Wednesday, October 27, 2004

In the Chinese zodiac, it’s the year of the monkey. In Hollywood, however, 2004 is the year of the Foxx — Jamie Foxx. Roll the credits: A co-starring role with Tom Cruise in “Collateral” earned not only raves but box office gold, raking in $100 million to date. “Breaking All the Rules,” a romantic comedy starring Mr. Foxx as a spurned suitor who writes a breakup book for men, is flying off video store shelves.

An impromptu song during his stint as host of this year’s ESPY Awards had the audience in stitches. His turn as convicted killer and L.A. gang lord-turned-Nobel Peace Prize nominee Stan “Tookie” Williams in “Redemption,” a made-for-cable film, was an eye-opening 180-degree departure from comedy. A starring role in the movie version of “Miami Vice” is on tap.

Meanwhile, there are also the tabloid headlines that come with fame. A construction worker claims Mr. Foxx’s bodyguards assaulted him after he tried to peddle nude photos of the actor-comedian with an unidentified woman. He says he found the photos in a trash bin behind the star’s home. (Reps for Mr. Foxx told the New York Daily News that he had nothing to do with the reported attacks.)

Most important, though, is “Ray,” Mr. Foxx’s career-making tour de force as the late, great Ray Charles, the Georgia-born singer-pianist who transformed so-called “race music” into rhythm and blues to become one of post-World War II pop music’s most influential architects.

The hype for the film (opening nationwide today), and for Mr. Foxx, has been relentless. The star, born Eric Bishop in tiny Terrell, Texas, has been everywhere of late — making the rounds of the talk show circuit, chatting on National Public Radio, adorning the covers of national magazines.

It’s a (mostly) good time to be Jamie Foxx.

The smart money says his spot-on portrayal of Mr. Charles (who died in June at age 73) is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination. (“Thank you, that means a lot to me,” he responds with his trademark Southern charm when a reporter asks what he’s planning to wear to the Oscars.)

“Ray” enjoyed an advantage over another musical biopic due out this fall, “Beyond the Sea,” which stars Kevin Spacey as ‘60s crooner Bobby Darin. Unlike the long-deceased Darin, Mr. Charles himself was an active collaborator on his film biography from its inception.

“Ray gave us knowledge as far as the movie’s facts are concerned,” says Mr. Foxx, 36. “I took that as the DNA for the role. I channeled him.”

Clad in a navy T-shirt and sweatpants that silhouette his muscular frame, he’s clearly pumped about “Ray,” swinging through the District to drum up momentum for the film while en route (with director Taylor Hackford) to the Toronto Film Festival in early September, where the $30 million movie wowed the crowd.

“[Ray] wanted everything [about his life] in the film … the drug use, the women,” Mr. Foxx says. “He wanted people to know, ‘Hey, I’m no angel. But that’s what made me what I am.’”

Filmed during a five-month shoot in Louisiana, the film chronicles three decades of Mr. Charles’ life from his journey from the Jim Crow South to the Seattle music scene in the late 1940s, to his ascent to superstardom, his heroin addiction (and eventual redemption from the drug after several arrests), his second marriage and his endless philandering — which produced 12 children with seven women.

“Just like in the film, he (Ray) would determine a woman’s beauty and figure by feeling her wrist,” says Mr. Foxx while demonstrating the technique during our meeting at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown. “He said it worked every time.”

Still, Brother Ray’s womanizing was but one aspect of the star’s persona, Mr. Foxx notes. There was also his music, his zest for life, a mercurial personality that flashed from warmth to iciness (often without warning) — and, of course, his blindness.

“But it wasn’t about walking around for several hours each day with your eyes shut,” says Mr. Foxx, a natural mimic who easily summons his inner catalog of impersonations (everyone from Ray Charles to John Wayne, new pal Tom Cruise, singer Lionel Ritchie and former President Ronald Reagan) in a split second.

“Inside me, it’s like a wall with a panel of light switches,” Mr. Foxx says of his copycat talents. “But you go well beyond that light switch with Ray.”

Instead of merely closing his eyes, Mr. Foxx had them glued shut with custom-designed prosthetics.

“I experienced what he dealt with constantly for only 12 to 14 hours a day,” says Mr. Foxx, a former high school quarterback who also shed 30 pounds to play the role. “[But] imagine actually being blind. Worse, Ray had a chance to see, then it was taken away from him.” Glaucoma robbed Mr. Charles of his sight, beginning at age 5, shortly after he witnessed his younger brother’s drowning in a wash tub.

Yet Mr. Foxx couldn’t rely solely on his subject for his research.

“When I met Ray Charles, he was about 72, and I had to play him from age 17 until he was in his 30s,” Mr. Foxx said.

Since no early footage, and few photos, existed of Mr. Charles, he turned to the musician’s old pal, Quincy Jones, who provided a tape from his appearance on “The Diana Shore Show,” which aired on NBC in the 1950s and ‘60s.

“I watched everything,” said Mr. Foxx. “His facial expressions. The way he placed his hands on the piano, the way he walked, the pace at which he spoke and his voice pitch. You’ll notice in the film that his voice is much higher in the beginning and gradually deepened over the years.”

While capturing Mr. Charles was one thing, gaining his approval to portray him on film was quite another.

“When we met, he had two pianos set up in the room,” recalls Mr. Foxx, a trained classical pianist who attended the United States International University in San Diego on scholarship. (“I wasn’t just the only black person in my class,” he says, “I was the only American, too.”)

“We played some blues and some jazz,” he continues. “No problem.” Then Mr. Charles launched into a difficult passage from Thelonious Monk’s challenging “Straight, No Chaser.”

“I hit a wrong note, and he said ‘Son, why can’t you play that? It’s right underneath your hands.’”

Mr. Foxx soon found his footing, however, prompting Mr. Charles to proclaim, “The kid’s got it.”

“In that very moment, Ray Charles anointed Jamie,” says Mr. Hackford, 60, who directed Louis Gossett Jr. to an Oscar-winning performance in 1982’s “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

The rest, as they say, is history — and seemingly light years away from his beginnings as a comedian on Fox TV’s “In Living Color” in the early 1990s.

“The crazy thing about comedy is I never wanted to be a stand-up comedian. When I was growing up I wanted to be Lionel Ritchie, complete with the music, the Jheri curl and everything else,” says Mr. Foxx, who credits Keenen Ivory Wayans (“In Living Color’s” creator) for much of his success.

“But comedy is acting, too, only on a different level. You’re still in character, but you’re getting the point across in a humorous way.”

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