story?
Any time I have an opportunity to tell a tale that spreads the word on African-Americans' involvement in any war effort -- be it World War II, the Civil War -- I jump at the chance. When I did the first one, I didn't even know who the Tuskegee Airmen were. I was embarrassed. Twenty-two year old guy who just finished your education, who didn't know that there were black fighter pilots? I felt like an idiot. Here I am, 2009, hearing that George Lucas is telling this tale again and people don't know? It was a mission of mine to get involved. The fact that he paid his own money to produce it and has spent years getting every shot right, this is a godsend here. These are the roles that you wait out all the other bullshit roles to do. [Laughs]
What was it like being on set with George Lucas?
The first day I'm filming with him there, they were setting up this shot -- a big shot. I have this big speech to give. I've done it two or three times, and I wandered back to the monitors and he walks up to me and he just starts talking to me. I can't even remember what he said at first, it was just really arbitrary, and I said something like, "Yeah, it's funny, it's different than working with Stormtroopers or something." And he starts telling me the story about the first time he was working on the Death Star in a garage somewhere. I noticed over his shoulder and over to the right and left of him, all the crew stopped what they were doing, to lean in and listen to him. We spent five minutes listening to him tell this story; he stopped that whole set with one story. He starts saying anything about anything in his past and people listen. They can act like they're not listening, but they stop what they're doing.
Three years he's been painting this movie with these dog fights, working on these sequences. These planes: it really feels like you're in the sky, watching this movie.
Lucas' style is evident in 'Red Tails.'
I look at it like the black answer to "Indiana Jones." That was a dated period piece. That was an action piece, and I'm telling you when you're sitting in the theater, you feel like you're flying the planes. We had this screening in Chicago, and [afterward] I had dinner with James Earl Jones. We were telling him we don't know how this is going to play foreign. He whispers, "It's 'Star Wars' for black people." I go, "Really?" He goes, "Man, the cockpit scenes alone, the kids did alright." [Laughs] And he's absolutely right! You feel like you're shooting the Death Star, and the Stormtroopers are shooting you. Well, these are Nazis. Same thing.
Now that you've got some perspective on Hollywood, what lessons did you take away from being a young Oscar winner -- and what would you impart to other young actors caught up in that race?
Just enjoy the craft. A lot times awards gets you away from what you're here to do. I spent a year just traveling and doing appearances and speaking to kids but if I could do anything more, I would have said "yes" to more projects and just continue to act. To a lot of these young guys winning these awards: don't sanctify yourself too much. Don't put too much worth on it, just work man. That's what I've been doing of late. Just getting back to enjoying working, creating characters.
You seem to enjoy working on military stories. What are the challenges of those types of characters, where you're trying to be respectful but also dramatic?
Ha! You just gave me a job description, bro! That's the juice. I can do a movie where they put a gun to my head and I jump off a building and shoot the bad guys. And I've done enough of those lately, right? But, when I get to tell a story of a real guy, there's such a heightened sense of things. I have to be his truth. If you screw this up, you don't just screw up your performance, you screw up his tale. It's the roles I seek out to do. The real life stories.
We've been screening this movie, Terrence [Howard] and I have been traveling for George for the past three months, screening it at the Pentagon, Colorado Springs at the Air Academy with all the cadets. We went to a football game that was great: Army vs. Air Force. Every time we show up, these screenings are surprising because there's always real airmen there. So you've got these ninety-year-old black men sitting there and they don't talk much. The screen comes up and the movie starts, and I'm nervous as hell because now I'm being judged by the real men. Did I screw up? Did I tell the truth? Are they going to say, "We were never like that"? I look down in the darkened theater and I notice that their shoulders are moving back to back, and one of the airman's got his fist balled in front of him, and he's going, "down hard left, down hard right." He's in the cockpit again! I'm like, "Oh my goodness!" That's why we do what we do, right there. It's like, "Wow, everybody in the theater right now is with him, flying that airplane." It's great.