In his eclectic career, Cuba Gooding Jr. has racked up awards, accolades, anecdotes – and an enviable collection of timepieces. He speaks to WatchTime’s Mark Bernardo about all of them in this exclusive interview.
He made “Show me the money” a national catch-phrase with his Oscar-winning turn in Jerry Maguire, and inhabited real-life roles as diverse as U.S. Navy Master Diver Carl Brashear and football hero turned murder suspect O.J. Simpson. Now appearing on Broadway as Billy Flynn in Chicago, and making his big-screen directorial debut in this fall’s Bayou Caviar, the multitalented Cuba Gooding Jr. took time out of his hectic schedule to talk to WatchTime about watches – why he appreciates them, how they’ve played a role in his entertainment career and why good timing is so important to success in acting and directing.
MB: You were raised in an entertainment family; were watches part of your experience growing up?
CGJ: My father was a singer for a soul group in the ’70’s [The Main Ingredient, whose major hit was 1972’s “Everybody Plays the Fool”], and he was all about bling and gold watches, because gold to him was the standard for success. He used to wear a gold Rolex with diamonds on it – I don’t even know if it was real or not, or bought off the street – but to him, it always represented excellence and success. So after I did my first successful film, Boyz n the Hood , the first thing I went out and I did was buy a Rolex watch – a real one! – because that’s what it meant to me. Later, after I won the Academy Award [for 1996’s Jerry Maguire], my wife gave me a Patek Philippe. At the time, I didn’t even know what it was. She explained to me the whole history behind it and about the origins of watchmaking. I don’t wear it anymore because it’s such an elegant piece. But watches have come to signify in my career times of celebration. And with a lot of my collection, I can even tell you which director or which producer gave it to me as a gift.
MB: Do you still have that gold Rolex?
CGJ: No, I don’t. I think my mom has it. Sometimes she comes to my house and after she leaves things are missing that turn up in her house. She also has my first award that I won in high school! (Both laugh.)
MB: You mentioned your Academy Award; did your interest in watches grow as your career did? Did you become intrigued by more expensive or exclusive pieces as you had more means to acquire them?
CGJ: No, it wasn’t ever a need to buy a lot more. I did buy a second Patek Philippe after the first one my wife gave me, so I have two of those. But all of the watches in my case have stories. I got one from Chris Benz, a fashion designer who works with Bill Blass – a Movado watch that was black and sleek, which to me represented the time I spent in Manhattan with him observing his company. I worked on a movie called Outbreak with Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman, and Dustin gave me a watch that was a celebration for my first son being born. That was a Bertolucci watch; I have three of those now. It’s almost as if I can go through my career by going through my watch collection.
MB: Is that standard practice for Hollywood – the gifting of watches at the end of a project?
CGJ: For a while it was. I did a movie with Robin Williams, one of my favorite co-stars of all time, and he told me he had 750 different watches that were gifted to him. Sugar Ray Leonard was another one who said that he had a huge collection of watches that were gifts. There was that time in the 1990s and early 2000s when it was the easiest statement to make – show someone that you appreciated working with them by giving them a nice watch. It’s funny, because now everybody checks the time on their cell phones, yet we’re still wearing watches.
MB: Tell me about the watch you’re wearing now.
CGJ: This is a very elegant Longines, self-winding, and I like it because I’m always all about the sleekness of a watch. I box, and I play a little ice hockey, so I’ve broken my wrist and a lot of times the bulkier watches, like dive watches, irritate my wrist. I do own some bulkier watches but I don’t wear them as much as I do the more elegant ones. I recently acquired a white-gold Monsieur Bovet, and talk about an elegant piece … it’s a pocketwatch that converts into a watch you can wear on your wrist. Again, this is a very special one that is mostly kept in my case.
MB: It sounds like there are some watches you tend to keep in a case more often than wear them. Do you ever have occasions to bring those timepieces out?
CGJ: Sometimes I’ll show a costume designer some of my pieces, and if they like something for a character I’ll allow [them to borrow it] for a one-day shoot, because a lot of times when you’re filming [a scene] over and over again things can get damaged. Also if I have an evening event and I want an extra elegant piece to put on I’ll wear one, but for the most part I keep them almost like I keep the awards – because they are representative of times in my career. A casual watch, like my blue-dialed Longines HydroConquest US, is a cool, everyday watch for me – and it’s still special because it’s only sold in the States.
MB: Getting back to watches intersecting with acting: obviously every movie is different, but have you ever had input with prop masters and costume designers as far as the type of watch that one of your characters would wear?
CGJ: For every role that I’ve ever done, the prop master has come to me with a box of watches and asks, “What do you like, and what do you absolutely not like?” And then I’d say, “I don’t see the character wearing these watches, let’s take those out of the box,” or, “Oh, I like that one, that’s interesting to me.” So I pick three and then he brings those three to the director and then the director decides which one he wants on me. I’ve definitely had a say; it’s definitely a collaboration. The director usually doesn’t want an actor to wear something that’s uncomfortable, unless it’s specific for a shot or for a statement that he’s trying to make. Sometimes the watches are a part of a theme, like in a Tom Cruise sci-fi movie or something, and the costume designer and the prop man will design something specific for your character to wear, and in that case you don’t have a say in it.
