In Conversation: Cuba Gooding Jr.

Photo: Bobby Doherty
In Conversation: Cuba Gooding Jr.
The American Crime Story​ star on the emotional toll of playing O.J. Simpson, his new acting philosophy, and wandering the Hollywood wilderness for a decade.
Photographs by Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

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. 

Photo: Bobby Doherty

How do you think you've changed after this role? 
Other than my voice? In so many ways. Specifically with the trial, I had such a cavalier approach to the verdict. It was like, “Fuck the police, man. They've been harassing black men forever. Even if he did it, good for him not having to be brought down.” When we shot that scene of Nicole's funeral and O.J. kisses her corpse, I remember breaking for lunch, and it was another one of those nervous-breakdown moments where I couldn't stop crying. It wasn't because I was supposed to be emotional as an actor. I felt embarrassment and guilt for not ever mourning for those two families: the Brown family and the Goldman family. It was a shame I felt as a man, that I got caught up in the hoopla of the case and the hopped-up racial tensions in 1994. Twenty years later, looking back and going, “This was a crime.”

Would you want to meet O.J. now that this is over?
No. Somebody asked, “If O.J. asked to meet you, would you?” I said, “Yes, I would.” But you just said, do I want to meet him. The hardest thing is to find the truth of a character, put that performance down, and [have] people judge it. It's just hard. I haven't watched those ten episodes. I don't know when I would ever watch them. What I did as O.J. Simpson the director is happy with and people are responding to, so why the fuck would I need to watch it? And I know what happens. 

If you got to ask O.J. one question, what would it be?
I know what prison does to a man's psyche. I have a friend locked up now. He talks about our childhood and mentions stuff that's just not true. “Remember when we did this and that?” “I remember when that happened, but that wasn't you and I.” But I know he believes it to be the truth.

I don't know what I'd ask him. It would probably have to be something about his kids, and see how he reacted, to see if I could [spot] a vulnerability there. That would tell me what I'd want to know about his frame of mind. I've said this over and over again, and I believed this to be true when I was filming this and doing the research, and [people] were talking about Concussion. I put two and two together with O.J. You look at his record. He broke records in high school. He broke records in college, winning the Heisman Trophy. He rushed for more than 2,000 yards in one season. It's only been done six times before in a 16-game season. When he did it, he did it in 14 games. If you think of the abuse his brain must have taken, it's a no-brainer. Listening to the 911 tapes, his outbursts of emotion. It's very telling.

What was the hardest scene for you to shoot?
Probably the Bronco [chase]. But there were other hard moments. There was a courtroom moment in episode nine or ten that was devastating. 

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.

What about Ryan Murphy did you find compelling? 
The simplicity of how accurately he can find the truth. Not just in the moment, not just in the casting, but in the wardrobe. His attention to detail. The truth in the camera movement. The truth in the dialogue. He put ego aside — he just wants the truth to be found. I thought that was such a master class in directing. Your close-ups have to be shot this way, and then you have to put the crew behind the cameras and shoot it that way. He would find the truth and go put the crew back this way and shoot it that way, because he saw something he missed in the other angle. That, to me, is why we do what we do as artists. When I'm watching my performance, there's something I don't even see that I'm doing, but the director identifies that as the truth [of] not just your performance, but the piece as a whole, as a statement. That's the drug. 

Cameron Crowe said to me on the set of Jerry Maguire: "Work with real directors. Don't worry about the script." It took me that ten-year journey to actually walk through God's will of me seeing how important the director's voice is. I was on Broadway for seven months with Cicely Tyson in The Trip to Bountiful. It was an experience that opened me up creatively again to the act of discovery as an actor. I wound up writing a couple of screenplays, and now I'm in the process of securing my first directorial debut. 

Can you tell me about that?
I don't want to yet. My agents have been saying no to a lot of people lately because they know. They're like, “He's got a lot of stuff to figure out right now. Once he gets through this, then we'll focus on the next character.” With my new voice, I won't be playing a soprano or a tenor, I'll tell you that much. 

