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Jamie Foxx: A Star Turns

The Musician and Comic Takes Off In Another Direction

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2004; Page C01


They have Jamie Foxx staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the pink palace up on Sunset Boulevard. But not in a room. He's bigger than a room now.

Foxx is out back, in one of the bungalows. The setup smells like studio money. Model types slumming as publicists, hovering. Miniature Japanese vegetables arranged on a wooden tray, uneaten. Outside on the perfect lawn, the gardeners are murmuring in Spanish. Apparently they have found a weed. They're working on it like surgeons, excising it with a pair of tweezers.

Jamie Foxx plays a cab driver who takes a hit man on a killing spree in the new thriller "Collateral." (Frank Connor -- Dreamworks Studio Via Reuters)

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This is a long haul from Terrell, Tex., where Foxx was raised by his grandmother, the original church lady, whose warm loving arms were capable of boxing his ears, who couldn't resist adopting Foxx, "this big-headed skinny kid," as he remembers himself, after his mother couldn't keep him.

"It was beautiful," he says and smiles, like a shy momma's boy. "But, ooh, strong dose of discipline. Lotta church."

Jamie Foxx is busting out. Tom Cruise may be the movie star with top billing in the new action thriller "Collateral," opening nationwide today, but Foxx is his equal. The Michael Mann film is not a comedy, not at all. It's about an assassin (Cruise) on the loose for one long night in Los Angeles, going about his dirty business, from hit to hit, chauffeured by Max -- Foxx playing a dead-end taxi driver, by turns terrified and defiant. Foxx owns the role.

Beginning with his breakout performance as the cocky second-string quarterback Willie Beamen in Oliver Stone's "Any Given Sunday" in 1999 and continuing with his turn as Will Smith's bald cornerman in "Ali," Foxx has traveled far from his turn as Bunz in the infinitely forgettable "Booty Call."

Foxx settles back on the plush couch in his bungalow, gripping a bottle of Fiji water, dressed in baggy jeans and white sneakers, wearing a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt and a rope of gold bling-bling around his neck. Most movie stars are smaller in person. Tom Cruise? He's like a three-quarter-scale action figure with little-boy hands. Jamie Foxx is larger. He is toned, gymed up like everybody in Hollywood. But he has meat on his ribs, some heft.

"Yeah, I got my pass," he says. "You get this pass after a while, where all the holes are punched. The full access card. Because you nailed the things you needed to nail at that time."

He suggests this is still a remarkable thing, how the kid from Terrell is sitting here, talking about his ascendance, his craft and the many parts of his life.

"Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington, Sharon Stone. You're performing, and they're all on the floor laughing. And you get the pass," he says. "Same with BET and the stand-up. All the brothers laughing, my homeys and friends, and they're watching you, too, with Bernie Mac, Ced the Entertainer, Chris Rock. And they're appreciating you, too. So you got your pass, stamped, by the black folks. And once you get your pass . . ." Then he pauses.

"You don't ever wanna lose the pass," he says. He shakes his head. Maybe he's imagining what that must be like.

Harsh Lessons

Jamie Foxx was born in 1990, when he took the androgynous stage name after he began his stand-up career in Los Angeles; he figured out that comedy club owners, sight unseen, like to book women on open-mike nights.

Eric Bishop was born in 1967. His home town of Terrell ain't the sticks, but it's far enough from Dallas, out on Route 80, to feel like it. "Some people in my home town don't know that planes fly over the ocean," Foxx says.

He was adopted by his maternal grandparents, Mark and Esther Talley, when he was 7 months old, after his father and mother broke up.

Little Eric loved sports, was a Boy Scout. But his grandmother also kept his butt on the bench, at the piano and at New Hope Baptist Church. "My grandmother raised me to be a southern gentleman," he says. "We weren't rich, but we weren't poor either. Money didn't matter, couldn't replace the summers we had."

But sometimes it was hard. "Things were very racy," Foxx remembers. By which he means, "the opposite side of the tracks was drummed into you. When I'd go to the other side of the tracks, it was definitely drummed into you, all kinds of things I'd experience, the names I'd be called."

