Since winning an Academy Award in 2005, JAMIE FOXX has seen his films fall flat. Will his risky performance in this month’s The soloist be enough to put him back in audiences’ -- and the Academy’s -- good graces? Or will he be the next victim of the Oscar curse?
LET’S SAY YOU’RE A MOVIE STAR.
You’ve made handfuls of hit films, won more awards than you can fit on your mantel, and had your likeness splashed on millions of posters/magazine covers/action figures. When you eventually tire of fame -- or, more likely, when fame tires of you -- you might leave Hollywood. Maybe you’d buy a big spread up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Maybe a vineyard in the French countryside. Maybe both. That, though, is just another way to live The Life. You’ve left, but you really haven’t.
couldn’t do, really -- is go home, back to where you’re from. Home has changed, or, more to the point, you have. Going home is for special Entertainment Tonight segments and high-concept sitcom premises, and that’s about it. You couldn’t go back to who you were, where you were, how you were.
But Jamie Foxx could. He does, more than you’d think -- back to a little town called Terrell, Texas, where he’s still just Eric Bishop, the former quarterback on the Terrell High School football team. “I get back there all the time,” he says. “I just sneak in. Nobody knows. I go check on some of my friends that I’ve had for years. It’s a great town to grow up in.”
In a way, he never really left. That homegrown humility is there, in his voice on the other end of this long-distance phone call when he quietly, modestly announces, “Hey, it’s Jamie.” It’s in his family life, as well: He lives not far from his sisters and father in California. “Having my family there, it just keeps me grounded, man,” he says. “My sister Deidra doesn’t even call me Jamie. She still calls me Eric.”
It’s even in his films. “You ever been to Terrell, Texas?” Foxx’s character asks a Saudi prince in an early scene in The Kingdom. “Mmm, good chili.” It’s a throwaway line, just a private little shout-out to the folks back home. But it’s coming from someone who still remembers what that chili tastes like, because he’s had it recently. He’s both Jamie Foxx and Eric Bishop, and that dual persona has given the performer a sort of Southern-fried-Zen approach to his career.
“From having the country upbringing, you sort of understand that all of this is a charmed life, and at any time, it could be shut off to you,” he says. “So always just keep your head on straight.”
It’s rare for an actor to have such an attitude. It’s even more rare for one in the prime of his career, who’s won an Academy Award and just about every other acting trophy (and a few music ones) to boot. Foxx knows firsthand what success feels like, smells like, tastes like -- and all the perks and privileges that implies. But he could go back to a diet of nothing but Terrell chili and be perfectly happy. And it’s that relaxed attitude that has kept him from worrying too much about the fleeting nature of fame -- and the Oscar curse.
AH, THE DREADED OSCAR curse: the all-too-familiar fallout that comes after landing an Academy Award. It isn’t predictable, but it is very real. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but when it does -- as Robin Williams, Cuba Gooding Jr., and the patron saint, Kevin Spacey, can attest -- it hits hard. It’s a sword of Damocles that hangs over the head of some actors as soon as they’re finished thanking the Academy and their agent and the drama teacher who believed in them in high school. All the years of work have finally culminated in the ultimate reward; where does one go for an encore? The external weight that comes with having to show that the winning performance wasn’t a fluke and the internal pressure they feel to live up to a sudden change in status sometimes proves to be too much.
Soon, bad film choices beget worse ones, and then come even worse decisions that make the bad decisions look like the good ol’ days. Next thing you know, the actors are mugging for the camera while hawking boxer briefs with Michael Jordan. These people get to the top of the mountain and fall right off. They can’t handle it.
Foxx’s Academy Award for his note-perfect performance as the late Ray Charles in 2004’s Ray was, on the other hand, something he never expected. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1989 with dreams of being a musician and a stand-up comedian. (His experience as a comic is where his moniker comes from: He chose gender-ambiguous Jamie because it was easier for a woman to get a slot at the competitive L.A. comedy clubs, and Foxx as a tribute to comedian Redd Foxx.)
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Cut to February 2005, with double-nominee Foxx standing on the stage of the Kodak Theater, emotionally thanking Ray Charles and his managers and his beloved grandmother, a gleaming Oscar in hand.
After that, he figured, he was more or less playing with house money.
“You just have to embrace it,” he says. “You just keep working as hard as you can, working even harder to maintain a certain caliber of work, just maintain your integrity as far as the thing that you’re working on. It’s harder to pick [a project after winning such an award] because you have to make sure that you stay within that frame of great work. It’s harder to pick things because you get offered a lot, but everything isn’t the best.”
