In the Nineties, when he first broke onto the national scene, Jamie Foxx was a quirky and outrageous sketch comic, playing characters like Ugly Wanda, a deeply unappealing woman who would vamp around the stage of the variety TV show In Living Color. In 2004 he took on the guise of Ray Charles—an Oscar-winning turn for which he embodied the musician not just onscreen but also at the Grammys and in other public appearances. Since then, he’s also taken the shape of a hip-hop star, dancing on MTV alongside scantily clad models and Kanye West. And in magazine profiles and gossip columns, he routinely plays the role of a blinged-out Hollywood playboy, holding court among double-digit entourages in clubs and hotel bars around the world.
Waiting in the conference room of Foxx’s production offices, looking out over the trees of Beverly Hills, I can’t help wondering which Jamie Foxx will show up today. But the Foxx who enters is none of these characters. He wears a serious expression and an outfit that makes him look like he just finished some handiwork around the house: jeans splattered with paint and two layered V-neck T-shirts. There’s not a single carat of jewelry on him, though an indentation on his left earlobe is evidence of a frequently worn large diamond stud. Is this the real Jamie Foxx?
The question of whether the 40-year-old might be suffering from a case of multiple personality disorder is apropos: In his latest movie, The Soloist, Foxx plays Nathaniel Ayers, a gifted classical musician whose schizophrenia takes him from Juilliard to L.A.’s skid row. Directed by Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) and based on a true story, the film follows the friendship between Ayers and Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (played by Robert Downey Jr.), who wrote about Ayers in the newspaper and in a book published this past April.
For The Soloist, Foxx immersed himself in Ayers, as he does with all his subjects. When Lopez, Ayers and the filmmakers attended a concert at Walt Disney Hall, which sits blocks away from the skid row streets where Ayers once lived, Foxx quietly trailed Ayers with a digital recorder. He met with doctors to learn about schizophrenia, and he trained for months to learn how to play Ayers’s instruments of choice, the cello and the violin. “He also lost a lot of weight, shaved his eyebrows and had his teeth ground down,” says Wright. “It wasn’t a Method way of doing it, it was really getting under the skin of the character.” When Foxx is playing Ayers, says Lopez, “it’s really eerie—you have to look twice” to make sure it’s not the real thing.