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Confession: I was in a terrible mood the morning that I spoke with Louis Gossett Jr. The reasons aren’t mysterious: It’s a pandemic. But so boundless is Gossett Jr.‘s enthusiasm and so inexhaustible his energy that I couldn’t help but leave our conversation feeling like I had just spent 30 minutes with the world’s most effective motivational speaker. “We’re going to win this thing!” and “It’s beautiful!” were the 84-year-old’s most-repeated phrases, and dang it if they didn’t cast some sort of low-grade spell on me.
Which all makes sense when looking at Gossett Jr.‘s career – a filmography that is as long as it is varied, and which would have been impossible to pull off for anyone not equipped with the optimism and passion of the Oscar- and Emmy-winning actor.
Fresh off his acclaimed role on HBO’s Watchmen (which earned him an Emmy nomination this week for supporting actor in a limited series), Gossett Jr. is headlining the small and charming Canadian drama The Cuban, playing an elderly musician living in a long-term care facility whose youthful memories clash with his confining present-day circumstances. Ahead of the film’s unique release – it will play drive-ins across the country, as well as select indoor cinemas – Gossett Jr. spoke with The Globe and Mail about staying challenged, and how far, or not, Hollywood has come for Black performers.
How did you get involved with The Cuban? The way that co-star and producer Ana Golja tells it, she ambushed you after a TIFF screening in 2016.
Well, they were relentless, yes. But I’m glad that they were. Anything that is difficult, that allows me to use my instrument, where I have to start from scratch with a character spiritually and emotionally, it’s for me. Once you succeed with that challenge, you’re better off than when you first started. I thought of Awakenings during this, and looked at what [Robert] De Niro did there, going back and forth from one reality to another. It was difficult to do, but acting is all about expansion and growth. It allowed me to stretch a bit. And I like to be stretched.
Do you find that you’re still looking for challenges? Or are you content, after 200 onscreen credits, to relax a little?
It's up to the timing, the day, the moment in life. I do think it keeps the system alive, the heart beating a little hard, and it keeps your body stretching. You can grow and measure it, every film. If you think it's impossible to do another, well, get rid of the limit of your mind of what's impossible, and we can all do incredible things.
What is it like for you to play a character reconciling with their old age? How difficult was it to dig into your own experience?
Well, you always have to dig into your own experience, and your relationships with life and other people. My role right now in the industry, it's as an elder. And I've made peace with that.
The Cuban was originally, like so many other films, scheduled for a theatrical release. It’s now experimenting with drive-ins. But what do you think about the future of moviegoing? Are you going to head back inside a theatre any time soon?
I think so, and I think we're going to win this battle with the pandemic. And [the industry] changes. It has to. It's not just drive-ins that are being resurrected, but there's the virtual screenings that are booming. And it seems to be working. I have no doubt. We're going to win this thing.
Your role in The Cuban is coming off your performance in HBO’s Watchmen, which is probably the biggest bump in attention that your career has received in years.
It was a pleasant surprise. But it was also a match made in heaven because of how [the show] approached today’s problems: racism, division. It was a nice match, because I also have an anti-racism foundation, called Eracism, where the bottom line is that if we all worked together, we could solve all these problems in our world.
You have an Academy Award for An Officer and a Gentleman, an Emmy for Roots. After those wins, was it easier to get the roles that you wanted?
No, it took a couple of years. I think I was surprised, mostly. Because that year, the Oscar, everybody thought it would go to James Mason [for The Verdict]. It was one of his last movies, and everybody thought he deserved it. But, no, the offers didn’t come in. They are now, though, after all this time.
You once said that you’ve never been paid more than a million dollars for a role. Is that still the case?
It is still true, and it is still outrageous. But I do get all the jobs. If I tried to make the decision of whether to take a job because it was a good one, or for the money, I wouldn't work as much. But I did set the stage for Denzel Washington and Eddie Murphy and those guys. I didn't lose any quality of my life, either.
What kind of racial progress have you observed over your time in Hollywood? When you first arrived, you were subject to brutal treatment, being handcuffed to a tree by police for hours just because you were walking in Beverly Hills after dark.
That’s how it was. It was like the movie L.A. Confidential – policemen would treat you like that. Thank God it’s changing. But that’s the way it was, and it shocked me.
What would you like to still see happen in the industry, in regards to how Black performers are represented?
If we're not seeing things a step ahead on the screen, we're not in the right place. Entertainment always has to be a step ahead, in terms of social progress. You need to pull the audience in that positive direction. It's necessary. When it happens, it's a beautiful thing to see. I'm optimistic. I'm an elder now, a mentor. And when I talk to younger actors, I say it's only going to get better. It is.
This interview has been condensed and edited
The Cuban’s drive-in tour begins July 28 at the 5 Drive In in Oakville, Ont., with tour dates across the province scheduled for the summer, including Aug. 5 in Newmarket, Aug. 11 in Barrie, and Aug. 19 in Stoney Creek. The film will also open in select cinemas, including Regina’s Rainbow Theatre Aug. 14 and Saskatoon’s Roxy Aug. 15 (thecubanmovie.com)