Fantastic Mr Foxx
From humble beginnings playing piano as a young Baptist in a small Texas city, to becoming one of the most treasured performers in the world today, Jamie Foxx is a remarkable man. Here he talks to Sorted about the role his faith has played in his various careers… as a comedian, a musician, an actor, and an inspiration.
In some ways we think we know them… the actors and entertainers we see on screens big and small, doing their five-minute slots on chat shows, giving us broad views – snapshots – of their personalities, which we then associate with them until they give us a reason not to.
But that’s just playing the game: raising and maintaining their profiles, plugging their performances and IPs, keeping up appearances. In reality, such crowd-pleasing PR exercises offer mere glimpses into the lives of the rich, famous and influential; just enough to keep us wanting more, to watch that film or read that book. Rarely do we really get to know any of these people.
Religion, for example, is not what people tune into Graham Norton for. Faith is often seen as deeply personal, perhaps even just not interesting enough for audiences who would prefer to laugh, rather than have their thoughts provoked. Amusing celebrity anecdotes don’t tend to touch on belief systems. And this is odd when you think about it: surely a person’s religion is worth shouting about?
Then you get Jamie Foxx, the multi-talented US performer who is delighted to be asked about the higher powers that invigorate and inspire his life and loves. ‘A lot of people talk about being religious and going to church when they were younger or not famous or whatever – but I really am religious and I really did go to church all of the time growing up,’ he asserts.
‘I’ve been a Baptist my whole life and all that I know is that through being a Baptist my whole life, I know where I am going when I die and whereabouts in Heaven I will be. That’s not to cause offence to anyone else who doesn’t; I just feel confident and happy with the way I have led my life up to this point, but the faith that I have and my practising of that faith.’
Foxx makes an interesting point – he doesn’t wish to cause offence to anyone who doesn’t share his faith. And this is a sign of the times: people seem almost frightened to reveal their beliefs in a world where religion has become perhaps more divisive than ever; others approach it with an air of incredulity, hostility even; for some it just isn’t cool enough.
Foxx, though, doesn’t subscribe to such ideas. Growing up in the Baptist community of Terrell, Texas, his values were instilled early on, and they remain fervently strong today. Raised by his adoptive grandparents, as a boy he was a pianist and choir leader in his local church. It was a difficult, bewildering period spent in a racially segregated community, where Foxx (born Eric Marlon Bishop) battled with preconceptions of race and religion.
The name change came about right at the start of his efforts to forge a performing career and although he was primarily interested in becoming a recording artist, given his other obvious ability – to make people laugh – he found himself veering towards stand-up comedy. ‘That was an easy blend,’ he says. ‘Comedy and religion are so intertwined, through necessity, that your route to one is ultimately your route to another. You want to make someone laugh, start with religion; you want someone to think about religion, start with laughter and humour.’
His chosen moniker was a tribute to fellow black comedian Red Foxx, and those Baptist beliefs and values had clearly instilled in him the fearlessness of someone who knew Jesus had his back.
‘I never felt nervous because the first time I was ever at a comedy club was when they had an open mic night where anyone could just go up and tell some jokes,’ says the 52-year-old. ‘I was watching one guy up there and I thought: “If he can get up there and bomb like you’ve never seen before, then maybe I could actually try this out myself!” Also, the thing with it being an open mic was that it wasn’t me thinking that I had been practising all week and I hoped that everything was going to go well. I didn’t really care. I was getting up in front of a room full of people, yeah, but 99 per cent of them probably didn’t know me and at that point, I felt they would never see me again. It was a win-win situation with the fact that if I went up, had a play around and it went well, then that’s cool. If I was to bomb out myself just like the last guy did, then that was also cool because I wasn’t trying to earn a contract or anything!’
Besides, at that point, Foxx’s true passion was music, not comedy. ‘Along with God, music was always my first love. it felt like it was something that I had always been doing. It felt right, natural and like I could make something of a career out of it.’
Nevertheless, despite increasingly successful exploits on stage, some members of his community were not so enamoured – indeed, Foxx faced some hostility from within his own sanctuary.
‘When the people who went to the same church as me saw that I was also living my life in what they felt was a non-Christian way, they didn’t seem to treat me with the same faith as they would when we were in that building together,’ he shrugs. ‘I can’t lie, it didn’t make me feel like I was a part of the church community, the family, the togetherness that you always see portrayed in films, TV shows and in pictures and stuff. It genuinely made me take a step back from everything, look at what was going on and think if I did belong in the same family, place and church as them. Something wasn’t right. I was called names associated with black people who do anything other black people don’t approve of. It was hurtful and a little strange… condescending and patronising.’
Undeterred, Foxx forged ahead. In 1991, he joined the cast of Black American comedy sketch show In Living Color, rubbing shoulders with the Wayans family and numerous other notable black comedians such as David Alan Grier and Tommy Davidson. The show was a breakthrough for black performers and writers and gave Foxx a prime-time showcase.
