The Gooding Life
By: Mark Morrison
Photographs: Frederike Helwig
Right. Left. Right, Right. Left, Left. Right. Cuba Gooding Jr. jabs at the air Muhammad Ali-like, as he wanders around the idyllic grounds of his English-country-style house. These are not big pow punches or the kind of showy theatrics some may expect from the Oscar-winning star of Jerry Maguire. No, these are small, studied moves that speak of finesse, subtlety, restraint-qualities that are on display in his role as a hit man in the dark new drama Shadowboxer, as well as in the sophisticated Los Angeles home he shares with his wife, Sara, and their brood, which consists of sons Spencer, II, and Mason, 9, their newborn daughter, Piper-plus a 200-pound English mastiff named Bootsy Collins. Although the 8, 000-square-foot showplace is not yet three years old, it is so rich in quality and character that it feels as though it has existed in this leafy glen for a lifetime.
"We wanted to keep it simple," says Gooding, who recounts how he and Sara pored over books together and drove through venerable Los Angeles neighborhoods like Hancock Park looking at older homes for ideas. Inspiration struck when architect David Applebaum showed them a picture of small 15th-century English country house with a thatched roof, and they asked if he could translate its time-less blend of charm and comfort to a larger-scaled structure.
The result is a home that's a gracious mix of formal and informal, combining English and French country-home architectural elements. It reinvents tradition with a blue-slate roof, French windows, wide-plank walnut floors, 13-foot-high ceilings, and reclaimed stone pavers and antique fireplaces from France. There are also modern amenities- radiant-heat stone floors, a temperature-controlled wine room, his-and-hers closets, a black-bottom swimming pool with a stacked stone spa, and a theatre complete with movie-projection room. The structure is so well-proportioned that it manages to be impressive but not imposing. And the Goodings can entertain Hollywood titans like Jerry Bruckheimer just as easily as high school chums.
"The couple are the most unaffected people," says interior designer Sean Miller, who created fuss-free, neutral backdrops that allow the spaces to flow without interruption, then added vintage fabrics in natural fibers to create a cozy feel. To give the house a greater sense of age and history, the Goodings had him strip the gloss from the stone floors and use honed rather than polished Carrara marble for the kitchen counters; the walnut floors, meanwhile, were lightly distressed, and the undulating plaster walls were done by hand to suggest another time.
Oddly enough, the couple never had any intention of building a new house when they first bought the three-quarter-acre property in 2002; it already boasted a stately vine-covered Tudor-style home that dated to the forties. "We loved that house," says Gooding, though it was barely larger than the 3,000-square-foot San Fernando Valley abode they had called home for nine years prior. But when they went to expand the Tudor, the soil-inspection reports came back negative, and the city ordered them to stop construction immediately. Says the actor, "We knew we were in trouble when the architect said, 'OK, you can't build on this till you re-compact the soil. But the good news is, now you can design the house you want.'"
Though they demolished the original house, they created a new one that echoes its quiet elegance. The construction process, once slated for nine months, took two years, during which Gooding shot both Radio and The Fighting Temptations, flying home to help Sara oversee the project. "At one time there were 56 guys working, but everyone loved being here," says contractor Chris Baber. "Cuba spent a lot of time walking around, talking to all the guys."
If the 38-year-old actor goes out of his way to be friendly, perhaps it's because he remembers tougher times. His father, Cuba Gooding, a singer with the seventies group the Main Ingredient ("Everybody Plays the Fool"), moved the family from the Bronx to L.A., where Gooding shared happy days with his older sister, April, and younger brother, Omar, on a two-acre spread in North Hollywood. But his parents split up when he was 10 (they remarried in 1995), and his mother did her best to hold the family together, often moving them from apartment to apartment and even to various motels on the outskirts of L.A. "At one point we lived out of a car, going for days without eating," says Gooding, who attended four high schools in four years before graduating from North Hollywood High, where he met Sara. "I wasn't into drama geeks," the blonde says with a wry smile. "But everybody knew Cuba. He was well-liked in all circles, just a good guy."
Though Gooding has been a celebrity since his breakthrough performance in the critically acclaimed 1991 drama Boyz n the Hood, Sara says her husband has always been "easygoing and positive." The couple exchanged vows in 1994, and their home life has been a definite contrast to Gooding's childhood. "I went months without seeing my father," says the actor, who makes sure he's not away for more than two weeks at a time.
If anything, Gooding is only too happy to be there for his family, whether taking his boys basketball games or checking on Piper as she wakes up from a nap with sleepy blue eyes. And better yet, he takes neither his renewed career focus nor his stable home life for granted. "Coming from my background, I never allowed myself to feel too attached to any place," he says moments later, sitting comfortably in the coffered-ceiling living room. "To me, we're only borrowing this space. Sara and I may be in this house for the next 50 years. And the next people will have their own experiences here." With this, he takes in the broad walnut staircase, the oversize antique fireplace and the sense of permanence that permeates the place. "But," he adds, "we'll have left our mark."