So there’s Jamie Foxx, in ragtag yellow and magenta, standing on a Los Angeles sidewalk, talking to Robert Downey Jr. The scene cuts up and away from the actors to a glimpse of blue, to a jetliner in a soaring arc above the skyscrapers.
“Are you flying that plane?” says Fox’s Nathaniel Ayers.
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)
“No, I’m right here,” says Downey’s Steve Lopez.
And there, in “The Soloist,” the $60 million DreamWorks/Paramount adaptation of the best-selling book inspired by a series of newspaper columns, is the Hollywood version of a pivotal moment in the real Steve Lopez’s life.
“It was a block from the L.A. Times, and Nathaniel had moved to that spot, in part because he could see the L.A. Times building and he knew I was there, and it was a reminder that he was in L.A.,” says Lopez. “And a plane flies overhead ... and he looks at me and said, ‘Are you flying that plane?’ and I looked at him like What? ‘I’m right here.’
“He said, ‘Yeah, but are you flying the plane?’
“It was my first little window into what Nathaniel is up against.”
Ayers, the subject of a series of Lopez’s columns, the book, and now the movie — opening Friday — is a schizophrenic, a Juilliard-trained cellist, a homeless man who played violin on the pavement around L.A.‘s Pershing Square. Lopez ran into him there on an afternoon back in early 2005, wrote a column about this guy with a shopping cart and a jones for Beethoven, and, well, several years later a pair of A-list movie stars are pretending to be Mr. Ayers and Mr. Lopez in multiplexes across the land.
Foxx’s portrayal of Ayers, says Lopez — and says “The Soloist’s director, Joe Wright — hews pretty close to his real-life counterpart. As for the newspaper guy — for many years a fixture of The Philadelphia Inquirer — liberties were taken. But Lopez is OK with that.
“Initially, I was a little bothered,” says Lopez, 55, upon hearing that he was being depicted in Susannah Grant’s screenplay as divorced and alone when, in fact, he’s married with a young daughter.
“But they were true to the important part of the story for me, and I’m grateful for that,” he explained on a visit back to Philly last fall.
“I hope that people who see the film might think about connections, about finding your passion. For Nathaniel, it’s obvious, and for me it was the experience of rediscovering my own passion.
“And I think there’s a lot of hope in the story, so I’m fine with that. And perhaps more importantly, my wife is fine with it.”
Director Wright, the Brit behind “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement,” acknowledges that Downey’s Lopez is the most fictionalized element in his film.
“I felt a great responsibility to portray Nathaniel — Mr. Ayers — and the Skid Row community as realistically and as faithfully as I could,” says Wright, on the phone from Los Angeles. “With Steve, I felt less of a responsibility in regards to being faithful to his character and his family situation. ...
“We passed everything by him, obviously, and we explained why we were doing what we were doing. For instance, making him divorced rather than married with a small child ... that makes Nathaniel and Steve both soloists. They’re both people who are unable to connect with other human beings. And that’s what the film is about really, amongst other things.
“Steve says that Nathaniel taught him the meaning of real friendship, and so to dramatize that it seemed appropriate to place him in a situation where he was by himself.”
To prepare for the role of the intrepid columnist, Downey — coming off the career-rocketing comic-book superhero business of “Iron Man” — met with Lopez, dogged him around, took him to dinner.
“We went to a concert together, along with Nathaniel and Jamie Foxx,” Lopez recalls. “And one night, Robert Downey and I went to dinner, and we went to a cigar bar. ...
“What was nice about that was we didn’t really talk about anything in particular. I don’t know how he works, I didn’t know what he had in mind, but I think he just wanted to have a normal conversation. He said he was looking for some piece of me to work with.”
And, OK, here Lopez, sitting on a bench at Logan Square, starts sounding a lot like a fanboy:
“I’ve always thought of him as one of those people who the minute you see him, you just know what depth there is. ... With just a glance you know that this is an actor, not a celebrity. Somebody who can interpret so many different emotions and take you into places that appear real to you. . . .
“And I know that maybe he’s made some movies that are not his best work, but so many times I’ve seen him and just thought, ‘My God, where the hell does this come from? Is it anger? Is it insecurity? Is it just raw talent?’
“So what I said to him was, ‘Just go with what you’ve got. I’m not exciting, I’m not particularly a life-of-the-party kind of a guy. I’m usually quiet, back in the corner observing, which is not going to work for you in this role.’ So I encouraged him to just do his own thing.
“I said, ‘As long as you guys are true to the essence of the story, the rest of it is just all yours. What is the point of an artistic contribution that’s merely a copy of something that’s already been produced? So use the book as your launching pad.’
“And Downey needs no instruction on going into orbit.”
Lopez, who’s been traveling the country — and even to Tokyo — to talk up the film, the book, and the plight of the mentally ill and homeless, remains in close contact with Ayers. A foundation has been established in his name (administered by Ayers’ sister, a social worker in Atlanta). He lives in housing supported by Lamp, the homeless shelter and advocacy group in downtown L.A — whose facilities, staff, and residents are prominently featured in the movie.
In fact, Ayers, Lopez, and the Lamp folks attended “The Soloist’s” cast and crew screening not long ago.
“We went, but Nathaniel didn’t look at the film,” reports Lopez, in a catch-up conversation last week. “He has a fear of two-dimensional images — it’s another symptom of the illness. It’s just too much to process: two-dimensional ghosts on the screen, especially one of them who’s named Nathaniel.
“So the combination of that, and him knowing that it depicted his breakdown, was a little too much for him to handle. But the people that he lives with are in the movie ... and Paramount sent a big bus to take them over to the theater in Hollywood, so it was party time for them, and he didn’t want to miss out on it.
“I met him there and we sat next to each other and I said, ‘Look, just remember this is a somewhat fictional representation of our lives, and Jamie Foxx is going to say things that you didn’t say, Robert Downey is going to say things that I didn’t say, but this is about our friendship and I think there are some powerful messages here that you should be proud of and I’m very thankful for your generosity in sharing the story.
“‘And if it’s uncomfortable for you, just close your eyes, or we’ll go for a walk.’
“So he closed his eyes for the whole thing, and loved the music, particularly. Here’s the one moviegoer who will prefer the soundtrack over the film itself.”