Like what? "Oh, nigger this, nigger that. That was every day. I never forget, I was playing for the tennis team, myself and another kid, only African Americans on the team. We were playing in Grand Saline down the road. You heard the rumors." He mimics a white voice of authority. " 'Negroes be out by dark.' We're playing tennis out there. The school bus drives up and kids calling names. 'Porch monkey.' These are like third- or fourth-graders."

Foxx is 36 years old. He is not imagining Alabama during the bus boycott; this was happening in the mid-1980s.

"Brother, that's right now. Today we live in California. I been here 18 years. But you go anywhere in the South, that's still today. Nobody's gotten out yet. Who's there to put their hand up and say stop?"

He says, "It just really didn't surprise me. I thought it was the way it was. It all hurt and everything like that. Until I got out and left and went to college. I thought that was the way it was."

Foxx played quarterback on his high school team, the Terrell Tigers, the red and white. "I was the first to pass over 1,000 yards at my school," he says, and you have to know something about small Texas towns (pop. 14,000) and football to understand where and how Foxx learned his self-assurance. A winning QB in Texas? Black or white or green, that kid doesn't pay for his own cheeseburger at the Dairy Queen.

Like many young black athletes in Texas, Foxx found his way to the larger world through a scholarship. But unlike most black athletes in Texas, he got his with a music scholarship to the U.S. International University in San Diego to play classical piano and study music theory -- with Russian teachers, with prodigies from Japan.

"The college I went to had students from 81 different countries. You'd be exhausted trying to be prejudiced because you wouldn't know who was what. I'm looking at a guy like me -- hey, brother, he'd be speaking Spanish, he'd be from Italy or Africa or Venezuela."

He remembers coming west. "I was the original black Beverly Hillbilly! I was on the beach in my shoes and my socks, going to the pay phone, calling my homeys, and saying, whoa, the water out here comes right to the edge of the land, just crazy."

He almost flunked out.

Ugly Wanda

Let's review, shall we?

1. Momma's boy.

2. Choir director at New Hope Baptist.

3. Tennis, track, football star.

4. Accomplished classical pianist.

5. R&B singer, songwriter, musician.

In high school, Foxx formed Leather and Lace, an R&B cover band. In college, he thought he would make it his career. In 1994 he released his first album, "Peep This." It reached No. 12 on the Billboard R&B charts.

"I was gonna be Lionel Richie," he says. "I had the hair and everything."

The Jheri curls? "No, man, I had the Jheri curl in Texas. When I moved out here, I got the California curls. You use bigger rollers, get the bigger curl."

Which leads us to Ugly Wanda.

On a dare from a girlfriend, Foxx performed at an open-mike night in 1989. He had always been a skilled mimic, and onstage at the comedy club the audience was digging it, laughing and banging on the tables, spilling their drinks. He did Bill Cosby as a gangster, a saintly Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan with falsetto lisp.

So he became a stand-up comic and toured the country. His bits got him a recurring role on the TV sitcom "Roc" and then membership in the elite troupe playing on the variety series "In Living Color," where Jim Carrey got his start and Foxx did his cross-eyed, big-bootied Ugly Wanda.

He has taken heat for his portrayal of Wanda, who is just plain ignorant, but he doesn't make any apologies.

"I dig Jeff Foxworthy ["You know you're a redneck when . . ."] because he digs his culture. Billy Crystal, same thing. It's always fun to see somebody embrace their culture. You watch Archie Bunker, you love Archie Bunker, a bigot, a racist, sexist, everything. On the other side was George Jefferson. He was the same thing. Just black. It don't matter you order ribs and chicken or bagels and lox, it's when you treat them different, that's when it's not cool."

At the clubs, many audiences split along racial lines: Foxworthy for the white NASCAR set, Foxx for the "urban" audience. "But you graduate," Foxx says. Like Chris Rock. "I can go to Des Moines in Iowa, the whitest spot in the world, and do my blackest humor and do 30 minutes and they understand 15 minutes. I can go to D.C. and play the 'hood, doing my highest highbrow political stuff, and I can speak to all of 'em."

