Attention, soldiers: Don't be surprised if the man famous for shouting, "Show me the money" in his Oscar-winning role in "Jerry Maguire" shows you some respect if he ever sees you in public.
"Whenever I see a serviceman, I've gotten into the habit of saying, 'Thank you for your service,'" Cuba Gooding Jr. told me in a recent interview. "I'll walk up to them and they'll be like, 'Hey, you're …' and I'll interrupt and say, 'Whoa. I just want to say thank you for your service.'"
Although he's never been a soldier in real life, Gooding said that there's no greater honor as an actor than to play one. His latest cinematic tour of duty comes in "Red Tails," an action drama based on the incredible true story of the Tuskegee Airmen -- the first African-American aerial combat unit to serve in World War II.
Gooding plays a composite character, Major Emanuelle Stance, in the film, which opens in theaters nationwide on Friday.
"Being in 'Red Tails' is my way of saying to soldiers, 'Here's a Christmas present. This is for you guys. I want people to people to be proud when they see you in your uniform,'" Gooding said, humbly. "It's always been my favorite type of role to play, from 'Men of Honor' to 'Pearl Harbor' to 'A Few Good Men.' Anytime I can put a uniform on in a movie I jump at the chance."
"Red Tails" marks the first time Gooding worked with iconic filmmaker George Lucas, who executive produced the film. And while the "executive producer" credit is sometimes viewed as a vanity credit within the industry, Gooding was thrilled that Lucas lived and breathed "Red Tails," and beyond.
"He came to me on set about six months and said to me, 'This film has to perfect, but the more and more I work on these dogfights, I'm realizing that it's becoming an action movie. I'm also a little concerned that people aren't going to learn about the history,'" Gooding recalled. "So what does he do? He puts together a two-hour documentary for the History channel called 'Double Victory,' and asked me to narrate it.'"
Even more impressive, Gooding said, is Lucas' financial commitment to every last frame of both "Red Tails" and the documentary.
"He financed everything out of his pocket," Gooding said. "If that doesn't show passion, I don't know what does."
Celebrating The Airmen
While Gooding, 44, said he was proud to meet several real-life Tuskegee Airmen during the film's production, he was especially moved to watch them screen "Red Tails" for the first time.
"These men overcame insurmountable odds to become American heroes and warriors in combat, yet they were heroes came back after the war and had to go back into segregation because of Jim Crow laws," Gooding noted. "These men are in their 90s now and need to be celebrated. At every screening of the movie, we had one or two of these guys attend and they were weeping at the end of it."
While Gooding said he was honored that the real-life pilots were moved, emotionally, by "Red Tails," he was thrilled to see how they reacted to the intense action scenes.
"The movie has a fun factor. It's still an action movie," Gooding said. "I remember seeing these 93-year-old men sitting in front of me and at first they were quiet. I was like, 'Oh man, I don't know if they're digging it or not.' But then when the first dogfight started to happen, I noticed that they're shoulders were jerking and their hands were in front of them making fists. It's like they were literally working a joystick watching the screen. Then I went, 'That's what I'm talking about!'"
While "Red Tails" is a story about the plight of the Tuskegee Airmen, Gooding said ultimately, the story, especially for today's audiences, should not be considered an African-American story, but an American story.
"After 9/11, I was in Europe and found out that being an American wasn't cool," Gooding recalled. "A cousin who traveled with me almost got into a fistfight in a club because somebody said, 'F------ Americans' and he said, 'Watch your mouth! We're Americans!'"
"Films like 'Red Tails' show what our makeup is. We're not a bunch of racists over here," Gooding added. "We're blacks, whites, Asians and Hispanics. There are so many colors over here and we have a black president. There's so much that we've accomplished as Americans that we can be proud of, and this movie is a representative of that no matter what color you are."