Jamie Foxx's Smart Career Moves

Foxx moves from comedian to an actor with Oscar buzz in Ray

 

"Eric Bishop is Clark Kent, and Jamie Foxx is a little bit like Superman-the persona you see out there in clubs or onstage," Foxx says. Bishop might be in bed right now, getting a jump on this encroaching cold, but Foxx is at a photo shoot, steering his career into higher orbit.

Success at stand-up landed him on TV in the 1990's sketch-comedy series In Living Color, which he credits with sharpening his edge. The show put him before a national audience of millions each week, where he created the memorable character "Ugly Wanda" and did dead-on impersonations of Bill Cosby and Mike Tyson. Foxx was good enough to get his own self-titled sitcom on the WB network for five years. But when he saw a chance to switch reels, he eased his way into an audition with director Oliver Stone, insisting that he was the only man to play cocksure quarterback Willie Beamen in Any Given Sunday. Foxx quickly dusted off another set of skills long shelved: those acquired as a football quarterback in high school. The story goes that he tried to twist Stone's arm-gently-by telling him: "I know the feeling needed to do the job because I've played quarterback."

Foxx credits friends Will and Jada Pinkett Smith with getting him a reading for Ali. "They really stuck up for me with director Michael Mann." From there he was well on his way to creating a body of serious work, which made it so much easier to score the role of a burned-out cabbie driving around a hitman, played by Tom Cruise, in Collateral. It didn't hurt that Michael Mann was again at the helm.

The Role of a Lifetime Jamie Foxx was the first man Taylor Hackford thought of when he sought to cast the lead of his Ray Charles biopic. A friend of the legendary singer and songwriter, Hackford had been eager to bring Charles's story to the screen for 15 years. Finally, he got the money to do it. He contacted Foxx based on intuition that he might be able to capture the many layers of the man Ray. When Hackford met Foxx he learned that the actor had played piano since age 3 and had attended college on a piano scholarship. "I remember thinking, This is fate," says Hackford.

Ray Charles, very much alive at the time, had to sign off on the deal. He wasn't interested in having Foxx read for him. He had a truer test in mind. He sat at one piano and put Foxx at another. Foxx mimics what the man, credited with being pivotal in the evolution of soul music, said to him in that signature edgy Ray Charles voice: "Uh, Jamie...if you can play the blues, baby...you could really do it all."

Foxx followed along. He had enjoyed a bit of musical success himself. In 1994, his first album, Peep This, rose to No. 12 on the Billboard R&B charts, and the single "Slow Jamz," on which he, Kanye West and Twista were featured earlier this year, shot to No. 1 on several Billboard charts. So, as Foxx sat there that day with the master, he went with the blues and was holding his own. That's when Charles hung a quick left and zoomed into the stupefying complexity of Thelonious Monk. The heat shot up a hundred degrees. But Brother Ray was having fun. "Can you get it, Jamie?" he taunted. "It's right underneath your fingertips."

 

Hackford sat watching the two men, quiet as a fly on the wall.

"Jamie didn't wilt," he says. "Ray tested him, not only as a musician but as a man. In the end, Ray said, ‘This kid's the one.' He anointed Jamie." To enter Charles's world, the first month of shooting, Foxx spent 14 hours a day completely sightless. He wore glued-on eye prosthetics that, with makeup, made his eyes look like those of Ray Charles. Charles's eyes had been disfigured by operations to reduce pressure and pain after untreated glaucoma rendered him blind at 7 years old. Without vision, Foxx was lost: "I bumped into things, I bumped my head, I started screaming, hyperventilating. I heard everything, people scratching, people tapping a pencil 20 feet away." The role was physically demanding in another way. He dropped 30 pounds-going from 190 to 160 to resemble Charles's slimmer physique. Foxx has a natural ability to capture other people, observes his Ray costar Regina King: "He can spend 20 minutes with a person, and then go in the other room and imitate them."

"Jamie did this brilliant job," adds Hackford, who also produced the 1996 documentary When We Were Kings, about the 1974 Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight in Zaire. "I believe he channeled Ray."

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Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman took home an Oscar at the 77th annual Academy Awards, just three years after Denzel Washington and Halle Berry's historic Academy Award wins three years ago.

After years of nomination, Morgan Freeman, 67, won for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Million Dollar Baby. And Jamie Foxx won for his uncanny portrayal of Ray Charles.

Oscars Jamie Foxx can hear his bed calling as he stands in the corner of a historic West Hollywood home taking pictures to promote Ray, a biopic of the late musical genius Ray Charles. The actor throws his arms around his gorgeous costars, Kerry Washington, who plays his wife, and Regina King, who plays the mistress. But as time ticks on, he grows woozy.

Yesterday he was in Miami, tomorrow he'll be in Paris, and a sore throat, earache and chills have come along for the ride. He could have rescheduled, but this is his moment. His year. So he puts his bed on hold and takes the call from the world.

After critically acclaimed performances in 1999's Any Given Sunday, 2001's Ali and last summer's Collateral, Foxx has been collecting plenty of bonus points for being as convincing a dramatic actor as he is a comedian. Only a few folks, like Will Smith, Tom Hanks and Robin Williams, have been able to pull that off. But Foxx, 36, doesn't think his transition is all that surprising-especially because he wasn't really a comedian anyway before he hurled himself onto the Los Angeles comedy scene in 1989.

With only a gospel and classical-music background as a springboard, Foxx decided to act "as if." "I actually started acting like I was a comedian," he explains, seated in the grass courtyard of the house, a grove of green 40-foot bamboo at his back. "When I came onstage, I held the mike like Eddie Murphy; I had gestures like Richard Pryor."

When he was a kid growing up in Terrell, Texas, in the 1970's his quick wit had gotten him lots of laughs. More and more he sensed that he had a personality better suited to being out front than parked behind a piano. But that's where he was on any given Sunday in his hometown, 25 miles east of Dallas, where he sang and played in his grandmother's church choir. His prodigious musical talent earned him a scholarship to the U.S. International University in San Diego. But he bowed out early, angling toward the spotlight.

Comedy Calls When he first left college and hit the comedy scene, it wasn't enough for him to imitate Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. He had to be somebody else. There were so many men and so few women who wanted to do stand-up that all the women would make the lineup, while Eric Bishop-Foxx's given name-often found he was left off. That's why, when it came time to sign up for open mike, he put down Jamie Foxx. It sounded more feminine. But Eric Bishop has never officially died.

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