MB: I would assume some actors are more proactive with that opportunity than others.
CGJ: Yes, some are really old-school about it. I just directed my first film, called Bayou Caviar, where I worked with Richard Dreyfuss. He went and shopped for all his own clothes and found this one specific vintage jacket that he felt his character would wear whenever he had to do something dark. I can’t remember if he wore a watch in [the movie,] but he would be an actor that would say, “I see this character wearing a very elegant watch with a leather strap,” or “It should be more metallic because this character is more a businessman.”
MB: Has there ever been a watch that you wore in a movie that you thought, “I really want to keep this, or get one for myself?”
CGJ: Absolutely. I did several films about the Tuskegee Airmen [in the HBO film The Tuskegee Airmen and George Lucas’s 2013 theatrical film Red Tails] and they put us in some vintage clothing and vintage footwear that I tried to snag, for example. Sometimes you can talk to the prop master and they’ll talk to the producer and they’ll make certain things happen! Now it reminds me that I do have a gold watch that was made specifically for a character I played in a movie I did with Beyoncé called The Fighting Temptations. My character was kind of a shyster who became a Southern preacher, and he had a gold watch that was specific to that character.
MB: You were nominated for an Emmy for “The People vs. O. J. Simpson.” Do you remember what watch they gave you for that role, and whether it was based on anything O.J. owned in real life?
CGJ: The producers actually gave me one to wear that they said was specific to the one O.J. wore the day he got arrested – the same look and make. There’s a bunch of footage of him with his arms handcuffed and behind his back you can see the watch.
MB: You have three children, two of them in the entertainment business. Do you plan to pass any watches on to them?
CGJ: I gave my oldest son Spencer a watch, a Movado, when he graduated high school and went off to college at Wesleyan. I haven’t given Mason, my younger son, a watch yet. He’s an actor too, a go-getter who’s always made his own money. But maybe it’s time to gift him something soon, too.
MB: You’re now directing and doing live theater in addition to acting in movies and television. As it applies to the craft of acting, does time play a different role in a live performance as opposed to performing in TV or movies where you get to shoot and re-shoot?
CGJ: One hundred percent. When you’re working on a film or a television show, you do take after take after take, and you have to be cognizant of time management in a certain way. You know how sometimes you’ll see a scene where a glass is full at the start, then after a jump it’s halfway full, then after another jump it’s full again? That’s why we have continuity people who manage the scenes. We also have to deal with the shifting of the sun, so the lighting has to change as it gets darker outside and more lights have to accommodate for the changes. We always have to be very, very cognizant of time. When you’re on stage, especially when you do a matinee show, you get to the theatre in the daylight, and when you finish the show and walk outside it sometimes freaks you out that there’s still sunlight – because you’re essentially on a stage going through a period of time, and your mind forgets that it’s still afternoon. That gets me every single time.
MB: How do you use time as a writer and director?
CGJ: After I wrote my first and second screenplays, I was given another one as a director on which I had to collaborate and to rewrite some of the original writer’s work. In pre-production I sat down with the line producer and he said, “Let’s talk about the timing of your script. Do you realize your script takes place over the span of three months?” I said, “No, it’s not supposed to do that.” Then he said, “Well you go from ‘interior’ to ‘exterior’ in just about every scene and that’s what it means.” I had never thought about it that way. So we went through the screenplay and rewrote it again so that two thirds of the movie takes place in seven days and then there’s a time jump into the future. Once I looked at the script that way, it enriched so many different aspects of the story, and actually improved the script for me. Time is of the utmost importance when you’re collaborating on a story, when you’re pacing out the structure of a narrative, and it really helps to enrich the characters. Quentin Tarantino was so brilliant in Pulp Fiction because he took the concept of time and manipulated it and had a narrative that we thought was A-to-Z when in reality we saw Z first and then realized how we got there by the end. So even though he was still true to the rules that he set up in terms of a story structure, he unfolded it to us in a way that was manipulative and yet also inventive in a way that we hadn’t seen before. Christopher Nolan had done it a similar way in Memento. Groundhog Day was another movie that does interesting things with going back in time. Time management is definitely important when it comes to telling a story.
MB: Is there any watch out there that you consider a Holy Grail, something you really want but haven’t pulled the trigger on yet?
CGJ: I’m sure there are a hundred of them that I’m not thinking of. I’d probably get another Patek Philippe before I’d think about anything else, if only because the history behind those watches is so fascinating to me.
MB: You played Carl Brashear, the first African-American U.S. Navy Master Diver, in the movie Men of Honor with Robert De Niro. Did you know there is an Oris divers’ watch named after him and made as a tribute to him?
CGJ: Yes I did! And yes, I’ve been looking for that one!
This article originally appeared in the November-December 2018 issue of WatchTime.