NEW YORK — The other night at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, Cuba Gooding Jr. came bounding onto the stage.
He had already put in two solid hours performing in “The Trip to Bountiful,” but heard a group of people had stayed after the show to speak to some of the creators.
He also had heard that some in the group were Morgan Stanley bankers.
“It’s time for you all to show me the money!” he cracked.
The bankers all burst out laughing after hearing the signature line that earned Gooding an Oscar. He then posed for pictures and signed their programs.
“He is still in essence a big kid in a man’s body. That energy and that warmth and that humor is infectious,” says director Michael Wilson, who watched the scene. “And it’s all genuine. None of it is put on.”
Meeting Gooding bears that out — there’s a youthful energy to the 45-year-old that practically buzzes as he makes his professional stage debut. The last time he performed live was in high school, but it’s where he was first inspired.
“This is what made me fall in love with acting. Now it’s like I’m living that again and I finally feel awakened,” he says. “That euphoria of doing roles is what I was born from.”
Gooding co-stars in the revival of Horton Foote’s masterpiece about — appropriately enough — getting back home. He stars opposite Cicely Tyson, Vanessa Williams, Condola Rashad and Tom Wopat.
Tyson plays an elderly widow who shares a cramped two-room apartment in Houston with her devoted son, played by Gooding, and overbearing daughter-in-law, played by Williams. The widow soon steals away on a bus to Bountiful, a tiny farming town where she spent her youth, in hopes of recapturing her vitality and purpose.
In many ways, it is Gooding’s trip as well after a few fallow years where his career seemed mired. The guy who’d won an Oscar in Cameron Crowe’s 1996 film, “Jerry Maguire,” was now appearing in lackluster fare such as “Rat Race,” “Daddy Day Camp,” “Boat Trip,” “Chill Factor” and “Snow Dogs.”
Gooding, having coffee in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel, admits to some acting mistakes and sometimes getting caught up in the silly business of who gets the top magazine covers. But he says a new chapter has opened.
“There was so much expectation after I won the Oscar. And so many opinions that floated around, and the negativity about me and my choices. And there were some missteps on my part — I was saying ‘no’ to a lot of good directors that I shouldn’t have,” he says.
“Now that I’m at this creative place, I understand the path God put me on. He put me where I’m supposed to be right now. Now if there’s anything to prove, it’s that that first promise of my ability was correct and I’m ready to engage again.”
Lured to stage
Gooding, whose home is in Los Angeles, has been flirting with a stage debut for a few years, but needed something special to make him leave his wife and three children, who range in age from 18 to 7.
He was recently offered the part of Stanley Kowalski in a revival of “Streetcar Named Desire” in London, but plans fell through. Then his agent sent him the script of “The Trip to Bountiful.”
Wilson recalls talking with Gooding about the role and then inviting him to join the production. “He has just approached it with tremendous energy and heart.” When he was offered the role by text, Gooding responded, in tears, “There aren’t words. I’m calling my mother right now.”
The last time Gooding was onstage he was a teenager, winning a monologue competition arranged by the Los Angeles Unified School District with a speech from “Twelfth Night.” An agent was impressed and “the rest is history.”
He went on to do a string of guest spots and commercials — he got his Screen Actors Guild card with “Hill Street Blues” and played the sidekick of “MacGyver” for a season. His first film part was a small role in “Coming to America” — “my lines were cut so I looked like an extra,” he laughs — and then he got the lead in 1991’s brilliant coming-of-age drama “Boyz n the Hood.”
“I didn’t know how important that movie was until I looked back on my career a few years into it,” Gooding says. “I went, ‘Wow, not all of my movies are going to be received like that?’ It was a rude awakening.”
Besides the Broadway role, Gooding has three movies he’s very proud of that are coming out. There’s “The Butler,” Lee Daniels’ story about a black butler who worked in the White House for over three decades; Jake Goldberger’s “Life of a King,” about an inner-city chess club that Gooding calls “my answer to ‘Boyz n the Hood’ ”; and an untitled film about runaway slaves that he calls “emotionally raw.” He’ll also be in Robert Rodriguez’s “Machete Kills.”
“I realize the older I get, when I’m not being creative is when I’m frustrated,” he says. “If you have talent, that’s all that matters. And if you focus on your craft, your talent will show.”