That’s generally where the Oscar curse comes into play. For a time, actors chase the golden-statue glory, trying to return to that podium. Then, they run in the opposite direction, as if to prove they are beholden to no one. And after that, they’re not sure where to go. For a moment, it appeared as though it might happen to Foxx too. He followed up his breakthrough in 2004 with Stealth, which tanked both critically and commercially. But almost everyone’s first post-Oscar film is a dud; it’s like a rebound relationship for actors.
The films got better after Stealth, and his performances in them never failed to thrill. But 2004 kept looking more and more like lightning in a bottle. He took on a supporting role as a tough-guy sergeant in Sam Mendes’s Jarhead, which didn’t live up to expectations at the box office or during award season. Michael Mann’s big-screen redo of Miami Vice, with Foxx as Ricardo Tubbs, was handicapped by constant reports of turmoil on the set, which overshadowed what might be Foxx’s most underrated movie. A remake of the musical Dreamgirls went smoother, but it failed to fully connect with audiences, and what attention was paid to the film mostly centered on Foxx’s costars. The Kingdom, an action thriller set in Saudi Arabia, fell victim to war fatigue.
There are no outright flops on that list, but there aren’t any huge scores either. The curse looms. Foxx could have -- maybe should have -- chosen to play it safe after last year’s The Kingdom and found an easy, marketable comedy to keep his name on the A-list. An Oscar isn’t a lifetime free pass, after all ( just look at Marisa Tomei). But Foxx is philosophical about it, cut through with a fair amount of pragmatism.
“You want to win,” he says. “You don’t want to lose. So you do dwell on it. You say, ‘What does it take to get the right formula?’ And a lot of times, for [actors], it’s been just great work. As long as we maintain the great work, then we’re good. Now, if it’s bad at the box office and a bad movie, that’s when it’s really time to worry.
“I follow what Will Smith says: ‘We’re not in the movie business; we’re in the movie-trailer business.’ ” He laughs a little and then says, “Miami Vice was a movie we all thought had great potential, but it didn’t pan out. I thought we should have had more fun with the film. Sometimes it’s strokes of luck, you know what I mean? Because movies are a hard thing to capture.”
So instead of playing it safe with his next project, Foxx decided to test that luck -- and to seek out his riskiest role to date.
CAPTURING THE STARRING ROLE in this month’s The Soloist -- the true story of Nathaniel Ayers, a schizophrenic homeless musician who dreams of playing at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and the Los Angeles Times columnist (Robert Downey Jr.) who tries to help him get there -- started with a flight to London to meet director Joe Wright.
“Sometimes, you don’t know what your persona is saying,” Foxx says. “Joe didn’t know me. I didn’t want him to get the wrong idea that maybe I wasn’t serious or serious about acting. Being from across the pond, he was really serious about the process of acting, so I wanted to let him know I was serious about it, and if he would consider me, I could bring something to this role.”
That detail alone successfully summarizes Foxx’s lack of entitlement. The role of Ayers is tailor-made for Foxx, its mix of weighty drama and musical skill lying squarely in his wheelhouse. There are few actors in Hollywood so perfectly suited to it and even fewer with the kinds of skins on the wall Foxx possesses. He was very likely at the top of Wright’s list anyway. Yet Foxx flew to London on his own dime to convince the director that he could play the part.
It’s important to point out details when talking about Foxx, because details are what define his performances. He’s not a Method actor, but he does have a method. For his Jarhead role, for example, he got a tattoo on the back of his head. He wasn’t asked to do it, and it’s not seen in the film. But that helped make the character for him. “Something to give it an edge,” he says.
As with Ray, Foxx’s latest project gave him a chance to become a character rather than invent one. He worked for a year to become believable as a virtuoso on cello and violin. He met with Ayers, taking note of every gesture. Some actors avoid meeting their real-life counterparts when working on a biopic, worrying that it might corrupt their take on the material. Foxx, though, relishes such opportunities.
“It helps to grab the nuance of the character by getting a chance to meet him and make his DNA part of my DNA,” Foxx says. “Knowing how to play the instrument and then watching the way he played and then listening to his speech pattern and everything like that. It was every walk, every twitch, every little thing that you could possibly bring to light.”
The early word on The Soloist is that Foxx’s careful study has paid off. He might not win another Oscar, but he’ll more than likely be nominated. Which isn’t terribly surprising. Troubled, homeless, and possibly a genius? Forget it -- that’s Academy catnip.
But even if he somehow doesn’t make the short list, Foxx will merely keep doing what he’s been doing: looking for high-caliber work with directors he trusts, always ready to return to Terrell, never afraid of a curse or much else.