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It was not the first time a filmmaker had written off Foxx as nothing more than a product of the small screen and smaller movies destined to run, ad infinitum, at 2 a.m. on Comedy Central, before the network gives way to paid programming. Producers and directors loathed his eponymous TV show, which gave off the stench of a stale rerun even during first-run episodes; with Saturday Night Live's isn't-he-dead? Garrett Morris as his sidekick, Foxx tried way too hard just to tickle the laugh track. He'd been part of the In Living Color ensemble, as well, and Hollywood just figured him as nothing more than bit player--a comedian better suited to three-minute stints as gawky freaks, such as the hideous 'ho Wanda.
Serious directors wanted nothing to do with Foxx, whose résumé includes the likes of Booty Call, a safe-sex raunch-out in which Foxx foreplayed around as Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr.; The Player's Club, the Ice Cube-written-and-directed love letter to strip joints; Held Up, in which Foxx (and the audience) found himself embroiled in a hostage situation; and Bait, a comic thriller so dreary it played like straight drama. He felt he'd gotten to the party too late--after Chris Rock, after Martin Lawrence, after Chris Tucker, even after Bernie Mac--and was left with little to do but mop up roles they didn't claim.
"In TV, even I was still a little bit behind," he says. "When I did my own TV show, Martin Lawrence had already had his own show, so it was a little bit of an afterthought. It was like I was slipping a little bit in that sense, because in this business it's about first. If you do it first, then everybody else is copying you...With Oliver Stone, it was a learning experience, to where I could say, 'OK, now I've been through the boot camp of all boot camps.' Now, everything else is gravy. And then I turned it inside out on Oliver Stone, when he said, 'I want to quit this movie, because all of the actors I've seen are too rich and too this or too that.' I said, 'Well, here's a young black dude who hasn't had a chance to do anything; you can't quit now. This is what I want to do. Look at the opportunities I will have if this goes off.' It's been a changing experience as far as those characters go."
Today, he insists all that is behind him--the uninspired TV show, the miserable movies, the bad choices made for money. Today, he is co-starring in one of the holiday season's most anticipated films, Michael Mann's Ali, in which Foxx plays Drew "Bundini" Brown, Muhammad Ali's counselor and corner man. Though the biopic is, too often, slow on its feet--it recounts the most well-documented period in the boxer's life, from his win over Sonny Liston in 1964 to the Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman a decade later, with little new insight or perspective--Foxx's performance is a galvanizing revelation.
With head shaved and gut extended, Foxx captures the pride and pain of a man linked to Ali in every way--who thrived when Ali won, who died a little when he was stripped of his title for draft dodging in 1967. It was Bundini who provided Ali with his string of catchphrases (among them, of course, that bit about floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee); it was Bundini who broke Ali's heart by selling his heavyweight title belt to fund his drug habit.
And Foxx, who swipes the film from Will Smith, knows his is a remarkable performance; he's the thief quite proud of his larceny. Unlike other actors who go on talk shows and disingenuously slough off "the O-word" when talking about Academy Award nominations, Foxx openly revels in the good reviews and positive buzz. He makes no secret that he'd like to be considered when the industry passes out its golden doorstops. After all, he says, "if I get nominated, it's even better. It's not just, 'Oh, I wanna have an Oscar,' or, 'I wanna have a nomination.' But that stuff gives you a chance to get better scripts. You get much better, A-level scripts, which is what you want. It definitely opens every single door you can possibly imagine.
"I believe entertainment is about slots, and sometimes slots are filled. Chris Tucker has a slot, and it's filled. Chris Rock has a slot. Martin Lawrence has a slot. I'm talking about African-American comedians, and now here's a chance for me to find a slot that's basically all my own as far as comedians are concerned. Now, people who may not have seen me do stand-up, like Jonathan Demme, they may give me a shot."
But, again, it wasn't so easy to convince Mann to let him read for the part; Will Smith, who Foxx constantly refers to as "the most well-adjusted multimillionaire in the world," had to force open the door and wrangle an invite just so Foxx could read for the role. Which he eventually did--for nearly a month, coming in every few days before Mann finally gave him tapes of Brown to let him hear the corner man's cadence. Once he shaved his head and put meat on his toothpick frame, Foxx looked the part. He would eventually wake up every morning as Bundini Brown, he explains, so that when the cameras began rolling, it appeared as though they were catching him "just doing my thing"--a technique Foxx likes to call "the running start," appropriate for a 34-year-old who was once a high school football star in Terrell, Texas, where he was known as Eric Bishop.
Foxx, as it turns out, has long played against type: The spastic stand-up with the malleable face of Plastic Man disguises the meditative career actor pondering the long haul. He's all too aware of how easily he can blow the opportunities Ali promises; he's been too often tempted by the long green for the short haul. And he's had his heart broken plenty of times, most recently when he and Stone were to follow Any Given Sunday with a remake of A Star is Born, this time with a hip-hop makeover (at one point, he was to co-star with Aaliyah). Producer Jon Peters (one of Ali's producers, in fact) owns the property and passed on Foxx; he was looking for a bigger name.
There's no doubt this is Foxx's turning point; he just needs to keep from screwing it up--from turning into Jim Carrey or Robin Williams, comics who drained the life of their performances when they decided it was time to be taken seriously. Foxx likes to talk about the career arcs of Eddie Murphy ("Everybody's chasing Eddie Murphy as far as box office," he insists) and, especially, Williams; he goes on long tangents about how without The World According to Garp and Dead Poets Society, Williams would have never been cast in Good Will Hunting, for which he won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. Bundini Brown, then, is the perfect role--the comic sidekick whose story takes a sudden, heartrending turn until he's forgiven and resurrected. "You see the fun, you see the tragedy, you see the repenting, all of it," Foxx says. "And that's what you want. You want a character that shows all those sides, because anytime you play just dramatic, that's one-sided, too."
For now, and likely forever, he's through with TV: The Jamie Foxx Show is, at long last, off the air after its five-year run--or, two years longer than Foxx would have liked. It debuted in 1996 and was scheduled to end in 1999, but after Any Given Sunday and its attendant publicity for the show's star, the WB insisted on keeping it around, much to its star's chagrin. "I felt like, at times, I was just wasting my time," he says, referring to the last couple of seasons. "I wasn't happy." Instead, he will wait for the good scripts, the meaty roles, the prestigious directors whose credibility will rub off--his Steven Soderbergh, his Neil LaBute.
"At the end of it, nobody's gonna have that cash in the grave with 'em anyway, so when I'm looking at a project now, I'm saying, 'I can't think about the money. I can't look at the other guys and get envious,'" he says. "Of course you wanna make the $20 million, but you wanna leave a mark. You want to leave it to where people say, 'Wow, I was really touched.' If you look at our pop culture right now, how thin is it? You know like I do when you go to a movie, you're disgusted. They want to turn their back on the art and just look at the box office, which is why you have a lot of studios generating a lot of movies that aren't leaving anything, and so the culture goes up in smoke. I have the chance to try to do some great things so people can look at me and say I was more than about the money. And how long does that opportunity last?"