Interview: Jamie Foxx on The Soloist

In The Soloist, Jamie Foxx goes crazy. No, I'm not mockingly referring to the mental illness he portrays on-screen. I'm talking about what he went through playing Nathanial Ayers, a Julliard-trained cellist whose schizophrenia landed him on the streets of Los Angeles. A few years back, a Los Angeles Times editorialist named Steve Lopez (played in the movie adaptation by none other than Robert Downey Jr.), stumbled across the musical prodigy and began a relationship that he's chronicled in both his paper and a book, The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music. I sat down to talk with Foxx about bringing the life-changing story to theaters.

Cole Haddon: Jamie, you have a unique ability to completely transform yourself into another individual. How does that happen?

Jamie Foxx in The SoloistJamie Foxx: You want to be the person. I got a chance to go down to [downtown L.A.'s Skid Row area] and watch Nathanial Ayers from a distance without meeting him. Because a lot of times, when people meet [actors playing them], they'll be on their best behavior or they'll change. I just wanted to see him in his element, how he ordered his food, how he talks to people, and within five minutes you would have seen four different sides of this guy. He was happy, he was angry, he was jubilant. He was all these different things, and so, by doing that, when you're doing a character, you want to do the nuance. I dropped some weight, got my hair done nicely -- [he laughs at that, considering how bad his 'do was] -- and then I got a chance to meet him. I filmed him on my phone while he was talking just to capture some of those little nuggets.

It was also a little scary to play someone schizophrenic. We're all artists and we all go different places in our minds ... but I feel ... if I were to lose my mind, I would lose everything. So, that was a little bit of the fear going into the project. But, that was it. You had to get it. You had to get it and once you get it, you feel it and you feel like it's really that person. Like you'll say it in your mouth, you'll say whatever that person says and you'll hear it in your mind and say "OK, I am that person."

CH: Ayers, as you portrayed him, seems transported while playing his music. As a musician, actor, and artist in general, have you had moments like that? Could you relate?

Jamie Foxx in The SoloistJF: I actually thought I was Nathaniel at one point, and called my manager late at night and was explaining to him why Nathaniel does what he does. He would say [looking at a reporter's clothes], "Red shirt, blue shirt, jeans," so that would keep him sane [that attention to detail], but after he would say it over and over again. If you're looking from the outside, it looked like this guy is insane. But I believe that music is what calms him. That's what soothes him because the music takes you completely somewhere else. When you get in the elevator, most people get nervous in elevators. The reason there is Muzak playing, that soft music, is it sort of calms you without you even knowing it. So, as a musician, of course, man, I'll go through things in my life and things are not quite the way I want them to be, and then you go and you hear a song and you play some music, and it changes your whole outlook. So, that's what I do and I know that's what Nathanial does.

CH: Did you get a chance to play any music with him?

JF: You know, we played the piano. I played the piano, and he played the cello. I talked to him like I was his friend, like his homey, and I would just listen just to grab everything you could as far as just his mannerisms and things. But this was one of those characters where, like I said, there was a lot of fear in me going to talk to the psychiatrist. That's a whole other thing. For African-Americans. Like, I don't know anybody from my hometown or anybody in my family who's ever been to a psychiatrist or a therapist because that was like, "Man, that's for crazy people." I'll never forget being on the set of a TV show once, and the first time I saw black people that went to a therapist. I'm walking off of The Jamie Foxx Show, and they all go [low voice], "No, he may not want us to know." And I look over, and it was all my cast, and I was like, "Man, I don't want to know what?" "Who's your therapist?" "I don't want to do that, man. I talk to the homey ... " "Well, you know ... " And I made a joke about it and one of the guys -- I won't say his name -- says, "Well, I go every day! And it's needed!"

So now, when I go see the psychiatrist, all these different things are in my mind, but I actually felt better. He said some things that made sense. He gave me some ways to sort of pull out of this thing that I was about to go into, and then when I was sitting with Nathaniel, there was a calming thing about him. He didn't want to do the meds or the drugs or anything like that. He felt as if everything was cool. So, in doing that, I had to play not the guy who was crazy or schizophrenic. I had to play the guy that his life happened to be. He's a guy who went to New York to Juilliard, who happened to play very well, who happened to have schizophrenia, who happened to end up in L.A. homeless, and who happened to run into a beautiful friend in Steve Lopez.

CH: How did you feel about shooting in downtown L.A.? Are you passionate about downtown?

Soloist Director Joe WrightJF: You know what? We were passionate, but I wasn't as passionate as [director] Joe Wright was, which was a little amazing because here's a guy from England saying, "No, this is what it's about." I remember talking to Mr. Downey Jr. about, "Is this really what we should be doing?" At first I was like, "I don't know if I want to be this close to these people [referring to the homeless community they shot the movie with the help of]. I don't know if I want to be that person." Then, to see those people and to feel some of their stories, it made you become more passionate about it. It made you look at it completely different. We're in Hollywood behind our gates, doing whatever we're doing, and you never think you'd have those types of feelings or revelations anymore.