06/06/2012 11:14 BST | Updated 06/08/2012 06:12 BST

Cuba Gooding Jr Had To Battle For His Role In 'Red Tails', George Lucas's Homage To The Tuskegee Airmen (VIDEO)

You'd think that having an Oscar on the shelf would guarantee an actor in any script of their choice.

Not so fast, not in Cuba Gooding Jr's case, anyway. The actor who brought the Academy Awards to life so unforgettably with his euphoric collection of his Best Supporting Actor gong for Jerry Maguire ("I LOVE YOU, TOM CRUISE!") had to fight tooth and nail for his role in Red Tails, producer George Lucas's big screen homage to the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American aviators allowed in the US Armed Forces - who faced racial discrimination in and outside the Army, but flew with distinction, and whose wartime record has now passed into legend.

It was no slight on Gooding's acting abilities, apparently, just that he'd been in an earlier film about the same subject.

"It was definitely a hindrance," the actor remembers, in London. "It was a question of starting afresh, which meant no actors who'd been previously involved coming to this one."

The director Anthony Hemingway had his reasons.

"I didn't want famous faces in there at all, because I didn't want to be distracted. Sometimes I see someone on film, and I can't get past them into character," he offers, sitting next to Gooding - obviously all resolved now, but not before the actor had to put up a fight and convince Hemingway of his commitment - "I told him I was laser-focused on a true portrayal, why wouldn't he utilise that? And we just clicked."

Hemingway is happy now to eat his words and put Gooding on screen alongside another veteran Terrence Howard, which all worked out.

"I didn't have to worry about them at all, and they definitely helped in ways of making sure the younger guys showed up, they came to work prepared, they did work on weekends and set a great example. These guys helped mentor the youngsters. So it's an old and new story, and that goes through everything, on and off screen, right up to George Lucas shooting some of the extra scenes."

The Tuskegee Airmen's story has been brought to the big screen by an impassioned crew, led by George Lucas

Ah yes, the small matter of working for producer George Lucas - which could have been somewhat intimidating, especially for Hemingway, who last encountered George Lucas when he was a production assistant in short trousers on The Young Indiana Jones, back in 1992?

"Things definitely came full circle for me," laughs Hemingway.

"I had to pitch to George, and that's where the stress came in, as I'd never done that before. But I didn't have pressure from him, it was more the pressure of making the Tuskegee Airmen proud, and giving them the honour they were due.

"I was stressed out of my mind, I even caught shingles while I was here in London. I came out of the shower one morning, thinking, 'What are these little bumps?'"

After all the stress came the reward, not just of Lucas's approval, but showing the completed film to the Airmen themselves...

"When I saw them in their seats, some in wheelchairs, watching the film, grabbing imaginary joysticks and joining in the action, I had tears in my eyes. It made everything worthwhile, even the shingles."

Gooding was equally moved:

"You see the pride swell up, and the love of what they did. I asked one of them, 'did it ever freak you out that you could not back from one of those missions?' And he answered 'yes and no'. If they died over the skies of Berlin in a plane, their legacy would be intact, they'd be heroes. But if they went back to the States, they were still second-class citizens. So they were kamikaze pilots - if the Germans only knew..."

Red Tails is on UK release from today. Watch our exclusive clip below...