Jamie Foxx has presence. I don’t know if it’s the kind of presence that only comes with winning an Oscar, as I never got a chance to meet him before he got his for Ray, but he didn’t just enter the roundtable room at the Dreamgirls junket, he filled it.
A big part of that presence is confidence, and in Foxx it goes right up to the line of cockiness. That obviously works for him Dreamgirls, where he plays Curtis Taylor Jr, part-time talent manager and part-time Cadillac salesman. Curtis becomes the svengali for the girl group The Dreams, bringing them to major stardom, and quite possibly selling their soul along the way. Curtis is the bad guy of the piece, but he’s a layered and textured bad guy – there’s more than just villainy going on with him.
Q: Curtis has this interesting thing where he’s all about where art and commerce meet. He overshoots it and goes right for the commerce. As an artist, how do you balance that?
Foxx: It’s tough, because you’re always looking at the big contracts and the people making twenty million dollars, and you think, wow, I wish I could have that. Then you look at the other side of it, the Oscars and stuff like that, which has a little more weight to it. What you try to do is you try to marry them as best you can. I know one thing, when you do shoot for the big money it’s high risk, high return. Most of the time with the big money there’s not a lot of substance there, but you cross your fingers and you try to find those projects that can give you both. With Dreamgirls you get both – it’s a critical piece, while at the same time, people who are fans of Eddie Murphy (which I have been for years) and people who are fans of Beyonce are going to run out and see it and make it a commercial success. That’s when it’s good.
Q: What was Beyonce like to work with?
Foxx: Incredible. I think Beyonce was incredible in the sense that she took it serious. She took it serious in the sense that she knew this was her opportunity to do something special as far as her acting muscles were considered. When you think about it, you know she can sing. You know the music is going to blow you away. What she had to do was connect that drama, and I think her turns that she did in the acting fuels the music. So when she’s singing you really feel it.
Q: It’s funny that your character says to her, ‘You can’t really sing.’
Foxx: But you know what? Like I did my record and the record executives will tell you something crazy just out they ass so they get you messed up and not thinking about the project. Some dude said to me, ‘I don’t give a damn if you sell one record or a million records – my check is still the same.’ I said, damn, how hard is your record company? Is this a gang? And this was right after the Oscars, so I was like, ‘Do they know who I – well, maybe I ain’t!’
It’s like the ugly guy who landed the good-looking girl. You don’t know why he landed her, but if you heard the conversations at home: ‘You know you’re really not that pretty, right?’ That’s where I got Curtis from. I didn’t get him from Berry Gordy, I got him from the executives I have met over the past couple of years. That’s what they do – they get the artists thinking about something that has nothing to do with his art in order to manipulate him.
Q: How about working with the novice Jennifer Hudson?
Foxx: Oh no, not even a novice. Jennifer Hudson is fooling ya. Jennifer Hudson, I think, what she went through on American Idol, prepared her for everything. To take that kind of scrutiny in front of the whole world and to keep coming back, I think that maybe she may have had butterflies in her stomach, but she knew somewhere in her quiet place, ‘If I get this one right, they’ll speak my name forever.’ When you have people that have that kind of talent, although it may be untapped yet, you know the minute they said action and she didn’t stumble and she looked me right in the face and said, ‘Whatchoo gonna do, Mr. Jamie Foxx, Oscar winner? That’s what I thought?’ And I was like, ‘Awww, man,’ because I was stuck. I was like, ‘Have you seen my resume?’ She didn’t give a shit about none of that.
And when that song [And I Am Telling You…], man you better lock the tear ducts down. She was singing it to me first, and they had the camera on me first, and I’m supposed to be tough, and when she’s singing I’m like this [face starts quivering]. You know how your face gets hot? And I’m leaning back, and the tear is coming, and my throat… and I’m like, ‘Man, if they don’t yell cut!’
I knew she had something because she country. She country. When people bring their country Southern black thing – and I’m from the country – when people bring that… even Beyonce, she country. She’s Houston. She’s got that country thing. That’s why when you see those performances, and especially Jennifer’s performance, she steals the movie. She rips it.
Q: I heard that Bill Condon had to tell Jennifer to bring out that inner diva, to show up on set late and leave when she wanted to. What was the most diva behavior you saw from her?