Times have changed, Foxx says, at least for him. "I'm never gonna lose my urban audience, but hip-hop took the color off of it." He believes hip-hop culture has transformed America -- Eminem, Kid Rock, the Beastie Boys. White skinheads asking what's cracking. White kids listening to NWA.

"You can go to some all-white club in the Hamptons," Foxx says, "you're gonna hear G-Unit, 50 Cent -- not the same as it used to be."

The Audition

"Oliver Stone changed my whole life," Foxx says.

It didn't start that way. Stone didn't think the comic could cut it.

Foxx had gotten a reading for "Any Given Sunday," about the cutthroat world of professional football, starring Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz, Dennis Quaid, James Woods. Foxx auditioned for a role, any role. "And Stone is listening, then tells me I'm reading for the wrong part, tells me I can't act, that I'm a slave to TV, my acting is too broad, like I'm trying to fill in the spaces. He tells me stop acting. You're coming off as a comic."

"He asks me, can you throw? I tell him I can throw the ball 70 yards in the air, and he asks me to make him a little tape of me throwing the ball," Foxx says. "Instead of that, I made a mini-movie. Came up with a song. I'm Willie Beamen at training camp." Stone saw the tryout tape and knew he had found his quarterback.

The movie was raw, uneven, cool, honest. And Foxx just burst off the screen, taking all his cockiness to the line, and all his fear, too. His character keeps throwing up in huddle; the big league is too big, the crowds scary, until Willie Beamen and Jamie Foxx find the sweet spot, and the lines he gives could be his own. "How's it feel nobody knows you one day and have the whole world know you the next?" Pacino asked Foxx. "I was always a star. You just didn't know it," Foxx said.

The role, he says, "was like Michael Jordan hitting that shot at the end of the game in North Carolina when nobody knew who Jordan was. Things changed."

Losing Jamie Foxx

Foxx then got "Ali," starring as the champ's cornerman, Drew "Bundini" Brown, beside Will Smith in the Michael Mann film. You could see how his craft was growing as he played Brown with a bald patch and a gut, learning to disappear into a role, lose the Jamie Foxx, becoming Brown, who winces in pain every time Ali takes a blow in the ring, or from the world.

In "Collateral," Mann told him to do it again. "He said don't be Jamie Foxx, or don't do what Jamie Foxx would do on the stage," Foxx says.

Max, he says, "is a different role. This is Everyman. The thing about this guy is he has no fire. I just wanna go to work. I don't want anything. Which is a departure for Jamie Foxx. Because I wanted to get out of the cab and bash this dude" -- the Cruise character -- "or find out how much he's making and help you find the cats and knock 'em off together."

Foxx said his friends have challenged him about why his character Max doesn't just go off.

"But this guy never shot a gun. A lot of people in this world, never fired a gun, they don't know how loud it is. You cannot get to the level of fear when you see somebody get shot. I was in Oakland once, coming out of a club. I don't know how it started. Maybe this dude stepped on this guy's shoes. Out in the parking lot. I hear these pops? I look down and see him in a pool of blood, the life just running out of him.

"I got dizzy. And I ran."

Tom Hanks Wannabe

So, let's review again.

Foxx will continue to tour his bawdy stand-up routine, "The Traveling Man." They'll probably make a special out of it. He sings the hook on the Kanye West hit "Twista." So he's on the Billboard charts again. He is finishing his own album of songs, "Ambidextrous," and boasts he'll sell 5 million records. Oh, and he plays Ray Charles in a biopic coming out in the fall.

He's still single, though he has a daughter who lives with her mother. Foxx lives in Tarzana, out in the San Fernando Valley, with his father and two sisters. He has a little place in Las Vegas, too.

The unmarried part he likes: "I always used to look at Eddie Murphy and wow, he's single and doing this? That has gotta be off the charts."

How long he can keep up this juggling act -- comedy, music, acting -- he doesn't know. But he doesn't plan on stopping.

"When you look at it, the slots are filled," he says. "Will Smith has a slot. Chris Tucker. Martin Lawrence. Chris Rock has a slot. Now I got my own slot."

Whom does he aspire to become? He says it: Tom Hanks. When you compare yourself, even in passing, to one of the most popular actors in the world, there are two ways to go: up or down.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company