IF CUBA GOODING JR is nervous about being thrown in at the deep end making his musical debut in Chicago, he’s putting on a good front of not showing it. He had just a month to get up to speed for the key role of smooth-talking lawyer Billy Flynn but the excitement that buzzes off him when he talks up his part is contagious.
‘This role’s been all-involving — physically and mentally, you have to know all the dances, the intent of the character and the vocal arrangements,’ he says. ‘You put them all together and that’s the final performance. It’s a mind-blowing experience.
‘When you prepare a character and you say the dialogue, see the wardrobe, put it all together and you meet the character and it all clicks, it’s euphoric. It’s like a drug. And I haven’t had this level of euphoria since I did OJ Simpson. This guy is one of the top five most energetic characters I’ve ever played and you have to put your heart and soul into it. I’m having a ball playing him.’
Let’s pause for breath here. It’s fair to say Gooding Jr, 50, is throwing himself heart and soul into Chicago, back in the West End after a five-year break. Stepping into a role played by Richard Gere in the Oscar-winning 2002 film and on stage by talent as diverse as Jerry Springer and David Hasselhoff hasn’t fazed the actor best known for his ‘show me the money’ turn in Jerry Maguire. A big plus for Gooding Jr is performing in the West End.
‘There’s something about the history, the buildings, the architecture and the Shakespearean history of it,’ he says. ‘As a black kid growing up in South Central you don’t imagine yourself being surrounded by that level of refinement. I didn’t go to college and even though I had success early with Boyz N The Hood I felt insecure about not having trained properly as an actor. Broadway represented an achievement for me and the West End does so again.’
Boyz N The Hood, 1991’s film about gang life in South Central Los Angeles, was his breakthrough but it was Jerry Maguire five years later that put him on the A-list with a best supporting actor Oscar.
As a black kid growing up in South Central you don’t imagine yourself being surrounded by that level of refinement
‘Winning the Academy Award was like being in a car accident,’ he reflects. ‘When I was standing on that stage and seeing everyone slowly rising to their feet, then having a night that went on and on until the sun came up…’
But how much difference does winning an Oscar actually make to a career?
‘There are actors who haven’t worked for years who have an Oscar sitting on their shelf,’ he says. ‘But the bottom line is you walk into a room and they immediately say “Academy Award winner” before your name, which gives you a certain panache and cachet. No matter what you do as an actor you’ll always have that element of accomplishment.’
Gooding Jr has enjoyed a renaissance thanks to playing OJ Simpson in American Crime Story: The People Vs OJ Simpson, for which he was nominated for an Emmy Award. Playing OJ, he recalls, was an intense experience.
‘I had to get into the mindset of a man who has been subjected to physical trauma on the football field to the extent that I believe he has that CTE concussion thing, where he’s prone to outbursts of anger,’ he says. CTE is a condition some athletes in impact sports have sustained after suffering constant blows to the head — it can lead to personality changes.
‘Having to embody that was draining but the highlight was seeing how it affected so many people who understood that period in America. When you do a project like that, which connects with an audience the way we did, it’s a real high.’
From there he went on to appear in American Horror Story: Roanoke, once again working with producer Ryan Murphy, the brains behind American Crime Story. ‘Ryan’s got such a great talent for scripts,’ he says.
Now he’s got three months of singing on stage six times a week ahead of him.
‘I’ve gone through my moments of abject terror but then you get to the moment when you know you can do it,’ he says. ‘The vocal cords are like any other muscle. I’m working on a muscle I haven’t worked on in this way before and it’s paying off.’
■ Cuba Gooding Jr stars in Chicago at London’s Phoenix Theatre until June 30, chicagowestend.com