Is there a figure in show business today with more breathtaking ambition than Jamie Foxx?
A chart-topping pop star at 41, a “brand name” comedy talent with his own Sirius Satellite Radio channel, and an Academy Award winning actor who has parlayed his film stardom into an array of attention-grabbing “for your consideration” performances, Foxx has made more of his Oscar win (for “Ray”) than most any actor you can name.
Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr., Catherine Keener, Tom Hollander, Lisa Gay Hamilton
(DreamWorks Pictures; US theatrical: 24 Apr 2009 (General release); UK theatrical: 11 Sep 2009 (General release); 2009)
“The tag line of ‘The Soloist’ really works for Jamie Foxx,” says Joe Wright, who directed Foxx in the drama about a newspaper reporter and a mentally disturbed musician that opens Friday. ‘You don’t get anywhere without taking some risks.’ Jamie challenges himself, film after film. Not being afraid of failure makes a different sort of actor. Being brave enough to fail is how you get great performances.”
Foxx made the leap, as actor and movie star, with 2004’s “Collateral.” After that, Entertainment Weekly and others could pronounce, “Jamie Foxx has arrived as a movie star.” But fans might have picked up the ambition, the attention to craft, as far back as his deep character turn as trainer and friend to Will Smith’s Muhammad Ali in 2001’s “Ali.”
“I look at Will Smith and think, ‘Wow, he’s got a niche,’” Foxx says. “Look at Chris Rock. He’s got a niche. What’s my niche? So I see movies like this as a chance to find my niche, character roles. To take somebody on and just dive into the role, disappear if I can.”
For “The Soloist,” Foxx disappears into the chattering, fragile and schizophrenic Nathaniel Ayers, a once-promising musician who went to Juilliard, but whom Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez discovered homeless, living and playing a battered violin on the streets of Los Angeles.
“We have even more in common than you might think,” Foxx says of Ayers, whom he observed and secretly camera-phone recorded to get “the syncopation, the rhythm” of his patter, his no-eye-contact mannerisms.
Foxx says that he, like Ayers, “sees music, visualizes it. He is possessed by it and I am, too. I hear music and I see a movie in my head. Nathaniel, I think, experiences it in a similar way.”
Like Ayers, Foxx was once a promising classical musician who went to college to study music composition. “When I was 18 years old in college somebody slipped me something into my drink. I lost it for like 11 months. Paranoid, man, all my childhood fears came back. That’s always been my fear, losing my mind. I played piano to keep myself grounded. A doctor I saw at the time said, ‘Some people get that done to them and never come back.’ But music and friends really helped me through it.”
He confesses that his fears of mental illness lingered through the filming of “The Soloist.” If you get too deep into character, he wondered, “Can you catch schizophrenia?” Of course not, “but still, I had to let my mind go to get to that place where he is. I relied a lot on Joe Wright and Robert Downey Jr. at the end of the day to pull me back.”
The movie pairs Foxx with one of the few actors who can match him in playing fast patter. Downey and Foxx turned their conversations into improvised duologues - both characters talking at once, neither really listening to the other. “Joe told us ‘I want this to be like music, both guys talking at once - solos, duets, competing melodies, complementing one another.’ “
“The Soloist” was originally slated for release during last Oscar season, so a late April arrival can’t help but disappoint cast and crew (although the Oscar-nominated “The Visitor” arrived at roughly the same time last year). In any event, Foxx has worn, as he likes to put it, “another coat, another character” for his filmography.
“I did this (tribute) for Al Pacino a while back, and we’re looking at clips of his movies, all across his career, the people he played, and you see this variety, all these different people he became,” Foxx marvels. “That’s what you do it for. You don’t do it for the success, the cash, whatever. You do it so that you can look back and see, years on, the great characters you’ve brought to life. It’s about who you become and reminiscing over those great parts you got to play when you’re older. That’s my ambition.”