Power player: Jamie Foxx on his new Netflix film and becoming the first Black Pixar lead
Using his index fingers, Jamie Foxx outlines a square.
This box, he explains, is how he became a fan. And the actor is nothing if not a fan.
In the space of 30 seconds he summons five very different spirits — Sammy Davis Jr., Redd Foxx, Donny Osmond, Flip Wilson, and Johnny Carson, complete with impressions of bullseye precision — to evoke the image of a little boy in tiny Terrell, Tex., enamored of the talent inside that box. (He will also go on to discuss Warren Beatty, Barbara Eden, Joaquin Phoenix, Barbra Streisand, and Bing Crosby. Dude’s got range.)
“I grew up when stars were really stars,” he says, lamenting that now social media has made everybody and nobody a star, not like back in the day when he was singing along to Donny & Marie’s “A Little Bit Country, a Little Bit Rock ’N Roll.”
Although he doesn’t appear to realize it, Foxx, 52, is a throwback to the kind of personality about whom he’s reminiscing. The triple-threat type who could go on The Tonight Show and slay with a droll Hollywood anecdote, impression, or song and the next day appear on The Dick Cavett Show to earnestly discuss social issues. The entertainer who hosts a game show but doesn’t let us forget why he claimed, justifiably, an Academy Award — and was nominated for another — vaulting him to a level with his own heroes such as Denzel Washington. Hopscotching from early success on the small screen with sketch comedy and a WB sitcom to movie stardom (Any Given Sunday, Ray, Collateral, Dreamgirls, Django Unchained), with successful side hustles in stand-up comedy and music, Foxx occupies rarefied space. That he doesn’t see this, simply adds to his shine. (Which is not to say that he has no understanding of his charms, he does, just that he would not personally place himself on the level of those he admires.)
And Jamie Foxx and the line-blurringly messy multitudes he contains are about to be very visible.
First up on the 2020 docket for Foxx is Project Power (out Aug. 14). The Netflix film is a giddy combo — crime thriller, action movie, and comic book-style fantasy — whose title refers to a drug that imbues the taker with a superhuman ability for five minutes. It chronicles Foxx’s quest to rescue his daughter from the sinister forces behind the drug, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Dominique Fishback along for the ride.
As he has on every film he has made, Foxx displays a fine-tuned balance of gravitas and mischief that hits the sweet spot for co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Paranormal Activity 3 and 4). “I don’t think I’m exaggerating things: Jamie is the funniest person I’ve ever met,” says Joost. “He’s also one of the greatest dramatic actors in the world.” And when he wasn’t emoting or kicking ass on screen, Foxx was keeping his costars and crew entertained. “He’s always laughing and making jokes, and that’s how he keeps himself grounded and ultimately what keeps everybody else grounded around him,” says Fishback, a scene-stealer herself throughout the movie.
That image of Foxx as the on-set bon vivant is a popular one. Michael B. Jordan, who worked with the actor as both costar and producer of 2019’s gripping Just Mercy, can confirm: “Even though we’d be doing really heavy scenes, he always would find a way to make you smile and make you laugh and keep the set in a very loving mood. It was crucial.”
Schulman thinks that this quality extends beyond the set. “He's here to bring you in and entertain the world around him,” he says of Foxx’s convivial demeanor. “It's never about him. It's always about you.” He recalls a time his grandmother came to the set. “Jamie looked over his shoulder and he said, She with you?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it's my grandmother.’ He said, ‘I'll be right back.’ He went over, he found her a seat. He told her, her hair looked great. He made sure she had a good time. She was in heaven. He made a fan for life.”
Plus, Foxx throws in his DJ services for free. “He plays music all the time to curate the vibe,” says Jordan. Indeed, at his EW cover shoot, Foxx manned the virtual booth, offering up classic hip-hop (Public Enemy) as well as selections from the A Star Is Born soundtrack (Gaga edition) and Tears for Fears. (Fishback reports that on the set of Project Power, he turned her on to Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded.” His musical choices are as disparate as her characters.)
Those forays into mood-setting notwithstanding, the singer and pianist has no current plans to resume his music career — insert the staccato refrain of his 2009 No. 1 hit “Blame It” here — but he will be playing a musician soon.
In the fall, Foxx (hopefully) returns to the big screen as the star of Soul (currently slated for Nov. 20). It is the first time a Pixar lead role has been Black. “You know what was crazy? It is. You know what was crazy? I didn’t know that,” he says. Directed by Pete Docter (Up, Inside Out) and co-directed by Kemp Powers, the film follows Joe Gardner, an aspiring jazz pianist. An untimely accident finds him in The Great Before, where he helps others prepare their souls for Earth. “It talks about the value of getting a second chance,” he says. This addition to his filmography earned Foxx cred with his 11-year-old, Anelise. “She was like, ‘Dad, you finally made it. You’re in a Pixar film!’” He giggles when asked about his animated alter ego: “Oh, man! That’s kind of me, in a sense; the pot belly and the skinny legs. My daughter was like, ‘They got you.’”
