Ray: An Interview with Jamie Foxx
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There's a thin line between the talent of mimicry and the craft of acting. How did you stay on the right side of it in playing Ray?
JF: It's called nuance. This whole movie, 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 I lost 30 pounds. I walk around at 190, so I was 157 pounds with the help of my trainer, Rashon Khan. We had to change my metabolism. He's coming out with a book called Kan-dition. It's incredible how he did that. Eddie Murphy said, 'You're gonna do good because you got that jaw like Ray Charles. You got that Ray jaw.' So that was one of the things that worked in our favor. I said, 'Eddie, I don't know what that means, but I'm gonna run with it.' Then, when I put the shades on, it all kind of came together. And then it was a matter of finding the nuance. Most of the time, with impersonation of Ray, it's 'Oh, God! God!' When we met each other, the things I'd take from him were when he was just sitting there. Right now, we're all on. But when you're not on that's the realness of it. It's how he orders his food, how he talks to his kids, how he gets angry, but he internalizes it. The best Ray Charles thing, in doing this movie, that I liked 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'd call a down home way of answering the phone. That's what you're feeling in the movie. It's the nuisance. Once you get that you're not watching Ray Charles anymore, you're watching a blind man go through some things, a blind man that is blessed with talent, a blind man that is on a journey, and how is he gonna get through that journey. 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 of the different things we did were the ingredients we needed to really get that character.
When they first approached you about this, what was it inside of you that made you think you could handle this?
JF: Well, 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 kind of 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 The Tookie Williams Story (Redemption) in trying to transform into another person. And then I did Bundini Brown (in Ali). I call it under and over. Bundini Brown was underwritten. Just that alone gives you Bundini. So there were all these different things that 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.
Taylor Hackford said Ray was tough on you before he gave his blessing to you playing him. Can you talk about that?
JF: First, I met Ray and he said, 'Oh, let me check these fingers out. Let me check out these fingers. You got strong fingers, oh yeah.' 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 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 Thelonious Monk. It's like the equivalent to riding a mechanical bull when you've had too many drinks. Then 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 gonna play the right Ray Charles notes and then I'm gonna play this Ray Charles story.'
And did you get the notes right when you were there with Ray?
It was after I got the Thelonious Monk riff that he said, 'There it is! That's what I'm talking about. Now come on.' When I finally got it he jumped up and he slapped his thighs and he said, 'The kid's got it.' And he walked out. That's when I knew we had it.
Ray's mother was a huge factor in his life. Your grandmother was a huge factor in your life. That's part of the traditional southern upbringing, right?
JF: Of course. Anybody who was 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 L.A., it's too nice. It's sunshine. It's palm trees. Everybody's happy. In the south, even right now, when we're dealing with the political situation, there's a real dose of how people really feel. For the longest time, (racism) had been in certain people for so long that's just how it was. Ray Charles was the first one to stick his hand out and try to stop that domino, 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 it, 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 where Ray Charles was playing the Playboy Jazz Fest and the whole orchestra was white. And Cosby walks up and says (in Cosby 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 separates the black side from the white side. The only time I saw white people was when someone was going to jail or 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.' So (Ray Charles and I have) all these different similarities in that southern upbringing, 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 L.A., yeah, I do all the L.A. 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.
You seem to become Ray in the film. Are you the type of actor who remains in character when the camera stops rolling?
JF: No, no. CCH Pounder taught me one thing. She said, "Characters are like putting on a coat. You put the coat on while you work, and 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 character residue is too much. I like to go do it, 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.
You're work in this is Oscar-caliber and much of your future work will probably be judged against what you've done here. Does that make you nervous?
JF: Oh yeah. That's what I'm telling everybody. 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 Los Angeles 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, 'This are going to be, still, some great things.' So it's great right now. It does make you a little, not nervous, you never get nervous, but I go back to my man and ask that question and go back to what Keenan said. 'You just gotta make sure it's top dog.'
How do you feel about already being touted as Best Actor?
