Drama Actor Roundtable: Rami Malek, Cuba Gooding Jr., TV's Top Talent on Arrogant Career Mistakes and That Golden-Shower Scene

Drama Actor Roundtable: Rami Malek, Cuba Gooding Jr., TV's Top Talent on Arrogant Career Mistakes and That Golden-Shower Scene

Six stars — including Bobby Cannavale, Paul Giamatti, Forest Whitaker and Wagner Moura — open up about the lines they will and won't cross, how Oliver Stone broke a couple of them down and the parts they'd love to land.

Cuba Gooding Jr. was the most forthcoming of the six top actors who gathered on a Saturday afternoon in early April, but then his trajectory — from an Oscar winner for Jerry Maguire to barely hirable to co-star of one of TV's hottest offerings, FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story — is among the more unusual and thus ripe for explanation.

"I didn't want anything that could parody the fact that I was [best known for] a tagline in a movie, so I was saying no to all of these things," said Gooding, 48, as fellow Academy Award winner and current Roots star Forest Whitaker, 54, encouraged him to continue. "I wound up offending a bunch of great directors, and what happened was … I went into the wasteland." During the course of an hour, he and Whitaker, along with Paul Giamatti, 49 (Billions), Bobby Cannavale, 46 (Vinyl), Wagner Moura, 39 (Narcos), and Rami Malek, 35 (Mr. Robot), opened up about the lines they will and won't cross as actors, the A-list director who broke at least a few of them down and the parts they'd love to land — if only someone would give them a shot.

The industry often locks into viewing actors in certain roles and is not always interested in seeing them stretch. What parts have you found yourselves getting tired of being approached about?

CUBA GOODING JR. After I did Boyz N the Hood, I got every street-kid offer. I chose one, Gladiator, which was a boxing movie, but still a street kid. Then after that I told myself no more, and I wound up playing a deaf-mute in a Western called Lightning Jack only because it was different than anything else. I just didn't want to be the go-to street-kid guy.

RAMI MALEK In the breakdowns, I'd always just look for someone quirky or weird — that's what I'm going to go in for, surely. I resented it for a while, and then I thought, "This is something to be proud of, that you can be that kind of outsider in anything." But at first I was like, "Here we go again."

FOREST WHITAKER I've played a lot of detectives.

PAUL GIAMATTI I've played a lot of guys sitting in vans with headsets on, watching reel-to-reel tape. I did a lot of this (puts hands to his ears): "We lost him." I was that guy. Or this guy (typing): "Get out of there, Mike. Mike? Get out of there, Mike. Oh my God, he can't hear me!" (Laughter.)

Are there doors you feel remain closed to you? Parts you just can't land, despite interest on your end?

BOBBY CANNAVALE White guys. (Laughter.) Cowboys. I'm always getting the ethnic roles of some kind, like a mob guy or an Italian-American pizza guy or some shit like that. I never get, like, doctors.

GIAMATTI I'd love to play an Italian. I am Italian, and I never get to play Italians. I've had people tell me I'm not Italian enough. It's hilarious.

MALEK We get all the Italian guys. (Points to Cannavale.)

GIAMATTI I'd love to be in a Western, but I know if I'm in a Western I'm going to have to play this guy (wiping the table), "What'ya havin'?" I'm going to be that guy. Or I'd be the corrupt mayor, the guy who's building a railroad through somebody's farm. (Laughter.)

Cuba, you won an Oscar in 1997 for your performance in Jerry Maguire then all but disappeared from the scene. What did that period entail, and what would you do differently if you had it to do over again?

GOODING When I won the Oscar, I fell into that mind-set that this is a precious role. People everywhere were shouting, "Show me the money!" I just didn't want anything that could parody the fact that I was like a tagline in a movie. So when Steven Spielberg offered me Amistad, I said no; when Hotel Rwanda came along, I said no. I was saying no to all of these things because I had in my mind the role I wanted to play. Now, ask me the role I wanted to play.

What role did you want to play?