The ever-restless soul has many other irons in the fire for an indeterminate post-pandemic future, including a Netflix series with his older daughter Corinne, 28, and his long-gestating passion project: a Mike Tyson biopic. (Recent beefy Instagram snaps don’t do justice as to how hard Foxx is working to get into character, as he attempts to sculpt a very specific back muscle of Tyson’s.) Foxx acknowledges that the boxer is a controversial figure. “Listen, all you can do is tell your story,” he says, noting that part of the film will depict Tyson’s marriage to his wife, Kiki, “who saved this man from whatever demons inside and outside of his life.”
He will also return at some point to host the fourth season of his Fox game show Beat Shazam. Perhaps not a choice Denzel would have made, but Foxx makes no apologies. In 2016 he told his manager, "'In the next five years, everybody’s going to do a game show.'" He was right. The resurgent and now-ubiquitous format boasts plenty of A-list talent producing or appearing, including Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Ryan Reynolds. It also helps keep him fresh in people’s minds. “If you’re able to do both, you do Beat Shazam, and the next thing you know, you’re nominated for a SAG award in Just Mercy — it pans out.” (“There’s nothing like a TV star” says Foxx, heading off into a ludicrously entertaining tangent about a period of time when he was Tom Selleck’s neighbor and his kids would come over to Foxx’s house when Drake was around, concluding with genuine admiration, “Who's bigger than Tom Selleck?”) “If Beat Shazam was detrimental, then you wouldn't get the calls.”
One crucial way Foxx has stepped beyond the borders of the screens that have made him famous — while still remaining in the frame — is with his activism. It is another link to the stars of yore, continuing in the footsteps of forebears such as Muhammad Ali and Harry Belafonte. He recently attended Black Lives Matter protests in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and San Francisco to take part in the movement that arose in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, to eradicate police violence and systemic racism. During his remarks in San Francisco, he encouraged his celebrity brethren to use their voices — and private jets — in this moment and moving forward.
“You look out and it’s [a lot of] white people, that’s what tripped me out,” says Foxx, who has been attending marches and protests for many years, including in the aftermath of the shooting of Trayvon Martin. He believes that the U.S. has reached a turning point generationally. “This is the evolution of the march when you see, in Minnesota — which they didn’t show you in the press — young white kids that were yelling, ‘Black Lives Matter!’ I said, ‘Oh my God. Is this a joke?’ They were like, ‘No. We are here for you.’”
That is the same message that he has tried to convey to the Black community both within and without Hollywood throughout his career. “We constantly say [on the set], ‘Hey, are we good? Is Black folk represented in this situation? Are we right?’ ”
This hasn’t gone unnoticed by younger actors. “We’ve had many discussions about the importance of, and how to use, our success to open doors for others in the community. I continue to be inspired by his commitment and leadership,” says Jordan, who adds that he would place Foxx on his personal “Mt. Rushmore of actors.”
In the real world, there is no complicated calculus for the actor, weighing the loss of fans against doing what’s in his heart and giving his time in less public ways. (Foxx checks in periodically by phone and in person with members of the Circle of Mothers — families who have lost children to police and gun violence — and recently spoke with Ahmaud Arbery’s father.) His message to those fearful of the issue slipping from the timeline: “Things are happening. Stay encouraged, and we’ll come back to it. It’s a natural thing to go back to your daily life. But go back with those things in your mind and heart.”
One by-product of attending marches is meeting fans and learning when they got on board, which varies given the vagaries of Foxx’s nearly 30-year career — from zany parodies of Jodeci (In Living Color) to wrenching depictions of slavery (Django Unchained) to epic musical dramatics (Dreamgirls) to his comedy tours and albums. Foxx relies on these reactions, like the “Black lady at the front of the TSA line, if she sucks her teeth,” he says, he knows he made a wrong move. He also chuckles about meeting twentysomethings that have no idea he was a comic or film fans who don’t know he’s had multiple R&B hits.
“In today’s world it’s just: Remain steadfast, continue to stamp your artistic passport,” he says of his journey, rattling off characters from Willie Beamen (Any Given Sunday) to Drew Bundini Brown (Ali) to Django (Django Unchained), and more. “You want to look at it like a clothesline. All the characters that you did are hanging up.”
One stat on Foxx’s Wikipedia page is remarkable: When his album Unpredictable went No. 1 in 2006, he became the fourth artist in history to have both an Oscar for acting and a No. 1 album in the U.S, joining Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Barbra Streisand. Foxx shakes his head, tickled and incredulous, thinking back to when he was just a fan. “I used to do these impersonations of this lady,” he says, busting into a note-perfect rendition of Streisand’s “The Way We Were.” “Then we actually got a chance to sing on stage with each other. It’s a good stat, but I’m always thankful, happy, humble to be even mentioned in that [company]. There’s a lot of work to be done, to make sure that when they do mention it, they say, ‘Okay, it all makes sense.’”
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