WASHINGTON - Actor Cuba Gooding Jr. and Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Dr. Benjamin Carson are a formidable pair. One is an Academy Award winner, while the other is the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.
And so, it is with some trepidation that you begin an interview with them at a fancy restaurant asking if they could scooch together a little more on a couch and try to lean forward and speak directly into an old Radio Shack microcassette recorder on a table in front of them.
Gooding plays the world-famous surgeon in Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story, an inspirational made-for-TV movie airing Saturday night on cable channel TNT, which is why they are doing the interview. But there are limits to what men and women of such stature will do to publicize their projects.
Now you have to ask if they could do a sound check - and the two exchange a look that suggests the limit might have just been reached.
But just as the 41-year-old Gooding finishes his, "Testing one, two, three," Carson picks up the recorder, holds it up to his mouth and starts singing along to the music playing over the sound system: "I shot the sheriff, but I did not shoot the deputy."
Suddenly, everybody from the reporter to the waitresses are laughing and feeling all right. Both men laugh easily and often, but they also speak with burning intensity about values they share on family, religion, education, helping young people and trying to serve as models of achievement.
Dr. Carson, let me start with you and ask how you got involved with Sony (the producing studio) and TNT. What attracted you to letting them make a film about your book?
CARSON: I probably talked to a dozen different production companies over the years. And the thing here is that they were willing to allow me to have say over the script, and they agreed not to get heavily involved in artistic license.
When you say 'not to get heavily involved in artistic license'..."
CARSON: Making up stuff.
GOODING: Whenever I get a script about a real-life character, it's always more intriguing to me. I've done films that I'm proud of that are just strictly entertainment: Rat Race, Snow Dogs and what not.
But I've also been able to inhabit the lives of African-Americans who have made such a positive contribution to our society, not unlike Master Chief (Petty Officer) Carl Brashear (the Navy's first trained and certified black diver whose story was included in the 2000 film Men of Hono r). ... And I really consider it a blessing when I get a chance to play one of these people who have affected society in such a positive way as Dr. Carson has in the field of medicine.
Dr. Carson, one of the most impressive aspects of the film is that it includes moments from your life that aren't so pretty. There's your attempt in high school to stab a classmate, and there is also an argument with your mother when you were a teen in which you almost struck her. You left some very tough stuff in. Why?
CARSON: I was not afraid to portray the dirty underwear in my life. And the reason for that is that I know everybody has it. And viewers are going to be much more able to identify with what's going on if you don't soft-pedal the bad stuff.
You know, hopefully, some people will see that onscreen and say, "That happened to me. That's happening to me right now. Does that mean I actually have a chance to get through this? Does that mean I have a chance not only to conquer this, but go on and do something great?" That's what we want people to feel when they are watching. We want them to know that truth.
Mr. Gooding, you and Dr. Carson have gotten to know each other the last couple of years while you were making the movie. To most of us in Baltimore, he's a symbol, a larger-than-life figure. Can you talk about the man?
GOODING: That's a complicated question. But let me say this about him, which was really a revelation to me. He has done so many miracle things in the world of medicine. And he's affected so many people's lives in terms of his work with charities, his work with children. And there's an aura about him that could allow him to take himself, for lack of a better phrase, too seriously.
And the one thing that I noticed about him is not only his humbling spirit, but how well he can disarm people with his humility and make those people he has to help as a doctor feel protected. ... And I think it's calming to be in his presence because of it.
And Mr. Carson, how about Cuba Gooding?
CARSON: I expected when I first met him that he would be like many other people that I met from Hollywood: so completely self-absorbed that it was like they thought the universe revolved around them. And he's not like that. And one of the things that impressed me first when we started talking was to find out that you were (talking to Gooding) still married to your first wife. That is such an unusual thing for people in Hollywood. And then your commitment to your kids and family time and true values. And I was just so impressed in such an artificial environment you can maintain that, because that really requires an enormous amount of strength and resistance. ...
And then, I was so impressed when I looked at the movie and I saw what you were doing - the way you were able to capture the emotions and, often, with just your expressions. ... All the different feelings I had after the surgery with the twins ended, you just captured so many of them with just the expressions. To me, that's just so impressive. ... And, you know, I do know a little bit about acting (laughter). I had a cameo appearance in a movie called Stuck on You. And Matt Damon said to me, "I'll tell you what, let's make a deal. I'll teach you how to act if you'll teach me brain surgery."
GOODING: Well, I'll make you a deal. You appreciated my performance, and I'll forever appreciate what you do, and never ever try to do it.
Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story premieres at 8 p.m. Saturday on TNT.
Read David Zurawik's review of Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story PG 10