Who else would you like to work with?
How much time do you have? I'll say it like this. I’ll get on the dick, as the rappers say, of some filmmakers that I’m on the dick on. Steven Soderbergh's The Knick is phenomenal. The first season of True Detective, phenomenal. Why? They had one director: Cary Fukunaga. Breaking Bad. Are you fucking kidding me? It's these new voices that are telling these stories. I have to say this fast or I'll forget it: When I write, I write fast, and I write from a place of everyone in the scene — how you got here, how you drove here. Everybody comes to this point for this scene. When you read that script and come back to me and say, “Cuba, this scene ... I didn't understand,” I go, “You're right. I didn't think, because I forgot to mention …” I can go back in time to where you came into the scene. Yet it's a screenplay, so you're not going to have more than two, two and a half hours to do that. On television we've got showrunners that have 10, 13, 22 hours to tell how everybody got in this room. It's so fucking liberating and freeing. The guys that do it right are the examples I gave you. I know there are shows I'm missing. Peaky Blinders. Penny Dreadful. I'm watching so much stuff. 

You are up on your TV.
The Fall. Did you see that? That fucking kid [Jamie Dornan]? Everybody is like, “Fifty Shades of Grey.” I go, “All right, let me see this bullshit.” I go, “Who is this kid?” I turned it off. There are no stars in this, so you fast-forward. [When people say,] “Hey, you should see The Fall,” I go, “I don't know these people. Oh, I know her from The X-Files.” So I'm watching it, and I'm hooked. I finished both seasons. Now I get how they got Fifty Shades of Grey! That motherfucker's a star! I'm starstruck if I see that kid walking down the street. It's these new voices.

Have we saved the best for last? No, because it's not the best, but Game of Thrones. Ah! Watch your shoes. [Mimes jerking-off motion.] It's the subtleties of not just these performances, but the statement these shows are making. I could cry thinking about it. It's like, “Shame, shame,” and she's naked, and there's no shot to Miss Genitals. It's fucking truth. You're not going to get that doing some fucking indie film that goes direct-to-video with some director's cousin who's got a billion dollars and wants to direct an Academy Award winner. You're not going to get there like that. You're only going to get there if you've got filmmakers telling the truth.

I study Quentin Tarantino's scripts because I think he's a truer writer than he is a director. He's a brilliant director, but his writing is on that level. Who haven't I been on the ballsack about? I already got the opportunity to work with Ava DuVernay, even though it was only a day. I was there at the birth of Lee Daniels. He finds truth and doesn't care what you think about it. Those are the guys I want to share my creative energies with. Get in bed with. Going back to Soderbergh and Fukunaga, those are two guys that said, “I'm going to handle the camera, and I'm directing every episode.” Ryan and I are talking about the future, and I said, “Will you direct?” He goes, “Not like I did for this, as many as I did for People v. O.J.” And I'm like, “Boo! No! Get behind the camera.”

Season two of American Crime Story is going to be about Hurricane Katrina. Would you want to do that?
Hands down. Anything Ryan wants to do, I'm in.

It was a shame I felt as a man, that I got caught up in the hoopla of the case and the hopped-up racial tensions in 1994. Twenty years later, looking back and going, “This was a crime.”

It's amazing that he gets that faith. 
Look at him and his personal life. He doesn't give a fuck. He's like, “This is me. Like it or leave it. And if you don't like it, go fuck yourself.” You need that. In the old days directors wore a suit and tie, until they switched. Stanley Kramer. Kubrick. “Is that how we're supposed to do it? Okay, well, we're going to do it this way.” Francis Ford Coppola. Scorsese. These guys came from a place [of], “This is how we're going to do it. If that's the way we should do it, we're going to do it this way. We're going to make the decision.” Those are the voices we have today in television. Right now, that's where the stories are being told.

This whole diversity thing and the Oscars? I'm like, “Guys, back up. Awards ceremony? That's too late! Of course they're all white, that's the stories they're telling right now.” You go to TV, you see the rainbow coalition. These guys are telling it on that scale, and it's brilliant.

It echoes what Viola Davis has said about how we're starting to see more interesting roles on TV right now for people of color. Do you think that's true? 
Absolutely. It's more than just interesting roles. It's an opportunity to make a statement with filmmakers that don't know they can't do something yet. It's like a kid. He boxes. He jumps out of a window into a bag and becomes a stuntman later, because when he was young he didn't know he couldn't do that. When you're young, you don't know you can't break certain rules, so you do anything. Then you find brilliance.