Foxx: I know that he really did a great job in bringing that out of her, because she’s peaceful country. She’s like ‘Have a piece of pie’ country. So what he was expressing to her was you really need to bring that other side up. Sometimes I would tell her if you don’t reach in there and grab that what you hate, black sister that’s questioning everything, ain’t nothing is good enough, you need to reach in and tap into that – and I ain’t saying I had anything to do with that – but if she tapped into that, that’s where the gold was. Tap into your sister, girl.
Q: Would you say this is a valentine to the big black sassy diva?
Foxx: To the black girl diva? Interesting… I know exactly what you mean, but there’s so much in the air with the Michael Richards thing, black folks is real sensitive. ‘Black?! What do you mean, black? Why not ebony? Watch your tongue!’
But yeah, it is a testimony to that, and I’ll tell you what I mean by that. 500 years of slavery taught us things and etched certain things in our minds. When you see the hefty black woman, she was the woman who raised the kids in our history. She raised the white kids, she was the woman with the great advice, she was the woman on the porch, she was my grandmother. Those images we cannot get out of our minds, those are true images. When you see this, it’s tailor-made for that sort of thing because when Jennifer starts to sing, she is singing for that woman that has been ostracized, whether she’s black or white, because of her weight. Because she don’t fit the bill. Because her clothes aren’t exactly right. She’s not the hourglass thing. So when she belts out ‘I Am Telling You,’ she is doing that. This is what you feel and it’s for everybody. She’s doing it first for herself, and then for anybody who can plug into that energy.
Q: The movie is also a valentine to the R&B of the 60s. It’s saying that this music wasn’t just good to dance to, it was artistically important.
Foxx: It was the first time you saw an explosion of the great artists. The Smokey Robinsons, the Marvin Gayes, the Supremes. This is why Berry Gordy is not like Curtis – Berry Gordy at that time had etiquette class. He said, ‘If we’re going to get this black music into the white world, we’re going to have to do it a certain way. We’re going to teach you how to dance, we’re going to teach you how to conduct an interview.’ The reason those artists are still performing now is because they came through that class. It wasn’t just a song that was going to usher it through, it was a person that was going to usher it through, and that’s what made it different. Nowadays it’s just a song, there’s nothing attached to it, you don’t necessarily see a face when you hear it.
And what we were going through at that time as America: the war, 1968, how could all this be happening? And then maybe they couldn’t get on television and speak about it politically, but they could put it into music.
Q: I am curious how you approached Curtis – at times I thought he could be the best villain of the year, but at times he comes close to being redeemed, especially at the end. Did you approach him as a flawed guy?
Foxx: I approached him as a bad guy who thinks he’s doing good. This is what’s funny – my friend [at a screening] says, ‘Foxx, there’s a girl here who says she’s gonna slap you when she sees you because what you did to Beyonce and Effie. She’s going to slap the hell out of you.’
Then I walk out and see the executives and they say, [honkey voice] ‘Curtis was a great guy. I don’t get it – he provided an area for them to excel, and they turn their backs on him Great job, Jamie. Great fucking job. I love it. There should be more about Curtis. He should have had a song at the end. He should have had a song and had wings and flew off the stage! Jennifer Hudson was great. But Curtis!’ That’s what’s interesting, to be able to tap into that insanity. I’m thinking, ‘What are you talking about? Curtis is the devil!’ This dude got married to this girl so he can manipulate her. He went as far as having a kid so he can have more power. That’s strange. But some people will tell you if Curtis didn’t do it that way, if there weren’t the Don Kings and these other factors that we have, we would never be that way. We would never have Motown if somebody didn’t pay attention to the business. Me as an artist, I don’t pay attention – I’m going to fly off somewhere and be somewhere in the Village on some hardwood floors and play the banjo and play the song for like 40 minutes and smoke some weed and it’s over. The business is not going to get taken care of. So there is, in the weirdest way, there is a need for a Curtis. And every time you win an award you thank those Curtises.
Q: Is there more Michael Mann in the future for you?
Foxx: I don’t know. Never say never.
Q: Can you talk about The Kingdom?
Foxx: The Kingdom is hot. Peter Berg is a different type of director. He’s on the cutting edge, I believe, and he shot it that way. He made it a lot of fun and very interesting. It was a lot to do, but he made it hot.