The Butler: Cuba Gooding Jr. Keeps It All Loose

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“I knew exactly who this guy was,” says Cuba Gooding Jr., laughing. “Are you kidding? I’ve got uncles like this cat, man, and they’re already drunk and we haven’t even started the damn dinner yet. And you just know they’re gonna say something stupid, or do something stupid, get kicked out for something. Yeah, he was easy, a no-brainer. It’s fun to be that type of guy sometimes.”

He’s speaking of Carter Wilson, the funny, mischievous, irreverent co-worker and family friend of the titular character in Lee Daniels’ new film The Butler, which seems poised to be a big player in awards season this year. The film, based on the life story of Eugene Allen, traces much of the history of the civil rights movement through the life of one White House butler. Cecil Gaines, played by Forrest Whitaker, has two sons, one of whom is deeply involved in the lunch counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the Birmingham protests, and later the Black Panther Party.

It’s historically significant but emotionally taxing material, and Gooding was well aware of the main purpose of his character. “Some of this stuff we’re dealing with,” he says, “is so heavy that I knew this guy would be somebody that people would gravitate to. And it was a really fun role to capture. Lee loved to say on the set that he was Carter. And it’s true. He’s a nut, and he says whatever he feels.”

And of course, Gooding, a joker if there ever was one, was the perfect choice to fill that role. Sure enough, he was the leaven in the bread, more often than not. Daniels depended on him for it. “We’d do a bunch of takes,” Gooding says, “because Lee does that, and then he’d say ‘I got it, I got it, I got it. OK, one more for Cuba.’ And I’d do whatever crazy, crass thing the moment called for. And everybody would laugh, and we’d move on to the next heavy scene.”

His co-star Forrest Whitaker is well known as being a pretty intense guy, and we ask Cuba if helping him relax was part of the job description for Gooding and co-star Lenny Kravitz, as well. “Sometimes, yeah!” he says brightly. “We worked on it! Ask him about me, and he’ll be all ‘Oh, Cuba, Cuba, Cuba.’”

It all made for a very loose set, one which Daniels definitely used Gooding to help cultivate. “The loosest set you’ll ever ever, ever experience,” insists Gooding. “I remember this one time we were filming in a doctor’s office, and below it was a bar. And we took a lunch break. Boy, was that a mistake. The AD is running in and pulling Lee and me away from these locals we were doing shots with. Just crazy. But he demands reality. He doesn’t care how you get there, just get there.”

That dogged insistence on finding the reality of a scene is a hallmark of Daniels’. And Gooding thinks it’s the key to the director’s success. “He’s got better taste than anyone I’ve ever met. I think I’ve seen him be overindulgent, but what I haven’t seen him do is not be true to what he wants to say. I mean, this guy is always like, ‘I don’t believe this. What do we need to make this more believable?’ That’s his search; that’s the question he continues to act. And I think that’s so brilliant, because who knows what the next thing’s going to be with him?”

Daniels takes a very hands-on approach with his actors, says Gooding. “He’ll get to a place,” he says, “where he’ll say ‘Say the line.’ And I’ll say it. ‘Say it again. Say it again. Nope, say it again.’ Over and over. I’ve never seen a director like it. I hear Woody Allen doesn’t even like to talk to his actors! Sometimes Lee needs to paint, and he literally needs each stroke to be just how he wants it. And then he’ll watch it back, and he might use it in the editing room or he might not, but he needs those choices. And a lot of times I’ll give him what he thinks he wants, and he’ll say, ‘Alright, I got it, now do what you want.’ And I’ll give him what I think he needs, and he’ll say ‘That’s it!’ But if I would’ve started with that one, he would’ve made me go somewhere else. And I think that’s genius.”

That dogged insistence on the truth, when it’s shared by all the actors as well, gives the director the freedom to be as brutally honest as is needed. “You can’t be offended by what he says,” Gooding laughs. “I was doing a scene in the White House and there’s a camera creeping in on me, and it settles onto my face. And Lee yells out, ‘Cut! Cut! Cuba, stop that Red Tails bullshit, and get it together!’ So we did it again, and I stopped that Red Tails bullshit, and he got it, and we moved on.”

Gooding reckons that the director’s focus on truth has less to do with his acting training, and more to do with something larger. “I think it comes from his life training,” he says with a grin. “In life, he has been through some horrific things. Being a black man as openly gay as he is? He don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks. So is he going to watch a film and say ‘95% of this is good, but the other 5% I don’t buy?’ No! He’s going to yell out, ‘I don’t buy it! Fuck this, you’re gonna buy what I show you!’ If he doesn’t believe it, he’s not gonna let it go.”

That insistence also allowed Daniels to bring in a large group of big names—not only Gooding and Whitaker but Terence Howard, Mariah Carey, Vanessa Redgrave, Robin Williams, John Cusack, Minka Kelly, Jane Fonda, and even Oprah Winfrey, among others—and focus them all on the work at hand. How did all those egos co-exist? “The story was the ego,” Gooding quips. “We knew that we were telling this story to a generation of people who didn’t understand what went down. So it was important for us to get it right, and get specific about it. We did a lot of research on this time. Even the clothes we wore were tuxedos that were specifically made for this movie, and they were thought out down to the smallest detail. We had advisers on set that were very particular about how we’d stand, and how we’d place things. You didn’t want to mess with that. You wanted to be authentic and then build off that.”