Cuba Gooding Jr.: Flying to Cuba

Cuba Gooding Jr. and I are on the trampoline in his mammoth backyard for a number of reasons. First, it's a beautiful day. Second, there's no furniture in his San Fernando Valley home--Gooding just moved in four days ago. And third, I figure if the Boyz N the Hood star and I fail to connect. I can win him over with my swivel-hips-into-a-knee-flip combination and call it a day.

Joining us are four frisky pooches, one of which completely upstages any of my possible trampoline tricks by diving to the bottom of the swimming pool to retrieve a rock, "Do Siegfried and Roy know about him?" I ask. Some of the mutts belong to Gooding's three roommates, but, he says paternally, "They're all considered mine. I've been roommates with these guys for six years. We grew up together and stuck together all the bullshit."

Gooding's male-bonding skills must have come in handy in his latest film Judgement Night, an urban action yarn he stars in with Emilio Estevez, Denis Leary, Jeremy Piven and Stephen Dorff. They play what Cuba calls "normal schmoes" who on their way to a Chicago boxing match, take a wrong turn into a bad neighborhood and end up in a serious street battle.

"We wind up in the sewers," Gooding says. "It was hell. They had us in scuba gear under our clothes because of the sludge." Authentic sludge? "They duplicated the sewers," he says, "but it looked real, and they had real rats."

Hardly more glamorous is Gooding's other recent project, out this month, the HBO Showcase film Daybreak, which, he assures me, is not based on the Barry Manilow song of the same name. Set in the near future, Daybreak is about a government putting victims of an unnamed sexually transmitted disease into concentration camps. Gooding plays a rebel in the film. So was his choosing this project motivated by his feelings about our own government's handling of the AIDS epidemic? "The main motivation." he says, "without taking a stance on any opinion, was to get people to talk about it, to see if we come up with some type of solution." Given that Daybreak is also a love story in which Gooding falls for Moira Kelly. I ask the actor if race is an issue in the film.

"Don't even want to talk about it," Gooding says firmly. And maybe now would be a good time to start those trampoline tricks. Instead, I tell Cuba that I heard he was big on break dancing when he was a kid. "Oh yeah," the 25-year-old actor says nostalgically. "We would dance for cash. We'd set our radios down in front of Sears and the May Co. and see who had the best moves. I could always do backflips, or maybe I'd do 1990's, which are one-handed handstand spins" He's only too happy to demonstrate, and it's right up there with the diving dog in terms of sheer spectacle.

Gooding lands in a heap on the grass and I ask him if he still feels the groundswell from his firs and most successful starring role, in Boyz N the Hood. "I had a lot of stuff said to me," he says proudly. "Kids come up to me--and it has nothing to do with Ice Cube and the way his character was this bad-ass gangbanger--and they say, 'Oh man, I loved you in that movie.' And all I did was cry and moan and bitch and try to deal with the situation." Career-wise, as well, the film must have opened a lot of doors. "Lotta doors," nods Gooding. "Hey, I'm doing a page in Movieline. If this was my first movie it'd probably be a link square."