These days, Cuba Gooding Jr. hardly has time to come up for air – literally.
Apart from shooting the all-star screwball comedy Rat Race, he had already completed three major films, including Jerry Bruckheimer’s $200-million US war film Pearl Harbour.
“I play Dorie Miller,” says Gooding. “He was a cook who ended up being the first African-American to be awarded the Navy Cross. He shot down two of the seven Japanese planes that were downed in the battle of Pearl Harbor.”
Miller is one of two African-American heroes portrayed by Gooding. Opening sooner, the Oscar winner stars as Carl Brashear in Men of Honor. Gooding admits that this is the proudest he has been of any movie he has done.
“When I read this script I didn’t know this part of history and that there was a diver like this”, Gooding explains following the film’s screening at the recent Toronto Film Festival. “I felt this role was something I could lose my soul emotionally and yet still be in the parameters of what this man has done and accomplished
Brashear was the first African-American to be accepted into the elite Navy Dive School. “It was in 1952, just after the military had been integrated, and he faced incredible odds. Men of Honor was a tough film for the actor to make, he recalls. “The dive suits weigh 220 pounds. It takes 45 minutes to get in one and 45 minutes to get out. I also had to do a great deal of swimming and diving and a lot of it had to be me.”
Being a true story, the actor had a responsibility of being true to a real-life hero, one who is still very much alive. “He was on the set every day and a lot of emotional and physical stuff that was done to him was brought to life in front of him, so I didn’t know how that would effect him. But he was very good about it and he never voiced his opinion on anything, unless it was military protocol.”
As passionate as the Oscar winning star of Jerry Maguire is about Men of Honor, Gooding says that finding Black characters to play on film that defy cliché, is far from easy. “There have been a lot of black parts, but you know the brother’s got to be in prison to overcome racism or running from the law or something. Or he’s got to be beat down like Rodney King and then we’ve got to make a fuss,” Gooding said. “I’ve done my share of those kinds of roles, so parts like this are really quite rare for a Black actor. There are more inspirational stories to be told, like Carl Brashear’s, that I want to be a part of. There are black men who have contributed so much to our society in the things they’ve done that were not beyond the call of duty, but that they thought were just their job, just required of them as human beings. They overcame racial prejudices just by doing within the system what they felt is right. That’s what I want to be a part of.” Yet ironically, it was a movie that Gooding almost didn’t do, he recalls, Frustrated by its US$32-million budget – a modest figure given its underwater sequences and special effects.he dropped out, unwilling to take a personal pay cut and angry at the movie business’s lesser enthusiasm for funding dramas with black lead characters. Ironically, it took DeNiro, who is cast as the unrepentant bigot, to talk Gooding back onto the project by telling him, “You don’t fight racism this way … You make the movie and you show them.” “He was right,” Gooding recalls, also willing to admit where else he’s been wrong along his career path.
There was last year’s box office bomb Instinct, accepting the first salary he was offered because “I just so wanted to work with Anthony Hopkins.” But he’s also refused to even read other scripts because their budgets were too small to help his position in the Hollywood ranking.
“You have to make business decisions in your career and sometimes I do. I admit that. I won’t always be that way.” On the other hand, for his latest film, the Jerry Zucker-directed Rat Race, Gooding was happy to take a pay cut, as did everyone in the cast, “because “it is just hilarious.” Gooding says that while Men of Honor was physically tough, he laughingly adds that nothing prepared him for the physical comedy of Rat Race. “You wouldn’t believe the stuff I have to do in this movie, man. I’m just sore thinking about it.
Next up, a series of very distinctive films for the 32-year old. Gooding plays a drug dealer opposite James Caan and Matthew Modine in In The Shadows, about a stunt man who gets marked by a hit man. He also provides the voice of Duke the Pony Express Horse in Disney’s animated film Sweating Bullets. “I just did my first voice session four months ago. I think the film is scheduled for summer 2004. “It was like doing stand-up comedy. I was in the sound booth delivering my lines. I could see the crew laughing, but couldn’t hear them. Now that was weird.”