JF: We welcome that, I especially do because it links me into conversation with other actors that we look up to. I'm in Venice, Italy (at the film festival) talking to Tom Hanks and he's giving me his words of wisdom and he's giving me an education. The phone rings, 'it's D, Denzel hurry up.' I go down to the lobby and there's Denzel and then you turn around and there's Al Pacino, (imitates him) 'Foxx, come here you!' It's like opening up that door to the private club. Even if you don't get nominated at least you're steppin' in the right direction by having that type of talk. It brings that much attention for everyone to go out and see (the movie) from hip hop kids to people that are seasoned when Ray Charles was around.
Who are you going to thank first for the Oscar?
JF: Hey man, I'm gonna thank my grandmother. Boy, that would be crazy. I don't know what I would do. I'd thank everybody, Ray Charles, everybody.
You've already had an interesting life and career. Who would play you in the Jamie Foxx Story?
JF: He's not born yet (spoken in an old man's voice). Hopefully, I've got a little living to do.
You've moved into drama and, it seems, away from comedy. How important is the comedy to you?
JF: Hey man, I have to let them know every day, 'Don't sleep on me.' All those comics out there that think I've gotten soft and I'm 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 I had Cedric the Entertainer, and I had to keep the heat up on him. So it's a fair competition between all the comedians right now. We really have a great community right now. We just honored the whole Wayans family for what they've contributed and all the comedy they've given us. It's a great time right now for comedians, because we are stepping into other roles and doing other things, but we're still keeping our comedy side fresh. I ran into Chris Tucker at the Ray Charles tribute a couple of nights ago. He's coming down to Laughapalooza. That's where I'm getting like 60 comedians and we're gonna go all night, every five minutes another comedian.
Will you go on road? Will you do more big-screen comedy?
JF: Yeah, I think one of the films is coming together. Even with that, it ain't, I will still get out on the road, and soon.
Can you talk about the importance of Ray's wives in his life?
JF: You know what? I think the one with 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 that? On film, to us, it looks wild and sometimes we laugh or we giggle, and we say, 'Oh, that's Ray being him,' 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's still, in a sense, in the background being that strong woman. So that relationship alone for Ray Charles was, to me, just incredible. Even until he passed he was still with this woman.
What was the last time you talked to Ray before his death?
JF: It had to be at least three or four months before his death, because the last few months he was away and nobody could see him.
How did his death affect you? JF: We knew for the longest time that Ray was sick. This movie was him walking into the sunset. He viewed the movie in his own way before he passed. He got his kids together before he passed. He did all different things that we would want to do if we were leaving. If somebody told you, you had three weeks or six months, he did all of those things in the right way. Then he pulled himself away from everybody. He didn't want to be seen that way. Quincy Jones made a CD of his voice so Ray could hear it talking about old times. It was sad because when you prepare yourself, you can't still imagine how it feels. The day he died I thought about his son and his family and I called them and said, 'listen man if you want to get away from all the hub bub you can come up here and we got a hotel, we got food,' so they could just sit away from everything with no questions, no nothing and mourn how you want to mourn. A lot of people don't know how to mourn. I lost my grandfather when I was seventeen and it was weird. Some people freak out, some people get crazy so I gave them (his family) the opportunity to just be whatever they wanted to be.
Why did you choose to be blinded in playing him blind?
JF: Ray couldn't cheat. So there were certain things when I did play it blind that you couldn't get around. I couldn't get up and move. I couldn't look up and see what was going on. We had to stay singularly focused in order to keep it true.
What was the challenge of not being able to see?
JF: When I see the movie now I didn't know Kerry Washington (who plays his wife Della Bea) had that dress on! I saw the sets being built but then I was blind for like fourteen hours a day, even at lunch which was tough. Sometimes they would say, 'and it's lunch' and people would have to come get me. There were a lot of things going on that really made you understand how tough it was. If your mind really wasn't tough you would freak out.
What was it like to cover your eyes with the prosthetics?