GOODING I had no f—in' idea. (Laughs.) So I passed on all these great directors and wound up offending a bunch of them, and what happened was I went off the list of, "Greenlight if you have this actor in the role." I went into the wasteland. But I think it was God's will that I took eight to 10 years to go and do direct-to-video trash. Producers would come to me and say, "We have the foreign financing in place for anywhere from $5 million to $10 million, whatever you want to do." So I met with writers, I developed the script, we'd shoot it, and then I'd edit it and direct it. I learned more about the filmmaking process in those 10 years and it made me 10 times better as an actor, but unfortunately people had to sit through those movies. Now I consider the director — I don't care what the role is. When Ridley Scott called, my agent said, "Here's an offer [for American Gangster]; they want you to play Nicky Barnes." And I go: "I don't have to read it. I'm in." And then my agent's like: "Oh, we'll take a day. We'll read it." And I go: "No, no, no, Ridley Scott called. I'm in."

What are the things you have each read in a script and said, "You know what, I'm not going to do that"?

WAGNER MOURA Kids suffering. I just can't do those scenes.

MALEK A rape, unless it's really purposeful or for a director you appreciate. But that's a difficult thing to be in a situation to have to do with someone. Most of the time with us, though, it's the scary stuff that draws us to the role.

GIAMATTI I've been offered some real psychopathic parts, things that are just brutally violent, and I don't care to do it unless there is some real reason for it.

WHITAKER If I'm a really dark character, I do sometimes consider if I want to live in that space for that length of time.

GIAMATTI That's actually more of what it is with some of these things I've been offered. I'm like, "I don't want to play that serial killer."

GOODING I'll do absolutely anything, but it wasn't always that way. I remember sitting with the director of Six Degrees of Separation [Fred Schepisi], and he said: "I want to know that you're committed to doing this role. There is this scene where he kisses a man." And I said, "Listen, when I get into character I go all the way in — and I'm not comfortable with it, I'll be honest with you." Now I see how childish it was to think that way, but as a young black actor in L.A. who represented the manliness of that time period, I just felt, "Oh, I'm going to alienate people." [Will Smith ultimately landed the role.] Then you grow up and realize how immature it was to think that way.

Wagner, do you worry about the repercussions of playing a character like Pablo Escobar?

MOURA Yeah, and there's the personal piece, too. Painters paint their thing, and it's outside of their bodies. Musicians, they do it, and it's outside of them. Our thing is here (points to himself). So our bodies, they have memory of what you are doing — and the body doesn't know you're acting. You do an emotional scene and then you go, "I'm going to have a coffee," and your hand is like this (shaking).

GIAMATTI The residue of it stays on you.

GOODING It took me a month and a half to shake O.J. Simpson from my psyche. It was the darkest role I'd ever done.

WHITAKER Do you think a little part of every character stays with you?

MALEK Oh, yeah.

MOURA That's why we have the right not to do it. Sometimes I just say, "It's a nice part — it's cool — but I don't want to do it."

Rami, your role on Mr. Robot isn't exactly light. How hard is it to shake him when you wrap shooting for the day?

MALEK Before Mr. Robot, I got the lovely break of doing [HBO miniseries]The Pacific. I did the boot camp, and then we were in Australia, and I was new and I couldn't really step out of it. I kept all that going on in my head, and there were days where I'm picking out gold teeth from these prosthetic bodies, but they were done so well that it all felt real. After seven, eight takes, I'm thinking: "I've got to stop. I'm not supposed to be crying in this scene because he's a hardened guy." I found myself taking that home every day. So going into Mr. Robot I was like, "I can't do that anymore because physically and psychologically it really had a negative impact on me." Now I get all the work done ahead of time so I can enjoy myself there and have regular conversations. I know I need that to get through the day.

WHITAKER It's good that you figured it out because even recently I was asked to do a film [where I would have had to play a man with] early-onset dementia, and the few times I've played somebody who had schizophrenia or bipolar issues, it's really affected me. I literally said: "I can't do this film for you. Even though the role is interesting and it'll be good, I haven't figured out how to put myself there."

Several of you are playing or have played real-life characters in film or on TV. What are the upsides and downsides of inhabiting such a role?

GOODING I love it, and I've played a few: Ben Carson [in Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story], Master Chief Carl Brashear [in Men of Honor] and now O.J. You do your research, you try to get the mannerisms down, you try to get the hair to look as much like that character, but when you connect with that character truthfully, the audience will forget what he looks like. Wagner, I absolutely adore your show, but if I gave it one critique, it would be that when they go to the real Pablo Escobar I feel like they betray you every time. I finally got that image out of my head, and I'm into you, and then they jump back to the real guy.

