Jamie Foxx may still be best known for the comic talents he showed on television programs like “In Living Color” and “The Jamie Foxx Show” and in early movies like “Booty Call,” but this year has seen him emerge strongly as a dramatic actor. His performance as the taxi driver kidnapped by Tom Cruise’s hit man in Michael Mann’s “Collateral” last summer won plaudits, and now his turn as blind singer-pianist Ray Charles in Taylor Hackford’s “Ray” is already generating Oscar buzz.
Foxx recently returned to North Texas, where he was born and raised, for a special screening of the picture, and in a Dallas interview he explained that he didn’t see his turn to drama as so much a shift as a progression. “I’ve always acted like a comedian, but I wasn’t a comedian” in the sense of a George Carlin, he said. He sees his acting work as the next stage in his larger career, and credits much of his success at it to the directors he’s been fortunate enough to work with. “When you get a chance to go to the school of Oliver Stone, of Michael Mann, of Taylor Hackford, of Antoine Fuqua, now you’re getting your training on a totally different level,” he enthused. And he credited his string of great opportunities as much to chance as to talent. “I’ve always been lucky,” he said.
Foxx also discussed how he prepared for his part by spending time with Charles as well as listening to his recordings and watching films of his performances. “I taped Ray while he was sitting around,” Foxx said, “because when a person is not performing, he’s a different person.” He spent time at an academy for the blind, but noted, “You couldn’t really do [much] research, because there was no blind person who was ever like Ray Charles…no one with that type of talent and that type of magnetism.” Charles was also unique in that he refused to use seeing-eye dogs or canes, insisting on getting around himself and doing things for himself: “Here’s a man who wanted to drive a car!” As a result, Foxx said, “It was really [a matter of] hanging out with Ray and getting it from him.” But, he added, he took care to keep the imitation within limits. “There were certain things I would do to keep it from being too broad,” he said.
One of the aspects of playing Charles that most appealed to Foxx was the fact that the part ran the gamut from the extreme of joyful exuberance to the depth of drug rehabilitation. “The most interesting thing about acting,” he said, “is this—that when you go to the dark places there’s a lot of energy, and when you go to the happiest place, there’s also a lot of energy. The exhaustion starts to help you.” In terms of the dark places of Charles’ life, Foxx learned a good deal he hadn’t been aware of before. “I didn’t know about the drugs,” he said. “I didn’t know about the women.” But, he said, Charles himself “was pretty much an ‘It is what it is’ person,” and would have approved of including the bad with the good. “I think that’s what’s compelling about this story—that we don’t tell it like goody two-shoes,” he said. “Taylor Hackford does a great job with taking the true stories and connecting them to bring drama to it and bring charm to his life.”
Something that helped Foxx enormously was that he was a trained pianist himself. When Hackford learned that he had gone to college on a classical music scholarship, Foxx said, “he immediately rewrote the script and went from 45 music cues to 96 music cues, because now he could hold [the shot of him playing] in the frame” without cutting away to someone else’s hands. “We could really take our time and get the performances right—because the movie is a musical.”
Foxx is happy about all the award talk his performance has been getting, but he’s aware of the drawbacks. “It’s a huge risk, because everybody knows Ray Charles,” he said. “The reason it was a good risk for me is because right now, it’s a Cinderella thing—it’s like everybody’s rooting for you.” He recalled his recent trip to the Venice Film Festival, where he was greeted by the likes of Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks and Al Pacino. “Everybody that you’ve ever looked up to is taking time out to say if you are inducted into this club, there are certain things you have to do and certain things you have to be aware of—but at the end of the day, don’t chase it. Go right back to the art.” He’s keenly aware, though, of what the Oscar means. “For the hip-hop crowd, for the cats I know, we didn’t understand the significance of the Oscars,” he said of his attitude some years back. “But…I had the pleasure of talking to Denzel after he didn’t receive the Oscar for ‘Hurricane,’ and I saw the disappointment of, say, an NBA team getting to the championship but not winning the game. And that’s when I started understanding what it was about.”
But however things turn out, Foxx appreciated the opportunity to play Charles and feel the power of a man who tore down racial barriers with his music. “It changed me as a person,” he said. “Ray Charles’ take on [bigotry and violence] was he could escape with his music. I want to play that music—maybe that metaphor for music—so wherever I go and whatever I do, with the background that I have, I keep sharing until you break some of that stuff down, like Ray Charles did.”