The plaudits came thick and fast. Foxx’s first film role came quickly in the 1992 Robin Williams comedy/fantasy vehicle Toys, and by 1996 he had his own sitcom – The Jamie Foxx Show – which ran for five years in the US. In the meantime, he’d moved into drama too with Oliver Stone’s star-studded American football story, Any Given Sunday.
Via ever-more blockbusting movies – Collateral with Tom Cruise, Ali with Will Smith, superhero villain Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the titular freed slave on a rescue mission in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and his Academy Award-winning portrayal of talented but troubled musician Ray Charles in Ray – Foxx hadn’t just found his feet but rather stood on more solid ground than many of his contemporaries (with his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to prove it).
‘I think, over time, those doubters and disapprovers began to learn that we all need to express ourselves in different ways. I wasn’t turning my back on my past or my religion – far from it. I was trying to move it forward with me.’
His success, he says, has a lot to do with being in the right place, as well as being afforded the freedom and opportunity to do what he loves. ‘There’s something about working in the entertainment industry that makes you feel alive. It’s a very special feeling to know you’re in the right place doing what you’re doing,’ he smiles.
‘If you feel like you’re not comfortable, you’re probably not in the right role or place in your life. If what you’re doing doesn’t come natural or you don’t want to get up in the morning and be involved, think about making a change.’ He pauses for thought. ‘Maybe that’s a piece of advice that I could give to someone! I’ve used it myself many times.’
These successes on screen run parallel to his true love, with a music career that – while possibly overshadowed by his film and TV work – is no less impressive. His outstanding turn in Ray aside, Foxx has released five studio albums. While the first, Peep This (1994) didn’t hit the heights he would have hoped, 2005 double-Platinum release Unpredictable achieved huge global success in the US and UK. And his two hugely successful collaborations with Kanye West – earworm Gold Digger particularly – elevated him to ‘household name’ status in the music industry.
The third album, Intuition, came in 2008 – again in fine company with numerous ‘feats’ such as Kanye West again, Ne-Yo and T-Pain; and the fourth – 2010’s Best Night of My Life, doubled down with Justin Timberlake and Drake among those listed as collaborators. His latest record, 2015’s Hollywood: A Story of a Dozen Roses, stuck to the tried-and-tested formula – Chris Brown, Pharrell Williams, etc. He’s just as likely to appear on other people’s recordings as they are on his. His music videos are star-studded affairs. His star power reaches far and wide.
And there’s still so much more to this man: game show presenter (as host and executive producer of Beat Shazam – effectively a modern version of Name That Tune); awards ceremony regular (hosting and receiving); radio show producer and host (The Jamie Foxx Show continues on the airwaves). There are also his efforts to celebrate black performers in general: he launched The Foxxhole in 2007 to showcase African-American comedians and musicians; and his stand-up comedy roots remain buried deep – and all with the same commitment to his beliefs he had as that young boy growing up in Texas.
Again, Foxx is grateful not just for the opportunities he has been given, but for the personal relationship he has with Jesus. ‘It’s all about Jesus to me. I feel that no matter what I do or say in my life, Jesus understands why I act in the ways that I do – and I mean in my real life, not when I am acting in movies or comedy or anything like that. There are times in your life when you have to use the teachings that you’ve grown up with and the following of Jesus to get you through hard times, difficult situations or anything where you feel you might not be able to make it on your own.
‘It doesn’t matter who we are; we can all feel alone or afraid at some time in our lives and anyone who says that they’ve never once been afraid or in need of help at some point, I’m sure is just not being truthful to themselves.’
Being true to himself, Foxx says, is of paramount importance, as is knowing where to go to harness his inner strength. ‘It doesn’t matter what other people think. If you can be truthful to yourself, you will always be good with Jesus and I know the Bible inside out to the point where I know exactly where to go for the passage which will make me feel better about that situation in any point in my life.’
His situation now is still somewhere in the stratosphere; the film roles just keep coming. Finding Mike – with Foxx as legendary boxer Mike Tyson – was rumoured as far back as 2015 and is tipped to be coming very soon. He’s currently enjoying good reviews as superpowered Art in Netflix’s Project Power, and has just signed a deal with the streaming giant to star in and executive produce a new sitcom, Dad Stop Embarrassing Me.
He’s slated to appear as the main player in supernatural comic-book favourite Spawn, and there’s a rumoured remake of Sixties classic The Wild Bunch, apparently due in 2022. Comedies, dramas, animated films and everything in between: Foxx has never been busier and shows no signs of slowing down on the journey to his special slice of Heaven.
‘My energy comes from a special place, but it is all based in my faith. Religion is ultimately about respecting the past but looking forward and embracing the next chapter. It’s the easiest thing to achieve when you think of it like that… just keep moving forward, keep believing.’