Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding is making his return to the Broadway stage as Billy Flynn, the smooth, fast-talking lawyer, in the iconic musical, “Chicago,” after wrapping up a run on London’s West End.
In between his performances, Cuba stepped into the director’s and writer’s chair for his debut directorial feature, Bayou Caviar, a “thrilling story of sex, murder, and revenge set in Louisiana.” Bayou Caviar premieres in theaters October 5th, 2018. You can catch Cuba as Billy Flynn in Chicago from October 6th through November 18th at Ambassador Theatre.
The Knockturnal: So what made you return to Broadway?
Cuba Gooding Jr.: Well I had done Chicago for four months in London on the West End stage and it was a magical experience it was something where, you know, I had done Broadway in 2013 with Cicely Tyson, and it was a drama, it was a heavy Horton Foote play dealing with grief and whatnot and after five months of it, I was like, I was ready to get off the stage, I was like ‘OK, I’ve experienced this, now let me move to something else…’ But, with this one, I wasn’t ready to finish it yet, I wanted, it’s something about these songs, these numbers, each show, I wouldn’t go to my dressing room, I’d just stay backstage, and I’d hear the orchestra play and I could just sit and watch them every show and so when they said ‘Do you want to do it on Broadway for another six weeks?’ I was like yeah … no brainer.
The Knockturnal: So what’s your favorite number?
Cuba Gooding Jr.: That I do or period? ‘Cause I think I like “Cellophane” the best, it’s the sweetest especially when it comes in, and then, well I don’t know if it’s either that or maybe Roxie, you know, or that last one number she does before they come out together (hums) there’s just something about that it that’s so sweet. My favorite of mine might be just “All I Care About Is Love” because the first time you see him, he’s so energetic. And I have a good time with it.
The Knockturnal: So why did you feel Chicago was the best thing for you to return to Broadway with?
Cuba Gooding Jr.: I think because it scared the hell out of me doing a musical, to sing and dance on stage was something that I was like ‘Aw, man, I don’t know about that – gotta do it!” And then after working with Eric Vetro as a vocal coach in Los Angeles for a couple of months last year and then flying to London and doing a month of rehearsals you gain a certain confidence that. It was just the fact that I was going to do a musical, it was horrifying and yet exhilarating and then when you tackle it, and you connect with that audience it’s a drug, just like it was with Trip to Bountiful, it’s a drug, you get instant gratification from an audience that’s moved by the performance, you know, and you don’t get that with film and television. A lot of times you don’t see your performances for months, sometimes years later, and you forget how, it doesn’t even seem like it’s you in that character, but when you’re on stage it’s that full body experience and connection with those that come to see you every night.
The Knockturnal: How do you feel that your portrayal in the West End would be different from here because New York audiences obviously are very critical?
Cuba Gooding Jr.: Yeah, it’ll be that thing, it’s that Manhattan energy, right? We had a good time in London, they’re very proper and reserved. So, we’ll see. I’ll tell you after the first couple of shows; I’ll answer it that way.
The Knockturnal: So what was the most challenging aspect for you? How did your expectations change in terms of rehearsals and what you thought the process was going to be like before you went into it?
Cuba Gooding Jr.: I played ice hockey for twenty-five years, I boxed in gyms with professionals twenty-something years, nothing is as hard as singing and dancing eight shows a week six days a week. I think it’s because even when I was a breakdancer and all that stuff, your coaches teach you to breathe through stuff so that you don’t get winded. But when you’re dancing, and you’re singing you’re using your breath for your vocals, so it’s a trick. I remember on my one day off, which was Sunday, one day I slept seventeen hours. Because your body literally just shut down and it knew it was time to repair itself, but yeah, that was the one thing, that was the adjustment to be made. Get your physical and your mental ready.
The Knockturnal: What do you think is your favorite part about Billy Flynn? What do you connect most to within him?
Cuba Gooding Jr.: I think it’s just his charm, his charisma and it’s funny because you’ll see what I enjoy the most about Billy Flynn because a lot of things I hear at the stage door when I’m signing autographs is ‘You look like you’re having a ball up there!’ It’s one of those things where when you really connect with a character that you love there’s no way to stop him from just doing what he does.
