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Jamie Foxx
What'd He Say?

By Brad Balfour
Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: February 27, 2005.

With the incredible buzz about the Ray Charles bio pic, Ray, comedian Jamie Foxx's work has been hailed as a Best Actor Oscar shoo-in even though he's also nominated for his work in Collateral). And that's no joke; this former Texan has made the transition from TV funny man (In Living Color/The Jamie Foxx Show) and comedy star (Booty Call) to a serious actor tackling hard hitting, complex roles such as the taxi driver in Collateral or Bundini Brown in Ali. Yet this thirty-something actor continues to defy expectations as he talks about tour plans, future films and his own comedy festival.

Has it been hard to convince Hollywood that you have dramatic chops?

I never factor Hollywood into anything. I'm a black actor, so I can't really worry about what Hollywood thinks. I got to go do my thing. My jokes have got to be funny. Whatever I do has got to be great. When I first got on In Living Color it was not like I thought it was going to be. If you weren't on time — if you got there at 10:01 — you had to explain that in one minute. Keenan Ivory Wayans was like, “The reason I'm on you so tough, Jamie, and it is because when you're mediocre you're not going to make it as an African-American actor, actress, comedian or singer. You've got to be top of the line all the time.” I ran into Keenan at the Comedy Awards and he's still echoing the same thing. He said, “You're doing what I told you to do. Try to stay at the top of your game.” So I never worry [about convincing Hollywood of anything]. You've got to blaze your own trail. It's like how hip-hop pulls everything. Fortune 500 companies are calling Puffy? “What do we do? How do we sell this project?” It's that mentality that we all have as young cats out there in Hollywood. You're never going to convince anybody. The only thing you can do is stay true to the art. I'll drop another name, a white man's name, Lorne Michaels, from Saturday Night Live. I was asking him, “How come people fall off?” He said, “Jamie, they don't fall off. It's the projects that you choose. If you choose the right projects you don't have to worry about anything as long as you do that.”

What made you think you could handle Ray?

I had done Ray Charles impersonations before. They'd never made it on TV or anything like that. So I knew that I could get into that headspace. But it was still the challenge of can you really make people believe it? When you look at a biopic, it's really tough to do. When you look at other biopics it's like, “Wow, that person looks like him, but…” So it's — can you go beyond that to where people, when they see it, go, “Wow, I'm not seeing Jamie Foxx?” I had a little bit of training in doing Redemption: The Tookie Williams Story in trying to transform into another person. And then I did Bundini Brown [in Ali]. I call it under and over. With Bundini Brown it was the under bite. Just that alone gives you Bundini. So there were all these different things you would do to try to see if could take what you feel on the inside and have people trip out on it, if that makes any sense.

[Ray director] Taylor Hackford said Charles was tough on you before he gave his blessing.

When I met Ray he said, “Oh, let me check those fingers out. You got strong fingers.” So we sat down at dual pianos. He was playing one piano and I was playing the other, and we were singing the blues. He said, “If you can do the blues, Jamie, you can do anything.” He's singing, “All, right right,” and we're singing the blues back and forth. Then he said, “Well, how about this?” And he goes into [jazz pianist] Thelonious Monk. It's like the equivalent to riding a mechanical bull when you've had too many drinks. You just fly all the way out to the bar. And then I hit a wrong note and he said, “Now why the hell did you do that?” He was very serious about it. He wasn't laughing. I said, “Well, I don't know.” He said, “You didn't know what?” I said, “Well?” And he said, “Notes are right underneath your fingers.” I started listening to him as he was speaking and he was very serious. His music is his harmony. If it's off his whole life is off. He said, “The notes are right underneath your fingers, Jamie. You've just got to take time out to find them, young man.” So I used that as a metaphor through the whole movie that our life is notes underneath our fingers, and we've just got to figure out which notes we want to play to make our music. So that's what we started doing right there. I said, “OK, I'm going to play the right Ray Charles notes and then I'm going to play this Ray Charles story.”

And did you get the notes right?

After I got the Monk riff, he said, “There it is! That's what I'm talking about. Now come on.” When I finally got it, he jumped up, slapped his thighs and said, “The kid's got it.” And he walked out. That's when I knew we had it.

How did you stay on the right side of the thin line between mimicry and acting?

It's called nuance. In order to get to Ray Charles, you had to pray a little bit because everybody knows who Ray Charles is. Young kids, hip-hops kids, I don't say old people, I say seasoned people. Everybody knows who Ray Charles is. The first thing I did was lose 30 pounds. I'm around 190, so I was 157 pounds with the help of my trainer. We had to change my metabolism. Eddie Murphy said, “You're going to do good because you got that Ray Charles jaw.” That was one of the things that worked in our favor. I said, “Eddie, I don't know what that means, but I'm going to run with it.” Then, when I put the shades on, it all came together and then it was a matter of finding the nuance. When we met each other, I'd take things from him when he was just sitting there. It's how he orders his food, how he talks to his kids, how he gets angry, and how he internalizes it. When you're not on that's the realness of it. The best Ray Charles thing that I liked in doing this movie was when he'd answer the telephone, when they were calling to tell him that the charges were dropped, because he opens his legs and he sits down. That's what I call a “down-home” way of answering the phone. That's what you're feeling in the movie. It's the nuance. Once you get that you're not watching Ray Charles anymore. You're watching a blind man go through some things, a blind man blessed with talent, that's on a journey, and how is he going to get through that journey. Then it's like, at first. You're looking at Ray Charles. But then you look past it, especially when he's going through the drugs. It's like, “Man, this dude is really going through some things.” So all the different things we did were the ingredients we needed to really get that character.