MOURA That's interesting. I'm curious: Did you try to imitate O.J. to talk like him?

GOODING As much as I could. We had a videographer on the set every day, especially when we were doing the courtroom stuff, so we'd watch what we were about to shoot in real time.

WHITAKER Wow.

GOODING The best example was the not-guilty verdict. My character goes through an emotional roller coaster, but in that verdict he was so f—in' drugged up and doped up that when they said not guilty … well, you saw how he did it when he did it, so I tried to mimic his reaction to a T. Between takes I went by one of the actor jurors, and she goes, "Oh, you ain't even gonna cry or nothin'?" She couldn't take that I wasn't crying, but it was because I was trying to mimic that moment. (Laughs.) If it was Cuba Gooding Jr. found not guilty, I'd be like, "Whaaaaaa!"

Paul, Billions opens with a dominatrix — who we later realize is your wife — urinating on you, which I since have learned is called a golden shower.

GIAMATTI It is! I'm glad it was an informative thing for you. (Laughter.)

MOURA I don't know what a golden shower is — I'm sorry.

CANNAVALE When somebody pees on you.

MOURA Ohhh. (Laughs.)

So you read that scene and you say, "I'm in"?

GIAMATTI If somebody is going pee on me in a movie, I will sign on the dotted line. (Laughter.) Maggie [Siff, who plays Giamatti's wife on the show] and I hadn't done anything like it before. But they're erotic scenes, not sex scenes — I haven't had to do a lot of those, and those are harder. It was very interesting precisely because she does end up being my wife. This is what they do as a couple. It's also a great metaphor for the whole show — the dominance and submission thing is a big theme.

Rami and Wagner, your shows snuck up on people during their first seasons. You don't get the same advantage of low expectations in season two. What type of pressure does that come with, and how do you handle it?

MALEK Since the day we wrapped the first season I've been thinking about the second season and feeling like there was an immense amount of pressure. It came on strong; it really had a cultural impact on so many people and on so many levels. You just want to be able to retain that or improve upon it, and you wonder if that's possible because there is something scary about coming out of the gate so strong.

MOURA Narcos was a very different experience because we all moved to Bogota and didn't know exactly what we were doing in the first season. And now, production-, script- and character-wise, we're more prepared. But it was the craziest thing I've ever done. I wasn't the obvious choice to play this character. I didn't speak Spanish. I'm Brazilian, so I had to learn the language, and I moved to Colombia before everyone else. In the first season I didn't want my family to be there because I had to be there alone, and it was difficult for me. Now I feel more comfortable, so I brought my kids, and they're learning Spanish and going to school.

CANNAVALE How about that coke, though? (Mouths, "I'm kidding.")

GOODING You're sitting at the table with a bunch of actors. We're like, "How 'bout the coke?" (Laughs.)

What do you wish directors better understood about actors, and, to that end, what do the really good directors understand inherently?

CANNAVALE I like when a director asks questions. They might be rhetorical questions he already has the answers to, but he's making you feel like you're coming up with the answer. I find really good directors do that. You know, "What would happen if …?" It's only when you get home later that you're like, "Oh, he tricked me — he knew what he wanted," but in the moment it makes you feel like you're collaborating.

WHITAKER I want a director who can let me feel that he's listening and watching and that he's got me covered. That security is really important for me because sometimes you go into a vulnerable space, and you want to be able to look to somebody because you get insecure: "Did I do that right?"

GOODING It's that quality of a director bringing out an emotion in you. Oliver Stone was famous for finding out a person's insecurity and picking on them so that when you actually did the work, out of insecurity he found something he could use. With me, as long as the director knows what he wants, be it through manipulation or a direct "Do it this way," fine. Because if I give him what he wants, then I know he's going to use that.

GIAMATTI I've never worked with a guy who's done that. I don't know how I'd react.

MALEK I don't love being broken down. I want to be empowered.

What comes first is the audition. Looking back, what was your wildest or worst audition experience?

WHITAKER I spent a week auditioning for the same part in Platoon. I'd come every day and read with everybody, but Oliver Stone wouldn't give me the job. I'd sit in the room, they'd bring me different actors, and I would be reading, and then I'd leave. As I was walking away, he'd look out the window and he'd scream, "Do it better!" And I'd be like: "OK, tomorrow. Tomorrow!" [Whitaker eventually was hired.]

