I’m always looking for opportunities to show my children real-life examples — true success stories — of people who work hard, overcome obstacles and dedicate their lives for the betterment of humanity. This is one of those stories. Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story, premiering Feb. 7 on TNT, is an inspiring film.
It’s the story of Benjamin Carson, who against all odds became one of the most respected pediatric neurosurgeons in the world. He made medical history in 1987, when he successfully separated conjoined twins who were connected at the head. He’s now director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, a best-selling author and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Recently, I talked to Cuba Gooding Jr. about his humbling experience of meeting and playing Carson in the film.
Tell me about meeting Dr. Carson.
Cuba Gooding Jr.: He’s an angel walking among men. He really is a godsend. His operations, as you’ve seen in the movie and from what people know about him, are miracle workings. When I had accepted the role it was literally two weeks before he received the Medal of Freedom award from President Bush at the White House, so they asked me to fly and be there with him and his family. So I did.
Was that the first time you actually met?
Yes. Very first time. It was funny. I had gotten off the plane. Took the afternoon flight, and it was right before dinner that I arrived at the house of one of his supporters. Candy [Carson’s wife] was there and he was out there standing with the film crew, so I hugged him and was so elated to talk to him. I was interested to just shake his hand. Look at his hands, look at his face, hear his voice. It was my first case study of the character. What a humble, subtle man. The way he talks — everything he does — is just so calming and reassuring.
What were some of the things you asked him about?
We spent two hours together. I found that we had a lot in common in that his mother raised him. When my mother and father divorced, my mother raised my sister, brother and I and it was a very faith-based upbringing. And his faith in God and beliefs in God are what propelled him through not only his operations, but his upbringing through poverty. He found his inspiration through God, so that was a wonderful connection. I did read his books, but to hear him voice it through those interviews really gave reaffirmation to that fact.
Did he talk about his mother [played in the movie by Kimberly Elise]?
His mom was there. She’s an interesting character, too. She’s very feisty. Very feisty. Like I said, they had a camera crew and they were trying to get as much information as they could [during the meeting]. She’s a very strong-willed woman, but just doesn’t want to talk about her life at all. It was all about her son. I think that probably was the recipe for guiding both of her boys — it has to be about them. Someone gave me an interesting quote years ago, kind of when I had dealings with my relatives and stuff. They said, “It’s your obligation and duty to take care of your children, and in turn your children, they repay you by taking care of their children.” It doesn’t go the other way around. You know everybody says, “I’m going to get big and famous and buy my parents a house.” It really is our obligation to look after our kids. If [you] have to make the decision, you should look after your children first. It seems like her life exemplified that statement.
There’s a line in the movie that states that dedication and intelligence is the easy part — the gift is in your hands. Can you explain that?
Just the fact that you can study and study and study and study, or practice and practice and practice, but a part of it has to be a gift from God. I truly believe his hands are a gift from God. The hands in that sentence represent faith-based gifts that we can’t study to obtain; they have to be given to you.
There was also a part in the film where Dr. Carson was in residence, and a doctor wasn’t available to do an emergency surgery, yet he actually risked everything to save this person. Did he talk about that story?
I think what he had said was that he knew what his calling was, and if it was to end that day, it was to end that day. It was his calling to help people. It seems like a big church sermon, but it really was his rhetoric. He says to me, something to the effect of, the first part of his career, the first few years, he did all of his groundbreaking, life-changing, major surgeries. And he always looked at it as it was God’s way of training him for his career — to give him the hardest things he’d have to tackle upfront so that everything else would be easy.
Who was more starstruck to meet the other?
I know I was. He says to me, which again was just so funny — I’m going to try to imitate him a little bit [drops his voice to a faint, slow, calming tone] — “You know, I have to say, meeting celebrities, you are the most humble, ’cause you celebrities aren’t really humble.” [laughing] And I thought, “Well, it ain’t brain surgery.”
So what did your 3 pounds of gray matter absorb from this movie?
[Laughing] You know he said to me: “Everybody fights over race, religion, color, your physical makeup, but to me we’re all just 3 pounds of gray matter and everything else is just the wrapping.” I thought that was such a wonderful statement to make. I think it’s a great philosophy to live life.
There’s another scene where you look at those babies so lovingly, I can’t help but think you’re thinking something else. Or is that just good acting?
You know I’ve got three kids, two boys 12 and 14 and we were just blessed with Piper three years ago, so we’ve got a little girl now. … I truly think that babies are God’s blessing. When they had those babies there that day, I just spent an hour talking to those parents because I know how stressful the experience they just went through and then they are allowing their babies to be handled by a crew and everything. I wanted to be one of the social workers basically on that day so when it came to filming, [the parents] didn’t even think about it. They were just like “OK, Cuba’s holding the babies now. Cuba’s lying them down.” Just make an easy transition.
You’ve got two boys and then you get your girl. How spoiled is your girl?
OH MY GOODNESS. Are you kidding? She saw a pink Barbie jeep on TV, and I’m in Canada doing this last movie [just before Christmas] and Sara [my wife] calls me and says, “I can’t find it anywhere at all the Toys “R” Us.” So I go to Toys “R” Us in Vancouver, and found it and I buy it and she calls me and says, “No, that’s not the one.” So I have to return it. Get on a plane, come home and find it. By the grace of God I found it on the Internet, and it shipped and now it’s sitting in the garage and I have to put it together. Yeah, she’s running the house.
Do you still cut your own hair for your parts?
How did you hear that? Oh my goodness. Oh, how embarrassing. OK, here’s the thing. When I first started in film and television it was in 1988/87. The hair and makeup people didn’t have a lot of black actors, they just didn’t, so they didn’t know how to do black makeup so they put white powder and white base on me and I looked like a ghost. The hair lady didn’t know how to cut it and said, “you’re fine.” Throughout the day I’d get lint in my Afro and they just ignored it. And when I saw the program, I won’t mention which one. I was horrified. — MacGyver. MacGyver. MacGyver — I was horrified. From that day on, my roommate at the time who cut hair taught me how to cut a flat top and told me I had to do this because nobody was looking out for me. And throughout the years and 5,000 bad haircuts, I finally got a steady hand on my own head, and then I had a boy and another boy so I said I’m not taking them to a barber, so now I cut their hair. It’s so funny because this last movie I just finished, it’s a sci-fi action thriller called Hardwired. So you have these meetings with all these hair and makeup people and she comes into the room and I go: “Let me first tell you that I cut my own hair.” And it was the wrong way to start off with her. My policy now is to tell the producers to alert them so they are not surprised when they get this.
Piper in background asking: Can you build me a fort?
Yes, as soon as I’m off the phone. That’s the queen!
You’re known for one of the best Oscar-winning moments [he won best supporting actor for Jerry Maguire], so where do you keep your Oscar?
On a shelf in our screening room.
After your role in Gifted Hands how much more educated in the medical field do you think you are?
You know it’s so funny you say that because, on the set of Hardwired, there’s this scene where they have to surgically remove this chip. I was a prick because I was like, “No, no, no. You wouldn’t hold that that way. Your nurse wouldn’t do that.” It was very funny. And I was like, “You don’t understand. I just finished this movie where I was a neurologist and I did this scene.” I literally directed this scene. It was blessing and a curse.