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Living up to Ray

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Posted: Sunday, October 31, 2004 8:11 am | Updated: 5:51 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

October 31, 2004

Hear it? It’s called Oscar buzz, and it’s buzzing around the performance of Jamie Foxx in "Ray," in which the stand-up comic-turned-television-funnyman-turned-recording-artist-turned-dramatic-actor portrays the late Ray Charles.

For the role, Foxx, 36, lost more than 30 pounds and allowed director Taylor Hackford’s makeup team to seal his eyes shut for 14 hours a day. The classically trained Foxx also played the piano in the movie, which opened this weekend.

Despite his comic background, the Texas-born Foxx has been turning heads in Hollywood since he played a quarterback in Oliver Stone’s "Any Given Sunday," following that auspicious debut with dramatic turns in "Ali" (he played the boxer’s colorful cornerman, Drew "Bundini" Brown), the recent Tom Cruise film "Collateral" (a kidnapped cab driver) and the TV movie "Redemption," in which he portrayed a real-life gang banger serving a prison term for murder.

It’s hard to believe that this is the same Jamie Foxx who starred in the big-screen embarrassment "Booty Call," and who was best-known previously for his comic impressions and outrageous characters on "In Living Color" and "The Jamie Foxx Show."

When we met with the actor in his Beverly Hills hotel suite, he discussed the Oscar buzz, how his portrayal of Ray Charles changed his life and why Will Smith threatened to kick his butt if he didn’t get it right.

Q: Do you remember the first time you heard a Ray Charles song?

A: Nobody remembers the first time they heard Ray Charles because there has always been Ray Charles. He’s always been a part of the culture and the society. It’s like walking on the grass. You can’t remember the first time you walked on the grass. All you know is that it was always there.

Q: Let’s put it another way. When did you really become aware of Ray Charles?

A: I used to play the piano in church when I was 5. I would sneak in Ray Charles’ chords from "I Got a Woman" in the middle of a gospel hymn, but I don’t think I was aware that I was playing his music. It just was a part of me.

Q: Do you understand why people called him the Genius?

A: Of course. But it’s not just about the music, although the music is a big part of it. It’s also about the courage he showed at a time when people were being killed for the color of their skin. He jumped over those racial obstacles. Through his music and his actions, he helped to bring black and white people together.

Q: Did you believe that you could play an icon like Ray Charles because you watched Will Smith play another icon, Muhammad Ali?

A: Absolutely.

Q: Did Will offer any advice on how to play such an revered figure?

A: About eight weeks before we started filming, I was at a club. One of Will’s friends saw me and called him in Vancouver where he was shooting "I, Robot." The friend told him I was playing around and not preparing for the role. Will called me at the club and told me to go home right away. He said, "This is going to be one of your most important tests, and you can’t blow it." He said he wasn’t going to let me blow it. He said he would kick my tail if I blow it. And I appreciated that call because you don’t get many calls like that in this business, particularly from people at the top of the food chain.

Q: Why did he make that call?

A: I think he just wanted to make sure that I protected this man’s legacy.

Q: Tell me about your first meeting with Ray Charles.

A: It was at his recording studio here in L.A.

Q: Were you scared?

A: No. I’m never scared. Well, that’s not true. I was scared of my grandmother. After her, everything is easy.

Q: So, what were your emotions when you met him?

A: There was an excitement to see that smile, and to get that hug. He put his head on my chest and I could feel him giving me his energy. It was our moment. But I realized that I was already being tested. He said: "Man, what are you worried about? If you can play the blues, you can do anything."

Q: Then what happened?

A: We sat down at side-by-side pianos and started playing the blues. Then he started playing some really complicated Thelonious Monk. I felt like I was in the water with sharks. I didn’t know how I was going to move my fingers that way. I was surprised how well he played jazz. Then I hit a wrong note and he stopped. "Why the hell did you do that?" he said. I felt like a band member about to have his pay docked. I was feeling insecure. Then he said, "The notes are right there underneath your fingers."

Q: What was he telling you?

A: That I should simplify my life. I used that as a metaphor throughout the movie; that life and the notes are right there underneath my fingers.

Q: What was the essence of Ray Charles?

A: His essence was love and beauty. He embraced all that was good.

Q: How did playing that kind of man affect you in your real life?

A: Every day, I wake up and I am Ray Charles. I put a list of all the good things in my life on top and the bad things on the bottom. I think: "I can see, I can move, I have my family, I have all these great things." By the time I get down to the negatives, they don’t mean that much.

Q: Is that what he did?

A: In every aspect of his life. Even with the heroin, he looked back and concentrated on the recovery, not the sickness.

Q: Did he object to any of the negative things in the movie, like the drugs and the womanizing?

A: Not at all. He embraced everything. He believed that the bad things in his life led to the good things in his music.

Q: How special was Ray Charles?

A: Let’s put it this way: There are billions of people on the planet. There were billions of people who lived before us. There are billions of people about to be born. And yet, only one Ray Charles in all those people. That’s pretty special.

Q: Have you given up comedy for drama?

