Jamie Foxx: King of the castle

Jamie Foxx is an Oscar-winning actor, a singer and a radio host. Well, it keeps him busy, he tells Lesley O'Toole – but he still yearns to do something funny every now and again

Tuesday 02 October 2007 10:00 BST

Jamie Foxx – Oscar-winning actor, singer, musician, comedian and radio station mogul – doesn't understand when I ask if he feels too ubiquitous for his own good. "What does that mean?" He pulls a face when I tell him. "Yeah, I do feel I need to get out the way of people. Especially with the internet now, you're always in somebody's face so you have to go back and get out of the way a little bit.

"I'm always in the comedy clubs and this one comic, Paul Mooney, made a joke about me: 'I'm so sick of seeing Jamie Foxx. I look and he's everywhere. He's singing, he's dancing, I looked on my driving licence and his photo was on my licence.' When they're telling jokes about you, you start to think: 'Well, man, maybe I need to sit down.'"

There seems little prospect of Foxx's sitting down for much longer than the duration of our meeting in Beverly Hills, a very long way in every sense from the racially segregated Texan town where the boy christened Eric Bishop grew up. There is little prospect, either, of Foxx's blending into the shadows any time soon given that his new film The Kingdom is produced by Michael Mann and features as a backdrop a gruesome terrorist attack on an American enclave in Saudi Arabia. In typical Foxx style – he also eschewed prickly questions while promoting Miami Vice – he does not wish to engage in any sort of conversation about American intervention in the region, preferring to class the film as entertainment. It was not the political dimensions that entranced him.

"No, more the dimensions of the character [an FBI agent sent to Saudi Arabia in the attack's immediate aftermath]. In this situation my character's friend gets killed by the bomb so now he's going to break every rule he needs to break in order to find out who did it. It's not this whole political thing – it's just a suspenseful film."

The film was shot in Abu Dhabi, the first Hollywood studio production to shoot in the United Arab Emirates. Foxx is happier to talk decadence than politics. "It was incredible. I've never seen anything like it. They picked us up in Rolls-Royce Phantoms and a fleet of BMWs. The security dude was riding in a Lamborghini. The palace we stayed in was about 850,000 square kilometres. It was more than a kilometre from my room to my sister's room. Any food you wanted you could have, it was amazing. They just live life on a different level."

The Kingdom is Foxx's third collaboration with Mann, following Ali and Miami Vice. Foxx credits Will Smith, who starred in the former, with cementing the relationship. "The first time we met, he [Mann] didn't like me. Will Smith was talking to him about Ali and said: 'This guy can do it [play the role of Ali's coach Drew "Bundini" Brown].' Michael said: 'I don't see it.' And Will said, 'I won't do the movie without Jamie Foxx.'"

When Foxx says he's not interested in the fast buck, his film choices bear him out. "When you're working with Michael Mann I don't think the first thing you think about is the commercial success. The first thing you think about is the art of it. When you look at Al Pacino and his body of work, most of the films, the ones you remember, weren't a commercial success."

Foxx has said that he would love to consider something in the political sphere further down the track. For now, he is giving Barack Obama his support where he can and somehow also holding down a day job as station chief of The Foxxhole, a satellite radio channel catering to young, mostly black listeners.

And then there's his next album – Man's Intuition. "On my radio show I have this panel of beautiful women and they were talking about how men with a lot of money aren't all that. But if a guy has no money, that's no good either. So I was thinking, 'What does a man have to do? What does a woman want?' We go from there and build the story and the songs." The single will "drop" next summer he says, and the album next Christmas.

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No one in the Nineties would have envisaged Foxx ending up in serious movies. Foxx has long had a comedic gift. At school, when his class was getting unruly, the teacher would promise them a joke-telling session with Foxx if they behaved. Later,, a girlfriend dared him to get up on stage at an open mic comedy night. He loved it, went down a storm and started getting up on stage whenever he could. Noticing that female stand-up comedians were invariably given preference on the line-up he chose Jamie for its androgyny and Foxx in tribute to Redd Foxx, a comedian best-known for the sitcom Sanford and Son.

In 1991, Foxx was hired by the satiric American comedy show In Living Color, where he stole the show until 1994. His 180-degree turn into film drama came courtesy of Oliver Stone, who cast Foxx as a cocky American footballer in 1999's Any Given Sunday. Foxx had been a star football player at school, which swung heavily in his favour.

The culmination of it all has been his 2005 Best Actor Oscar for Ray, mention of which gets him choked up. "That is something you still don't get used to and you never thought that way. You didn't know how big the door was you were opening and if you stay in that lane, stay with films like The Kingdom with Michael Mann or The Soloist directed by Joe Wright [Atonement]. It's a great place to be because you're not chasing anything."

The Soloist is a film apparently tailor-made for Foxx, born from a random encounter between a Los Angeles Times columnist and an ex-musical prodigy, Nathaniel Ayers. Ayers had studied at New York's famed Juilliard school, but his problems with schizophrenia had led to him becoming homeless. The journalist heard Ayers' music and struck up a friendship with the man. Foxx is apparently doing the same.

"He is the most interesting person. You know that voice in your head which says, 'I've got to wake up in the morning and do this.' Imagine having 15 of those and maybe one is Mozart, one is Martin Luther King, one is Beethoven and one is screaming. When he plays his violin and cello he suppresses the voices. If we're able to capture that, I think it will be a nice piece."

To that end, Foxx is currently learning both violin and cello. "I did go to college on a classical piano scholarship so hopefully people won't go running from the room. It was one of those scripts you can't put down."

And yet, despite it all, there is a tinge of regret in Foxx that he isn't being funny on film. "I'm going to tell you that it sometimes pulls at your comedic soul because you watch a Rush Hour or you'll watch Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy, and you just go, 'Man...' But every comic role that I did sort of was like in the lane of someone else, so you'd get compared. If it wasn't as good as Murphy, it was, like, horrible. If it wasn't as good as Chris Tucker, it was bad. So by having this lane of, not necessarily drama, but just character pieces, I'm happy with that."

Part of that lane is music. Foxx's natural aptitude at the piano was key to his almost eerie rendition of the legendary musician Ray Charles. In his Oscar acceptance speech, he put it down to his deceased grandmother's influence.

Estelle Talley had adopted Foxx's birth mother and when she and his biological father showed little interest in raising their baby, Talley adopted him, too. Though she had to eke out the money from her earnings as a housemaid for white families, she insisted on her grandson's taking piano lessons from the age of five.

By 13, he was the musical director of his local baptist church, earning a small stipend for the privilege and also making money playing at cocktail parties for white guests. On one such occasion he finished his performance and handed back the jacket the home owner had loaned him to play in. " He didn't want it. 'I can't wear that no more,' he said, 'not after you had it on.'"

Though he says he has never got over the apparent rejection of his biological parents, Foxx is determined not to make the same mistakes himself. He is father to a 12-year-old daughter, Corinne, who lives with her mother and accompanied her father to the Oscars in 2005. Foxx says his relationship with her mother is excellent, for which he credits his grandmother's guidance. He also has two half-sisters who share his home: Deidra – who works as his hairstylist on film sets – and Diondra, who has Down syndrome.

His biggest upcoming worry, he says, is the time when his daughter will be dating. "Right now she thinks all boys are nerds, so my concern is that the first guy who comes on all cool might get her. Maybe after they see me in The Kingdom, the boys will be scared of her dad. I hope so."

'The Kingdom' opens on 5 October

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