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Ray Charles and Jamie Foxx: Genius Loves Company

Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles
Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles
Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles

Nine words you’re likely to hear this coming February 27: “And the Oscar goes to Jamie Foxx for Ray.” So utterly and superbly does the standup comic turned dramatic actor-and trained pianist, whose earliest ambition was to become a professional musician-capture the heart and soul of Ray Charles that it’s impossible to imagine any performance outdistancing Foxx’s in the race for Oscar gold. Directed by Taylor Hackford (Everybody’s All-American, When We Were Kings), Ray traces Charles’ triumphant career and turbulent personal life, replete with debilitating drug abuse and a steady stream of extramarital affairs, from the childhood bout with glaucoma that blinded him at age seven to his ultimate achievement of international superstardom. Prior to the film’s October release, I caught up with Foxx at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he and Ray were greeted with unilateral praise.

JazzTimes: Everybody knows you as a great comedian and, thanks to Collateral and now Ray, also as a terrific dramatic actor, but your earliest ambition was to be a musician and, I understand, your musical training turned out to be hugely beneficial.

Taylor didn’t know that I play piano, so he said, “I gotta figure out a way to shoot your face and then shoot somebody else’s hands playing.” And I said, “No, no, I actually play. I’ve been playing since I was five.” That opened up a whole different thing. Since I can play, we could stay in the same frame and shoot through the playing of the music and the singing at the same time, which was a huge plus.

JazzTimes: Prior to filming you got to meet with Ray. What was that like?

Incredible! I mean you’re waiting like you’re in the doctor’s office, like “Oh my god, I’m gonna talk to him! What do I do, what do I say?!” He walks in, smiles, hugs me, shakes my hand and says, “Oh, you got strong hands. I love these strong hands. Let’s get on the piano!” We were at his studio and there were pianos everywhere. He got on one piano and I got on another and we’re playing the blues and he says, “If you can play the blues, you can do anything.” So we start singing back and forth and, boom! He goes into Thelonious Monk. I didn’t know what to do, so I quit playing. He says, “Go ahead and play that!” I tried and hit the wrong note and he says, “Why the hell would you do that?!” I said, “I don’t know,” and he says, “Well, the notes are right underneath your fingers. You just need to take time out to find the notes.” I took that as a metaphor. Ray was telling me that life is notes underneath your fingers. You just need to take time to figure out what notes you need to play.

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