Once the planning for the film "Ray" was underway, the filmmakers were faced with a daunting question: where would they find an actor able to embody such a highly recognizable and unique character from American culture?
The answer was an unexpected one. Hackford and Benjamin decided to take a chance on Jamie Foxx, best known at the time as a stand-up comic and television star, but also an actor with whom they’d been impressed by his performances in Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday and Michael Mann’s Ali.
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When he met with Foxx, Hackford told the actor his main concern was that whoever played Ray Charles would have to reveal an innate relationship to the very soul of music. As it turns out, Foxx, similar to Ray Charles, had started playing piano at age three. The actor later led the band at his Texas gospel church in his youth and received a university piano scholarship.
“When Jamie told me this, I just kind of sat back and thought, ‘My God,’” remembers Hackford. “I’d like to say it was planned, but it wasn’t. We got lucky.”
The next test was to have Foxx and Ray Charles meet – which they did at two side-by-side pianos, while the filmmakers held their breath.
Hackford recalls the story: “Ray was not easy, as I’ve said, and when it came to music, he demanded perfection.
Jamie Foxx came over and immediately started playing the piano and Ray could hear at least that he could play.
So they started playing and Jamie is playing a little funk and Gospel, but then Ray goes into some Jazz, some Thelonious Monk. And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, no, Jamie doesn’t know it.’ Ray was saying, ‘Come on, man, it’s this,’ and he keeps playing this Monk phrase, only Jamie is not getting it. Then Ray gets even tougher, saying, ‘Come on, man, it’s right under your fingers.’ And I’m thinking, ‘This could really blowup in my face.’ But when Jamie finally got it, Ray, who had been pretty tough on him, said, ‘This is it. This kid can do it, see? He’s the one.’”
Hackford continues: “Ray anointed him right then and there and you could see Jamie just kind of glow. In a sense, he had won the role directly from Ray Charles.”
Foxx had known little about Ray Charles beyond his music before being cast in the role, and found himself on his own personal journey into the man’s fascinating and embattled background.
“When I read the script I realized that this was a really phenomenal story, not just about music, but abut a man who overcame all kinds of difficulties to become a real leader of the culture.
The way he intertwined everything he experienced in his life to make this amazing music, it was really something special.” Foxx threw himself headlong into the role.
After meeting with Charles, Foxx began by adapting many of the singer’s physical trademarks, from his close-cropped hair to his bodily mannerisms, born out of a combination of Charles’ history, blindness and unstoppable inner sense of music.
The actor immersed himself in Soul, Jazz and Blues recordings to set the mood; attended classes at the Braille Institute; and spent weeks during rehearsal and production walking around with his eyes sealed tight for 12 hours a day, to gain an intimate understanding of what it really means be blind.
“It was interesting to me that not being able to see made me angry at first,” comments Foxx.
“It’s frustrating. But I also noticed my sense of hearing becoming more acute, and I became sensitive to all kinds of sounds nobody else was even hearing.”
Many on the set where stunned by how spontaneous and natural the actor’s embodiment of Charles became. But imitation was never the point.
“The key word for me was nuance, because I didn’t want to simply impersonate him,” says Foxx.
“Rather, I wanted to capture some part of his spirit, that’s all. There were a lot of little touches which I tried to layer—his musicality, his warmth, his sense of balance, his posture— until the physical side of things all fell into place.”
To get even deeper into the soul of Ray Charles, Foxx began to consider the extreme highs and lows of his emotional life.
Foxx calls Ray Charles’ childhood “a blessed curse,” an intense time of suffering that nevertheless marked the beginning of his development as an extremely open-minded artist.
He says, “To a certain degree, I believe what happened to Ray as a child is what molded who he was, but it was a large price to pay.
Yet, what is so amazing about him is that he never gave up. Instead, he said, ‘I don’t want to be poor, black and blind, so I’m going to take control and make my life happen.’
His decisions were always completely clear, there was no wavering, because he didn’t have time to go backward.”
It shocked Foxx to think about how much drive it must have required to make it in a world that held forth obstacles of every kind—whether based on his race, his blindness or his initially lowly status as a backup musician.
“What really amazed me is Ray’s business savvy. To be blind, and to have to trust other people’s word to a certain degree when it came to money and contracts, yet to control your own career in an era when nobody controlled their own career...wow. I came to see that Ray had a certain type of energy and charisma that really inspired people to be loyal to him and stay in his good graces,” says Foxx.