JF: When I had them off it was like literally like I could breathe. We went through hours and hours and days of trying to find the way to make it look right. First we glued my eyelids closed and that was crazy. You gotta get me soap, this is not gonna work! I hyperventilated the first few times (with the prostethics) and then they finally got it right and got the method down from five hours to maybe like an hour to get them done and made it easier. Taylor (Hackford) suggested (the prostethics) and I thought it was great but I wished I hadn't said it at first. Once we got into it, it worked because it was like jumping into a cold pool, once you got used to it, it was great.
Did you actually freak out when you wore the prosthetics?
JF: Oh yeah, they had to hold me down because it's like being in a coffin alive. That was the sense of it because I couldn't open my eyes. Even if I opened my eyes I still couldn't see anything because the prosthetics was over the whole eyelid. It was freakish. After six hours there's not people anymore, there's little bitty voices just sitting around and everybody is talking at the same time and people are just hitting stuff and tapping on stuff and it drives you nuts.
Did you talk to Ray about his heroin addiction?
JF: He was given information about what was going on at that time. The whole music world at that time was leaning towards drugs because he heard so and so does this drug and he plays better. There had to be thousands of people who never got to play a note because of drugs and heroin is a strong drug. In talking to Ray about (drugs) he was very candid about it. He said, 'this is how it happened. Do not sugar coat it. I didn't want to go through a twelve step program. Either I'm gonna do this or I'm not. I chose not to do it and this is what I went through in order to get out of it.' I think that's a big moment in his life of seeing this man in classic Ray Charles style of saying, 'I won't be denied of having a better life by leaving these drugs.' He wasn't apologetic for it. He said if he would've stayed in it, it would've been tragic for him because he would've never got out.
How did you come to respect Ray Charles as a man?
JF: To have Ray Charles go through all of that in the forties in the fifties where there was 'whites only,' 'coloreds only' and for him to break through all of that and say he didn't have anything against anybody and there's just this music I want to get out. It's just an incredible thing. How tough is that to be banned from Georgia? Bill Cosby tells a great story when Ray Charles was doing the Playboy Jazz Fest and they spin the stage around and the whole jazz orchestra is white. Bill says, (imitating him) 'Oh my goodness Ray did you know that the whole orchestra is white.' And Ray says, 'hmmm funny they don't sound white.' Here was a man who would come from his blackness but at the same time when all these bad things are happening still be cool. For me it says if I could just get a little bit of that bravery. What can we do to put our stamp on things and use our influence? When Red Fox died there was a little blurb. Now maybe when some of our folks die we will get that biopic, we will get a chance to show what their lives are about.
How hard has it been to convince Hollywood that you have the dramatic chops?
JF: You know what? I never really factor Hollywood into anything. I'm a black actor, so I can't really say what Hollywood thinks. I gotta 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" I noticed it was not like you thought it was going to be. If you weren't on time, if you got there at 10:01 you have to explain that one minute. And it was a serious situation. Keenan Ivory Wayans was like, 'The reason I'm on you so tough Jamie is because when you're mediocre you're not gonna make it as an African American actor or actress or comedian or singer.' He said, 'You've gotta 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 you never worry (about convincing Hollywood of anything). You've got to blaze, in a sense, your own trail. It's like hip-hop. It's like how hip-hop pulls everything. It's like, man, Fortune 500 companies are calling Puff. 'What do we do? How do we sell this project?' It's basically that mentality that we all have as young cats out there in Hollywood. You're never gonna convince anybody. The only thing you can do is stay true to the art. And I'll drop another name, a white man's name. Lorne Michael, 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.'
So, does a role like this vindicate you as a power player in Hollywood?
JF: I wanted to just be able to do the great project. We knew there were slots taken up like Will Smith, Chris Tucker, Chris Rock. When you're doing comedy there's not much to do. There's nothing out there unless we write it ourselves. Here's a chance to do something artistic and then all of the things happen to your advantage. Tom Cruise called and said, 'Jamie Foxx you so and so. I am in this movie theater crying my eyes out with my family' (watching Ray). You don't put into your career that Will Smith is gonna call you right after you're leaving a club and say you better get home and lose the weight and get Ray Charles together and don't slack off. Right now it's a Cinderella thing where everybody is routing but the turbulence is expected.
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