GOODING They teach you when you go on auditions to show your energy when you slate your name because it's the first time they will see you, [and there will be] hundreds of others who look just like you. So I'll never forget I had a McDonald's commercial, and me and two other black actors come in and they say, "OK, slate your name." I say [in a high-pitched, enthusiastic tone]: "Hi! I'm Cuba Gooding Jr.!" And the director goes: "Seriously? Next! Get out!"

I'm assuming you didn't get the part?

GOODING Didn't get it? I didn't even audition. I slated my name, and he kicked me out of the room. F— him. (Laughs.)

WHITAKER See, your coach was right: Slating your name really was important. (Laughter.)

MOURA I was once supposed to play the wind in a commercial — yes, the wind. I didn't get it.

CANNAVALE I had an audition for that movie Starship Troopers, and there was no script. They were like, "It's just going to be improv." What I had to do was react to a big bug and scream, "Buuuuug!" I did it, and they were like: "Uh, OK. Thanks." I could hear the sigh. And I remember not wanting to leave the room, just going, "I could do it better; I could do it better." I refused to leave and just kept doing it over and over again: "Bug! Bug! Bug!" I didn't get it.

MALEK I used to do that a lot: Stay in the room until you wore out your welcome. "Another one. I'll do another one." And they're like: "No, I think we've seen enough. It's time to go." Now, I'm out of there as quickly as possible.

How often do you think you've nailed an audition and then don't get the part? Or think you blew it and then do?

MALEK I never feel like I'm definitely going to get it, but I'll be like, "I've got a good shot at that one," and then it's like, "No, you weren't even close."

CANNAVALE When I was first auditioning, the readers were always terrible, and I was like, "F—, man, I want to try to be a reader." So when I was much younger, I got a job as an audition reader — and I got a movie and a play from being one. Two jobs and my SAG card.

GIAMATTI I'll do stuff with great readers, and I'll be like: "Why don't you just put that girl in the movie? She's great." I always think that about my stand-in, too. When I see him on the monitor, I'm like: "That guy looks great in the part. He looks fantastic." (Laughter.)

If we had your agents sitting around this table and we asked them how you react when they present you with projects, what would they say?

GIAMATTI Just the idea of my agent being here is funny to me — like he's probably here lurking around. (Laughter.) No, I think my agents would say they never know how I'm going to react because I never know how I'm going to react. Part of what I enjoy about this [job] is not knowing what's going to happen to me next or what's going to suddenly be interesting to me. And sometimes they'll be like, "Why the f— do you want to do that?"

CANNAVALE My agents are always afraid to bring me things that are, like, a detective or a mob guy 'cause they know I'm going to be like, "Ugh." (Shakes head.) Or making pizza! (Laughter.)

GIAMATTI Have you done a lot of pizza makers?

CANNAVALE Oh, yeah. I actually got a pizza mob guy once. (Laughter.) Yeah, a mob guy who liked making pizza who was on the run in witness protection. And they were like, "But he's in witness protection, and he's in Arizona!" I'm like: "Yeah, I could go to Arizona. It's not that f—in' crazy."

OK, final question: If a gun was to your head and you couldn't act anymore, what would you do?

CANNAVALE I'd own a bar. I'd call it Bobby's.

GIAMATTI I'd be at Bobby's — a lot. (Laughter.)

GOODING Yeah, I think we all would. If I couldn't do anything artistic, I'd get a job to pay my bills. I'd probably do something physical — construction or something.

GIAMATTI I have no other viable skills. I really don't.

MOURA Yeah, I don't know. There's nothing.

MALEK I think construction, too, for some reason. I'm drawn to [the idea of] building something. What do you got, Forest?

WHITAKER Not to be a downer, but I would probably be working with the U.N. or with some NGO somewhere in the field. I do that now.

CANNAVALE F—! I want to change my answer! That's what I'd do, too. (Laughter.)

More roundtables featuring actors, showrunners and reality hosts and producers will continue rolling out in June in print and online. Tune in to new episodes of Close Up With The Hollywood Reporter starting June 26 on SundanceTV. And look for clips at THR.com/roundtables, with full episodes on THR.com after broadcast.

comments powered by Disqus