Working with, and learning from, other established actors has proved useful for Cuba Gooding Jr.
The "Jerry Maguire" Oscar winner makes a rare television appearance Sunday in ABC's fact-inspired new "Hallmark Hall of Fame" drama, "Firelight."
In playing Dwayne "DJ" Johnson, a counselor at a correctional facility for young women, Gooding is teamed with several actresses just starting to make names for themselves . . . a situation he says he knew how to handle from his experiences with such stars as Laurence Fishburne (in "Boyz N the Hood"), Dustin Hoffman ("Outbreak") and "Jerry Maguire" himself, Tom Cruise.
"They are real artists, and they allow you to create without stifling your creativity," Gooding says. "That was the main lesson I took from them. Making 'Outbreak' with Dustin and Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey, we really kind of sang when we were on the set together. It wasn't just about upping our game but about making sure everybody was on the same page.
"Dustin is a real actor's actor. He was always going in and out of everyone's trailer, saying, 'Hey, you could say this line' or 'You could do it this way.' Since he was in first position [in the cast], you'd think, 'Why is this guy so giving?' Then you'd realize he knew he was only as good as the people around him. It's a blessing to have someone like that."
Gooding was determined to fill a similar role with his "Firelight" co-stars, including DeWanda Wise and Yakini Horn, whose characters eventually serve as volunteer assistants during fires and natural disasters.
"They were beautiful," he maintains. "They just blew me away. Whenever they asked anything of me, I'd just keep talking as much as I could, to keep them comfortable. One of them would say, 'I can't believe I'm working with someone with an Academy Award!' And I'd say, 'Wait a minute. I can't believe I'm working with you guys.' "
Since he's also the lead in a series pilot for Fox, a law drama titled "Guilty," Gooding could be more of a television presence in the near future. Such a schedule wouldn't be completely alien to him, since he's had to work at a fairly fast clip on several direct-to-video adventures he's made in recent years ("Ticking Clock," "The Hit List").