Foxx was also moved by the love story behind Ray Charles’ early career with his devoted wife Della, who saw him through his darkest hours—despite his infamous knack for seducing women he met on the road—and pushed him to face up to both his talent and the devils chasing him.
“I know Della really loved Ray and vice versa. Early on, she must have said to herself, ‘I’m going to love this man in spite of anything he does,’ and she did.
She was really a strong woman, and she held everything together and, in a way, I think she allowed Ray to be the artist he was,” says Foxx. “She was the glue in his life.
Despite everything he did, I’m certain deep down inside Ray knew he had the greatest woman.”
The more he reflected on Ray’s tough reality and propulsive talent, the more Foxx understood why Charles indulged in so many illicit activities.
“He lived in a very unpredictable word and there were only a few things he could count on,” explains Foxx.
“He could count on music, he could count on sex and he could count on heroin. He went with the things that he knew could bring him satisfaction until he saw he was hurting the people he loved.”
Despite the challenges of playing the many sides of Ray Charles, Foxx found an indescribable joy in the role, especially in trying to get to the bottom of Charles’ lifeloving, hard-driving energy.
“You hear it in all those great songs,” says Foxx.
“Now, I look at Ray Charles’ legacy and I realize that he was so necessary...necessary for all of this music he helped create, for all the inspiration he brought, for the moment he carved out of history. He left behind a real mark and it’s exciting to have gotten to know him as I did.”
Ray Charles was excited to be portrayed by Foxx.
In an interview before his death, he said: “I can’t believe how good [Foxx] is. I’ve had a couple of people who saw him work and they came back and said, ‘Ray, you just won’t believe this guy! He’s got you down so pat that he even walks like you! He does everything exactly like you.’ I only go by my personal experience with him and I think he’s phenomenal. He’s a wonderful man.”
About The Cast: Jaime Foxx
Jamie Foxx (Ray Charles) is enjoying success in a multifaceted career that already encompasses dramatic roles in films and television, as well as stand-up comedy and music.
Though previously best known for his comedy work, his emergence as a leading dramatic actor is evidenced in his most recent and upcoming roles.
He most recently starred opposite Tom Cruise in Michael Mann’s thriller Collateral; Foxx portrays Max, a taxi driver who becomes “collateral”—an expendable person—when he and his cab are hijacked for a night by a contract killer (Cruise) in town to carry out five hits before dawn. In addition to his title role in Ray,
Foxx is set to star in the action thriller Stealth for director Rob Cohen, which is slated for release in 2005.
Foxx recently received critical acclaim for his portrayal of gang member-turnedNobel Peace Prize nominee Stan Tookie Williams in the cable movie Redemption. He also starred opposite Gabrielle Union in the urban romantic comedy film Breakin’ All the Rules.
Foxx first came to fame as a popular stand-up comedian and comedy actor. During the early 1990s, he was a regular on the comedy series In Living Color, alongside Keenan Ivory Wayans, Damon Wayans and Jim Carrey.
He also had a recurring role on the series Roc, and guest-starred on several other shows. In 1996, he launched his own series, The Jamie Foxx Show, which became one of the top-rated shows on the WB network.
Foxx not only co-created and starred on the show, but also served as an executive producer and directed several episodes. During the show’s five-year run, Foxx won an NAACP Image Award and earned three more nominations for Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series.
On the big screen, Foxx received praise from both critics and audiences for his performance as a breakout star quarterback in Oliver Stone’s 1999 football-themed drama Any Given Sunday, in which he joined an ensemble cast that also included Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz and LL Cool J. In addition to his on-screen role in the movie, Foxx wrote, produced and performed two songs featured on the film’s soundtrack, including the title track and the chant “My Name is Willie.”
He went on to co-star with Will Smith in the 2001 biopic Ali, which marked Foxx’s first collaboration with director Michael Mann. His portrayal of Muhammad Ali’s corner man and constant inspiration, Drew Bundini Brown, brought Foxx another Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture. His additional film credits include Bait, The Truth About Cats and Dogs and The Great White Hype.
In 2002, Foxx brought down the house in his first HBO comedy special, Jamie Foxx: I Might Need Some Security. He also has the distinction of hosting the top-rated Saturday Night Live of the 2001-02 season.