By EW Staff
Updated August 20, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT


To prepare for the lead role in ”Ray” — Universal’s biopic of legendary R&B musician Ray Charles — Jamie Foxx (”Collateral”) went the Method route. ”The first four weeks [of shooting], it was complete darkness,” says the star, who wore prosthetics (modeled on Charles’ actual eyes) to simulate the singer’s blindness. ”If you could open your eyes you would cheat on how your body would move, but if you can’t see, you can’t cheat because you don’t know what’s there.”

One thing Foxx didn’t have to fake was the musical mastery. An accomplished pianist, the actor had no problem learning Charles’ complex fingering technique. ”Jamie said, ‘Listen, I started playing when I was 3. I led the band in my gospel church, and I went to university on a piano scholarship,?” says Hackford (”Proof of Life”). ”I wish I could tell you I knew that.” But it was more than keyboard skills that got the actor — known more for his comedic talents — his first leading dramatic role. ”I’ve worked with Al Pacino in ‘The Devil?s Advocate,”’ says Hackford, ”and I know you can only stay on the screen with Al if you?ve got talent. And when I saw Jamie doing scenes with him [in ”Any Given Sunday”], I thought he was more than just a comedian — he had dramatic power.” Not that the details of Charles’ life — a painful childhood, crossing America on a Greyhound bus alone, refusing to obey Jim Crow laws — weren?t dramatic enough. ”Sometimes you forget about our heroes, and this is a chance for us to look back and go, ‘Wow, I didn’t know he was that complex,”’ says Foxx. ”[He went through] all the things that could go wrong for a young African-American male, and he broke the color lines, broke all the barriers, and brought us all together.”

While the film was not reedited to deal with Charles’ death in June, Foxx says the singer did get to preview the final cut. And? ”He loved it.” WHAT’S AT STAKE Leading-man status for Foxx, and maybe even an Oscar nod. Look what playing Ali did for Will Smith. (Oct. 29)

Ladder 49

”The most not-so-well-kept secret amongst the fire-fighting community is that they didn’t care for ‘Backdraft,”’ says director Russell (”My Dog Skip”). ”There were so many liberties taken. We’re no less exciting [with this film], but we’re going to portray the firefighting accurately.” In between the blazing heroics, Russell tells the ”cleverly disguised love story” of Jack Morrison (Phoenix), who reflects on his life and marriage while trapped inside a burning building awaiting rescue from his comrades. ”This is more ‘Black Hawk Down’ than ‘Backdraft,”’ adds Russell. ”These guys just won’t leave one of their own behind.”