NEW YORK — The other night at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, Cuba Gooding Jr. came bounding on stage. He already had put in two hours performing in “The Trip to Bountiful,” but heard a group of people had stayed after the show to speak to 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 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. “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.
Gooding co-stars in the revival of Horton Foote’s masterpiece about getting back home. He stars opposite Cicely Tyson, Vanessa Williams, Condola Rashad and Tom Wopat. Tyson plays a widow who shares an apartment with her devoted son, played by Gooding, and overbearing daughter-in-law, played by Williams. The widow steals away to Bountiful, a tiny town where she spent her youth.
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 for 1996’s “Jerry Maguire” was now appearing in lackluster fare such as “Rat Race” and “Snow Dogs.”
Gooding admits to some acting mistakes and 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 ... 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.
“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. ... Now, if there’s anything to prove, it’s that that first pro-mise of my ability was correct and I’m ready to engage again.”
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.
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 “Bountiful.”
The last time Gooding was on stage he was a teen, winning a monologue contest by the L.A. school district with a speech from “Twelfth Night.” An agent was impressed and “the rest is history.”
He went on to do guest spots and commercials, then played the sidekick of “MacGyver.” His first film part was a small role in “Coming to America.” Then he got the lead in 1991’s drama “Boyz n the Hood.”
“I didn’t know how important that movie was until I looked back on my career,” he says.
Besides Broadway, Gooding has three movies he’s proud of that are coming out: “The Butler,” about a black butler who worked in the White House; “Life of a King,” about an inner-city chess club; and an untitled film on runaway slaves.
“I realize the older I get, when I’m not being creative is when I’m frustrated,” he says.