If you want to understand Cuba Gooding Jr, a good place to start is with his 1997 Academy Award acceptance speech. As he wins the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, for his role as Rod ‘show me the money’ Tidwell in “Jerry Maguire”, he has his head in his hands, takes a deep breath and then jumps valiantly on to the stage. He says ‘I love you’ 14 times and punches the sky. It’s like a movie scene in itself.
The New York native comes to London to star in his first West End show, Chicago, at the Phoenix Theatre (to 23 June), playing the shady lawyer Billy Flynn.
He’s certainly excited to play this role. “It will be a different energy, with a little swagger and a certain amount of soul that you have never seen. I am excited for people to see the Billy that is starting to manifest itself in my psyche with certain movements, attitude and vocals. It will be fun!’
"Chicago", which opened in 1975, is the world’s longest-running American musical. Based on a play of the same name, it captures an era when the public was enthralled by murders committed by women. The show follows Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, who kill their adulterous partners and face a public execution by hanging. What we see here, however, is a rare moment in fiction: men punished for their wrongdoings against women.
As Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct and the #MeToo campaign is still at the forefront of Hollywood’s mind, Gooding opens up about the more serious side of the musical: “There is a movement going on with voices of people who have dealt with harassment – on all different levels. If you look at Chicago and the genesis of [choreographer] Bob Fosse’s statements on sexuality and the empowerment of women who are taking control of their lives, sexually, mentally and physically, there is no timelier production to be had right now.”
Making a song and dance
The actor has played plenty of big characters. “When I think of all the roles that really affected my career – from Boyz n the Hood to the latest, The People v OJ Simpson – they were always the roles that I thought were challenging,” he says.
But how does he feel about singing? “When my agents called and said ‘you’ve been offered a musical’, it scared me to death. I never thought I’d be singing for a living, or playing a character that was in a musical. It was one of those moments where I said “yes, it’s time for me to do this”.
Even though Gooding began his career as a breakdancer, it’s been a long time since he has had to learn dance routines. “Oh my goodness! Everything hurts. My pecs, my legs, my biceps,” he laughs.
It’s obvious, though, that he is a big fan of musicals. “Whenever I go to Broadway, I find the newest thing. The first time I saw Cabaret, I went seven times in a row in two weeks. The stage manager said: “Are you coming to replace the lead?”’
For the love of London
Coming to London – the home of great British playwrights and musical theatre – seemed like a deciding factor for the actor. “If they offered me a musical in Los Angeles, I probably wouldn’t have done it,” Cuba admits. ‘But, because it’s in London and it’s so removed from my life, I can be completely selfish in this character.”
In fact, one of his earliest memories of the city is poignant. ‘When I did my first film, Boyz n the Hood, they put me up at The Dorchester. Now, every time I go through that hotel lobby, I always think about the very beginning of my acting career,” he remembers fondly.
So what makes the city so special? “For me, London is a hub that connects to the rest of the world,” he says. I think that the centre of the universe starts in London. Your society is a melting pot of communities. You go to certain cities and there is a section for Italians or Indians. When you go to London, you feel the people there are organic to London and they feel like Londoners – that energy is why people have gravitated to the city.”