Jamie Foxx: In the driving seat, at last

Jamie Foxx used to goof around in smutty comedies. Now he's starring in Tom Cruise's latest film, Collateral, and is in demand. How's that? He tells Matthew Sweet
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Eight years ago, Jamie Foxx was a steady supplier of lowbrow smut to undemanding cinema audiences. Booty Call (1997) was a typical example of his work - a comedy in which he starred as a man sent in search of precautionary condoms and clingfilm for a night of passion with a girlfriend named Listerine. Over-eager in his desires, Foxx's character swaddled his head in plastic wrap and collapsed, twitching, on the floor like a suffocating carp. The critics, shall we say, failed to tip him for greatness.

Eight years ago, Jamie Foxx was a steady supplier of lowbrow smut to undemanding cinema audiences. Booty Call (1997) was a typical example of his work - a comedy in which he starred as a man sent in search of precautionary condoms and clingfilm for a night of passion with a girlfriend named Listerine. Over-eager in his desires, Foxx's character swaddled his head in plastic wrap and collapsed, twitching, on the floor like a suffocating carp. The critics, shall we say, failed to tip him for greatness.

Oliver Stone changed all that when he cast him opposite Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday (1999) - when Pacino, says Foxx, sprayed him with saliva in all of their scenes together. Then the director Michael Mann became his mentor, adding Foxx to the cast of Ali, as the boxer's trainer Drew Brown. Now Mann has given him a co-starring role alongside Tom Cruise in his new thriller, Collateral. Foxx plays an unassuming taxi driver who discovers that the customer who has hired him for the night is a contract killer doing his rounds.

Gratitude doesn't quite cover Foxx's feelings about the film. "It's beyond my wildest," whoops Foxx. "Me and Michael Mann connect on the art. We're chasing what I call a hotness. That's what it's about. The hotness is where the art combines with the commerce. The hotness is with us."

The neologism may be daft, but he has a point. Foxx's career is sizzling: he has just taken the lead in a new biopic of Ray Charles, and a big-budget action thriller entitled Stealth; in a few weeks' time he starts shooting the Gulf War drama Jarhead, with Sam Mendes in the director's chair.

Foxx, born Eric Bishop, was seven months old when his parents' marriage hit the crash barrier - at which point he was adopted by his maternal grandparents. His Baptist upbringing was strict - "belts, switches and sarcasm" were used, he once said, to keep him in check. But it was lucrative. By the age of 15 he was making 300 dollars a week playing piano in church and managing his own gospel choir.

In his late teens, he signed up for the army, but the recruiting officer told him that the military wouldn't suit him. Instead, he went to music college in San Diego, then moved to Los Angeles, where he put his name down for open-mike sessions at his local comedy club. Gender-ambiguous names, he reasoned, were more likely to be called up to the stage. And that's how Eric Bishop became Jamie Foxx.

He speaks of his grandmother in the warmest terms: it seems to be his closest relationship. Perhaps if the old lady had not retired to Texas, she might have been able to prevent the events that generated one of The Hollywood Reporter's more eccentric headlines: "Foxx Says Sorry for Naked Basketball Antics." I ask for his side of the story. "I was out of town, and some of my friends who were using the house were frolicking in the back with some girls."

CNN is playing behind the hotel sofa where Foxx sits, showing looped footage of a speech by George W Bush. Foxx rolls his eyes at the sentimentality of his president's rhetoric. I ask him why he thinks that his fellow countrymen are so keen on such syrup. "Me and you in this room are very complex," he says. "So we're able to see all the ins and outs. We can go to a movie and dissect it. But when you deal with Middle America, where I'm from, there are a lot of things you don't have to think past. Most Americans don't have a passport, so it's easy to make them believe things they can't see."

When we discuss the recent change in his fortunes, the conversation takes a more puzzling turn. "I'm an inspiration," he announces. "Five hundred years ago slaves got a message to a kid named Eric Bishop saying that he's going to change his name to Jamie Foxx and do great things with great people and inspire a generation." Why they wanted him to do it under such a porny-sounding sobriquet is anyone's guess. "I used to joke with my sister that if reincarnation exists, I'm ending it here."

Having already dodged Al Pacino's saliva, I wonder whether Foxx encountered the problem on Collateral. Tom Cruise looms behind him for most of the picture, sitting in the passenger seat of his cab. "No," he replies. "He didn't have as much spit as Al Pacino. He didn't have any."

Does Foxx think he has any tendency to rudeness? "Oh no," he says, firmly. "That's not part of my personality. I'm a southern gentleman. A perfect gentleman. My grandmother taught me how to be a gentleman and my grandfather taught me how to be a man. My grandfather told me that we don't need heroes, we need men. It helps when you're in this business to make decisions as a man, and not as a celebrity."

I ask him the difference. "A celebrity will take the celebrityism of it," he says. "A celebrity will say. 'Yeah, whatever's easy.' A man would say, 'No, we're not going to do it that way. We're going to respect ourselves. We're going to respect what being a celebrity is about.' The way you become a celebrity is good work." He corrects himself. "A certain kind of celebrity."

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