A: I know Bernie Mac’s out there watching and wondering. I know Cedric the Entertainer’s out there watching and wondering. I know Chris Tucker and Chris Rock are out there watching and wondering. They’re wondering if I’ve left comedy behind.

Q: And have you?

A: Hell, no.

Q: Why not? The dramatic career is going so well.

A: That’s just one aspect of what I do. I love acting, but I also love comedy and music.

Q: Which gives you the biggest kick?

A: They all give me a kick. They’re all part of the same thing to me.

Q: Aren’t you worried that by doing all three, you won’t be taken seriously as an actor?

A: You can’t live your life to please studio chiefs.

Q: There’s a lot of talk about an Oscar nomination. Which would you prefer: To be nominated for an Oscar, an Emmy or a Grammy?

A: I want to be nominated for them all.

Q: Are you thinking about the possibility of an Oscar?

A: I think about it, but I’ve talked to Denzel (Washington) and some others who have won and they all gave me the same advice: Don’t change. Be yourself.

Q: Did you ever dream you’d be in this position?

A: Did you ever see that Judy Garland movie "A Star is Born"? She was asked that question and her answer was that she didn’t dream big enough. That was my problem; I didn’t dream big enough.

Ray Charles’ life

Major events in Ray Charles’ life, some of which are portrayed in ‘‘Ray’’: 1930: Ray Charles Robinson born Sept. 23 in Albany, Ga. 1936: Develops glaucoma. Within two years, he’s completely blind. 1947: Moves to Seattle at age 17, wins talent contest, forms Nat ‘‘King’’ Cole-style jazz trio. 1949: Release of first R &B hit, ‘‘Confession Blues.’’ First tries heroin. 1952: Atlantic Records buys Charles’ recording contract for $2,500; begins recording album. 1953: First Atlantic single, ‘‘Mess Around.’’ Starts band with longtime friend, saxophonist David ‘‘Fathead’’ Newman. 1954: ‘‘It Should Have Been Me’’ is Charles’ initial hit for Atlantic, followed by ‘‘I Got a Woman.’’ 1957: Debut album ‘‘Ray Charles’’ issued. 1959: Self-penned gospel rave-up ‘‘What’d I Say’’ is his first million-seller. 1960-62: Pop chart-busters: ‘‘Georgia on My Mind,’’ ‘‘Hit the Road Jack,’’ ‘‘Let the Good Times Roll’’ and ‘‘I Can’t Stop Loving You.’’ 1961: Wins string of trophies at third annual Grammy Awards ceremony. First drug arrest. 1962: ‘‘Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music’’ released; album blended soul and country for the first time. Fined by Atlanta court after refusing to perform at segregated dance. Georgia bans Charles ‘‘for life.’’ 1964: Arrested at Boston’s Logan Airport for heroin and marijuana possession. He quits cold turkey. 1967: Records theme for ‘‘In the Heat of the Night.’’ 1977: The Georgia state legislature issues a formal apology to Charles, declares ‘‘Georgia on My Mind’’ the official state song. 1980: Appears in ‘‘The Blues Brothers’’ film. 1986: Inducted by Quincy Jones into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 1992: Sings touching version of ‘‘America the Beautiful’’ at the opening of the giant Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. 2004: Dies June 10 at age 73. Source: Los Angeles Daily News

Music at the movies

Rock ’n’ roll biographies from the big screen:

‘‘The Buddy Holly Story’’ (1978): Gary Busey’s performance and Joe Renzetti’s Oscar-winning score highlight one of the best rock biographies ever.

‘‘Sid and Nancy’’ (1986): The true-life relationship between punk rocker Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and groupie Nancy Spungeon (Chloe Webb).

‘‘La Bamba’’ (1987): Ritchie Valens (Lou Diamond Phillips) rises from poverty to rock ’n’ roll fame before his premature death.

‘‘Great Balls of Fire!’’ (1989): Jerry Lee Lewis (Dennis Quaid) sees his career take a tumble when he marries his 13-year-old cousin (Winona Ryder).

‘‘The Doors’’ (1991): Val Kilmer stars in Oliver Stone’s vivid biography of ill-fated poet-rocker Jim Morrison’s rise to fame in the late ’60s.

‘‘Selena’’ (1997): A celebration of Tejano princess Selena Quintanilla Perez (Jennifer Lopez), who was gunned down by the president of her own fan club in 1995.

‘‘Ray’’ (2004): Jamie Foxx generates significant Oscar buzz with his portrayal of Ray Charles coping with racism, blindness and heroin addiction.

‘‘Beyond the Sea’’ (2004): Kevin Spacey directs and stars as ‘‘Splish Splash’’ singer Bobby Darin. Kate Winslet plays his wife, actress Sandra Dee. Scheduled for December release.

‘‘Walk the Line’’ (2005): Chronicles Johnny Cash’s career from 1955 until 1968. Joaquin Phoenix portrays the Man in Black; Reese Witherspoon is June Carter Cash.

‘‘The Gospel According to Janis’’ (2005): Pink plays Janis Joplin from the time she was a 19-year-old student at the University of Texas to her death at age 27.

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