Did you choose to be blinded in playing Ray?

Ray couldn't cheat. So there were certain things when I played it blind that you couldn't get around. I couldn't get up and move or look up and see what was going on. We had to stay singularly focused in order to keep it true.

Ray's mother was a huge factor in his life. Your grandmother was a huge factor in your life. Is that part of the traditional southern upbringing?

Of course. For anybody brought up in the south, you were brought up in the real world. When I come to New York I can't believe how many buildings there are, how much concrete, how much steel, how many people. I'm like, “My goodness!” When I'm in LA, it's too nice. It's sunshine, palm trees. Everybody's happy. In the South, even right now when we're dealing with the political situation. For the longest time, [racism] had been in certain people that's just how it was. Ray Charles was the first one to stick his hand out and try to stop that racial domino, that ignorant domino, that “I'm better than you” domino. And that's what I tried to do when I was coming up. If you think about the way Ray put things in perspective, he said, “Oh, whites-only bathroom, coloreds-only bathroom. I can't see that. I just need to use the bathroom.” Bill Cosby told a story the other night when Ray Charles was playing the Playboy Jazz Fest and the whole orchestra was white. Cosby walks up and says (in Cosby's voice), "Do you know that the whole orchestra is white?” Ray says, “Funny, they don't sound white.” So, I would say that I [also] wanted to bridge that gap that was boundary of the railroad track. In my city the railroad track separated the black side from the white side. The only time I saw white people was when someone was going to jail or when an insurance [man came by]. That's how you learned your acting skills. That was my acting class. When that insurance man came to the door, my mother said, “Go tell him I ain't here.” I'd say, “Well, I told him that last month.” And she'd say, “Well, you'd better make something up.” So I'd say, “My mother?” And that was my first acting job. “Granny says she ain't here.” [Ray Charles and I have] these similarities that come from that Southern upbringing and that southern way of talking to women. I consider myself a southern gentleman. [I have] that certain way of being country-dumb. When I'm in LA, yeah, I do all the LA things. I know it's the west coast. I said, “Oh man, I love it,” but I know on the inside I've got something else working, too. So there were a lot of different similarities with Ray.

What's the importance of Ray's wives in his life?

You know what? I think the one with [his wife] Della Bea was the most significant relationship, because she was the one that weathered all of the storms. I mean how strong is this woman to go through this? On film, to us, it looks wild and sometimes we laugh or giggle, and we say, “Oh, that's Ray being Ray” but that was a tough, tough thing for a woman. Being married to a man who is so complex, who knows he is a genius, who knows he is to be protected. But at the same time there were a lot of things that she had to go through. Even now, to this day, she still has her dignity. She wasn't like, “I want to be in the limelight” or “I need to have my story told.” She still is, in a sense, in the background being that strong woman. So that relationship for Ray Charles was, to me, just incredible. Even when he passed he was still with this woman.

When was the last time you talked to Ray before his death?

It had to be at least three or four months before his death, because during the last few months he was away and nobody could see him.

Did you remain in character when the camera stopped?

No, no. [actress] CCH Pounder taught me one thing. “Characters are like putting on a coat. You put the coat on while you work, you take the coat off after it's over.” You need that freshness. I know people who stay in character, and it's the worst thing in the world. You can't go out. They're still in their character and the residue is too much. I like to flip it on like a light switch and then flip it off. Then, when we come back in the next morning, I flip it back on. And that's what keeps things fresh for me.

Since you've moved into drama, how important is the comedy now?

Hey man, I have to let them know every day, “Don't sleep on me.” For all those comics out there that think I've gotten soft doing the dramatic stuff, I had to go to the comedy awards and let them know I still got that comedy sword. We were at the ESPYs not too long ago and Cedric the Entertainer was there; I had to keep the heat up on him. So it's a fair competition between all the comedians. We really have a great community right now. We honored the whole Wayans family for all the comedy they've given us. It's a great time right now for comedians, because we are stepping into other roles, but we're still keeping our comedy side fresh. I ran into Chris Tucker at the Ray Charles tribute recently and he's coming down to Laughapalooza. That's where I'm getting sixty comedians together and we're going to go all night. Every five minutes, another comedian.

Will you go on road or do more big-screen comedy?

Yeah, one of the films is coming together. Even with that, I will get out on the road soon.

Does it make you nervous that your future work will probably be judged against what you've done here?

Oh yeah. What I'm telling everybody [is] this is the Cinderella time right now. Everybody's saying, “Oh, we love ya.” But it's like flying out of Los Angeles. When you fly out of LA, it's pretty and everything is nice and then the pilot comes on and says, “We're having a little weather over...” So we're coming up to weather, I'm sure, as far as the different projects we'll choose. But to be honest with you I've got a couple of decent projects that, for now, I can sit back and say, “There are still going to be some great things.” So it's great right now but it does make you a little, not nervous, but... I go back to my man and ask that question and Keenan said. “You just got to make sure it's top dog.”

Who would play you in your life story?

He's not born yet [spoken in an old man's voice]. Hopefully, I've got a little living to do.

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Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: February 27, 2005.

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Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: February 27, 2005.