The opening moments of Regina King’s One Night Miami… show us Cassius Clay in the ring. He is nearing the end of a big fight, and this is before he takes on his famous name of Muhammad Ali. Clay has never been more physically fit and he stalks the ring like proud, eager beast. Eli Goree’s performance is destined to put him on the map. He’s charismatic and charming and he fuses Clay’s intelligence with a confidence that we have never seen.
When Clay meets up with Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, and Jim Brown, you are immediately drawn to Goree’s youthful exuberance. This is his night and he just wants to hit the town to blow off some steam after deservedly becoming champion of the world. He will soon announce to the world his plans to convert to the Islamic faith. The men he spends his night with are his contemporaries as well as his mentors and friends. They are going to change the world together.
Cassius Clay knows he’s the greatest in the world. His confidence and boldness get you on his side as soon as he steps on screen. You can’t ask for that kind of magnetism, and Goree’s ability to make us see beyond the legend is proof of this actor’s potential.
Awards Daily: The film opens with Cassius in the ring and I was wondering what it was like to to feel that energy from the screaming crown?
Eli Goree: That’s the great work of Regina [King] and her casting. The crowd was actually not a lot of people. It was a mixture of CGI and a group of people right around the ring. It wasn’t as full as it looked for sure. Having people there definitely helped. When you’re in the ring and you’re getting punches thrown at you and people were screaming, it’s an adrenaline rush.
AD: What reservations do you think Cassius had before this night happened about converting to Islam?
EG: What I know about it, because I’ve heard him talk about it, his only reservation was him not being able to do his profession. That’s why he chose the night that he became champion. He was felt he was protected from being blacklisted in that sense. He had other personal vices that didn’t line up with the tenets of life at that time. He didn’t drink and he wasn’t a smoker, but he had an affinity for women. He was a young man in the prime of his life–he was a superstar. I think he had to negotiate how to walk that path and live it out, but I don’t think he had any question if that’s what he believed.
AD: You mentioned his age, and I kept thinking of how much younger he is than everyone else in that hotel room. You bring this youthful exuberance, and I was wondering if you wanted to push that?
EG: Absolutely. It was something that we went back and forth on. He has this interesting dichotomy of being wise beyond his years but still very youthful. It was a tightrope act of trying to find the moments where he is just a 22 year old man and excited to be on top of the world. Then there are moments that he sees things that other people don’t and he sees the world in a really insightful way. In a way that people sometimes don’t ever find. It was something that me and Regina talked about a lot.
AD: Does that play into his swagger? I don’t recall seeing anything where he is this young and he talks such a big game.
EG: I think it’s a lot of things. It’s where he’s from. As a young, Black man who is very masculine and has a machismo is part of his culture. If you go down to the barbershop or the basketball court or anyplace you find Black culture, you will find that swagger. You see it with LeBron James and you see it with Jay-Z. On another level, he’s, arguably, the toughest man on the planet. He was a very physical attractive man and he’s so good with words and that’s part and parcel of everywhere he came from and the man that he was. He was authentically him.
AD: It’s funny that you say authentically him, because he is not hiding behind any sort of artifice.
AD: How much time did you spend nailing down the rhythm of his voice?
EG: A long time…a really long time (laughs). It was probably a year.
AD: Oh wow.
EG: I started working on his character about 18 months before this because I was working on an audition for him and I didn’t get that. It’s funny because Kingsley Ben-Adir had gotten it and then the film didn’t get made. I was auditioning for that with Ang Lee, I didn’t get it, and I decided I was going to keep working on the character. I thought there would be another opportunity sometime for me to play Cassius Clay. I thought it would come my way and people say I resemble him. I was in a play at the LA Fringe where I was going to do a play called Fetch Clay, Make Man which was about the little known friendship he had with Stepin Fetchit. I started building the character and into the process of his voice, I worked on it when he was boxing. That’s very different, being in the ring. I worked on the range and the volume, but one of the key things was to hone in on the Southern accent without the affectations. Just learning to speak with a Louisville accent from that community during that time period is very specific and it’s very important as a foundation. I found a great dialect coach, Tré Cotten, and he ended up being the coach for the whole film. He was instrumental in finding that Southern foundation and we built on top of that. I think sometimes people don’t do that–they just copy his voice and it comes across as a sketch.
AD: Oh yeah. It makes it more layered and thorough to do it the way you did with Tré.
EG: Yes, it gave me a grounded, authentic voice.
AD: Speaking when you’re pumped up in the ring and out of breath has to be such a different dynamic than just having a casual conversation. I never thought of that.
EG: When I would train my boxing, I would do it without the accent, and when I was more in shape, I would have to throw on the accent at a certain point. Throw in more of the character. Building and building and building.
AD: You make it look very easy.
EG: Well, thank you.
AD: Jim Brown is at the end of his sports career and Cassius is young and already making headlines. When you had scenes and exchanges with Aldis Hodge, did you think about how these two particular men are at very different points of their lives?
EG: In one of the interviews I listened to quite a bit, Cassius was on the radio in Louisville before he won the title. It was a local radio station and they had something titled like, ‘Meet the Stars’ or something. They would talk to local celebrities. One of the questions asked to him was if he worried about the boxers that came before you that ended up punch-drunk and had no money. He said that he would never fight beyond his years and that he was going to be wise. When there was a young man behind him, he knew he would get out of the way. It’s interesting to hear him say that at 20 years old. He did go beyond what he originally thought even if my character wouldn’t know that in the moment. I was able to have a different type of perception when Cassius has the conversation with Jim about being gladiators waiting for the thumbs up or the thumbs down. I was able to have a moment of introspection that felt almost like a foreshadowing. It resonates more when I think about it.
One Night in Miami… debuts in theaters on Christmas Day and expands to Prime Video on January 15.