Cuba Gooding Jr. is suited, pumped and ready for any kind of strange question, request or comment you want to throw his way.
"Part of the gig," says the 31-year-old actor.
A former break dancer and gymnast, who has started boxing with a personal trainer and loves to play recreational ice hockey at the Mighty Ducks' training rink, Gooding takes to this interview like an athlete. No pain, no gain. If this is all it takes to push his latest movie, "Instinct," so be it.
He's heard it all, anyway. What do you think about Heaven? How about Hell? That's what you get for letting people know you've been a born-again Christian since fifth grade and that you'll never take the Lord's name in vain on the screen.
Then there's the insidiously veiled question that always notes that his wife, Sara, is white. It came up, Gooding recalls, when his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in "Jerry Maguire" brought attention to his private life. But now that he and Sara--who was also his high school sweetheart--have been married five years, with two children, it has begun to fade.
But the prime bugaboo, the one thing Cuba Gooding Jr. may never shake off, isn't a question. It's a yell. It's the four-word anthem he made so famous in "Jerry Maguire," the refrain that plugged itself instantaneously into the culture.
Wherever he goes, there's always someone who has to scream it out, or demand that Gooding do the same. And right now, Gooding is doing a rubbery, Jim Carreylike face as he imitates a fan yelling himself stupid.
"Show me da monaaaaaaay!!!"
"I hear it a lot," he says. "Not as much in L.A. But when I travel around the country and they see me, it's the first thing they yell out. And they think it's the first time anyone ever said it to me. I do the same thing: I smile and I laugh and thank them."
Sometimes if they're too insistent, he makes them do the routine.
"I say, 'Oh, come on! Jump on the table and take off your shirt.' They go, 'No.' "
If Gooding has his way, those requests will change when America sees him headlining opposite Anthony Hopkins in "Instinct."
In the movie, which opens Friday, Gooding plays Theo Caulder, a psychiatrist who takes on the biggest case of his life: Ethan Powell (Anthony Hopkins), a shaggy, bearded primatologist who is now an inmate in a prison for the criminally insane.
Jailed for murders that occurred in the jungles of Rwanda, Powell had spent so much time with the gorillas that he turned animalistic himself. He's intimidating and given to sudden, violent attacks. Can Theo reach him? Or will Ethan get inside his head first?
Whatever the final verdict on the movie, few will dispute that Gooding throws everything he's got into the part. You can feel the sweat, anxiety and ambitious drive of a young man determined to get inside Powell's skull.
Theo isn't so different from Gooding, a man of seemingly limitless energy and emotional resources.
"It doesn't matter how many times he's called onto the set," says "Instinct" director Jon Turteltaub, who is sitting with Gooding for the interview. "He leaps onto the set with energy. He grabs your knee, squeezes it, punches you really hard in the stomach so that it hurts, gets the whole crew going and says, 'Let's make a movie.' "
Gooding performed energetically for Turteltaub and crew, he says, but the intensity of the experience left him shedding tears of emotional exertion in private.
Says Gooding: "I'd be weeping in my trailer at the end of the day, thinking: 'I think I got it, I think I got it.' "
Gooding has come a long way from the kid who was born in South Bronx. Who became one of three tag-along kids in a split-up between Shirley, his mother, and Cuba Gooding Sr., the singer for the Main Ingredient, best known for the hit "Everybody Plays the Fool." His parents have since reunited. But at the age of 10, Cuba Jr. found himself bouncing from New York City to California, then from school to school.
"We moved around a lot," recalls Gooding, who shared motel rooms with his mother and siblings. "We were broke. We were living really, really badly. I would have one set of friends, and then I'd have to move to another situation and I'd have to make new friends. The schools I went to were mainly Caucasian schools, and I was the only black kid around. But I never really thought about the negatives growing up. I would have to capitalize on anything positive that was going on in my life."
This was, Gooding says, "God's way of training me." And he retained one pearl of wisdom from his father that has become his operating mantra: "Tomorrow is guaranteed to no one."
At school, Gooding took up athletics; he also taught himself break-dancing routines. He landed a gig with a break-dance group at the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles. By then he had met Sara, two years his junior. They've been together ever since. But he wouldn't break into acting big time until 1991 as the emotionally tortured teenager Tre Styles in John Singleton's "Boyz N the Hood."
It was a triumphant role for Gooding. But after the deluge of scripts featuring angry black men and drive-by shootings, Gooding opted for a different track. This led to an unspectacular string of small parts in such films as "A Few Good Men," "Losing Isaiah," "Lightning Jack" and "Outbreak."
His stalled career was jump-started when "Jerry Maguire" producer James L. Brooks offered him the role of Rod Tidwell, the athlete who stands by his sports agent (played by Tom Cruise) just as long as Maguire shows him . . . you know.
Gooding's sheer elation at winning the Oscar became the high point of the evening, as he paid rabble-rousing tribute to virtually everyone he could name in a rising, fist-pumping crescendo.
"I remember walking up" to receive the award, says Gooding. "I remember going up there. And then the music playing. And then it just seemed like the thing to do: yell out the names. What I don't remember is, when did I stop yelling? What made me stop? Did they stop for a commercial break? Did the people stop applauding? Do you know who I remember seeing? Woody Harrelson! I don't know why. He jumped in the aisle and there was nobody else there, and he went 'Yeaaaaaaahhhh!' And I'm, like, 'That's Woody Harrelson standing in the aisle.' "
For Gooding, that speech marked the transition between a career of supporting roles and a new life as leading man. The evolution has been on Gooding's agenda ever since the Coralie Jr. talent agency informed the young Gooding he was a character actor, not "lead" material.
But although he's got star billing in "Instinct," his future as a leading man is hardly assured. Walt Disney's decision to cast Gooding in "Instinct" provoked the kind of second-guessing that is one of Hollywood's two favorite indoor activities. A romantic connection between Gooding's character and Hopkins's Caucasian daughter was struck from the script--for fear of the negative reaction it could engender. And although Turteltaub favored Morgan Freeman in the Hopkins role, the director had to consider the negative connotation of a black actor extolling time spent with gorillas in the African jungle.
"There is a value in colorblind casting," says Turteltaub. "But you can't be color-ignorant either."
Ultimately, Gooding will be judged by the movie's box office, and whether enough fans skip "The Phantom Menace" lines to watch Cuba Gooding Jr. play a shrink. It's a tenuous hook to hang any hat on, but Gooding is thrilled he has "the role responsible for the emotions and the message people take from the movie. I like that, I'm addicted to that, I want to do more of that."
He'll get more of "that" if this movie breaks $100 million--by now the banal minimum for a profitable venture. And he'll know he's really made it, he says, when he appears on "the list." That's the same one that studio heads pull out when they're considering actors for the few choice scripts that make the rounds in Hollywood. It's the list that begins, "Cruise, Hanks, Smith, Ford, Roberts . . ."
"I'm--I'm--I'm moving up there," he says.
"Yes," says Turteltaub. "You're getting there."
Asked how he'll know when he's reached his goal, Gooding's answer is meant to be lighthearted, but it's laced with truth.
"When my quote goes up," he says. In other words, when Hollywood shows him . . . you know.
CAPTION: "I remember going up there," says Cuba Gooding of receiving his Oscar. ". . . And then it just seemed like the thing to do: yell out the names."
CAPTION: Cuba Gooding Jr. stars as a psychiatrist opposite Anthony Hopkins's madman in "Instinct."