FX is slamming the balls off the game right now. Fearless. My new favorite studio head, [FX president] John Landgraf, said there's just too much television, and it's true. But that isn't a negative statement. That's saying it's the Wild Wild West. I did Big Time in Hollywood, FL. My agents came to me and said, “We're going to send you a script. We know you don't like playing yourself in roles.” I said, “Then why are you sending it to me?” They said, “We're going to send you the pilot.” I said, “Send me the pilot, and I'm not going to read the script.” I have two boys, 21 and 19. The three of us sat and watched. I kind of laughed, but they almost peed themselves. I call my agents and say, “You're right. I've got to do it. These kids are brilliant.” They're the voice for the next generation, and I want to be involved. 

How do you think your career changed after winning an Oscar? Did you feel like you won too young?
You always do, yeah ... I think you just gave me another emotional breakthrough. When I won the Academy Award, I had seen that movie 15 times. I had been to every awards show. There was a preciousness I put about myself as an actor and an artist. It made me pass on Amistad. It made me pass on Ali. It made me pass on a lot of these big movies because I wanted to make another statement. Because this [American Crime Story] role and this project are being so celebrated, I'm afraid of that. I just got out of actor jail of doing ten years of direct-to-video movies. It was an education I would have paid a billion dollars, if I had it, to get. At the same time, I'm starving. I'm hungry again, to work with these new voices. I'm staying focused on the process as an actor.

My wife said to me [about O.J.], “Ugh, you're going to make me feel sympathy for that man, aren't you?” Someone [else] said, “How did you do that? How did you create sympathy?” I said, “Thank you for the compliment. But if I played Hitler, you probably wouldn't feel sympathy, no matter how emotional I got.” Because I'm playing someone who's accused of something, you don't know 100 percent if he did it — that opens a kernel of possibility of changing your opinion. [But] I don't believe that anything can change someone's opinion if they feel he's innocent or guilty. The people who think he's innocent, if he came out and he said, “All right, y'all, I did it,” they'd still be like, “They broke that motherfucker! They broke him!”

Even if you think he's guilty, you can still have sympathy for him. 
Oh, yeah. Like we said about CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy], there's a sickness. This man's gone through an illness.

You changed for this.
I know, it's scary. I look at all the gifts that I've been given in my career. Put the Oscar aside, put all the money aside, the behind-the-scenes conversations I've had with Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and now, with John Travolta — that is almost bigger than any award I would receive. It's informed me that whatever trials and tribulations I've gone through, they've gone through, and it's not that abnormal. It's all part of the process.

What was it like working with John Travolta? 
Phenomenal. Think about the courtroom and how it's set up. You have the defense table here, the prosecution, and the gallery full of 200 extras every day who just come and watch the Cuba Gooding–John Travolta–Sarah Paulson–Courtney B. Vance–David Schwimmer show. It was like being on Broadway. They'd say cut, and John would stand and turn around and he would do a dance, and I would drop my pants and do a little goofy shit. It's hysterical. We laughed and we cried. We did all of that for six months.

I was struck by how relevant the show is: It's about reality TV, it's about police brutality, it's about race. These things are in the conversation right now, yet this trial happened 20 years ago. What do you hope the show accomplishes overall?
Like any of our work does as artists, it helps people heal. You look at the ills of society. I watched Straight Outta Compton, and I was so moved by what I took away from it. There was a sequence of scenes where Middle America was burning the album after “Fuck Tha Police.” I remember when it came out. Even I was like, “Hmm, you might have pushed it a little too far with that song.” Now, looking back on it, that song was why people didn't shoot cops as much as they do now: You need that artistic outlet. It's disgusting to think our men and women in uniform have to be worried about somebody shooting them. They're here to protect and serve us. As artists, if we can emulate the frustrations you feel towards the police, the next time you see a police officer, you play that song a little bit, and that's your outlet. That's what we tried to do about the trial. We shined a light on everything. A lot of stuff people don't even remember seeing or hearing, we revisit that. It sparks a dialogue.

Anger is a gateway emotion — it brings you somewhere. A lot of times, after riots, they rebuild the city. Not that I'm saying riots are a good thing. But it's an inevitable conclusion if you have pent-up, frustrated anger. It's got to go somewhere. But then, once you go somewhere, hopefully, that's when the healing starts.