The Knockturnal: Chicago is a really great musical because the sets, at least when I saw it, are so bare, so it really is just about the performances.
Cuba Gooding Jr.: So simplistic! And the band behind you. The orchestra.
The Knockturnal: I loved the fact that the band is on stage. The atmosphere is so different from any other musical I have ever seen.
Cuba Gooding Jr.: Right on stage! And you feel that. When you’re standing in front of that band, and you’re hitting your notes and everything, you can feel that music pulsating through you, you just feel like you’re part of the band as opposed to being out there in the spotlight. It’s great. It’s one of those experiences that I think will be a drug that you crave after a while. I never thought I would want to do another musical; I was like ‘No, let me just do this and see how it is.’ When I finished in July I was sad; I wanted to go back, I would’ve stayed had it not been for the directorial thing, so I had to go prepare the film for release. But when they said to come here for six more weeks, I said ‘Yeah, I’m in. Absolutely. A hundred percent.’
The Knockturnal: So now you brought up the film Bayou Caviar. Where did that idea come from? Because I know you co-wrote the script.
Cuba Gooding Jr.: The script came to me with a different title and the structure of the story was completely different and there was an original writer on the Eitan Gorlin and when they offered me to direct it because another director fell out, I said I would have to be able to rewrite the screenplay, and so the producers granted me that opportunity and out of that was born my confidence to direct it. And I tell this to a lot of young directors who say ‘What should we do?’ and I always tell them ‘Write.’ Because writing will inform your story-telling abilities, skills, instincts, it’ll all come out in the words you put onto the page. And I think they always say a director’s first job is casting, a brilliant director can cast, but I think in addition to that director’s job on the set is to problem-solve and answer questions because everybody is going to have a question. The hair department, the makeup, the sound, the DP, everybody is going to come to you with questions and indecision breeds indecision. It breeds laziness. It breeds insecurity. You have to be able to answer questions with authority. When you have written a piece, and you’ve broken down everybody’s backstories and all of the elements then you can edit on the fly, you can answer questions that people aren’t normally thinking about but because this is your piece, and this is a statement you want to make you can make those decisions quickly.
The Knockturnal: How do think your experiences as an actor helped inform your decisions as a director?
Cuba Gooding Jr.: I think just that, I think as an actor your job is to find the truth in the moment to the character. When I was on Broadway with Trip to Bountiful, I was reminded of that ability of rediscovery from not just the moment you’re on stage but what happened to him in his past and where is he going. And as a director, you’re not only thinking about that for the actor there, you’re thinking about it in the extras, you’re thinking about it about the setting and the table and the things you’re wearing and why you have certain jewelry on. So it was a good training ground for me to be able to answer those questions about everybody in the piece.
The Knockturnal: What surprised you the most about being a director?
Cuba Gooding Jr.: We have a very limited budget, and we had certain issues that we had to overcome every single day. So at lunch, the AD would come to my door and say, ‘What can we cut?’ because we don’t have time to shoot everything. And that was a little bit shocking at first because, again, you have to problem solve, but once you adjust to that, I think it was surprising that it became something that I felt that I could handle.
The Knockturnal: If there’s a film that you have seen that you could get the chance to direct, what would you choose?
Cuba Gooding Jr.: To do over?
The Knockturnal: To do over or a film you’ve seen that maybe you wish you had directed?
Cuba Gooding Jr.: It’s funny because I knew I wanted to be a director because I would see a movie that didn’t work and I would fix it. I would go home and be like ‘Oh OK, this is how I would do that ending.’ or ‘This is how I would’ve done that relationship.’ or ‘This is how I would change the structure of the story.’ I got too many opinions to finally that somebody said ‘You know, you should direct.” To answer that question, I did that with almost everything that I watch so would I pick one I would want to direct? I don’t know; I don’t really look at it that way because each director’s statement is their statement on their work, right? I’ve written four screenplays under my belt; I’m going into pre-production on the second one that I wrote, so that’s the one I want to do now. Because if it wasn’t, I would have maybe picked one of the others or maybe I would’ve looked at something else to write to be something that you haven’t seen yet.